- Steven Kolpan
- Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.
One of the most compelling and conflicting ironies of the early 21st century is the difference between the way that we – the citizens of the postmodern/post dot.com world – eat, and the way that we perceive food. At a time when so much food is produced in the most high-tech, industrial, centralized, multinational - and inefficient - way, many of us want our food to be wholesome, fresh, local, seasonal, organic and sustainable. We perceive our food to be the product of family farms, when actually the family farm is the most threatened and most diminished form of food production in the world. Food is the talisman of large-scale agribusiness, and our daily diet is increasingly dependent on fossil fuels, modern transport, controversial science, and socially unacceptable labor practices.
We also want our food to be cheap, available any time and in any season at the 24 hour supermarket. We want this commodity to be non-perishable, easy to prepare, and not take away valuable time that could be spent working, taking the kids to soccer or to ballet class, shopping, watching television (and shopping), answering e-mail, surfing the web (and shopping), or doing homework. No problem. Eat a burger and fries or a tired salad at your desk while you work; take the kids to Mickey D’s for dinner – they can eat in the car on the way to wherever or from wherever it is that everybody had to be. The game. The recital. The shrink. Or, nuke some stuff in the microwave, sit down in front of the TV and/or the computer, and consume high-speed culture as you consume fast food nutrients.
And Carlo Petrini says “BASTA!”
Petrini is a food-loving, farm-loving 53 year old Piemontese, and the leader of Slow Food, a movement whose origins are Italian, but whose message is becoming universal. The seeds of Slow Food were sewn in 1986, when McDonald’s placed its golden arches at the foot of Rome’s Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Steps). Petrini, a food and wine journalist with a flair for the dramatic, saw this invasion of fast food culture as a threat to the patrimony of his beloved native foods and food traditions, and began to write polemics that struck a resonant chord with many Italians. Petrini began to organize conferences centered around the history and culture of food, treating traditional farms, foods, and the osteria and trattoria of Italy as an endangered species. (Osteria: small, informal, and convivial eating and drinking places serving true traditional dishes, sometimes in the homes or attached to the homes of the farmers who owned them. Trattoria: also traditional food, but often with a native-born chef in the kitchen; more of a local restaurant and bar).
The genius of Carlo Petrini was to minimize the political and intellectual rhetoric at these conferences, and to maximize the food and the wine. Able to strip away at the large and small political differences that separated so many people, Petrini realized that if he focused on issues of pleasure, taste and regional authenticity, and how these dual imperatives were threatened, he could bring people together. This a particularly neat trick in Italy, which at last count had at least twenty-five political parties, each of them made up of people who rarely agree with each other about anything. Of course, there is another fact about Italy that worked in Petrini’s favor: it would be hard to imagine another country that, political arguments aside, could embrace the issues of pleasure, taste, and the importance of its native victuals with such ease and such enthusiasm.
Stories about the extraordinary meals, coupled with tastings of artisan-produced wines, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and salted and smoked meats at these early meetings of mostly left-leaning Italian foodies spread. Journalists, politicians, artists, scholars, winemakers, farmhouse cheesemakers and artisan prosciutto producers, among many others stepped forward to join this nascent movement and to enjoy some great meals in the presence of fellow food-obsessed Italians.
From 1986 to 1989, Petrini, with the help of many friends and colleagues, worked to expand the messianic message of food and culture throughout Italy. Little by little, like-minded folks would show up from neighboring European countries to enjoy the food, wine, and company of these intelligent, indulgent Italians, who after a night of exquisite eating and drinking could deconstruct and argue about what they just ate and drank, and how it differed from what their grandparents ate and drank, and how that differed from what Apicius ate and drank, and finally agree at five o’clock the next morning that without food there is no true love, and without love there is no true food. Steeling himself against the morning chill with at least one more “last” grappa (perhaps made by artisan Romano Levi, who also creates an original naïve poem and child-like drawing for each label of his pomace brandy made from the skins, pips, and stems of the Nebbiolo grape), Carlo Petrini begins to think beyond the borders of Italy.
In the middle of the forest, a tortoise and a snail have a gruesome head-on collision. The snail is rushed to the emergency room, where a doctor asks what happened. On the edge of consciousness, the snail responds. “I don’t know, doctor. It all happened so fast.”
- Unattributed old joke
The snail is the logo of Slow Food. Carlo Petrini calls the snail “an amulet against exasperation, against the malpractice of those who are too impatient to feel and taste, too greedy to remember what they have just devoured.” In 1989, with the snail as a logo and symbol, as a mindset and attitude, and a new name that reflected that snail’s perspective, Slow Food, now a strong movement in Italy, reached out to the world.
In the summer of 1989 I received a fax with a simple but elegant drawing of a snail and an invitation to lunch outdoors at Barolo, a ristorante on West Broadway in SoHo. The fax was from Doreen Schmid, a friend who represented the Chianti Classico consorzio in the United States. Doreen was inviting me to a lunch to celebrate the launch of Slow Food USA. I called Doreen to find out more about Slow Food. Surprisingly, Doreen, who is normally very straightforward, started talking about this guy Petrini and how this was all good stuff and I should come to lunch and find out more. She was all over the maps of Europe and the United States by the time she was done, and I was now more confused than before I called. But I was curious and decided to go to lunch.
When I got to Barolo, Doreen introduced me to Flavio Accornero, whose family produced Barolo (the wine) in the Piedmont. At the time Flavio did not speak much English and I spoke less Italian. What I got from Doreen was that Flavio had come from Italy to set up an office for Slow Food at the behest of Carlo Petrini, who was the president of Slow Food. She gave me some literature about Slow Food – all in Italian. While I was trying to figure out what was going on and why I was invited to this lunch, I noticed dozens of attractive, beautifully dressed Italians, young and old, at the Barolo (the restaurant) bar, sipping negronis, and I joined them. They were a happy group, and seemed totally at ease with the idea of Slow Food, though nobody could explain to me why we were there. I was definitely the fast-moving tortoise in the room.
A few more Negronis and my snail persona began to emerge, just in time for lunch. We walked out into the sunshine for a lovely lunch in the restaurant’s garden. Between bites of fabulous food and sips of wonderful wines, I talked to many people. I listened intently to the Italian conversation buzzing around me, which was peppered every few seconds with the English words, “Slow Food.” The more I enjoyed the food, the wine, the company, the sunshine, and the more I heard those two recognizable words, the more I realized I knew exactly what Slow Food was about. Soon, I started explaining the concept to those around me. I think some of them even believed I knew what I was talking about; most of them could care less.
After lunch, Flavio and Doreen asked me and a few other Americans to linger at the bar, where I had a moscato grappa made by Nonino With the Beautiful Daughters (literally how the family is known throughout the Piedmont region of Italy. Once, in Alba, I asked a man for directions to the home of the Nonino family, and was quizzed as to which Nonino family. The man, who was trying to be helpful, narrowed it down to four Noninos when I mentioned grappa. I had met two of the Nonino sisters, and shared this with the man, who asked about them. “Bella?” he queried. “Bellissima!” I answered. Now, he became annoyed with me. “Why didn’t you ask for ‘Nonino With the Beautiful Daughters’ in the first place?”).
Flavio and Doreen asked me if I could come to Venice in October of that year for the first international meeting of Slow Food; I would be part of the American delegation. Basically, my duties would be to eat and drink and drink and eat, while meeting and talking with people who cared deeply about great food and its cultural preservation. I thought, “Yes. I can do this.” I humbly accepted the invitation.
Venice was a disorganized madhouse of people from many countries with a lot to say, all of it in their native languages. I was with the small US delegation of about eight people. Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, Greece, and Spain had large delegations. Small delegations from South America, Australia, New Zealand attended, while Great Britain (still not very active, even today) and France (now very active, focused on the dual issues of genetically modified food and the spread of fast food culture in both French gastronomy and language) were nowhere to be seen. And then there were the Italians, about a thousand of them, whose ranks swelled at all meals. In my memory, the conference was a confusing blur, but the nightly banquets were amazing. Foods and wines I had never tasted, some of which I had never even heard of, all of them delicious, and all of them shared with the some of the most passionate foodistas in the world made them taste even better.
One historic event did occur in Venice. The Constitution of the International Slow Food Movement was adopted, signed by more than 20 delegations from around the world. I remember, as our last banquet came to a close, raising a glass of extraordinarily powerful 1977 Amarone (made by Sandro Boscaini), in a toast to Slow Food, and then signing the document with a flourish. I still have the pen, a black UniBall, which I keep in a tiny wooden box next to the Boscaini Amarone in my wine cellar.
Since 1989 the world of “food activism” has become a smaller place, as citizens of many countries, led by European nations, have banded together to oppose genetic modification and manipulation of food and the creation of “Frankenfoods,” the spread of fast food culture at the expense of traditional food culture, the destruction of family farming, and what is perceived as the dictatorial hierarchy of globalization – the economic subjugation of poorer nations by richer nations and corporations – as witnessed by mass protests against the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle from November 29 - December 3, 1999, in which more than 1,300 people were arrested, but not one person was found guilty of committing an illegal act. Many members of Slow Food have been active, visible and articulate movers and shakers within these protest movements.
At the same time as earth’s citizens are taking political action against forces they consider to be unhealthy and undemocratic, there is another wave of food activists that are engaged in what might be perceived as a more direct and more practical means of spreading the Word. Organic farmers, artisan food and wine producers, chefs, ranchers, writers, politicians, educators, home gardeners, and people who just want their food to be as pure, local, seasonal, healthful, and not least of all, tasty as possible have banded together in both formal organizations and at informal dinners to try to establish a new paradigm for growing food and eating.
In Europe, organic farms are growing at the rate of better than 40% per year, and in the United States (which had a substantial head start on farmers in the European Union), organic farms are growing at the rate of 12% per year. In October 2002, the United States began to implement a set of national organic standards, with accompanying legal labels. The standards, while not perfect, are a far cry from what the powerful agribusiness lobbyists tried to force-feed the American public (“organic” would include food grown in industrial sludge treated with petroleum-based insecticides, all irrigated by tertiary water polluted by that same sludge and those chemicals). In what may be the best example of “electronic democracy” to date, more than a million Americans e-mailed the USDA, members of Congress, and (then) President Clinton urging them to adopt the stringent organic standards recommended by the USDA’s own review panel.
Slow Food, which was cited in the Dec 9, 2001 issue of the New York Times as one of the 100 great ideas of 2001, and the “gastronomic version of Greenpeace,” embraces political action when necessary, but is far more effective in promoting and celebrating the bounty of organic and “heirloom” foods and the pleasures of the table.
Slow Food publishes books, two quarterly journals in English, Slow (exploring the philosophical, historical, and cultural underpinnings of the movement) and The Ark (exploring foods endangered by environmental, commercial, or legal crises; Ark products of the United States include: Red Abalone, Sun Crest Peaches, White Oak Cider, Blenheim Apricots, Creole Cream Cheese, Dry Monterey Jack Cheese, Green Mountain Potatoes, Heritage Turkeys, New Mexican Native Chiles, Delaware Bay Oysters, Iroquois White Corn, and Heritage Clone Zinfandel grapes), hold educational seminars and tastings, and local chapters (each officially called a “convivium”, the newest of the more than 70 convivia is here in the Hudson Valley) throw glorious dinner parties for members and potential members.
Since 1996, on a biannual basis, Slow Food holds the remarkable Salone del Gusto in a former Fiat plant in Turin, Italy. This event showcases artisan food products from more than 500 producers, an enoteca with more than 2,200 wines (including about 2,000 Italian wines) available to taste and discuss, and workshops in taste, including tasting “endangered” food products and traditional dishes, which by lack of interest and/or skill, or by current and proposed legislation – especially by the European Union – makes these exquisite foodstuffs and dishes either technologically irrelevant or actually illegal to produce.
I attended the inaugural Salone del Gusto in 1998, and was blown away by the food and wine, the generosity and soul of the artisan producers, and perhaps most of all by the more than 130,000 people who came to the Salone over the three days it was open to the public.
If you question French people coming out of one (McDonald’s), they’re embarrassed. It’s like they’ve just been to a sex shop. They say, ‘I just went to see what it was like and I won’t be going back’.”
-José Bové, Sheep Farmer and Food Activist, 2000
(Quoted while spending 40 days in jail for demolishing a McDonald’s under construction in his hometown of Millau; Bové refused to post bail and refused to pay a fine. During the WTO Protest in Seattle, Bové smuggled in a huge piece of Roquefort cheese made from the milk of his sheep to protest the United States policies of placing a 100% tariff on Roquefort and for declaring all unpasteurized raw milk cheeses illegal and potentially dangerous for human consumption).
José Bové, considered by many in France to be a national hero, is a food activist hybrid, created by crossing a smart farmer with some hot-button political issues. In France, independent family farmers are unionized, and have a strong political power base. That is not the case in most other countries, where farmers deal with issues of basic economic survival, and are usually quite independent by nature. Who speaks for the farmer who wants to feed people and at the same time uphold the farming traditions of his land and of her region? And who will buy the food, eat the food, enjoy the food?
Farmers’ markets, held daily or on weekends across the United States are a good economic outlet for the farmer and a good education for the eater. Slow Food president Carlo Petrini has observed that thanks to pioneers like Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, who has promoted the idea of farmers’ markets for more than 20 years, the United States is the leader in organizing and promoting farmers’ markets, and that the rest of the world must follow our lead, and play a quick game of catch-up if family farms are to survive and thrive.
The Hudson Valley is blessed with many fine farmers’ markets, and each year the number of local markets seem to grow exponentially. Since I live in Woodstock, during the market season (which has just ended) I would spend about a half-hour every Saturday at the Kingston Farmers’ Market and then take the long way home to visit and buy at the new Saugerties farmers’ market. We have a short season for these markets in the Valley, and as winter gets colder and colder, I miss them more and more.
It is not surprising that the United States has embraced the concept of farmers’ markets as a means to help farmers and to help teach consumers about the quality, sustainability – and affordability - of their local and regional foods. These markets are practical, replicable, open to the public, and an entrepreneurial community service. Unlike Europe, especially France and Italy, there is a distinct disconnect between our daily lives and politics, which we (perhaps foolishly) leave to a select group of largely incumbent professional politicians, hoping that our problems are their problems, our issues their issues. The approach of the farmer’s market is a highly American approach; a practical, if imperfect, commercial venture that serves the financial needs of the farmer and provides a convenience for the consumer. We can’t go to the farm, so the farm is brought to us.
The farmer’s market is reflective of a larger and more complex set of social, economic, and political issues that don’t have any easy solutions. But Americans don’t connect the dots like Europeans do. We are thrilled to buy our organic heirloom Green Zebra tomatoes, Russian Banana Fingerling potatoes, and our just-picked arugula from the farmer who grew them, and we tell our friends about the market, and they come, and it all feels good. Meanwhile, the average age of the American farmer is 57 years old and less than 10% of farmer’s children want to be farmers. Connect the dots.
Just as it takes Americans to lead the way in farmers’ markets, it turns out it takes an American food writer to successfully explain the complex theoretical tenets and day-to-day activities of the international Slow Food movement. Corby Kummer, a food journalist and a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly, has written an excellent book, The Pleasures of Slow Food: Celebrating Authentic Traditions, Flavors, and Recipes. Much of this recently-published book is re-edited material that Kummer wrote as articles for the Atlantic and Gourmet over the last three years. Yet, when placed in the context of a book, a unified text, Kummer’s words are as fresh and vibrant as the food and people that he describes. The author observes what is unique about Slow Food and the people who define the movement, and then writes brilliantly and with respect for the subjects of his articles-turned-essays, and respect for the reader, as well. We really learn a lot by reading Corby Kummer, a writer so generous that he appears to be perhaps one step ahead of us on the learning curve, but is happy to bring us up to speed. Ironically, although you may want to savor this book in small portions, Corby Kummer’s Slow Food is a Quick Read.
The author has brought Slow Food to America in a way that no one else has. He focuses on the history of the movement and its progress to the present day without the pretense of rigorous historical analysis, but with an eye to celebrating the glories of the past, present, and future. He is particularly adept at explaining complex ideas in a way that are, on their surface, easy to understand, but also make you think and make the vital connections from one program of Slow Food to the next. When you read Corby Kummer on Slow Food, you can’t help but connect the dots.
Corby Kummer’s love of good, simple food and the people who produce and cook the food, leaps off the pages of this book, and is only amplified by the beautiful photographs by Susie Cushner. The recipes, by family cooks and esteemed chefs, are not full of manipulation and theater. Plate presentations are elegant in their simplicity, ethereal in their hearty earthiness.
Corby Kummer is as thin as I am fat. He dresses traditionally and impeccably, and with his close-cropped beard, large round eyeglasses, and a heavy dose of witty erudition, he reminds me of a modern-day Lytton Strachey, the wittiest member of the Bloomsbury group. And yes, Corby Kummer does love to eat, if “love” is the right word. When Kummer sits down to eat, a longshoreman poltergeist seems to inhabit him. I remember that I found it amusing that after a party of a dozen journalists had, after more than four hours, polished off 24 extraordinary “small tasting” courses prepared by Thomas Keller at the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, Corby Kummer, the skinniest guy in the dining room, wondered what was next. He was serious.
But I will never forget sitting opposite Kummer at a press luncheon at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami, a restaurant that serves 600,000 pounds of stone crab claws each year. We were served our deliciously succulent cold crab claws family style, which meant that Kummer and I shared the same serving bowl. After a few minutes at the table, I began to identify with the crab on my plate. I believed that if Corby Kummer and I reached for the same stone crab claw at the same time, I would lose a claw…uhh..finger. I ate four or five crab claws and retired. Corby Kummer seemed not to notice, and continued to eat happily right up until the time we had to leave Joe’s.
Stone crabs is only one of the subjects that Corby Kummer writes about in The Pleasures of Slow Food, and he does so brilliantly by writing about fisherman Michael O’Leary of Longboat Key, Florida. In the course of the essay, Kummer gives us a window into O’Leary’s life on the water, as well as how stone crabs are harvested (only the claws, which the crab regenerates are kept, and each crab is thrown back in the ocean), and how they are protected by law and by custom. The essay concludes with a stop at Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant in Longboat Key, O’Leary’s exclusive customer, a restaurant that serves 200,000 pounds of stone crab claws. And while we know Corby Kummer is scarfing down those crab claws at Moore’s, his writing remains graceful:
"O’Leary brings his catch to an unchanged piece of Americana – the sort of place any Slow Food member goes out of the way to visit: Moore’s Stone Crab Restaurant…
In an age of fast food, Moore’s is one of those family-run shorefront restaurants that hardly exist anymore, a place where everyone lines up at the screen door on the wide wooden verandah and walks down to the water while waiting for their name to be called…
Paper menu placemats show Moore’s endearingly clumsy logo of a bright red stone crab. The specialty, of course, is boiled and chilled claws, served on oval plates with tartar sauce and a wedge of iceberg lettuce. Some things are better left perfectly plain. Stone crab claws – thick, cool, popping with seawater, requiring just enough cracking and picking to be a challenge amply rewarded – meet the test of perfect simplicity."
In addition to O’Leary, Corby Kummer creates memorable portraits of artisan cheese makers in Italy and Vermont, butchers and sausage makers in Germany and Pennsylvania, sea salt harvesters in Portugal, an ice wine producer in Canada and an heirloom wine grape grower in France, an heirloom apple farmer who produces hard cider in New Hampshire, an antique potato farmer in Maine, and a fruit and botanical grower in the Australian rain forest.
Recipes, as might be expected, are creative but grounded in the ingredients of each dish. It is wonderful to see so many American and American-based chefs represented, and to see the farm-restaurant connection celebrated. With the cold weather upon us, try Elena Rovera’s Chicken Cacciatore with Baked Potatoes – hearty, delicious comfort food. (Note: do not use the Roero Arneis wine the recipe recommends. It is a white wine; the recipe calls for a red. Any inexpensive but drinkable medium-bodied dry red wine will work for this dish.)
Daniel Boulud is known for his extraordinary food at Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan. He is a master of refined technique and plate presentation. Here, however, Boulud seizes the opportunity presented by the doctrine of Slow Food to cook from the heart, and gives us a dish from his childhood; his grandmother’s Barboton d’Agneau, a slow-cooked lamb stew, utilizing lamb shoulder, an economical cut of meat that would never be featured in his restaurant (he would substitute lamb chops). It is a perfect winter dish.
Recipes from Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill in Chicago), Judy Rodgers (Zuni Café in San Francisco), Deborah Madison (Santa Fe), Paul Bertolli (Oliveto, Oakland), and Alice Waters all sound quite appetizing, and cooking from The Pleasures of Slow Food should be, well, a pleasure.
STEVEN KOLPAN is Professor of Wine Studies and Gastronomy at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. He is the author of A Sense of Place: An Intimate Portrait of the Niebaum-Coppola Winery and the Napa Valley, which was awarded the Best Wine Book of 1999 by the Versailles (France) Book Awards. Steven is the co-author of Exploring Wine, a definitive wine text now in its second edition, which was nominated for Best Wine &Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation Awards.In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years.
When it comes to food and wine pairing, we can all be thankful that the old days of “white wine with fish, red wine with meat” are over. Just as important, the assumption that we are always going to eat fish or meat is a non-starter. These days, many of us prefer to eat vegetable-based dishes depending on our mood and /or regimen, and quite a few of us have chosen the path of living as vegetarians or vegans.
How does wine fit with our vegetarian or vegan food choices? Very nicely. The same basic principles and guidelines for pairing wine with food that hold true for meat and fish also hold true for pairing a wonderful wine with a wonderful vegetarian or vegan meal.
But before we talk about pairing Syrah with seitan or Albariño with avocados, let’s discuss the nature of wine itself. Not all wines are – in the strictest sense of the words – vegan or vegetarian. This may come as a surprise to many readers, as we think of wine as fermented grape juice and can’t imagine any animal products being used in its production.
The fact is that while an increasing number of wines are technically vegan, a substantial number of wines still use animal-based products in the “fining” of the wine; clarifying the wine by removing proteins, yeasts, and solid materials that will make the wine cloudy and visually unappealing, or create off-flavors or aromas in the wine. Fining agents act as magnets for unwanted materials, and carry the glop to the bottom of a barrel or a tank. When the wine is “racked” – poured into another holding container – the wine is separated from the solids. Racking is just like decanting, except on a humungous scale.
Fining agents typically used in wineries include egg whites, egg albumin, or casein (milk proteins). So far, this is good news for lacto-ovo vegetarians, but not for strict vegans. However, common fining agents also include gelatin (produced from animal bones), isinglass (made from fish bladders), and chitin (lobster and crab shells). Illegal in both France and the United States, some wine producers will even use bull’s blood to fine their wines.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to animal-based fining agents. The most popular are bentonite clay, diatomaceous earth, and carbon. With all fining agents, only near-undectable traces of the material remain in the finished wine.
Personally, I believe how a wine is fined should not be a major issue for vegans and vegetarians, because of the efficiency of the process. However, I respect the fact that many readers may disagree with me based on dietary, philosophical, or religious grounds. For those who want to make sure that the wine they drink has not been fined with animal and/or dairy-based products, I direct you to the more than two million websites that pop up when you Google “vegan wines.” The first dozen or so sites will provide a substantial, if incomplete, list of vegan wines from all over the world to choose from and to make reasonably informed choices. If you question the fining agents used in some of your favorite wines, do not hesitate to ask your local wine merchant or contact the producers of those wines via the e-mail addresses found on their web sites.
Note: A wine that is labeled as “organic,” or made from organic or biodynamic grapes is not necessarily vegan, and wines made from grapes grown employing less sustainable methods may very well meet the vegan standard.
Enough bad news. The good news is that pairing wines with vegan and vegetarian foods is not only easy, it is also a way to stretch your creative muscles. Honestly, choosing wines for veggie-based dishes can result in some of the most exquisite pairings if we understand a few basic principles.
1. Powerful flavors in food call for powerful wines.
2. Lighter food flavors require lighter wines.
3. Spicy, salty, or smoky flavors in food welcome lighter, fruity reds, and off-dry to semi-sweet whites.
4. You can pair food with wine by creating complementary pairings – the food tastes like the wine (pasta with fresh herbs, olive oil, and olives paired with fresh, herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc) – or by contrasting pairings – the food and the wine have opposite flavors and textures (earthy mushroom risotto with fruit-driven Pinot Noir).
When it comes to vegetarian and vegan food and wine pairing a few other party tricks come into play, and this is where you can really get creative. If you’re a lacto-ovo vegetarian (“LOV”), then remember that whole milk or cream, eggs, and cheeses can create real richness in a dish that might traditionally be meat-based (lasagna, for example). If you’re a vegan (“V”), olive oil, seitan, tofu, and especially nuts can add a great deal of “meaty” richness to a dish. Also, whether V or LOV, vegetable-based sauces, reductions, purées, and coulis add layers of flavor and will welcome a heartier wine. Fruit-based sauces and purées can add a subtle sweetness and acidity to a dish, and will welcome a contrasting dose of spices, herbs, or salt.
One of the keys to enjoying a great wine and food match for both LOVs and Vs is to consider the cooking method you apply to a dish. A meal featuring steamed vegetables and brown rice will call for a much lighter wine than one featuring the same vegetables – but grilled and served with an enticing, peppery pasta. Steaming or poaching creates far less flavor intensity in a dish than grilling broiling, roasting or braising. Sauté and pan-frying is right in the middle of the intensity scale.
As you read this, you might think “this wine geek with his rules!” But let me quickly plead my case. First, these are not rules, but guidelines. And I’m really only articulating some common sense practices that just about everyone who loves to cook, loves to eat, and loves to drink wine with food, observe on a daily basis, be they LOV, V, or omnivores (O).
Let’s get specific. Here are some basic veggie-based foods and wines that will almost always work together. These are only some suggestions. Experiment on your own and have fun preparing, serving, and eating a wonderful vegetarian or vegan repast, complete with a glorious wine:
Avocados are rich and sexy, and work beautifully with voluptuously herbaceous, grassy, and fruity whites, such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay from the Hudson Valley, Italy, or Chile, Albariño from Spain, or Moschofilero from Greece.
Beans, Lentils, Pulses: Meaty, high-intensity flavors call for medium-to-full-bodied reds with a dose of tannin and a load of fruit: Syrah (Shiraz), Merlot, Chianti Classico, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, or Côte du Rhône. Also, dry whites from Alsace, France (they behave like red wines in drag).
Corn: With or without butter, corn is deceptively rich, and was made for oaky Chardonnay.
Couscous with Herbs and Veggies: Dry rosé, sparkling Brut Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, unoaked Chardonnay (such as true Chablis), semi-dry Gewürztraminer or Riesling.
Gazpacho: Vinho Verde from Portugal, Sauvignon Blanc, Rueda from Spain. Also, a light, dry rosé from Provence.
Grilled Vegetables: My favorite. Try a fruity light-to-medium-bodied red, such as Beaujolais-Villages, Rioja Crianza, Dolcetto, or Pinot Noir, an Australian “GSM” (Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre) blend . For whites: Viognier, Fumé Blanc, Gewürztraminer, or Argentine Torrontes.
Hummus / Baba Ganoush / Tabouleh / Falafel: Lemon and/or spice in these dishes calls for Dry to Semi-Dry Finger Lakes Riesling, South African Chenin Blanc, California Sauvignon Blanc, and (believe it or not) White Zinfandel.
Lasagna, Pasticcio, Pastas with Tomato-Based Sauces, Vegetables and Cheese (or Tofu): Where to start? So many medium-bodied, subtly fruity reds to choose from: Nemea from Greece, Chianti Classico from Tuscany, Barbera from Piemonte, Mencia from Bierzo, Spain, Pinot Noir from Oregon or New York State, Zinfandel, Merlot from Washington State, Carmenère from Chile… where to stop?
Mushrooms: Just two words (and one wine) to remember: Pinot Noir. The earty ‘shrooms and the fruit of the Pinot make for The Divine Contrast.
Olives: All from Spain: Fino or Manzanilla Sherry, dry rosé from Navarra or Rioja, bubbly Cava. No better,and no simpler finger food/tapas than good olives and good wine.
Onions: Try an Alsace or Oregon Pinot Gris with a savory onion tart, and a Beaujolais or Côte du Rhône with a traditional onion soup.
Pasta or Risotto with a Melange of Grilled or Sauté Vegetables, or Ratatouille: Dress with a good Extra Virgin Olive Oil and a touch of Balsamic Vinegar, and serve with full-bodied whites, such as California Chardonnay, Viognier, Côte du Rhône Blanc, an Australian Semillon, or Washington State Semillon/Chardonnay blend. Reds: Chianti Classico or Rosso di Montalcino from Tuscany, Dão from Portugal, Ribera del Duero from Spain, Pinot Noir, Merlot or Zinfandel from California , or Cabernet Franc from the Hudson Valley or Long Island, an inexpensive, simple, young red Bordeaux. And many more….
Pairing wine with vegetarian/vegan dishes is a healthy practice, and the results can be unexpectedly wonderful and totally tasty. As with all good food, the quality of ingredients – their freshness and seasonality – is paramount. Pairing a great wine with an out of season tomato salad is going to taste as bad as it sounds. But try that salad with a local garden-fresh tomato, local basil and cippolini onions, olive oil, balsamico, and salt and pepper with fresh-baked bread and a glass of Millbrook Tocai Friulano white, and I guarantee happiness at the table.
Plato is said to have uttered the profound and timeless phrase, “In Vino, Veritas” (“In Wine, Truth”). I certainly agree with this ancient Greek wine geek, but let me humbly amend his famous statement with one of my own: In Vino, Vegetas.
The Hudson Valley abounds with fine restaurants, many that feature great wine lists. These days we take this as a given in the Valley, but if we were living in Philadelphia or Montreal, the Bay Area, or many other cities and towns across the United States, we might get in the habit of dining at BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) restaurants. These places don’t have wine and liquor licenses, and encourage patrons to supply their own wines; the restaurant provides the service.
In New York State, it is legal to bring your own wine into any restaurant that has a beer and wine license or full liquor license. It is not legal to do so at unlicensed venues, unless the restaurant has less than twenty seats. BYOB on licensed premises is at the discretion of the restaurant, and they may charge a fee for the service of the wines – and loss of income to the restaurant. This fee is known by the cheery name, “corkage.”
Corkage fees vary throughout the Hudson Valley, but most fall in the $10 to $25 per bottle range. Corkage policy also varies: some restaurants forbid BYOB altogether, while others try to discourage patrons from bringing in inexpensive wines by imposing a stiff tariff per bottle. A select few don’t make judgments on the customer’s wine choice, and charge a very reasonable corkage fee.
The French Corner in Stone Ridge has garnered much praise in both the New York Times and the Wine Spectator for the cooking of chef/owner Jacques Qualin and the restaurant’s wine list, presided over by Qualin’s wife and partner, Leslie Flam. Both the menu and the wine list reflect the gastronomy of Qualin’s native Franche-Comte region near the French/Swiss border, which means an unusual list of wines from the Jura and Arbois wine regions, many of which are priced around $30.
Corkage at The French Corner is a reasonable $15 per bottle. Leslie Flam speaks to her own true spirit of hospitality. “We believe if one of our patrons has a special bottle of wine that they would like to enjoy with Jacques' delicious food then they should do so. Good wine should be enjoyed with good food and not everybody has the time or the means to prepare a meal to match their wine at home.” Flam also mentions that BYOB customers, even though they are welcome, are rare at The French Corner.
And that rara avis description is pretty consistent throughout the Hudson Valley, based on my conversations with restaurant owners, chefs, and managers. Another consistent theme in those conversations is the strong feeling that BYOB customers should observe a kind of unspoken etiquette: bring in a special bottle, not just any bottle.
Kevin Katz is the chef/owner of The Red Onion restaurant in Saugerties, a restaurant with a good wine list. Katz recently decided to raise his corkage fee from $10 to $25 per bottle, and he can tell you why. “I’ll never forget walking through the dining room and seeing a party of four drinking a magnum of [yellow tail]. I didn’t want that to happen again.”
[yellow tail] is the famous, and famously inexpensive Australian import, and a magnum (a big 1.5 liter bottle) sells for about $12. Katz feels that making that bottle cost about $37 (when corkage is added) will dissuade customers from bringing in cheap bottles and steer them towards his wine list.
Of course, Katz supports the idea of customers bringing in a truly special bottle of wine to enjoy with his food, and has enjoyed the privilege of BYOB in other restaurants. “When my wife and I celebrated our 4th anniversary, I brought a bottle of the Champagne served at our wedding to the restaurant. That bottle had special meaning for us and I was happy to pay whatever the corkage fee was. ”
Corkage fees also seem to be fluid in the Hudson Valley. I heard the same refrain from many restaurateurs: the fee might be waived for regular customers, or for patrons who bring in truly special bottles that they would never find on the restaurant’s wine list.
Charles Fells is the chef/owner of The Artist’s Palate in Poughkeepsie. The restaurant maintains a list of about 50 mostly New World wines, with 20 affordable wines served by the glass. According to Fells, “We are pretty liberal with our corkage. Usually it is $15 per bottle but we sometimes waive the fee if we see that the customer has brought a very special wine that we would not be able to get, or an extremely old or rare wine.”
Many restaurant owners are understandably protective of their wine lists. After all, they have worked hard to offer wines that pair well with their food, and have invested a lot of money in the wine itself and a lot of time in training staff to provide professional wine service.
At Twist restaurant in Hyde Park, co-owner Ellen Henneberry takes her wines and her wine list very seriously. She has attended several formal wine education seminars and can always be found at trade tastings in the Valley and beyond, all in an effort to create a wine list that pairs perfectly with the menu created by chef/owner/husband Benjamin Mauk. Corkage at Twist is $25 per bottle.
Henneberry is of a mixed mind about BYOB and corkage. "If someone wants to bring in a special bottle, that's fine, and we welcome that customer. Overall, I want our customers to enjoy our wines with our food. If I can make someone happy by pairing a $23 bottle of wine with their meal, it makes my night. If I can pair a $150 bottle of wine with our menu, that makes my night too.”
But Henneberry also echoed the refrain of so many other restaurateurs I spoke to when it came to waiving corkage fees. The secret: let the restaurateur sneak a small taste of your special wine. “The other night a good customer brought in a ’69 Grand Cru Burgundy and I got to taste it. So generous! Corkage fee? What corkage fee?”
Sabroso is a Latin-themed restaurant in Rhinebeck, with a wine list that features the wines of South America, Spain, and the Basque region. Corkage is $10 per bottle. Co-owner Christopher Long believes the customer has the last word when it comes to wine. “We have a very accessible list but we encourage anyone wanting to bring along any particular bottle special to them, so the reasonable corkage. That being said our list complements our cuisine. Latin wine, Latin food.”
What about that idea of a restaurant creating the ideal customer experience by matching the culture or the country of the food with the wine list? Some restaurants have gone to great lengths to maintain cultural integrity, and Gigi Trattoria, also in Rhinebeck, is one of them. The vast wine list is all-Italian, except for one estate-bottled Hudson Valley white wine grown and produced by Millbrook Winery under the Gigi label, and even that wine is made from an Italian varietal, Tocai Friulano. Corkage at Gigi is $15 per bottle.
According to Gigi Trattoria manager, Arlin Smith, BYOB is a rare and special occurrence at the restaurant. “I feel that being able to bring your own wine to a restaurant is a privilege. Most of the people who bring wine to Gigi bring very special bottles that mean something to them. This usually means that they are looking for a place to enjoy that bottle and I think any restaurant would take that as a compliment. But I also feel that the corkage fee is necessary to deter people from bringing in just any wine from the shop around the corner. We put as much effort and care into our wine list as we do to the food, so our guests can enjoy their dining experience to the fullest.”
BYOB is not a wide-scale practice in the restaurants of the Hudson Valley. Clearly, restaurants welcome customers to enjoy food and drink, and some will allow you to bring in a bottle or two of wine to enjoy with their menu, and they will charge a fee for that service. Are they truly happy about BYOB? Probably not, but if you bring in a special wine – not a bottle of [yellow tail] or its equivalent - and are willing to pay the corkage fee, all should go smoothly. If the restaurant has a corkage policy, the customer should observe the letter and spirit of that policy. In return, the restaurant should provide the same level of professional wine service offered to customers who purchase wines from that restaurant.
I did find one place that comes close to encouraging BYOB and I found it in my own backyard, my own temple of toil. The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park charges a corkage fee of $10 per bottle in any of its four public restaurants, and according to Tom Peer, director of all CIA restaurants and Associate Dean for Table Service, guests can bring in any wine they like, from the most humble to the most elegant. Peer notes that “the more experience our students have with professional wine service, the better for their education. On a practical level, it doesn’t matter if it’s one of our wines, or one of the customer’s, the goal is the same. Great service and a great customer experience.”
Like the rest of the white varietals in the wine universe, Sauvignon Blanc lives in the shadow of Chardonnay. But Sauvignon Blanc seems poised to make its move as the Next Big White, or at least to claim the respect it has earned as a strong supporting player on the world wine stage.
Think “Green.” Sauvignon Blanc at its best exhibits high acidity with flavors and aromas of green apples, green grapes, green herbs and a perhaps just a bit of green bell pepper. Lime, kiwi, green honeydew melon, and tropical fruits such as guava, papaya, and passion fruits make some Sauvignon Blanc-based wines, especially those from New Zealand and South Africa, smell and taste like a fruit salad in a glass, poured over calcium-rich stones.
Classic Old World Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley of France is far less obviously fruity and more grassy/herbaceous. These wines also exhibit a high degree of minerality – chalk, limestone, and the brininess of the sea and seashells.
There is a popular Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand called “Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush,” a joke of a label to be sure, but it’s a joke that Sauvignon Blanc-lovers will immediately “get.” Two classic aromas of Sauvignon Blanc are “cat pee” and “gooseberries,” but neophyte Sauvignon Blanc drinkers need not be scared; the aroma of cat pee does not carry through to the flavor of the wine (the gooseberries become part of the “fruit salad in a glass” referred to above). It may sound odd, but some of us who love Sauvignon Blanc are a little disappointed if we don’t get at least a whisper of cat pee in the “nose” of the wine.
In California, where Sauvignon Blanc is the second most important white varietal – Chardonnay, of course, is first - you may find Sauvignon Blanc labeled as “Fumé Blanc.” In the late 1960s, Robert Mondavi coined this name for a style of Sauvignon Blanc that is fermented and aged in oak barrels. The resulting wine is far richer – and far less “green” – than classic Sauvignon Blanc that is produced in stainless steel. Today, “Fumé Blanc” need not be oaked, but if the name appears on the label, it usually connotes that the wine is richer and fuller than a wine labeled “Sauvignon Blanc.” Fumé Blanc is often devoid of the aroma of cat pee, and the fruit tastes riper, the wine less acidic overall. Often, Fumé Blanc wines will undergo at least partial malolactic fermentation to tame the green (malic) acids in the wine. Some people prefer the more “sophisticated” Fumé Blanc style, while others much prefer the “wild” style of Sauvignon Blanc, and some wine drinkers enjoy both styles, depending on the food they are pairing with the wine.
In Bordeaux, France, Sauvignon Blanc is often blended with another grape, Semillon, to produce a distinctive style of white wine. These wines tend to be medium-to full-bodied and more restrained in their acidity and fruit flavors, as Semillon is more nutty and honeyed than the greener Sauvignon Blanc. The classic versions of these Bordeaux blends come from the districts of Graves, and within Graves, the more expressive and expensive Pessac-Leognan; some of these wines can be truly age-worthy. These days, white wines from Bordeaux labeled as Entre-Deux-Mers or simply “Bordeaux” tend to be more about the straightforward, crisp flavors of Sauvignon Blanc, and are meant for early drinking.
Sauvignon Blanc: A Survey
California produces some very good Sauvignon Blanc, with true-green aromas and flavors, and also produces the Fumé Blanc style. Sauvignon Blanc from the North Coast of California – Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake counties – is the antithesis of the Chardonnay produced in the same region. Rather than the rich, oaky, vanilla flavors of Chardonnay that can overwhelm simpler foods, the refreshing, straightforward fruity flavors of Sauvignon Blanc are just the thing for fish – from ceviche to a grilled tuna with a tomatillo salsa – or a fresh goat cheese, or tapas-style appetizers. California Sauvignon Blanc has emerged as a food-friendly wine, gaining more space on restaurant wine lists and more adherents among American consumers.
For years, and until quite recently, classic Sauvignon Blanc was defined by the wines of the Loire Valley of France – wines from the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, followed by the less exalted and less expensive Quincy, Reuilly, and Menetou-Salon. This being France, the name of the grape –Sauvignon Blanc - has never appeared on the labels of these wines. In an increasingly varietal-conscious world, these wines have begun to lose their status as classic Sauvignon Blanc, and there are many wines and wine-producing nations ready to take their place, chief among them is New Zealand.
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has, especially for many younger wine drinkers, become the classic expression of this varietal. Full of tart lime and tropical aromas and flavors, with grace notes of minerals, grass, and herbs, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is pure pleasure, an uncomplicated and fun wine; not a wine to exercise expertise, but a wine to enjoy with a myriad of tasty dishes. A great accompaniment to ethnic foods, especially spicy Asian and Latin American flavors, this wine is like a squeeze of fresh lime juice, awakening and brightening flavors throughout the meal. Once you start to enjoy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, it can quickly become a favorite.
The best examples of this popular white are sourced from grapes grown in the vineyards of the Marlborough region, located at the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. The wines are affordable, with many priced under $10, and some of the best available for between $15 and $20. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is consumer-friendly in another way, too. Most of the wines you will find in the US market feature screw caps, not corks, as closures, making New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc a perfect wine for the dinner table or the picnic basket.
South Africa’s best white wine is its Sauvignon Blanc. When sourced from low-yielding vineyards in the cool Stellenbosch region, the wines can be incomparable. Though wines from South Africa can be uneven in quality – the reputation of the producer is paramount in choosing the wines – Sauvignon Blanc seems to be among the most successful varietals exported to the US market. With thirst-quenching acidity, a healthy dose of minerality, and green, tropical fruits in the mix, the wines are more fruit-driven than the wines of the Loire Valley, but a bit more restrained in their exuberance, and slightly fuller-bodied than the wines of New Zealand.
Australia produces a wide range of Sauvignon Blanc wines, from simple summer sippers to more complex wines with rich, jammy fruit balanced by a vein of mouthwatering acidity. With Australian Sauvignon Blanc you usually get what you pay for, and it is easy to find wines for under $10, but even the most expensive and best wines are under $20.
Chile produces some delightful Sauvignon Blanc, very much in the California style, but with a bit more tropical fruit on the palate, especially from grapes grown in the cool Casablanca region. Currently, these wines live in the shadow of Chile’s red wines – especially Cabernet Sauvignon – and so Sauvignon Blanc from Casablanca tends to be a bargain-priced gem.
Although perhaps a bit hard to find, Sauvignon Blanc from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy is worth the search. Often just labeled as “Sauvignon,” these are some of the most elegant examples of Sauvignon Blanc produced anywhere in the world, with a grassy background and subtle fruit acids that refresh the palate. Sauvignon Blanc from Friuli can be moderately expensive, starting at about $15, with some as high as $25.
Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect antidote for a world awash in both mediocre and good but overpriced Chardonnay. It is easy to find delicious Sauvignon Blanc, and it is affordable. When you taste one you really like, Sauvignon Blanc becomes all but addictive, especially with spicy, lively foods. So, the next time you’re hankering for a white, think green.
I must be getting old, because it seems like not so long ago that sushi was reserved only for the most food-adventurous Americans. How many times did I sit at a sushi bar at dinner time or in a tatami room at 2 a.m. enjoying a feast of exotic, sensual, delicious and - so many of my friends thought – perverse and dangerous sashimi: slices of otoro (fatty tuna belly), hamachi (young yellowtail), kanpachi (very young yellowtail), uni (sea urchin roe), saba (mackerel), anakyu-maki (conger eel and cucumber rolled in nori seaweed), and maguro-temaki (hand-rolled cones of dried seaweed filled with tuna?
Some of my 20-something friends could not watch me – or anyone – actually eat raw fish. The hearty souls who stayed at the sushi bar or sat shoeless on bamboo mats, content to sample the miso-shiru (the cleansing clear soup made from fermented soy bean paste, with tofu, scallion, and mushroom condiments) and cleanly-fried shrimp and vegetable tempura, had to listen to me proselytize about the culinary and even the spiritual virtues of eating nigiri- sushi (raw fish on vinegared rice cubes) or sashimi (the fish, pristine and alone, bowl of rice on the side). I tried, mostly in vain, to get my friends to taste what I considered to be the greatest delicacy, the most lovely gift of the oceans. They liked the sweet/sour palate-cleansing gari (pickled ginger) as a culturally-devoided snack, but thought I was truly insane as I preached and pontificated about the purifying purge of wasabi (literally, “mountain hollyhock”) the green horseradish, which I preferred only when it reached its ultimate power: namida (tears).
Like so many new converts to a belief system – and I believed in sushi as the food of Nature, a Sacrament of the Seas, a new and welcome form of Pleasure, a sybaritic Seduction, a Way of Life – I observed and I copied. I knew how to order sushi, how to eat with chopsticks, and how to ask for hot sake and/ or Kirin and Sapporo beer to drink; sushi etiquette seemed easy to absorb. The idea that fine wine might be the ideal accompaniment to my new ideal, and newly- idealized, favorite dining experience never even occurred to me.
Fast-forward 25 (all right, 30) years. I still love sushi in all its forms, but would never think of ruining it with hot sake, warmed to mask its off-flavors. I love America’s new love affair with fine sakes, and am honored to drink chilled and elegant ginjoshu (premium), koshu (aged), or daiginjoshu (super premium, especially shizuku, or “trickle” sake) with sashimi (surprisingly, I find that the strong rice flavors in sushi overwhelm the much more delicate rice flavors in premium sakes; stick with sashimi). In a pinch, lager beers, such as Kirin or Sapporo Draft are inoffensive and refreshing backgrounders to sushi, and a wide variety of green teas (ocha) paired with sushi can make for exciting combinations (and its own article). But what about wine with sushi?
For all of us who love wine and love sushi, our time has come. Before we talk about what wine with what fish, and how to deal with the heat of wasabi, and the salt of soy, and the vinegar in the rice and in the ginger, we need to take a moment to look at the changing nature of sushi – and “sushi restaurants” - in the United States. Sounds pretty lofty, but it is actually an important and practical first step.
One thing that hasn’t changed about sushi is that it is not a meal that you make at home. Because of the delicate skills and years of experience it takes to create fine sushi, as well as the difficulty consumers will have in getting sushi-grade fish (even if we know how to judge what is and isn’t acceptable, which most of us don’t), we leave the sushi-making to the cadre of mostly Japanese sushi chefs working in sushi bars in major cities, suburbs, and towns throughout the United States.
The sushi bars of my youth are, thankfully, still around: small places with minimalist décor, the freshest fish, and sushi chefs who know what you want even before you sit down. These are great places to eat sushi, but ask for a wine list in almost any of these places, and you will be disappointed. The list will be short and uninviting, reinforcing the old ideas of sushi with beer, hot sake, or aged whiskey (à la Japanese corporate executives who keep their own stash of single-barrel Bourbon or Single Malt Scotch in small locked hutches behind the sushi bar).
Over the last ten to fifteen years the image of sushi, sushi bars, and sushi chefs in this country has gone through a dramatic transformation. In addition to tradition-bound sushi bars, we now have many chefs and restaurateurs, who make wine an important focus of their restaurant and an integral part of the dining experience. Some names that come to mind are Nobu Matsuhisa, with esteemed restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and other cities, Daisuke Utagawa, proprietor of Washington D.C.’s much-loved Sushi-Ko, and Yoshi Tome, the owner of Sushi Ran, a 50 seat sushi bar in Sausalito, California.
What Matsuhisa and Utagawa have done is elevate the image of sushi by offering the genuine article in its most pristine form, but also expanding the notion of what a sushi bar and restaurant can be, by offering their own creations; dishes based on sashimi and sushi, but raised to the level of elgant dining. A perfect example is Matsuhisa’s “Sashimi Salad,” a delectable combination of thin slices of the finest raw fish served on a bed of bitter greens, with a ponzu-infused sauce. This is a dish made for enjoying with wine, and as served at Nobu in Manhattan, with its celebrity clientele, beautiful décor, hard-to-get reservations, and wine director Daniel Johnnes (who also chooses all of the wines for sister restaurant Montrachet, the best Burgundy wine list in the United States).
Utagawa expounds on the “fifth taste,” umami, a non-specific sweet/salty taste found in shiitake mushrooms, and certain sushi fish, especially mackerel, tuna, and bonito. Umami, discovered in Japan in 1908, will also heighten our sensitivity to bitterness in wines, such as harsh tannins. Utagawa has decided, however, that soft and moderate tannins can enhance umami, and so Sushi-Ko has an all-Burgundy wine list; 25 whites (all Chardonnay) and 95 reds (all pinot noirs)!
At Sushi Ran, the menu is much more focused on traditional raw fish, but owner Tome, born in Okinawa, and his local Bay Area clientele just love to drink wine, and they don’t draw the line at sushi. Shiraz, Pinot Noir, and Merlot flow as freely as any white wines at Sushi Ran.
Finally, we know the idea of sushi and wine has come of age in the United States, when sushi is “adopted” by our own favorite restaurant cuisine: Italian. One of the really exciting restaurants in New York City is Esca, owned by Mario Butali and Joe Bastianich. Esca (“Bait”) serves wonderfully fresh “crudo,” slivers of many kinds of raw fish, denuded except for olive oil, salt and pepper. The wine list is largely white and based heavily in the wines of Friuli Venezia-Giulia. Not a hot sake in sight.
So what wines are memorable matches for sushi and sashimi?
The easiest and most elegant choice when thinking about wine and sushi is Brut sparkling wine, especially fine, light-to-medium-bodied fruit-driven méthode champenoise bubblies from California (favorites include Roederer Estate, Iron Horse, Domaine Chandon, and Schramsberg) Oregon (Argyle), New York’s Finger Lakes (Château Frank and Glenora), and New Mexico (Gruët). Also, we achieve a wonderful marriage of tastes when we pair Blanc de Blancs Cava from Spain and Brut Prosecco from Italy with snapping fresh fish.
Fine Champagne should by no means be relegated to second place, but makes for a more serious and cerebral match when paired with both the briniest and richest fishes. The mineral qualities of fine Champagne – the soils of the Champagne region are chalk – are highlighted by sushi, Champagne’s earthiness contrasting the brininess of raw shellfish, and its bubbles cleansing the palate of the fat of otoro and sake (salmon), and the oiliness of saba (mackerel). You can’t go wrong with sushi and fine sparklers: a meditation on the flavors of the earth and the flavors of the sea.
White wines with sushi seem like a given to anyone who likes white wine and fish. True, many whites will pair beautifully with raw fish but try to avoid oaky, buttery, full-bodied, high-alcohol whites (that felt good!). What we don’t want to taste with the wonderfully delicate flavors of sushi is toasted wood, nor a buttery nose and taste brought on by malolactic fermentation. High alcohol, especially as it interacts with shoyu (soy sauce) or murasaki (“purple;”a soy-based sauce prepared by the restaurant), is a problem. Salt amplifies alcohol and alcohol amplifies salt. So forget those oaky, creamy, alcoholic Chardonnays, and make a switch to Riesling “Kabinett,” especially dry (trocken) or semi-dry (halbtrocken) versions from the Mosel Saar Ruwer wine region of Germany.
Also, enjoy your sushi with stainless-steel fermented, fresh California Sauvignon Blanc from Napa, Sonoma or Mendocino (but stay away from its oaky twin, Fumé Blanc).
I recently tried some crackling fresh hamachi and unagi with a fruit-driven RH Phillips Viognier, made from grapes grown in the Dunnigan Hills region of California, and the combo was swingin.’ A lighter example of Viognier, this wine left a pleasing soft citrus tang after every bite of fish (also look for Rabbit Ridge, Callaway, and Bonterra versions of Viognier).
If you are having a sampling of some of the brinier and lighter-flavored fish and seafood, such as ama-ebi (raw shrimp), hotategai (scallop), tai (sea bream), or masu (trout), I can think of no other finer match than a white Vinho Verde from the Minho region of Portugal. This inexpensive gem, with fruity acidity and a bot of spritz, is a delightful match with very light fish and seafood, and because of its low alcohol, shoyu or murasaki sauces should enhance the overall taste experience.
A multicultural marriage made in heaven? The white wines of Alsace, France and the sushi and sashimi of Japan. Gewurztraminer, with its exotically spicy, litchi-driven nose and fruity, bone dry flavors is an even more amazing wine when paired with fattier cuts of sashimi. Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc, all of them dry and all of them tropical/green fruit on the nose and in the finish, makes them the perfect match for not only the fish but the sushi rice too. Last but not least, the perfumed, sexy Muscat d’Alsace (look for Domaine Weinbach or Kreüzer) will carry you away in a blissful melange: a bite of hirami (flounder), a sip of Muscat, a bite of kajiki (swordfish), a sip of Muscat……
Other white wines worth a try: true Chablis or Petit Chablis, which is simply unoaked Chardonnay; stay with the simple AOC, not the more complex (and expensive) Premier Cru or Grand Cru versions; Galestro, a light, fruity but dry wine from Tuscany, which, by law, can be no more than 11% alcohol; and believe it or not, some of the less-sweet examples of White Zinfandel, such as Beringer or Bogle.
Look at the color of a dry, fruity rosé from Navarra, Spain, or from Tavel, in the Rhône Valley of France, or a Bardolino Chiaretto from Veneto, Italy. Now look at the color of sashimi cuts of sake (salmon),toro or chu-toro (choice or marbled tuna belly), maguro (tuna)….well, you get the picture, and it’s a beautiful shade of pink. Rosé, with its strawberry /kiwi fruit and dry finish, is the perfect accompaniment to soy-infused fatty fish.
Red wine with sushi? I say yes, with parallel caveats that I voiced for whites (no oak, lactic acid, high alcohol). Here the no-nos are even moderately heavy doses of tannin, high alcohol, and age. Forget the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, the Big Bordeaux, the Brunello di Montalcino, the Rioja Gran Reserva, or any and all “heavy hitters.” More warnings: no to shellfish (too briny), and no to ikura, kazunoko, and uni (respectively salmon roe, herring roe, and sea urchin roe), as they are far too salty, and with any red wine will taste metal (the wine too!). Some good choices for red wine lovers who also love sushi and sashimi:
Beaujolais-Villages and some Cru Beaujolais (including Fleurie, Regníe, Chiroubles, Saint-Amour, and Julienas). Chill these soft reds to accentuate their acidity and “tighten” their fruit character. On the palate, these dry to off-dry wines will carry the fish flavors longer than most whites, and can handle a bite of gari (pickled ginger) with aplomb. Similar positive results: chilled red Côte-du Rhône and Chinon, a juicy red from the Loire Valley.
Soft European reds to consider, from Italy: Vapolicella Classico from Veneto, Freisa and Dolcetto d’Alba from Piemonte, Col-di-Sasso from Tuscany; from Spain: Rioja Crianza, Torres Coronas, Peñaflor; from Portugal: Perequita, JP Vinhos Tinto. Real fruit, no strong tannins. Chill.
From Australia, try a young, inexpensive lighter Shiraz, or a Grenache/Shiraz blend. Chill’em up, and these wines should be all berries, with little distinctive tannic structure. Particularly good with fattier cuts of sashimi, and will align itself well with the salt of shoyu and the sweet/sour gari.
I have had some good experiences with lighter Pinot Noir wines from Oregon, but even better with simple Bourgogne, one of the best bargains in a wine that is 100% Pinot Noir. Producers such as Leflaive, Drouhin, and Latour are easy to find and offer very good value. Try them chilled with lighter fish selections, room temperature for richer sashimi.
Full disclosure: Classic sushi – raw fish with sweet vinegar rice and a touch of wasabi, highlighted with shoyu, and classic sashimi – thin slices of fish, flavored with a sauce of shoyu and wasabi, served with sushi rice, must be altered somewhat to achieve balance with wine. There is no doubt that in most cases the intense heat of wasabi is a wine killer, and shoyu lifts the alcoholic flavors of the wine, which in turn raises the salt levels perceived on the palate. Pickled ginger, in most cases, does not help the cause, as a palate cleanser. Rice does nothing for the wine, but make the dish taste more bland and heavy. So, adjustments must be made.
I recommend negligible amounts of wasabi on the sashimi, if any, and just a touch of shoyu or murasaki. If munching on gari, make sure to taste just a touch as a palate cleanser; it will be as effective as if you ate a whole slice of ginger to the palate, and benefit the wine flavors tremendously. I love wasabi in particular, and certainly I am not above enjoying a slice or two of sashimi with lots of wasabi, real namida level stuff, drinking water, and biting into a few slices of gari to retaste the wondrous heat, cleanse the palate, and after a few deep breaths continue to enjoy sashimi and wine in peace and harmony, leaving my heat-seeking aberrations behind.
Clearly, wine and raw fish were made for each other, even if adjustments in classic presentation and flavor profiles must be made. Perhaps the reason it took so long for so many of us to realize that wine and sashimi can marry is the same reason that so many “ethnic” cuisines and cooking traditions have come late to wine. Remember that when the classic rules for wine and food pairing were being debated, the only foods discussed in the debate were European, especially French, and many of the matches were based on the flavor and texture of classic sauces. How far we’ve come from pairing a Château Margaux with a Béarnaise sauce to pairing a Crianza with a kanpachi (hold the wasabi and shoyu!).
Sushi Vocabulary: Here's a glossary of Japanese sushi terms to help you figure out just what you're ordering in a sushi bar.
Sushi a la carte
* aji -- horse mackerel
* akagai -- ark shell
* ama-ebi -- raw shrimp
* anago -- conger eel
* aoyagi -- round clam
* awabi -- abalone
* ayu -- sweetfish
* buri -- adult yellowtail
* chutoro -- marbled tuna belly
* ebi -- boiled shrimp
* hamachi -- young yellowtail
* hamaguri -- clam
* hamo -- pike conger; sea eel
* hatahata -- sandfish
* hikari-mono -- various kinds of "shiny" fish, such as mackerel
* himo -- "fringe" around an ark shell
* hirame -- flounder
* hokkigai -- surf clam
* hotategai -- scallop
* ika -- squid
* ikura -- salmon roe
* inada -- very young yellowtail
* kaibashira -- eye of scallop or shellfish valve muscles
* kaiware -- daikon-radish sprouts
* kajiki -- swordfish
* kani -- crab
* kanpachi -- very young yellowtail
* karei -- flatfish
* katsuo -- bonito
* kazunoko -- herring roe
* kohada -- gizzard shad
* kuruma-ebi -- prawn
* maguro -- tuna
* makajiki -- blue marlin
* masu -- trout
* meji (maguro) -- young tuna
* mekajiki -- swordfish
* mirugai -- surf clam
* negi-toro -- tuna belly and chopped green onion
* ni-ika -- squid simmered in a soy-flavored stock
* nori-tama -- sweetened egg wrapped in dried seaweed
* otoro -- fatty portion of tuna belly
* saba -- mackerel
* sake -- salmon
* sawara -- spanish mackerel
* sayori -- (springtime) halfbeak
* seigo -- young sea bass
* shako -- mantis shrimp
* shima-aji -- another variety of aji
* shime-saba -- mackerel (marinated)
* shiromi -- seasonal "white meat" fish
* suzuki -- sea bass
* tai -- sea bream
* tairagai -- razor-shell clam
* tako -- octopus
* tamago -- sweet egg custard wrapped in dried seaweed
* torigai -- cockle
* toro -- choice tuna belly
* tsubugai -- japanese "tsubugai" shellfish
* uni -- sea urchin roe
Maki-zushi (sushi rolls)
* maki-mono -- vinegared rice and fish (or other ingredients) rolled in nori seaweed
* tekka-maki -- tuna-filled maki-zushi
* kappa-maki -- cucumber-filled maki-zushi
* tekkappa-maki -- selection of both tuna and cucumber rolls
* oshinko-maki -- -pickled-daikon (radish) rolls
* kaiware-maki -- daikon-sprout roll
* umejiso-maki -- japanese ume plum and perilla-leaf roll
* negitoro-maki -- scallion-and-tuna roll
* chutoro-maki -- marbled-tuna roll
* otoro-maki -- fatty-tuna roll
* kanpyo-maki -- pickled-gourd rolls
* futo-maki -- a fat roll filled with rice, sweetened cooked egg, pickled gourd, and bits of vegetables
* nori-maki -- same as kanpyo-maki; in osaka, same as futo-maki
* natto-maki -- sticky, strong-tasting fermented-soybean rolls
* ana-kyu-maki -- conger eel-and-cucumber rolls
* temaki -- hand-rolled cones made from dried seaweed
* maguro-temaki -- tuna temaki
Other sushi terms
* nigiri(-zushi) -- pieces of raw fish over vinegared rice balls
* edomae-zushi -- same as nigiri-zushi
* chirashi(-zushi) -- assorted raw fish and vegetables over rice
* tekka-don -- pieces of raw tuna over rice
* sashimi -- raw fish (without rice)
* chakin-zushi -- vinegared rice wrapped in a thin egg crepe
* inari-zushi -- vinegared rice and vegetables wrapped in a bag of fried tofu
* oshi-zushi -- osaka-style sushi: squares of pressed rice topped
with vinegared/cooked fish
* battera(-zushi) -- oshi-zushi topped with mackerel
* tataki -- pounded, almost raw fish
* odori-ebi -- live ("dancing") shrimp
* oshinko -- japanese pickles
* neta -- sushi topping
* wasabi -- japanese horseradish
* gari -- vinegared ginger
* shoyu -- soy sauce
Sushi Bar Vocabulary
A special vocabulary is reserved for sushi bars in Japan. Soy sauce is refered to as murasaki ("purple") instead of the normal shoyu. This is because most sushi restaurants have their own house sauce. When asking for tea after the meal, ask for agari ("finished") instead of the normal ocha. Normally the vinegared ginger slices are refered to as sushoga ("vinegared ginger"), but at the sushi bar it is called gari. Wasabi is shortened to sabi and sometimes if it is really strong it is called namida ("tears").
Pinot Grigio is the single most popular imported varietal-labeled wine in the United States. I wonder why. Great Pinot Grigio is produced in several different countries, but rare. Most often and unfortunately, Pinot Grigio is just a decent quaff that quenches the thirst and doesn’t offend food. Maybe that’s what most of us want; a wine that is drinkable and inoffensive, a wine that does not challenge us. The popularity of Pinot Grigio is the engine that feeds its mass acceptance, making it an inclusive wine, one that everyone can agree on and enjoy.
Pinot Grigio, most closely identified with Italy, is not really an Italian grape. The grape is Pinot Gris (the “Gray” Pinot), found most prominently in Alsace, France, and secondarily in Southern Germany (under the name Greiburgunder or Rulander). In the vineyard, it is hard to tell if the grape is Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir until after color-changing veraison, as the leaves and grape shapes are identical. Pinot Gris is a variant of the Pinot Noir grape (as is Pinot Blanc). Although Alsatians think of it as a white grape, most Italians think of Pinot Gris as red, but in the end this may be a difference without a distinction, as the grape is treated as a white grape in the winemaking process. With just a little bit of skin contact during fermentation, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio should show a bit of pleasantly “gray” color in the wine.
There is quite a bit of fine Pinot Gris available from Alsace and I highly recommend them. Rulander, though very good, is harder to find. Closer to home, some of the more interesting Pinot Gris made in the New World comes from Oregon, the only state that has chosen to focus on the varietal as its representative white wine. The most widely available Oregon Pinot Gris is King Estate, a delicious wine redolent of tropical fruits. Other producers of fine Oregon Pinot Gris: Cooper Mountain (biodynamic), Cristom, Elk Cove, Bethel Heights, Adelsheim, Chehalem, Bridgeview, Erath, and Archery Summit.
While Pinot Gris will always have its small number of admirers, it was not until the introduction of “Pinot Grigio” that this grape found its place in the sun and on so many dining tables around the world, but especially in the United States.
Maybe we just like saying “Pinot Grigio,” a lovely phrase, almost sensual, but now almost devoid of meaning. When we order Pinot Grigio in a restaurant or buy it in a shop, unless we have a favorite that we stick with, there’s no telling what the wine will taste like. I have had Pinot Grigio that tastes like wine-flavored water, Pinot Grigio that tastes noticeably sweet, Pinot Grigio that tastes like cheap jug wine, and the occasional Pinot Grigio that is sublime and memorable. Chris Dearden of Benessere Vineyards in the Napa Valley makes the single greatest Pinot Grigio I have ever tasted. The wine is jam-packed with tropical fruits – mango, papaya, pineapple, with a long, complex, rich, and dry finish. Benessere’s Pinot Grigio has redefined the category for me, and has sent me on an unrequited quest to find truly great Pinot Grigio – from any country (the 2004 Benessere Pinot Grigio is $22 at www.benesserevineyards.com).
In my quest, I have tasted bargain Pinot Grigio that tastes watery, moderate-priced Pinot Grigio that tastes like wine, sometimes pretty good food-friendly wine, but shows no truly distinctive varietal character, expensive Pinot Grigio that tastes like the grape but with no sense of place/no terroir, and overpriced Pinot Grigio that was, well….overpriced and not terribly interesting.
And now the inevitable news comes from Australia that the latest Yellow Tail varietal is - what else? – Pinot Grigio. The wine should be in the marketplace by the time you read this. I have tasted the wine and can safely say if you like the Yellow Tail style (and price), you will like the Pinot Grigio. The Yellow Tail phenomena will very likely redefine the bargain segment for Pinot Grigio: a tropical fruit salad in a glass, with a touch of residual sugar in the finish.
Of course, most wine drinkers look to Italy for high-quality Pinot Grigio, even though the grape is indeed a French interloper, and there are several quality producers in Northeast Italy, particularly in the bilingual (Italian/German) province of Alto Adige, which borders Austria, that make clean, Alpine-crisp wines (Lageder, Kittmeir, Zemmer). In the Friuli Venezia-Giulia province of Italy, which borders Slovenia, Pinot Grigio tends to be richer and fuller-bodied. The best wine regions in Friuli for Pinot Grigio are Collio, Isonzo, and Collio Orientali, and fine producers include: Jermann, Livio Felluga, Russiz Superiore, Schiopetto, Borgo San Daniele, Bastianich, and Vei di Romans. You can expect to pay from $20 to $45 for these wines at retail.
No discussion of Pinot Grigio would be complete without Santa Margherita, produced in Trentino-Alto Adige. The wine that introduced America (and ironically, Italy) to the grape, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is still the benchmark for popularity and for overall baseline good quality. Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is the number one premium imported white wine in the United States, with sales of close to 500,000 cases per year. Santa Margherita makes a very good Pinot Grigio, although many (including me) feel that the price-to-quality ratio is out of whack at retail, but especially when it regularly appears on wine lists at $50 a pop.
I like most Pinot Grigio, and I love great Pinot Grigio, when I am fortunate enough to find it. Last year, on a trip to Friuli Venezia-Giulia, I thought I would find the ultimate Pinot Grigio. I didn’t, and fell in love with Friuli’s unheralded Sauvignon Blanc (who knew?). Still, the appeal of Pinot Grigio is undeniable, perhaps based on its promise of comfort and reliability. Pinot Grigio, a wine for the rest of us.
These days I hear a lot about “Rhône varietals” and “Rhône-style” wines, and like so many other wine lovers I’ve been tasting some lovely wines that fit these broad descriptions. The most famous grape of France’s Rhône Valley is Syrah (aka Shiraz), and there certainly are a lot of wines made from this grape, hailing from all over the Southern and Northern Hemisphere, from the New World and the Old World. Made in many different styles and available at many different price points, good Syrah/Shiraz is one of my favorite hearty, heady red wines.
But Syrah is just part of a much larger story, the story of the entire Rhône Valley and its wines. In the northern Rhône Valley, Syrah rules, but in the southern Rhône, it is but one of 23 grapes allowed by French wine law to produce Côtes du Rhône; a wine that is usually red but can also be white; the reds can be blended with the juice of white grapes and the whites can be blended with the juice of skinless red grapes (did you get that?); a wine that can be made in no less than 170 villages throughout the Rhône Valley; a wine that earthy and delicious; a wine that it is a great value.
Côtes du Rhône is the name of the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée); the place where the grapes are grown. And the Côtes du Rhône is a humongous appellation, covering more than 100,000 acres of vineyards owned by more than 10,000 growers. The 1,500 wineries in the Côtes du Rhône produce 250 million bottles annually (relax, that’s only a bit more than 20 million cases of wine; no biggie), 95% of it red.
40 per cent of the plantings in the Côtes du Rhône are red Grenache grapes, followed by Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan, and Cinsault, and a host of other red grapes. The most important white grapes here are Marsanne and Roussanne, with a bit of Viognier, among others. You may have had a varietal Grenache or a Shiraz/Grenache/ Mourvèdre blend from California or Australia (the cognoscenti and the terminally hip, perhaps afraid they might mispronounce “Mourvèdre,” refer to this style of wine as SGM), and you should never pass up the opportunity to taste a good Carignan. Perhaps you’ve tried a white Viognier, or a Marsanne/Roussanne blend from the New World, too. If not, don’t hesitate to do so.
Just because a wine labeled Côtes du Rhône can use 23 grapes, doesn’t mean that it does. Most of the wines utilize five to ten grapes, and of course Grenache usually dominates the blend. With so many producers, the joy of exploring the wines of the Côtes du Rhône is that each wine is different, and each delicious. Good “CDR” is a light-to-medium bodied wine, with an earthy character, and very food-friendly, whether you’re eating white or red meat, or grilled fish, or pasta, or pizza (especially pizza). It is also one of the great values in red wines, with many available for about $10, some a bit less, some a bit more.
You should also keep your eye peeled for the small selection of Côtes du Rhône wines that are made in the northern Rhône (“Côtes du Rhône, which literally means ”Rhône Slopes,” really means “almost anywhere in the Rhône”). These delicious wines are Syrah-dominant, some of them 100% Syrah, and are truly earthy wonders, with a slightly fuller body and a little more complexity. And most of them don’t cost any more than their “CDR” brethren from the south.
And then there’s a separate AOC, Côtes du Rhône-Villages, which ostensibly creates better wines on a consistent basis. Why? Because about 75 villages have been identified as having superior vineyards. Government regs here are a bit more stringent: nine grapes are legal instead of 23 in the general CDR appellation; the vineyards must produce fewer grapes per hectare (about 2.5 acres), and sugar levels in the grapes must be higher than in the humble CDR, translating to higher minimum alcohol in the finished wine.
The Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation is positively minuscule when compared to the larger all-encompassing Côtes du Rhône. Here, there are about 11,000 acres under vine producing the raw material for just 19 million bottles of wine per year. Grenache jumps up to 50 per cent of the grapes planted in this district.
The French have a real talent for the “intellectually dense” (read “hard to understand”) wine label, but so far, no problem. Just remember Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Villages, and remember to pronounce it VEE-LODGE, not “Villages,” and you’re home, free, right? Wrong. Here’s why: Of the 75 villages that are part of the CDR-V, 16 are allowed to add the name of their village on the wine label; it is an outward sign of quality, but it can be confusing. Don’t be surprised to see red wines labeled as Côtes du Rhône-Villages-Cairanne or Côtes du Rhône-Villages-Sablet, among several others. One further wrinkle: wines labeled as Côtes du Rhône-Villages-Laudun or Côtes du Rhône-Villages-Chusclan can only be white wines. (For those of you still stuck on pronouncing “Viognier” or “Mourvèdre,” just think of the preceding paragraph as a bad dream.)
“CDR-V” wines should show a bit more depth of flavor, a bit more complexity, and at their best, even a bit of aging potential of about 3 to 6 years. These wines are excellent values, too. You can expect to pay up to 25 per cent more for a CDR-V than a CDR, and a bit more for a CDR-V with the name of an esteemed village on the label. We’re still talking about wines that should sell for less than $20, and closer to $15.
So, the next time someone starts talking about “Rhone” wines, whip out the real thing, a bottle of delicious, food friendly, earthy, but not “pow, right in the kisser” wine from the Côte Du Rhône, or Côte du Rhône-Villages. These are wines that are not meant to dominate a friendly meal, but to enhance it, not to be the subject of conversation, but to encourage a chat, not a special occasion wine, but a wine that makes any occasion special. These wines are fruity but subtle and sensual. They are the anti-Cabernet (but wouldn’t you know it, Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the legal grapes in the Côtes du Rhône!). “CDR” and “CDR-V” wines should be very easy to find in wine shops and on wine lists, and are even easier to drink.
Following are some fine producers of Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Villages wines. Note that some producers source grapes in both appellations, and so will produce both wines. Happy Hunting!
Côtes du Rhône (from the south, dominated by Grenache): La Chasse du Pape, Coudolet de Beaucastel, Caves des Papes, Chapoutier, Clos du Caillou, Les Garrigues, Domaine Gramenon, Domaine de l’Ameillaud, Domaine du Pesquier, Perrin Réserve, Patrick Lesec, Mont Redon, Les Monticauts, st. Cosme, and Tardieu-Laurent.
Côtes du Rhône (from the north, dominated by Syrah): Jean-Luc Colombo “Les Abeilles,”, Domaine de la Solitude, Guigal, and Jaboulet (“Parallèle 45”).
Côtes du Rhône-Villages (the appellation is in the south only, dominated by Grenache): Alary, Louis Bernard, André Brunel, Cave de Cairanne, Château du Trignon, Coste Chaude, Domaine Santa Duc, Domaine St. Luc, Domaines de la Guicharde, Domaines Perrin, Guigal, Patrick Lessec, Gabrel Meffre Laurus, and Mas de Boislauzon.
Recently, an old friend stopped by to say hi and just to hang out for awhile. I realized that although we had known each other for almost 35 years, and we counted each other as a best friend, it had been some time since we had a chance just to talk -- to shoot the breeze -- to laugh at memories of the old days and the absurdities of the new days. In my post-9/11 life I have begun to realize all over again how important friends are, and how much magic there is in good and honest conversation, especially with someone who has known me for my entire adult life.
As day turned to night we talked about dinner, maybe grabbing a bite at a local restaurant. I wanted to keep the momentum of this reunion flowing, so I suggested dining in from whatever I could scrape together from my fridge and my larder. Let’s see: a rotisserie chicken I picked up that morning (just warm it up), Brussels sprouts (shred and sauté in olive oil), and a fresh salsa of grape tomatoes, cucumber, cilantro, and baby vidalia onions (lickety-split in the food processor). In less than 30 minutes, while my friend Bob checked out the day’s events on CNN, dinner was ready.
Such a simple dinner calls for a simple wine, right? Maybe a crisp Sauvignon Blanc to play with the salsa and bring out the rich sweetness of the chicken, and the earthiness of the Brussels sprouts. Dry Riesling would work, so would Gewurztraminer or Viognier, or maybe a Tavel rosé or light red: Valpolicella Classico, Rioja Crianza, Beaujolais-Villages, a regional Bourgogne or Côte-du-Rhône. I had all these simple wines, and more, to choose from; any one of them would work with the food.
Then it hit me.
I really wasn’t thinking, or maybe I was thinking but not feeling. Easily, almost mechanically, I was pairing the wine with the food, but in a vacuum devoid of the meal’s social context. This was, after all, a special occasion, a spontaneous reunion. I was welcoming my old friend at my table after a wonderful and meaningful day, and all I could think about was wine-and-food dynamics? No, I could do better. A lot better.
I said to Bob, “Let’s drink a really great bottle of wine with dinner.” By his smile and his enthusiastic “All right!” I could tell we were both on the same page. He understood that this simple meal was about to become an exceptional repast to honor our long and enduring friendship.
I admit to having more than a few special bottles in my cellar, set aside for broad celebrations and intimate seductions. As I gazed at dozens of wonderful wines I began to realize that any time true friends (new or old) and family (beloved or merely tolerated) break bread in my home, these treasured bottles should grace the table. Some of these wines are rare, many irreplaceable, but not nearly as rare or irreplaceable as the most important people in my life.
I found what I hoped would be the ideal wine: 1990 Louis Michel Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos,” a very fine white Burgundy from a great vintage. This is twelve year old Chardonnay without even a whisper of oak, preserved in all its glory by its alcohol and its acidity. I was a bit nervous that the wine might show serious signs of oxidation, but the color was ideal: greenish-gold without any hint of browning. I served the “Clos” in Riedel crystal Chardonnay glasses, just a little cooler than cellar temperature, in order not to numb the delicate nuances of aroma, bouquet, and flavor. The nose was superb: green apples, fresh cut grass, pear, white peach, all wafting from the glass in a singular, sexy, and harmonious perfume. On the palate, the wine was pure nectar: smooth and full-bodied in its attack with a rich vein of grapefruit/lemon acidity for balance, and a finish that seemed to never end. Perfect.
We agreed that the wine enhanced every aspect of the food (the pairing really was amazing, almost a force of nature), but what was so much more important was that sharing this irreplaceable wine together enhanced our conversation during dinner and tied anew the already-strong bonds of a lifelong friendship. What started out as a day to “just hang out” became an important and memorable benchmark of renewal.
So many wine lovers are the stewards of rare and wonderful wines that they are saving for a special occasion. In a world where every day we are increasingly reminded how fleeting life can be we might want to re-examine the concept and definition of “special occasion” to make it more inclusive, more elastic, more fun. Get those bottles out of the dust of the cellar, stand them up in the light of day, and bring them to your table that evening to enjoy. Opening and sharing a rare and wonderful wine makes the food taste better, the conversation more sophisticated (or at least the same old stories become bearable), your dining companions more attractive. Even close friends and family members witness, perhaps for the first time, that you and your home exude a glowing warmth and generosity.
In the preceding paragraph I call wine lovers who cellar a treasured and rare wine “stewards,” not owners. Legal standing aside, can one really “own” great wines? Unless you get inordinate pleasure from looking at or stroking bottles with labels, you “own” very little until that labeled bottle is opened, until that wine is drunk. If you collect wine to re-sell it, you merely steward that wine from the previous cellar to your cellar to the buyer’s cellar, and the only pleasure is profit; you might as well invest in pork bellies or any other commodity. As anyone who has ever tasted truly great wine can attest, it is a magical elixir that provides pleasure so far beyond dollars, pounds, or euros, that the sale of fine wines and the enjoyment of fine wines do not even inhabit the same pleasure universe.
Those of us who love to drink fine wines are also stewards. We keep our treasures buried in a cellar-- or in a convenient closet -- until such time as we are ready to offer these treasures to the worthy. When we have taken our pleasure by giving, sharing, tasting and talking we once again own a labeled bottle, a mere talisman of the occasion for which the wine was consumed. We only “own” the wine for those few momentous moments when we experience and internalize the pleasure, the “rush” of those precious sips.
I wonder if we, even the most wine-stained among us, realize how truly rare is the opportunity to taste great wine. 96 percent of the wine produced in the world is made to be consumed within one year of its harvest vintage; 99 percent within two years. This leaves one percent of the wines produced in the world that can age. The overwhelming portion of this wine will be consumed within five years. You see where I’m going with this.
No more than one-tenth of one percent of the wine produced in the world is destined to be among the treasured classics. Fortunately, the equivalent of about 15 billion bottles of wine are produced every year, so about 1.5 million bottles from each worldwide vintage might be keepers. This collection is diminished even more: by the relative quality of the vintage; reputation of the producer; the wine futures market, especially in Bordeaux; the auction block; the finest restaurants who get first dibs on treasured wines; the generally rich and powerful who, if they want to, can always get there first.
We the many, who are neither so rich nor so powerful, can afford very few of life’s Large Luxuries. Occasionally, we purchase or perhaps receive as a gift a Little Luxury, a fine bottle of wine, a wine to be shared with the right people at the right time. Now is that time, a moment that will never come again, so don’t wait for that “special dinner.” Make tonight’s dinner special; special for the one you love more than any other; special for your kids home from college; special for the friends whose support you rely on and who rely on you; special for the folks who don’t always feel so special, but you know they are. Sharing your finest wines creates a very special atmosphere, as the table becomes a place not only for celebration, but also for meditation.
With our first look, our first smell, our first sip, we are transported to a place where riches and power run a distant second to pure pleasure, and for that brief shining moment we are as rich as the richest person, as happy as the happiest, and power just doesn’t matter.
STEVEN KOLPAN is Professor of Wine Studies and Gastronomy at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. He is the author of A Sense of Place: An Intimate Portrait of the Niebaum-Coppola Winery and the Napa Valley, which was awarded the Best Wine Book of 1999 by the Versailles (France) Book Awards. Steven is the co-author of Exploring Wine, a definitive wine text now in its second edition, which was nominated for Best Wine &Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation Awards.