Thursday, April 4, 2013

Vinogirl and I clash

Believe it or not, Vinogirl and I did not get together on our mutual posts, even though they have the same theme.

Recently, thanks to my regular column in a Rochester, NY magazine--yeah, print--I received two emails last week from PR people applauding my column and then asking if I would like to taste some wines that they represent.

As I do with everyone who contacts me with that kind of request, I informed them that I rarely do wine criticism, and when I do it's generally for wine that I have bought at retail. In each case, I was thanked for my honesty and told the wine would be sent nevertheless.

They arrived--two wines form Italy and three from Portugal (they came form a PR agency in NY City). Last night, I opened one of them to have with dinner.

Because I hate wine criticism, especially when the wine is in a vacuum, as a tasting rather than in its true setting, with food, I will do this a different way. I'll tell you what I prepared for dinner and then tell you how the wine did with it.

I had an eggplant that needed to be consumed, but I had grown tired of the usual wok eggplant dish that I prepare every two weeks or so. This time, I decided to do something in an Italian mode to pair with one of the wines from Italy.

We have finished off the last of our tomato sauce from our 2012 crop, so I am reduced to opening a can. I know all about ragu: the long, slow process of cooking a tomato sauce, usually with meat. I don't cook much like that. I decide about an hour or two before dinner what I want to eat, which gives me half an hour to make a sauce. Easy task, as you really don't need a lot of time to make a tasty tomato sauce.

A can of crushed (organic) tomatoes, 1/2 cup sweet wine (Madeira), some chicken stock does the trick.

I take one of my basil ice cubes and melt it--yeah, that's how I preserve basil all winter. At harvest time, I select some bunches and whip them up with olive oil and then pour them into an ice tray. After they freeze, I remove them from the ice tray and dump the basil ice pieces into a plastic bag to store in the freezer.

Drop a basil cube into a 12-inch stainless pan, slice a couple of cloves of garlic thin with a razor and give them a quick saute in the olive oil, pour in the tomato, wine, and 1/2 cup of stock, add a few laurel leaves, and let simmer for half an hour, adding stock if it starts to dry up too much.

Turn on convection oven to 350.

Slice the eggplant into 1/4-inch thick pieces. Dip each into egg, drip and then dredge each piece into breadcrumbs. (I make my own breadcrumbs from the insides of whole grain baguettes that I eat. I drop the insides into a container and store them in the refrigerator so they dry out nicely--then I grind them fine in the food processor and store in a jar in the freezer.)

Lay the breaded eggplant on an oven pan and bake for about 20 minutes on each side.

Put water on to boil for cheese ravioli. When turning the eggplant over for its last 20 minutes baking, drop the ravioli into boiling water and cook until done--eight minutes or so.

Meanwhile, wilt some spinach leaves very briefly--about a minute, tops. Lay the spinach on a salad plate, top with fresh olives and some bean sprouts (we make our own sprouts).

That's the salad.

Chop some parsley for garnishing, and crumble some grana padano cheese into small pieces.

When the ravioli and eggplant are done, put them into separate plates and pour the sauce over them. On top of the eggplant, spread the little pieces of grana padano. Sprinkle parsley over ravioli and eggplant dishes.

That's dinner; now the wine.

Barba's 2009 Montepulciano D'Abruzzo (red). The grapes are grown organically and, based on its opaqueness as well as its gritty/chewy quality, I'd say the wine is not filtered.

It has a truly earthy aroma, but not Brett: elemental, with a black cherry undertone. It doesn't present fruit in the taste; it's on the vinous side. It's got a lot of body and heft to it, and it could not be mistaken for anything but old-style Abruzzo winemaking. In fact, the winery claims old vines.

I liked the wine with the food. The food toned it down a little, which was good, as the wine is quite hefty.

In all, it was a nice experience, but the wine is nothing that I would spend a lot of time seeking.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sweet red wine: blech.

Unlike the supposed progression that people make from liking sweet wine when young to slowly developing a taste for non-sweet wine as we get older, I gravitated directly to wines that did not taste sweet but that made my mouth feel puckerishly dry. It's not that I didn't drink the usual cheap, sweet wines of youth--who had enough money for anything else?--but when I had the money, I went straight for table wines, mostly reds, that were decidedly not sweet.

Don't get me wrong. I did then and do today like many sweet white wines, but not nearly as strongly as I prefer non-sweet reds (and non-sweet whites). Maybe I have old man Anton's wine cellar to blame for my delightful shortcoming.

Anton was a Neapolitan who lived in the building next to ours where I grew up in Brooklyn. He operated a summer-only outdoor candy store where he also sold the freshest lemon ice this side of Italy--so fresh we had to spit out the pits. He often let me help him produce the lemon ice in the backyard in summer. Either I poured sugar into the ice and lemons that he crushed and mixed in his homemade contraption, or I just helped him move bags around. Free lemon ice all summer was my pay.

I loved the summer work of course, but it was the autumn work with Anton that truly made me feel blessed--that was when I helped him with general wine cellar work, which consisted mostly of cleaning things. I loved to sniff the barrels after he emptied them, something Anton's grandson taught me to do. One sniff from a recently emptied barrel acted like a catapult.

For my pay, Anton rewarded our family with a few gallons of red wine each Thanksgiving and Christmas, wine as fiery as laying asphalt in August and, more important, as parching as Mohave.

So, here I am, many decades from those days with Anton's wine and what I have to show for it is an undying love for parching red wine met by an opposing distaste for sweet red wine. I also don't like any red wine that fizzes--pink is ok, but not red. So much for Lambrusco (yeah, yeah, Alfonso. I tried it in its home region, but still don't like it).

Yet, I keep hearing about a newly developing market for sweet red wine, and so I told myself that if I want to know what I am talking about when I tear down sweet red wine, I have to give it a try.

My first dip into the sweet red craze was a Cagnina di Romagna. Oh my, how do people drink that stuff?

My second dip into sweet red was a Dornfelder from the Rheinhessen. Nope.

My third dip...I dropped the idea.

Maybe it's low acidity, maybe tannin with sugar doesn't work for me (I never put sugar into coffee or tea), maybe it's the kind of fruit from red wine, maybe it's a combination of things, but something happens to red wine when it is sweet, and that something is quite unpleasant to my palate.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

It's income tax time

Every year at this time I try to determine what my income tax bill would be if we were allowed to deduct what we spent for wine during the year.

Last year, I spent almost $4,000 on wine. If I were an influential wine writer, that figure might mean very little as a percentage of my income. As it is, I am not influential nor do I have an income worth flaunting. That $4000 means a lot to me, which is why I daydream over a wine deduction on my tax returns.

Thanks to resveratrol, anthrocyanins (did I spell that correctly?), polyphenols, and whatever else is in there, wine should be considered a medical expense, but it should not be handled on the Schedule A Itemized Deductions. That schedule is where the IRS makes life difficult, with formulas and worksheets to follow in order to figure out how much of the actual money spent will wind up becoming a deductible amount. So often, I follow the worksheet only to find that I spent an hour serpentining from Schedule A, to Form 1040, to Publication this or Publication that, to a tax information booklet so-and-so, only to discover that I can't take the deduction. This is the kind of gyration that makes the Form 1040 Standard Deduction valuable only to those with an income worth defending with an automatic weapon, and not being an influential wine writer, I have yet to reach that income level.

I don't like it that the standard deduction for medical payments throughout the year is subject to a worksheet. The money is gone, all of it, including the $4000 for wine; why is only part of it considered spent?

The medical/wine deduction should be a dollar-for-dollar credit that goes on the first page of the Form 1040 (in fact, there should be only one page for tax returns, but that's a whole separate conversation that comes up only around election time).

You guessed it: I've been doing my tax returns.

As an aside: I have changed entry to this blog from allowing anyone to allowing only those who  register. The people who occupy space with amoebas, the spammers, have made me do it. The Internet really is a cesspool.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Wine Week That Was

In this new feature of Vinofictions, we put our extensive, unquestionable knowledge to work as insightful analysts, recapping and commenting on some of the wine news of the week that is fit to print, but likely should be ignored.

It will be the words that matter, but this being a subject connected to wine, we have established a 100-point rating system. Unlike the other 100-point system, the one of incomparable accuracy, this system works in reverse. The news that we select each week is the kind of information that leans toward the absurd, the incredible, the comical, the truly stupid. Our rating system of a news item starts with 100 points just for being selected--each 5 points below 100 symbolizes our attempt at trying to be nice.

And borrow from Murrow: here now, the news.

The Reviewer Card.

Few words can describe this one.

We won't give his name or his Web site address, because we don't want to give this fellow any traffic, but last week, a 35-year-old sharpie was reported to have come up with what in his mind is a brilliant idea: shakedown restaurants and retailers for wine (and food) freebies.

The idea came from the fact that people with more time on their hands than is probably good for the world can use that time on Yelp to do some good--for themselves. (Yelp is the most important social media happening since the Lascaux Caves.)

Now Yelp reviewers can show their blatant self-importance with the flash of REVIEWERCARD. We heard a rumor that the card comes with a supply of toilet paper so that the reviewer can offer some to the restaurant or retail manager to wipe up what he or she is supposed to do at the sight of the card.

95 because in the end, we decided that there are a few words to describe this one.

Drunks don't kill--cars do. Right?

The National Rifle Association (NRA) unveiled a two-step approach toward protecting our Second Amendment rights.

The first step in the NRA plan is to establish a relationship with one of those wine clubs that offers exclusive wine deals to everyone capable of believing that the deals are exclusive, which apparently counts as an awful lot of people.

Learning from Mother's Against Drunk Driving, the NRA's second step is to sell stickers sporting the slogan "Don't Drink and Shoot" intended to slap on all weapons large enough to kill groups of people within seconds. The sticker will be printed in blurry script, so that everyone who drinks will be able to read it.

According to NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, purchases from the NRA wine club will directly benefit support of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and "...the other basic freedoms of the American Culture."

95 because we cannot figure out what LaPierre is talking about.

Rather than being in a row, ducks on each coast are having a row

Napa Valley's Duckhorn Vineyards claims that by not putting Duck Walk Vineyard's geographic location on the front label of Duck Walk wines, use of the word "duck" by the Long Island winery is in violation of an earlier settlement when Duckhorn sued Duck Walk over a perceived duck-centric trademark infringement.

According to Duck Walk's attorney, Duckhorn does not have a trademark on the word "duck" and therefore has a quack case.

90 because we don't know how to do a duck sound on this blog

What the world needs: another Southern Wine and Spirits distribution facility

The Miami-based octopus known as Southern Wine and Spirits will open a 2,500 square foot facility in Salisbury, Maryland (a 2.5 hour drive from Monkton, Maryland, and rightly so).

This new plant marks just another regional location for the tiny family business that today spans 35 states, but we are certain is eying the remaining 15. Southern gives new meaning to the idea that Repeal of Prohibition removed questionable control over alcohol sales and distribution in the U.S.

85 for being big and probably able to do damage to the reputation of minor critics like us.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

They still don't get it.

I've been off the wine sales road for quite some time but what stays fresh in my mind about my years on the road with wine is the general intransigence of so many restaurant owners and managers when it came to staff training and pricing wine to sell it.

A few days ago, I had to make a trip to Albany, New York, which happens to be one of my old sales territories. After a meeting with the publisher of my next book, I went off to meet up with someone who lives in the area for a glass of wine and some catching up. We settled on meeting at one of that city's longest standing downtown restaurant and bar, which I shall not name.

Except for much needed renovations to the rest rooms, the place hadn't changed much at all, and in more ways than one. It looked and felt the same, and it still offered a fair number of mediocre wines at ridiculously inflated prices.

What's worse, the staff seems not to have been trained in wine service as much as it has been trained in pushy wine sales.

My friend and I sat at the bar to have a glass of wine each. I asked the bartender for the wine list. His response was that the restaurant has just about every wine we could imagine. He suggested that I tell him what I want and he was sure to have it.

I told him that what I wanted was the wine list, but that wasn't clear enough for him. He repeated what he had just said, and then followed it up with a sales pitch for a new wine they had just gotten in, a Napa Cabernet named after the football Jets.

I pressed more and got the wine list but by then my friend was exasperated with me and he ordered a glass of some Chardonnay. I took the hint, put the wine list down and said I'd have a glass of the same. We weren't there to talk wine anyway.

About midway through our time at the bar, the bartender came over with two Riedel glasses into which he had poured some of that Jets wine. He wanted us to taste it and give him our impression.

The wine smelled like an out of control barbecue fire that had created lots of smoke after it was doused with Cabernet Sauvignon in place of water, and the wine tasted like smoked pork that had been marinated in Cabernet Sauvignon-based brandy. I wasn't sure if the wood or the alcohol was the defining feature of the wine.

I asked to see the label and to my surprise, the wine was not from bulk juice. It was listed as a "Produced and Bottled by..." Yet, I was certain it could not have cost the restaurant more than between $8 and $10 a bottle; it was listed at $49, which was about $10 for each alcohol percentage above 10.

When I pointed out that the wine was quite woody, the bartender said--proudly--that others have told him that. The bartender suggested that the restaurant had bought up all the cases of that wine available to the city, which, if true, is of course the best way to price a wine however you want--and get away with it.

Is that the best way for a restaurant to sell wine?

Maybe so. Maybe the American restaurant customer is an easy mark. Maybe people with dull palates and full wallets are the norm.

I used to think that I had the answer for restaurants.

I used to try to persuade restaurant owners and managers that they could both give the customer a good and reasonably-priced experience and still make a profit. I used to try to persuade them that good pricing leads to a more fluid (no pun) inventory, which in turn leads to profit through higher volume sales, which in turn leads to returning customers seeking to maintain that good feeling when they pay a reasonable price and have a good wine experience.

I used to tell the owners and managers that important to a good wine program is a trained staff. Trained not to push but to educate, not to lie their way through, but to own some knowledge to back them up.

I used to tell the restaurant people not to order wine by its reputation but instead order wine that the trained staff liked and could get behind, and with which the menu married well, always keeping in mind the price of the wine as it related to the price of the main course.

I used to offer to provide staff training, and some used to take me up on that offer, but I fear many did that because it was a free offer.

It came out later that the reason the bartender in that restaurant in Albany didn't want to show me the wine list was that in this winter period of slowing patronage, the restaurant simply doesn't have in inventory all the wines on the list. Rather than update the list, which the restaurant can't do because even in this easy to master age of desktop publishing a distributor prints the wine list for the restaurant, the bartender was told to push that Jets wine.

When next in Albany and wanting to meet an old friend for a glass of wine, do you think that restaurant will come up as a contender for a meeting place?

...and they will never know that they lost potential sales.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Have you cheated on your spouse?

Not that kind of cheating. I'm talking about a wine cheat.

For instance, let's say you made a New Year's resolution with your spouse or otherwise partner to limit your daily wine consumption to one bottle between the two of you. Have you ever found yourself taking an ever-so-tiny, nearly-impossible-to-see extra drop in your glass each time you pour for both of you?

Or, have you ever really cheated? I mean like having gone to the cellar to get a bottle for dinner, but you decided you'd like a glass while cooking. You bring up two bottles, concealing one under your sweater. In the kitchen you open one bottle, pour yourself a glass to cook by and stash the bottle somewhere so that you can do the same the following day. At dinner, you open the second bottle and you each have your share--perhaps you forgo that extra drop in your glass...

A relationship is all about trust, but let's face it: when it comes to a passion, an addiction maybe, trust isn't even a contender.

Come on, you tell me about your wine transgressions and I promise to consider telling you about mine.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Is this the way to start a New Year?

It isn't often that I turn down a writing gig, unless it's one of those offers that gives me exposure for the privilege of helping someone else build an online business with the promise of future below minimum payments for more help--provided the business succeeds.

No, it isn't often that I turn down meaningful work.

Within three days of my final first draft edit of my latest book I received an email offer to write another book. This offer came from one of my previous publishers, so in my mind it already had promise. It isn't every day that a publisher asks for me by name; one that was dumb enough to have once published one of my books should know better!

I was flattered as well as happy that recognition may have segued into opportunity. So, why was I compelled to turn down the book deal?

Aside from the fact that the offer bordered on ludicrous--one of the shortest turn-around windows for a book deadline that I have ever encountered--it was a for-hire deal that paid rather little.

For those unschooled in these matters, a for-hire deal means that you write the book for a flat fee. You get no author credit on the book and you do not own the copyright. Oh, you get no royalties on book sales either. I have nothing against for-hire deals, provided as the author I feel as if I offer the book some value, and the only way for the author to feel that is for the publisher to show it in the way of a decent fee. In that regard, a peanut offer is insulting.

Money offer aside, the book's premise was wrong (is wrong; I understand the publisher found someone else willing to take the bad deal; I also understand, to my dismay, that I was the second choice; the first writer smartly quit).

Believing that every offer is negotiable, and one day I'm going to certify that belief with a successful negotiation, I made a counter offer.  My offer was of course not accepted.

In that counter offer I upped the dollars but I also asked for the schedule to open up and for the freedom to write the book the way I thought it needed to be written.

For a book supposedly aimed at the young wine novice, I do not think the publisher is on the right track. The premise is to cover the same tired wine regions and the same tired format that must have been written for novices at least a hundred times.

Where the publisher wants to cover Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, et al., I wanted to cover Northwestern France, Southeastern France, Northwestern Italy, Northeastern Italy, and so on, juxtaposing the New Guard with the Old Guard.

Where the publisher wanted to show pictures of famous Chateaux and labels, I wanted to show pictures of the relative unseen small giants of winemaking and of labels that may not be all that familiar--today.

While the publisher wanted to track vintages, I wanted to track ideas.

While the publisher wanted to tell the novice the things that perpetuate what has kept the subject of wine out of the reach of the modern masses all too long, I wanted to talk to the guys and gals with $15 to spare.

Yep, I turned this gig down. It reminds me of the day I smartened up and realized that I was not fit for corporate employment.  It was New Year's Eve about a thousand years ago.  I went out at lunchtime, bought what was still back then a wine worth drinking, Dom Perignon, and two beautiful crystal Baccarat flutes, went back to the office, quit my job, went home, opened the Champagne at 11:55, poured, awaited the big moment and when the ball dropped I announced to my wife that I had quit my job that afternoon.

I had no prospects except the idea that I could make it in this world on my own, certainly without the help of corporate rules and annual minuscule percentage raises in pay. It was the same feeling that I had when I awakened one day while attending the University of Maryland to realize that I had ahead of me a few more years of mounting education debts. That simply was not something for me to look forward to, and so I quit that and moved into the wonderful world of commerce--it was a move that led me to extensive travel abroad and even two years in residence in Iran, where the bug to explore ancient wine bit me as powerfully as the bug that gave me amoebic dysentery while living in Tehran, not to mention the fabulous Riesling that northern Iranians produced.

Not knowing me during my college days, and of course not knowing me into the future, that New Year's Eve when I told my wife that I had quit my job all she could say was something to the effect, "Good for you. Now what?"

When I told her the other day about having given up the latest book deal my wife said, "Good for you. You don't need that kind of abuse."

It's nice to know that one of us in this marriage has matured. I promise my wife that in 2013, I will mature, too.