Sun 29 Apr 2007
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Restaurants  Comments
If Freud did not ask “What do young people want?” he should have.
Attempting to answer that question, if only in terms of attitudes about wine and wine consumption — at least one thing that young people want being lots of booze — is this report, “20-25 Year-Olds and Wine,” commissioned by VINEXPO and carried out by the firm of BrulÃ©, Ville & AssociÃ©s. According to the press release from VINEXPO, the gargantuan wine fair held every year in Bordeaux, BVA surveyed two groups of 10 people in the United States, France, Japan, Belgium, and the United Kingdom, “male and female, students and professionals, independent and living with parents.” all “occasional drinkers.” That’s — um, quick calculation in the head — 100 people. The margin of error here must be about a zillion percent, but let’s go with the results anyway.
Following Gen X and Gen Y — what happened to poor Gen Z? — this demographic of 20 to 25 year-olds is called (or, PR-wise, has been dubbed) the Millennials, presumably because the oldest of them turned 20 in 2001 or so.
The first factor to mention is that attitudes toward wine among the youth of American and the youth of Europe differ markedly. In the U.S., those surveyed indicated not only that they are “not very familiar with wine” and that wine was only “occasionally served in their families” but that wine consumption and knowledge were features of “European culture.” The youth of France and Belgium, on the other hand, know enough about wine to understand its various authentic images: the “noble chateau and grand estate” and the “rustic, countryside farmer who makes his own wine.”
All those surveyed, or at least the countries in general, agreed that wine does not possess a “young image” (as opposed to, say, an oil-drum filled with Purple Passion) and that “the classic wine drinker is older” — get this — “30 or 35-40 with experience, comfortable income and married.” Wine consumers are “refined, educated and cultivated,” as assessment with which, of course, I heartily concur.
In fact, the youth of all five countries surveyed in the report expressed a certain sense of longing, saying that wine drinking is “mature,” that people who drink wine have entered “an older world,” that wine drinkers seem “more responsible,” and that — and here’s the crux — wine drinking is a sign that “you’re getting better behaved and less wild.” The alternatives seem to be a dinner party at which well-dressed and mannerly people drink various fine wines with their courses and chat about art, death, love and time OR knocking back a quart of Red Bull mixed with Ecstasy and disappearing into the Behavioral Sink for a weekend.
The prospect of drinking wine, however sophisticated, does bring anxieties. Wine is “difficult to select” said the responders to the survey because there is “too much diversity,” there are “too many brands and styles,” you never know “what a wine is going to taste like” and — the opening of the abyss — “you can make mistakes.” One sees the headline: “Restaurant Empties After Youth Orders Beaujolais with Thai Hot Wings/Ex-Girlfriend Vows: ‘He’ll Never Hear from Me Again’.”
Branding, on the other hand, can be an attractive advantage, especially for the Millennials of Japan and the U.S. It’s not surprising that youth in the Land of the Rising Sun and their counterparts in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave would be equally interested in “packaging designed for young people” and “promotions with goodies and cool advertising,” nor that they would be “open to something new” such as “different bottle shapes and colors.” Japanese and American pop and consumer cultures have existed as carnivalesque distorting mirrors of each other since the 1960s: We have Courtney Love, they have Hello, Kitty; they have Godzilla, we have Don Imus.
It’s difficult for me to believe, though, that labels like Three Blind Moose and Bitch — Bitch is actually pretty great — will draw young people to wine consumption in droves. Critter labels and chick labels and trailer park labels are promotional fads and have little to do with actually learning about wine and how to enjoy it.
Those youthful snobs in the U.K., by the way, trying to maintain old standards despite the Everlasting Loss of the Empire (and hoping to inherit their fathers’ wine cellars) believe that branding “must not be obviously targeted toward young people” and that the “serious, traditional side of wine” must be conserved.
What does all of this commentary mean or reveal?
Young people want to like wine. Drinking wine makes them feel good about themselves, grown-up, responsible, mature. The whole culture of wine and matching wine with food, though, is confusing: So many grapes, so many kinds and styles of wine, so many countries, regions, labels, brands.
This is where restaurants need to step in. Oh certainly you can have a retail store put together a case of 12 different wines for you and you can invest in one or some of the numerous wine guides that are available. I recommend both of these steps.
But I think that restaurants need to be far more consumer-friendly in their wine lists and approaches to offering and recommending wine with meals. Wine lists need to be shorter, less expensive and more useful at matching the wines on the list with specific dishes on the menu, without being coy or cute. Waiters need to try harder to help diners select wine and not simply leave the list on the table. If you’re in a bistro-style restaurant, for example, order a roasted chicken and ask the waiter to help you choose a glass of a medium-bodied chardonnay and a medium-bodied pinot noir, see how those work together and decide what works best with your palate. Of course this situation means that waiters need to be thoroughly trained about the wine list and the menu, too, and pairing the food and wine, and that process takes time; I bet, though, that it would lead to bigger tips.
The image of carousing youth is from montrosechina.com.
Sat 28 Apr 2007
That’s the official name of Puebla, a city about two hours by bus southeast of Mexico City. LL was invited to speak at a conference there last week, and I decided to go, just for fun: No wine tastings, no business lunches, no laptop or cell phone. Of course, one does have to eat.
Founded in 1531, Puebla was the first city started by the Spanish in Mexico not built on the site of an Indian town. Located between Vera Cruz, on the Caribbean coast, and Mexico City, Puebla grew to be a major trading center and the heart of an important agricultural region. It lies in a vast basin dominated by three volcanoes, one the famous Popocatepetl, 30 miles to the west of the city. Puebla today is a metropolis of 1.5 million, yet its historic town center, crowded with 17th and 18th century houses and palaces (even a few still from the 16th century), monasteries and convents (now mainly converted to hotels, museums or government agencies) and highlighted by the stone and gilt frosting of Baroque churches, feels like a small town.
The architecture of Puebla is noted for its exuberant plasterwork, the intricate patterns of bricklaying and tilework and its bold exterior colors: pink and lime green, chrome yellow, mauve and purple. Like similar towns in Italy and Spain, this wealth of detail is softened by a patina of neglect and shabbiness that only adds to the richness of its timeless effect. “This is where we live and work and where our grandparents and their grandparents lived and worked,” seems to be the attitude; “this will all be here when our grandchildren live and work here. Why change?”
And live they do. Puebla has a street-life that starts about noon and doesn’t let up until midnight during the week and later on Friday and Saturday. The city has beautiful and well-used parks — the blooming jacaranda trees were particularly abundant last week — but every street corner becomes a platform for human work and play. Music comes from everywhere and its contending presence increases as the night proceeds; high in the air echo church bells and the angelic harmony of choirs, mariachi bands and American hits from the 1970s and ’80s. Markets like the “Little Plaza of the Toads” are filled with vendors selling every conceivable object of human effort and desire and silliness, the sober antique and the gaudy contemporary, it seems, having been drawn irrevocably from all the Americas to this ancient crossroads.
Where there is street-life, there must be food. I have never been in a city where so many entrepreneurs set up charcoal braziers on corners and curbs and plazas to cook in the open air and feed the thousands of people who apparently feel it is their duty to party endlessly. Men and women chop and slice, grill, shape and roll out tortillas — and we have never had tortillas this good in the U.S. –Â offer exotic fare of unusual colors and sweets of infinite shapes and textures. The Poblanos, as the inhabitants of Puebla are called, love food; every block of the old town holds numerous restaurants, some grand affairs, others tucked into any space available, a narrow store-front or a niche that used to be the entrance hall of a palace.
By the way, we saw more Volkswagens in Puebla than I have seen in one place since I was in graduate school in Iowa City 40 years ago. It turns out that the major industry in town is the largest Volkswagen factory in the Western hemisphere.
Well, that’s an overview that I hope gives you some of the flavor of Puebla, a city that we would return to in a flash. In a post coming in a few days, I’ll write about the food of Puebla, our search for the best mole (mo-lay), a sauce the city claims to have invented, and the (I guess not so startling yet disconcerting) lack of wine.
Wed 18 Apr 2007
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Uncategorized  Comments
Yes, it’s true, readers, I have neglected my website for the sake of this blog, and you have noticed and I’m sorry. At this very moment, however, I posted a “Case of New Releases” page, meaning that every page on http://www.koeppelonwine.com has a date in April. Please take a look, and remember that everything is available to viewers except for the “Members Wine of the Week” and the search function.
And let me announce that early Thursday morning (I mean tomorrow), LL and I are off to Puebla, Mexico, south of Mexico City. We’ll return late Monday night. I am lugging neither laptop computer nor cell phone. I’ll take plenty of photographs, mainly of scenery and food, and I’ll post when we get back.
Eat well and drink well, and, I beg you, don’t put up with any crap.
Sun 15 Apr 2007
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Restaurants  Comments
One of my colleagues at the office related this incident:
He and three friends had gone to a restaurant to celebrate his birthday. The restaurant is a fairly sleek andÂ contemporary place that serves upscale French bistro fare. It’s moderately expensive and fields a good (and more expensive) wine list. The chef is well-known in town for his talent and affability.
The group ordered martinis, and my colleague had taken a sip or two — in other words, he was not inebriated — when, in making some expansive gesture, he knocked over his cocktail glass and spilled the martini. He used his nakpin to sop up the liquid, called over the waiter, explained what had happened, and asked for a new napkin, which the waiter promptly brought.
At this point in the narrative, I interrupted and said, “And of course they replaced your martini.” A statement, not a question.
“Uh, no,” said my colleague. “The waiter asked if I wanted to order another one.”
All right, this is a simple incident, an accident that couldÂ happen to anybody, and I certainly don’t think the restaurant should replace the spilled cocktail of a knee-walking drunk (if such has not already been ejected from the restaurant). But the good will, the rapport that would have been established by replacing my colleague’s spilled cocktail would have been enormous, perhaps incalculable. It’s the sort of unspoken but deftly performedÂ gesture that brings customers back and earns loyal patronage, compared to which the cost of a jigger of call-brand gin and a smidgeon of vermouth is nothing.
We posted this story on the food and dining blog at the newspaper where I work (and which is not connected with biggerthanyourhead.net), and I was surprised by how many responders said, essentially, “Let the guy buy his own drink! Why should the restaurant pay for his clumsiness?”
Well, O.K., you can take that view, but I think it’s ungenerous. No, one doesn’t want our fine restaurants filled with people who sip half of their Cosmopolitans, knock them over and expect a free replacement. I think the ideal is that we would never expectÂ this sort of magnanimityÂ but that it would be extremely gratifying if it happened. And waiters wouldÂ appreciate the tip such generosity generated in turn.
Tue 10 Apr 2007
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Italy No Comments
That’s what LL said — “Unlike anything I’ve tasted before” — after a sip of the Gravner Anfora Breg 2001.
The wine, which carries a designation of Venezia Giulia, is made by the legendary Friulian winemaker Josko Gravner, who revolutionized the production of wine in Italy’s farthest northeast, where family names reveal their roots in what used to be called the Balkans, just across the border.
Gravner, a pioneer in stainless steel fermentation and aging, was a mentor to many of the region’s young winemakers, though few, perhaps, would place a foot on the path he has forged since the late 1990s. That was when he began putting his white wines through a seven-month fermentation in large clay amphorae. That’s right; not stainless steel tanks or concrete vats or oak casks but clay vessels that he buries up to the neck in the ground, just as winemakers did 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. And after the wines are pulled up (by buckets) from the amphorae, they spend three years in neutral oak barrels
I purchased a bottle of Gravner’s Anfora Breg 2001, a blend of sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, chardonnay and riesling, at De Vino, a sleek little wine store with an impeccable selection of mainly Italian wines on Clinton Street in New York. I was on my way to dinner at Falai, a contemporary Italian restaurant in the next block south, and I stopped at the store and asked if they had any of Gravner’s wines. The Breg 2001 was in stock. When I returned to Memphis, I emailed store owner Gabrio Tosti di Valminuta and asked him what I should expect from this unusual wine. “Don’t expect,” he replied. “Just sit back and relax. Treat it like a red wine. Let it breathe a little.”
So we sipped Gravner’s Anfora Breg 2001 slowly and carefully.
Look at the color. LL, who dotes on semi-precious stones — well, OK, precious stones — described the wine’s pale sunset hue as tourmaline infused with topaz. I’ll go with that. The color, by the way, derives from the pinot grigio grapes, whose skins have a pinkish tone.
The wine combines spareness with unctuousness to an uncanny degree, like a Spartan wearing a satin cloak. The bouquet offers orange rind and orange blossom, roasted almonds, cinnamon and clove, spiced peaches and apricots, yet the aromas are delicate, almost ephemeral, and they take on hints of sandalwood and strawberry tea. We discovered that Breg 2001 cannot be consumed at too cold a temperature. Even I, a fanatic for keeping white wines chilled, understood that this wine needed the slightest of chills and that as it warmed in the glass a bit it really bloomed. Do not, however, as I read somewhere, drink this at room temperature; the acid turns flabby and interferes with the wine’s essential taut structure, which would, of course, happen to any white wine.
In the mouth, Breg 2001 balances crispness with lushness and macerated stone fruit with acid and minerals; there’s a rising tide of limestone; the wine is bone-dry, yielding some austerity on the finish. All of these elements represent tissues of delicacy; there’s nothing obvious or overblown about this wine.
We puzzled a bit over what to serve it with. Breg 2001 does not seem to be a dinner wine, though a respondent to cellartracker.com wrote: “wonderful stuff and deliciously paired with well-spiced honey and ginger risotto with grilled sweetbreads.” Well, de gustibus and all that, but gack! at least as far as the honey and ginger risotto is concerned. We thought of it more as an aperitif wine, a uniquely complex yet elegant accompaniment to some earthy and unadorned preserved meat like speck or braseola.
The rub — and there is one — is that you wouldn’t want to pay $115 for an aperitif wine. Apparently, uniqueness and eccentricity, no matter how compelling or entrancing, come at a cost. I mean, think of all the capital that was tied up while Breg 2001 aged for more than three years.
Sat 7 Apr 2007
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Older wines  Comments
It’s not as if the cards are stacked against you when you pluck a bottle of wine from the shelf in a retail store, especially wines of the most recent vintage, as in 2005 and ’04 for white wines (soon light-hearted whites from 2006 will be available) and for reds 2005 back to, oh, 2002 or even 2000, depending on what grapes they’re made from and what the intention was, for immediate drinking or laying down to age.
Hazards are involved though. A newly released wine could be corked, that is spoiled by a bacteria-tainted cork that somehow made it through the sterilization process (in cork manufacturing, not bottling the wine). If you open a bottle and the wine smells like damp cardboard and mold, it’s corked. This is a frustrating situation, especially if you spent a wad of dough on the wine (or don’t have another bottle to substitute), but most retail stores will exchange a corked bottle for you if you take it back the next day. Some publications report that as many as eight or nine percent of the wines they open are corked, but that has never been my experience; two or three percent is more likely, though even one corked bottle is frustrating.
Mainly, wine is OK. You buy a bottle of the newest Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, say, or Bonny Doon Big House Red, or whatever you prefer to knock back, and generally all you want is a tasty wine that you can trust year after year, no problems.
As you move back into the past, however, the dangers increase, and you have to ask yourself a few questions or at least be aware of some issues: How long has the wine been in the store? Has it been in the store since it was released or is the wine a close-out special from the wholesaler, who may not have a cold room for thoughtful storage? For that matter, no retail store keeps its thermostat at the sort of temperature that we associate with keeping wines, especially fine wines, in good condition; on the other hand, most newly released wines, especially the popular ones, move off the shelves pretty quickly.
When I was in New York last month, I went into Garnet’s Wine and Liquors on Lexington Avenue, and the place was like a sauna. One forgets how hot New Yorkers keep their apartments and retail establishments in cold weather. I went ahead and bought two bottles of Burgundy. One, from 1998, was superb; the other was, sadly, corked, and I was leaving for home the next morning, so I couldn’t return the bottle.
Odd bottles of wine get forgotten on those top and bottom shelves or in a store’s back corner. Wine can sit in a store for a decade. I was amazed once when I was in Morrell & Co., at Rockefeller Center, and there was an 8- or 10-year-old bottle of a small-production, fairly cultish California pinot noir priced at something like $12. “Whoa,” I said to the clerk who had been helping me with some other purchases, “that’s a bargain!”
“Oh, you don’t want that,” she replied. “It’s cooked,” that is, the wine had been ruined by excessive heat.
The person who bought that wine without asking would have been cooked, too. I guess you pays yer money and you takes yer choice.
I recently posted a page called “How Old Is an Old Wine?” on the “Patience Required” segment of my website. For a take on 10 wines from 2001 back to 1998 that I purchased in retail stores, some with worse results than others, visit http://www.KoeppelOnWine.com/Patience_Required.asp
The image of really old wine bottles is from intowine.com.
Wed 4 Apr 2007
Posted by Fredric Koeppel under Cocktails  Comments
I have in my hand a menu from The Grill Room, a chain of high-end bar-and-grill style restaurants — a filet mignon is $42.95 — that started in Los Angeles. In the upper left hand corner of the menu is a list titled “Martinis,” and on that list you will find the Negroni, the Sidecar and the Cosmopolitan as well as various concoctions made primarily from vodka.
Now, let’s get something straight here. The Negroni and the Sidecar, noble drinks in the 20th Century’s bright chronicle of alcoholic beverages, and the Cosmopolitan, that fey, starry-eyed newcomer, are not martinis. In fact only the Martini is a martini: four parts gin, one part dry vermouth, stir — please! — with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist. Sorry, I’m not an olive man.
Notice that I wrote “cocktail glass.” That shallow, inverted cone-shaped vessel resting on a medium-length stem on a fairly wide base — don’t want the thing to tump over — is now almost universally and mistaken referred to as a “martini glass;” even bartenders commit this error, certainly because of the wide popularity of “martinis” and “martini bars” in the 1990s and early 2000s. By what linguists call “back-formation” — “the creation by analogy of a new word in the false assumption that the existing word is a derivation of the new word, i.e., ‘to burgle’ from ‘burglar’” — the glass once known as cocktail, because cocktails were served in it, became tagged by its ubiquitous and multiplying contents. And in a further eroding of authenticity and integrity, all the drinks served in a “martini” glass are now, at least in some quarters, called “martinis.”
Woe is me.
Kids, language counts. In the beginning was the word, and if we don’t take care of words they will get all rubbed together, and jumbled together, and what we use them to name — the most important function of language — will be lost in the mists of far-off last year, poured out like dregs by marketers and flacks whose sole employ is altering what we name and what we know for commercial purposes. (Governments do this too; have you noticed?)
Hark to the poor Patagonian toothfish, an ugly and humble but useful fish for the kitchens of a million North American restaurants. “We’ll never sell a creature called the Patagonian toothfish,” some marketer said back in the late 1980s, and lo and behold, a new fish was born, the Chilean sea bass, and if you’ve eaten one of them, you’ve eaten a thousand. Didn’t know that the Chilean sea bass was actually the Patagonian toothfish? Pretty soon no one will.
Or take the lordly Portobello mushroom. Compare it to the smaller and more common button or Cremini mushroom in the grocery store produce aisle. Did you know that a Portobello, so prized for its flavor and meatiness, is simply a button (or Cremini) mushroom allowed to grow bigger? Or, to reverse the order, a Cremini is an immature Portobello? And by the way, Portobello is the correct spelling, ever though on the packaging and on restaurant menus we see the name spelled “portobella,” “portabello” and “portabella.” Hence (and awfully) button mushrooms are now marketed (at your market) as — “Baby Bellas”!
Enough. Let’s return to cocktails.
Here’s what I want you to remember:
1. Cocktails are alcoholic drinks, best consumed before dinner and usually composed of a base, a modifier and an accent. (The terminology comes from my favorite cocktail book, Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century, by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead. Viking, 1998)
2. Cocktails are served in cocktail glasses.
3. A Martini is a cocktail, as is a Cosmopolitan, a Sidecar, a Negroni and several hundred (or thousand) of examples, many invented only yesterday in the increasing drive for splashy signature drinks in bars and restaurants.
4. Cocktails should be served very cold, very very cold.
5. Generally speaking, cocktails with fruit juices should be shaken and all others should be stirred, but it’s really a question of the crystalline clarity of the result that matters. A Martini of course should be stirred, so it reveals no trace of cloudiness whatever. We’re talking about elegance.
And now, here are recipes for a Sidecar and a Negroni, also from Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century.
1 and a half ounces cognac
Three-quarters ounce Cointreau
Three-quarters ounce lemon juice
Shake with cracked ice; strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon wheel.
1 ounce gin
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce Campari
Shake with cracked ice; strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange wheel.
The image of the cocktail glass is from acemart.com.
The image of the Sidecar is from epicurious.com.
The image of the Negroni is from drinkalizer.com.