"" What's She Eating Now?: November 2009

Monday, November 30, 2009

Understanding French Wine

Enjoy this guest post by friend of the site, Keith Levenberg. If Keith had a superhero mobile it would be a flying wine fridge which would help him race to the rescue of people about to drink bad wine. Here is what he has to say about France.

Most overviews of French wine break it down by region or grape variety—not a bad place to start, but a little like trying to understand Western classical music by studying the difference between a violin and a viola. Or like the way Casey Stengel explained baseball to the 1962 Mets: “Them are the bases.” The way I see it, understanding the wines of France isn’t really about grasping the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy. It has more to do with a handful of more abstract concepts.

Terroir. — There isn’t a close translation for the word terroir in any other language, because the concept is distinctively French. Taken literally, terroir refers to the influence of site—the soil, the climate, the light, and all of the other factors that make wine from one patch of land taste different from the wine from another patch, even if they are right next to each other. But I think the true essence of the concept is in those definitions that are less technical. The film Mondovino has a scene in which wine importer Neal Rosenthal drives director Jonathan Nossiter through the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up. Pointing to the city streets teeming with Hassidim—imagery that could be from any time, but could never be from any place except Brooklyn—Rosenthal remarks, “This is terroir.”

Regardless whether you favor the technical definition or a more spiritual one, some working understanding of the concept is essential to understanding French wine, because it’s how the French themselves understand it. Terroir has been the animating philosophy of French vignerons at least as far back as the Middle Ages. The GrapeRadio podcast records a lecture by Burgundy critic Allen Meadows offering one intriguing theory why (from 08:30):

If you were a Burgundian one thousand years ago, what might you have been like? You would have been, for one thing, exceptionally attentive to your surroundings: the changes of the seasons, birds, animals. . . . And there was another aspect. You were probably, if you were growing wine, at least any significant quantity of wine, a monk. And that is important from a couple of different perspectives. One is that you didn’t have to make a living; in other words, you could shoot for the very highest quality, and you could also pay very close attention to the nuances between wine coming from this vineyard versus wine coming from that vineyard. Why is that important, why is that interesting? The reason is that, being a monk, you would have viewed those differences as a message from God.

And viewing those differences as something holy, the monks aimed to preserve them. To this day, the maps of Burgundy resemble mosaics of the hundreds of sites the monks discovered, and the labels tell you the place, but not the grape. The same holds true through most of France. You don’t drink merlot, you drink Pomerol. You don’t drink syrah, you drink Hermitage. The idea is that the grape variety is supposed to be merely incidental to the expression of the site.

Classification. — Once the French discovered their terroirs, the next thing they became obsessed with was the rather less spiritual pursuit of classifying them. Most famously, in 1855 the Emperor Napoleon III demanded a ranking of the best wines of Bordeaux, resulting in a classification in which the best wines of the Médoc peninsula (plus nearby Haut-Brion, Bordeaux’s most esteemed wine at that time) were ranked in five tiers. Most of those “Grand Cru Classé” chateaux still boast it on their labels. In Burgundy, the vineyards were classified in a slightly less hierarchical scale ranging from Grand Cru vineyards at the top to Premier Cru vineyards just below and then to village- or regional-level wines. Grand Cru sites are also designated in Alsace and Champagne. (Interestingly, it’s generally the small Champagne growers, not the bling-bling brands like Dom Pérignon, whose wines come from Grand Cru land and indicate as much on the label.)

These classifications are still a big deal and there is an enormous official bureaucracy charged with overseeing them, as if the French government doesn’t have more important things to worry about. But the thing is, most of the classifications, even the 154-year-old one in Bordeaux, remain a fairly reliable guide to potential quality. The term Grand Cru isn’t just marketing puffery; usually, it really means something. Even so, there is a special joy of discovery in finding the exceptions to the rule, like in this YouTube documentary of a blind tasting in which a group of experienced tasters ranked a lowly unclassified $20 Bordeaux ahead of all of the first growths costing upwards of a thousand dollars a bottle. Of course, sometimes there is a catch....

Spoofulation. — Sometimes it’s the diamonds in the rough that upset the expectations associated with terroir and classification. But sometimes it’s the cubic zirconium. And the wine that awes the senses on first impression is revealed to be a fraud, doctored in the winery to make an impact but ultimately offering none of the satisfaction of the real thing. Those are the wines of spoofulation. Typical techniques include letting the grapes hang on the vine to the point of shriveling (so the resulting juice tastes thick and jammy), using reverse osmosis or a spinning cone to remove the inevitable excess alcohol or to concentrate even further by removing water, and relying on new, toasty barrels to add a sweet mocha flavor—a non-sequitur of a taste that can always be counted on to create the illusion of complexity. The essences of spoofulation are artifice and exaggeration. The difference between real wine and spoofy wine is precisely analogous to the difference between Audrey Hepburn and Pamela Anderson, or between Let it Be...Naked and the original version Phil Spector abused with his “Wall of Sound” production. Spicy tuna rolls are spoof sushi. Barry Bonds is a spoof hitter. Star Wars Episodes 1, 2, and 3 and the so-called “Special Editions” are spoof movies.

Spoofulation has spread like a cancer through some of France’s most famous regions. Over the last decade in Bordeaux, classically made wines have become the exception to the rule—and like a junkie who keeps needing more and more to satisfy his fix, wines that once were only subtly manipulated are now cartoonishly so. But there are reassuring signs that the pendulum is beginning to swing in the other direction. The excommunication of Robert Parker from Burgundy and the emergence of Meadows as the most influential critical authority on the region has resulted in a virtual renaissance of classic, old-school winemaking there. Specialty importers like Rosenthal, Louis/Dressner, and Jenny & François continue to expand their portfolios of natural wines from places spoofulation never touched, like the Loire Valley and the Jura. You can visit shops like Chambers Street Wines (the wine equivalent of the record store in High Fidelity), tell them you’ve had it with spoofy wines, and with a wink and a nod they will show you the real France.

Keith Levenberg blogs about wine and food whenever the mood strikes at http://pickyeaters.blogspot.com. 

Thanksgiving Post Script

It seems "As American as apple pie" is a bit of a misnomer, at least on Thanksgiving. Check out this neat graphic courtesy of The New York Times that shows by state what everyone ate on Turkey Day, or apparently in the Northeast, Not-Turkey Day.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Learning German Wine

A guest post by friend of the site and wine buff, Keith Levenberg. This piece is the first in a series of introductions to wines from different regions. Keith's post on French wines will appear next Monday.

You have to feel a little bit sorry for the Germans. Elsewhere they can make oceans of boring wines that sell themselves with a simple word like “Chardonnay” or “Chablis” on the label, while German producers need to convince customers to wrap their heads around a name like “Schlossböckelheimer Kupfergrube Riesling Spätlese.”

But German rieslings were once some of the most sought-after wines in the world. (Note the wine list at the right from a Boston restaurant dated 1851, where several Germans sell for the same two dollars as “Chateau Lafitte,” whose 2008 vintage runs over $500 on pre-arrival.) A pair of world wars against their main export market rather softened demand, and today even the best German wines sell in the $20-$40 range. What makes them so great is their ability simultaneously to appeal to the visceral craving for something just-plain delicious, while still having a serious side that inspires contemplation. Plenty of wines do one or the other; not many pull off both.

As a result, one gets the sense that German wine drinkers seem to be having a lot more fun than everyone else. Here is the Wine Spectator’s tasting note, in the usual tiresome format, on a white Burgundy from the esteemed Domaine Ramonet: “A supple white, exuding spice notes of cinnamon, clove and vanilla, with grapefruit and peach flavors. Good acidity keeps this bright and focused. Drink now through 2015.” And here is how German-wine importer Terry Theise describes his 2008 Muller-Catoir Haardter Herzog Rieslaner Spätlese: “This variety, when it’s good, brings you to the last frontier of language. Martin mentions eucalyptus, and there are aspects of grain, lemon-balm, orchid and talc—or none of these, or all of them and many more besides. . . . The complexity I’m sure is illegal. Tantric, esoteric, endless finish. Look, I can try to explain the way great Rieslaner seems to seize you, the way it clearly blasts you with more intricacy than your palate—your poor palate—can withstand, the insane stiletto precision, the way it swaggers like some alpha Riesling that will boss your palate around while simultaneously conveying it to an indescribable bliss. . . .” Which wine would you rather drink? Which one of those guys would you rather drink with?

So, get to know Germany. (Theise's beautifully written catalogs are a great place to start.) The labels needn’t be daunting. They cram in a lot of data—but that means all the information you need is right there on the label. In my example up top, “Schlossböckelheimer Kupfergrube” tells you the wine comes from the Kupfergrube vineyard in the village of Schlossböckelheim, and “Spätlese” is one of several prädikats that indicate how ripe the grapes were harvested, which is important mainly because it’s a good proxy for how dense and sweet the wine is.

Kabinetts are picked early, yielding a lean fruit profile with racy acidity and a light touch of sweetness. Spätlese indicates a later harvest, producing a richer and usually sweeter wine that should still retain a lot of the energy of a kabinett. Auslese wines are harvested later still, and range from spätlese lookalikes to borderline dessert wines. Those locked into hierarchical habits of thought tend to assume auslese is always better than spätlese and spätlese is always better than kabinett, but tasting multiple prädikats from the same site and producer can prove that bigger isn’t always better. Leaving the grapes to hang longer on the vine adds depth and richness, but that sometimes comes at the expense of the acidity and fresh fruit that keep the earlier-harvested renditions vibrant and nimble. The prädikats may also be modified by the terms trocken, halbtrocken, or feinherb. Trocken means the wine tastes bone-dry; feinherb or halbtrocken half-dry. Somewhat confusing matters is that many trockens are now instead called Großes Gewächs, meaning “great growth” and reserved for dry wines from the best vineyard sites. The confusing part is that none actually say Großes Gewächs on the label; the indication it’s a “GG” is a little wingding of a grape-bunch buried like the Masonic symbols in a dollar bill.

Both the sweeter styles and drier styles have their place. A little sweetness helps restrain the heat in a spicy dish, which is why the conventional wisdom has riesling as the natural companion to Thai or Chinese food. I’ve found that somewhat misguided, though, since the grape’s high acidity can exacerbate the very sting the sugar was intended to moderate. It’s also silly to consign these wines to such niches, since they perfectly complement all sorts of meals that don’t constitutionally demand a sweet wine—a basic roast chicken, for example. Trockens and GGs are nearly as flexible but shouldn’t be opened whenever searing acidity is going to be a problem.

That searing acidity has made Großes Gewächs a pretty hip genre, since they’re the polar opposite of the fat, soupy wines that win mainstream acclaim these days. Going into a store like Crush (always on the cutting edge of wine trends) and striking up a chat about their GG selection will get their attention as quickly as if you’d played the Wayne's World "May I help you?" riff in the guitar shop.

Keith Levenberg blogs about wine and food whenever the mood strikes at http://pickyeaters.blogspot.com.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Boss of the Year

Courtesy of WaiterRant via Gawker, take a gander at the below email from Meatpacking restaurant owner Vadim Ponorovsky of Paradou to his staff. This makes working for Ebenezer Scrooge look like a cake walk. In fact, it makes my former boss almost look not so bad. I said, "almost" folks, let's not get crazy here.

I make it a practice every night to say out loud three things I am thankful for that day and find it helps maintain a positive outlook. I recommend this exercise to anyone and if you need a kick start, you can use, "Thank you sweet Jesus that I don't work for Vadim Ponorovsky," as your first one. Unless you do, in which case you may just be SOL.
To All,
Please read this email carefully. This is the last time we will be discussing this.
This weekend, saturday and sunday we had 451 customers. Guess how many emails we collected? 60? 80? 40? No. None of those. We, or more acurately you, collected 2 emails. Thats less than half of one percent. 2 fucking emails.
WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU ASSHOLES?!?!?! How many times do we have to tell you how important it is that you collect emails. Everytime we have a slow night and you make no money and you sit there bitching about how you make no money, remember its because youre fucking lazy motherfuckers. YOU SHOULD ALL BE FIRED IMMEDIATELY!!!!! ALL OF YOU, INCLUDING THE HOSTS!!!!
Let me guess, youre probably sitting there saying "Vadim is such a fucking asshole. How dare he speak to me like this. I dont need this." Youre right, you dont, so why dont you get the fuck out. Any and all of you.
Youre probably sitting there saying "How dare he speak to me like this. How dare he not have respect for me". Youre right there also. I have absolutely no respect for any of you. Why? Because every fucking day, all of you continue to show that you have absolutely no respect for me or Alex. So if you dont respect us enough to do the little that we ask you to do, then GET THE FUCK OUT YOU FUCKING LAZY DISRESPECTFUL ASSHOLES!!!!!
Effective immediately, any server or host who fails to collect at least 20 emails per week, will be fined $100. Anyone failing to collect at least 20 emails for two weeks in a month will be fired immediately. No matter what. No matter who you are.
You dont want to do your job, you dont want to do what we ask, you dont belong at Paradou. Go find another place to work.
How dare you disrespect Alex and me this way. How dare you completely ignore what we ask of you time after time after time.
I am sick of all this shit, you bunch of fucking children. This is what I have to deal with at 6AM?!?!? I wouldnt tolerate this from my 13 year old, and Im sure as shit not going to tolerate it from any of you assholes.
You give no respect, you get 10 times back.
This site is nothing if not fair and balanced so if you want to read Ponorovsky's retorts you can click here and here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Strange Pairing Friday

Anyone else find something strange about this?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hitler, or Just Ronald McDonald?

Apparently the theme of the week is fast food. According to Slashfood, a group called Corporate Accountability International (CAI) is waging war on Ronald McDonald and seeking to push him into 'retirement.' It seems that CAI is convinced that Mr. McDonald is a Trojan horse, a smiling clown who loves children on the outside, on the inside, a nefarious trickster hell bent on making youngsters the world over fat. If he gives them Diabetes, all the better.

Now this puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to defend one of my least favorite things, a clown. Let's put aside Ronald's role in helping sick kids, promoting child literacy, and sponsoring play spaces, the fact of the matter is the clown doesn't make anyone eat anything. CAI has put up a Where's Ronald page on its site to collect sitings of Ronald McDonald to prove the contrary. But the mere presence of a live Ronald McDonald at an event or in a McDonald's location does not betray a plot to plump up anybody. I think CAI would be hard pressed to find a video of Ronald McDonald lingering near the slide saying, "Pst... hey kid, I'll make you a balloon animal if you get your mom to buy you a happy meal and you eat the whole thing."

Surely CAI would claim that is because the clown's tactics are more subtle, more sly. But this all misses the point. The point is Ronald McDonald does not control what anyone's kids eat. Parents do, or at least should. I will not grandstand and say that because they now offer apple slices as a Happy Meal component that McDonald's is healthy. It's not. But that is why parents should keep their kids from eating it or at least restrict it to a once in a while indulgence.

This whole silly episode actually reminds of one of my favorite Chris Rock routines. I will replace Rock's chosen word with "parents" for illustrative purposes:
"You know the worst thing about [parents]? [Parents] always want credit for some shit they supposed to do. A [parent] will brag about some shit a normal man just does. A [parent] will say some shit like, 'I take care of my kids.' You're supposed to, you dumb motherfucker! What kind of ignorant shit is that? 'I ain't never been to jail!' What do you want, a cookie?! You're not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having motherfucker!"
Parents, like the man said, you're supposed to take care of your kids. That includes watching out for what they eat, keeping an eye on their fitness and being in charge of their general well being. And you shouldn't expect a cookie, from McDonaldland or elsewhere, for doing so-- even if you have to contend with a whiny child who for some reason is inspired in his choice of dining fare by Ronald McDonald. And CAI, don't assume all parents are too dumb to realize McDonald's isn't a healthy habitual meal choice. The parents, who hopefully are also adults, should be calling the shots here. There are plenty of requests-- even begging, crying, screaming requests-- parents deny kids all the time for their own good. That third Big Mac of the week should be no different.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fast Food Made Easy

Are you an engineering type craving fast food but having trouble deciding where to go? Have you ever said something like this to yourself: "I am hungry, on the east coast, have more than $3, and am high as a kite, where should I go? Damn, if only I had made a handy decision tree before I got f*&ked up." Well, fret no more my slide-rule toting friends. Eating the Road has compiled this flow chart to help you navigate even the most challenging of fast food dilemmas. Stay tuned for a graphic which determines if you will need a cardiologist, gastroenterologist, tropical disease specialist or priest after ingesting.

Friday, November 13, 2009

TGIF Humor

This photo was sent in courtesy of a reader.

Suggested caption: Spanish calling card, or sea urchin lovers chat line? Awesome. Keep 'em coming. Who knows, your camera phone photography might just make you famous. Well, at least famous, if briefly, to a bunch of giant food nerds. TGIF!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My New Favorite Soy Superhero

I can't get this catchy jingle out of my head but at least I know what I may make Dan be next Halloween.

Also loving how it protects the identity of these shrimp tempura eaters. Enjoy this must watch video!

Monday, November 2, 2009

How Well Does Saveur Know You, Part Deux

Saveur is at it again. Have you been wondering what kind of oenophile you are? It is unlikely this quiz will help, but who doesn't like a quick online study break? I admittedly began to worry when Q1 omitted "Wine Shop" as an option for where one buys most of his wine, but in the name of procrastination, I soldiered on, as should you.

(Note: I did not select "B. Auction" as the answer to this question, this screen shot tells tales)

While I think Saveur's questions were more answerable than last time around, they yielded more far-fetched results, at least for me, "The Explorer."
  • You consider wine a living thing, and speak reverently about it "soul." I have been known to comment on a wine's "personality," but wines that call for reverential musings about their souls?  To the extent such things exist, they are probably out of my price range. 
  • You once took a break from college to work the Oregon pinot noir harvest. No, but in retrospect that would have been a better way to fulfill a science requirement than, "Do Animals Think?", a class, as I remember it, largely devoted to how lobsters feel about current events.
  • Three years ago you trekked across Ethiopia in search of the new African wine frontier. Um, really? I would like to meet the person who read this aspect of his Explorer profile and said to himself, "Oh my gosh, how did they know?"
  • U.S. Customs started a file on you after you were caught smuggling rare vines from Navarra home in your suitcase. This is perhaps the most off-base. I would never get caught.
So take the quiz and come back and let us know in the comments how well Saveur knows you this time. Don't worry, given the subject matter I think the probability is low that you will discover the embarrassing fact that 17% of you loves Rachael Ray.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween's Best Costumes

Dan and I thought we had good costumes being General Tso and The Most Interesting Man in the World but Times food writer Amanda Hesser's kids blew us away. Check them out here.