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Friday, May 18, 2018

Where it All Started: America’s Foodie Movement

                                  Julia Child changed the culinary landscape of America

It all began in Paris.  Julia Child enrolled in 1949 in Paris' Cordon Bleu cooking school.  Having grown up in an entitled California family that had a chef, Julia didn’t know a thing about the kitchen.  However, her husband had accepted a job in Paris with the Foreign Service Department and Julia was determined to expand her horizons.  Never mind that the Cordon Bleu at that time was only open to professionals---Julia had attended a demonstration at the school and was hooked. Before long, she had talked her way into the program.

Through her cooking activities in Paris Julia met Simone Beck a few years later.  Madame Beck was from an aristocratic family in Normandy, and she had also attended the Cordon Bleu.  Soon Julia and Simone joined with another gourmand, Louisette Bertholle.  Before long the three were working on the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

During the 1950’s American cuisine was one built around convenience.  Women were joining the workforce and didn’t have time for cooking.  Frozen and canned food composed le menu du jour.  TV dinners were immensely popular for the working mother.  Quick and easy was in:  instant powdered soups were in (remember Lipton’s dried onion soup?) and renditions of tuna casseroles appeared in every woman’s magazine.  Frozen fish sticks were a favorite as were sloppy Joe’s.  Few purchased fresh vegetables or fruits as they spoiled too quickly---besides, everything was available canned or frozen.  It was a horrific time in America’s culinary history.

Then, in 1961, came Mastering the Art of French cooking which sowed the first seeds for change in America's foodways.  But, it was Julia’s TV cooking program launched in 1963, The French Chef, which brought the idea of a brave new world to the American housewife.  With her disarming personality, Julia demystified French cooking.  By the 1970’s, she had become a celebrity, and food and cooking had become as much a part of the pop culture as fashion, art, or rock n roll.

Julia Child inspired many food personalities of today.  One was Alice Waters who grew up watching Julia on television and went to France to study cooking right after her university studies.  While the 1960's and 70's belong to Julia, Alice inspired many of us with her farm to table ideas nearly 40 years ago.  Alice's restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, is a mecca for many foodies and is one of the most awarded and renowned restaurants in the world.  Alice was also was one of founders of the entire organic food movement.   Alice owes her start to Julia.

Merci beaucoup, Julia!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Sparkling Wines of Burgundy

                          Cremant can be made from the same grapes as nearby Champagne

Burgundy, France’s smallest wine region, is contiguous with the Champagne wine district.  You pass from one region to the other without any fanfare----on one side of the road is Champagne, the other side is Burgundy.  While every village in Burgundy produces a sparkling wine, only the bubbles in the Champagne region may put the word Champagne on their sparkling wine label.  The Burgundians call their bubbly Cremant.

Although today in Burgundy Cremant is not seen as one of the area’s Premier wines, it was not always so.  In 1827 records indicate that there were >1,000,000 bottles of Burgundy’s Cremant sold.  Furthermore, when Napoleon and Josephine passed through Burgundy in 1860, the red carpet which was rolled out for them included several  Cremant.

Cremant from Burgundy is often made from the same grapes as are used in Champagne, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.   In fact, Burgundy’s Cremant has some of the most stringent wine-making rules, so don’t think that Burgundian winemakers can turn their less successful wines into this less known bubbly.   Like Champagne, Cremant is also produced in blanc de blanc (white grapes), blanc de noir (from red grapes) and also Rose.

While I have mentioned Champagne in this article many times, let me be very clear.  I am in no way suggesting that Cremant is Champagne.  Burgundy’s terroir is different.  What I do want to say, however, is that there are some very well made Cremants that offer great value in comparison to Champagne.  It’s also worth noting that the popular Kir aperitif is Burgundian in origin.  Mixed with the area’s black currant liqueur (Crème de Cassis),  Kir Royales can be made by using Cremant versus a still wine.

Officially known as Cremant de Bourgogne, Burgundy's sparkling wines can offer an interesting change for bubble lovers.  Here are some examples to try (all are about $20).  Any would be perfect for a Mother's Day celebration.
    ~ Louis Bouillot, Perle d’Auore
    ~ Vitteaut-Alberti, Cuvee Agnes
    ~ Parigot

Friday, May 4, 2018

Suave Soave

Spring has sprung and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate its arrival than with a glass of a well-made Soave (swah vay).   This bone dry white wine comes from the wine district just west of Venice near Romeo and Juliet’s city of Verona.  Made from two grapes that are not grown in the US, Soave offers a wonderful opportunity to ring in Spring by exercising your wine muscle in a new way.

Soave is the name of a medieval town, the name of the wine district, as well as the name of the wine.  Only white wine is made in Soave and the majority of it comes from the Gargenega grape.  Soave can be made from as much as 100% of Gargenega, but by law Gargenega must be at least 70% of the blend.  Gargenega grapes provide high acidity, therefore, offer a powerful structure to the wine. The other grape allowed is Trebbiano, a quite historical grape native to Italy.  One of Italy’s most popular white grapes today, this varietal was used by the Romans to vinify wine, and it was introduced to France by Italy when the Pope moved his headquarters from the Vatican to Avignon in the 14th century.

The flavor profile of Soave is influenced by the terroir in which the grapes grown.  Located at the base of the Italian Alps, Soave has benefited from millenniums of the Alps erosion.  The volcanic soil washed down has a powerful effect on the taste profile of the wine.  Expect nuances of minerality such as flint and lead pencil interspersed with subtle flavors of citrus, almonds, and honey….even though the wine is completely dry.  Aside from the almond and honey notes, Soave can be similar to a Chardonnay.

Look no further than award-winning producer Ca Rugate for a well-crafted Soave.  This family has a heartfelt bond with the land and has been making wines for several generations.  If you’re one of the lucky folks coming with us on the sold-out Northern Italy Truffle tour this fall, you will have a professional level tasting at Ca Rugate.  If not, you may want to pick up one or more of the following of their stunning Soave for a spring fling:

  • Ca Rugate Soave Monte Alto
  • Ca Rugate Soave Studio
  • Ca Rugate Soave Monte Fiorentino
  • Ca Rugate Soave San Michele (a best buy)

Friday, April 27, 2018

Austrian Reds

Burgenland is a hidden gem wine district

While 70% of Austria’s wine is white, there’s a secret pocket of reds located on its eastern border with Hungary.   Known as Burgenland, this Austrian wine district was part of Hungary until 1921.  (Amazingly, even today to get expediently from some parts of Burgenland to another area of this wine region, one has to cross the border into Hungary and then re-enter Austria from another location.)

Burgenland, located just one hour south of Vienna, is very popular with Viennese seeking a weekend getaway.  The wine district is rural with small wine-centric villages dotting its bucolic rolling hills.  Adding to the relaxing landscape is a series of small lakes which offer opportunities for weekend tourists, but also provide an enormous effect on the terroir for wine.

            Burgenland's lakes help moderate its climate

Full bodied red wines are the hallmark of Burgenland.  Hot summers ensure ripe fruit with complex flavors.  Humidity from the lakes offer cooling during the summer nights so that vines can rest.  Limestone, mixed with sand and clay add to the terroir and provide good grape-growing soil.   

Burgenland’s grape varieties offer an interesting experience for Americans in that the region offers varietals not grown in the US.  Blaufränkisch is the flagship grape.  It makes complex, berry-driven wines.  Zweigelt is the widely planted grape in the district.  This varietal creates lighter-bodied red wines with a major cherry profile.

Best producers of Burgenland?  Look no further than Feiler-Artinger and Weingut Gunter & Regina Triebaumer.   Wine-Knows will be visiting both wineries on its sold-out tour this autumn.

Friday, April 20, 2018

How the US Destroyed Europe’s Vineyards

                           Phylloxera, introduced by America, annihilated Europe's wine industry

Many of you reading this Blog have been on Wine-Knows wine and food tours.  You have heard the stories at chateaux in Bordeaux, domaines in Burgundy, bodegas in Spain, cantinas or tenutas in Italy, and houses in Port regarding how nearly every square meter of vineyards in Europe was destroyed by the deadly bug Phylloxera.   Rarely was it mentioned, however, that Phylloxera was introduced into Europe by American grape vines > 150 years ago.

The year was 1863.  The Civil war was underway and the Union forces had overtaken the Confederate city of Vicksburg.   Across the Atlantic another hellish event was brewing as American grape vines were being unloaded from ships.   

In the mid-1800’s, the railroad from Paris to Bordeaux was completed.  In anticipation of the opportunities that rail service would bring to Bordeaux, many Paris financiers rushed to Bordeaux to purchase land between 1840 and 1850.  Among them were two different segments of the Rothschild family (Lafite and Mouton).   Close behind them were a cadre of other immensely wealthy bankers who smelled opportunity in the wine business.  In 1860 Bordeaux held a World’s Fair to commemorate the opening of the railway.   Wines were a critical piece of the marketing for this event (in fact, the sacred Bordeaux wine classification which still stands today, was birthed special for this momentous occasion).

                      By the time the vine shows signs of disease the root system is beyond repair

Now, back to 1863 and those American vines.  A winery in the Rhone Valley had decided to conduct an experiment with vines they imported from California.  What the French winery didn’t know was that the Cali vines contained a louse called Phylloxera.  As the American grape vines were resistant to Phylloxera, the Americans never dreamed there would be an issue in sending their vines to France for research.  Unfortunately, France’s vines had no resistance to this destructive pest, and soon Phylloxera spread throughout all the wine regions of France, then on to Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Croatia etc.  Essentially, all of Europe’s vineyards were wiped out.   But, America did come back to save the day.

American root stock was used to graft what was left of the European vines.  As the Phylloxera bug attacks roots thereby destroying the plant, the only solution was to stop the destruction of the root.  Phylloxera resistant root stock from the US was imported and all wineries urgently complied with the grafting.  The few remaining European vines were now safe on grafted American root stock.

Friday, April 13, 2018

What Does Oak Add?

I’ve attended hundreds of professional-level wine seminars over the last 40 years but assuredly one of the most mesmerizing was a Society of Wine Educators Annual Conference nearly twenty years ago.  The session was on the effect of oak on wine.  There were a dozen wines to taste (half were red, the other half white).  All whites were exactly the same wine, as were all the reds.   Both whites and reds had been aged in different types of oak (with different toast levels), and they had been aged for differing amounts of time.  Fascinating.
Oak can have a profound effect on the wine in your glass, whether it be white or red.  It can change the color, alter the aroma, transform the texture, impact the taste, and even make a difference in the wine’s finish.   Below are examples of some aromas and flavors oak can impart:

The use of differing toast levels on the barrels can dramatically alter the above aromas and flavors.  For example, a lightly toasted barrel imparts the delicate flavor of vanilla.  A medium toast contributes more butterscotch nuances and cocoa.  A heavy toast ratchets up the intensity to espresso and caramelized sugar.    The winemaker becomes the chef.  In lieu of salt and pepper, the winemaker chooses the type of oak, the amount of toasting, and the amount of aging. 

Tannins from the oak barrels also effect the color and the weight of the wine.   White wines aged in oak have a deeper intensity.  Wines aged in oak for a long period have can a more viscous, creamy texture from the tannins in the oak.
The next time you’re hosting a party, why not consider offering an un-oaked wine along with an oaked wine of the same varietal (same vintage and same winery preferably).    It could be fun!

Friday, April 6, 2018

St Germain---the Mixologist’s New Best Friend

Southern California is ripe with strawberries at the moment and I can’t think of a better early spring aperitif than berries with Prosecco and a splash of St Germain (or replace the sparkling wine for bubbly water to make a nearly non-alcoholic version).   While created only ten years ago, St Germain feels like it’s been around for a century with its classic art-deco inspired bottle---the bottle alone is worth the price of admission at about 30 bucks.

St Germain is an artisanal French liqueur made from hand-picked flowers of the elderberry shrub, a member of the honeysuckle species of plants.   Like the family to which it belongs, the elderberry’s tiny white flowers are especially fragrant.   Grown in France’s Alps, the star-shaped flowers are harvested from the hillsides during a short four to six week period in spring.  Immediately after picking the flowers are macerated to preserve their bloom’s delicate flavors.  The method used in extraction of the flavors is a secret process which the company keeps a closely guarded secret.

                                         Delicate elderflowers require painstaking plucking

After maceration and extraction a type of un-aged brandy is added to the elderflowers to create an alcoholic liquid.  There are also additions of other ingredients such as citrus.  Last, a small amount of sugar is added to remove some of the bitterness and accentuate the subtle flavor of the elderflowers.                                    

Elderflowers have recently been in the press as the upcoming Royal wedding's cake will be flavored with St Germain.   This is no surprise as Europeans have long used elderflowers to flavor foods and drinks (e.g. jams and jellies, cakes and puddings, teas and lemonades).   In the last several years in the US, however, St Germain has been rapidly gaining in popularity in the cocktail arena.  One of the most unusual aperitifs I’ve had on American soil in the last five years was a concoction made with St Germain, pear vodka and Champagne.  Sublime.

Not only does St Germain offer a unique flavor profile (think lychee, pear, peach with a hint of lemon), but its aromas are an intoxicating nectar reflecting a palette of floral and ripe fruit notes.   Moreover, each one of its gorgeous French-inspired bottles are individually numbered, reflecting the year in which the flowers were picked.  (I save mine and use them in a collection of candlestick holders on my dining table).  While several guests usually inquire about this “candlestick,” all ask about the St Germain aperitif I serve to kick off the event.