Friday, May 29, 2015

My Big Fat Greek Yacht

                                   Princess Karis was always the largest yacht in the harbor

This is Wine-Knows’ last night on a 110 foot yacht that we’ve chartered for a week’s journey through the Greek Islands.  We boarded the Princess Karia II on Turkey’s jaw-dropping “Turquoise Coast.”  An hour or two later we were in Greek waters heading toward our first stop, the island of Kalymnos.

                                                    Non-touristy Kalymnos

Kalymnos is one of Greece’s wealthiest islands, famous for its once thriving sponge-diving industry.  Relatively unknown to tourists (its airport is <10 years old), Kalymnos still fortunately retains its authentic Greek character.  Our first night we spent docked in the island’s lively capital town.  While there were some beautiful yachts in the harbor, the Princess Karia dwarfed all of them.  The next day we sailed around the entire island, dropping anchor in one its pristine bays with a fjord-like inlet. 

Patmos island was next on the itinerary.  Home of one of Greece’s most revered monasteries, it’s no wonder why Tom Hanks and other celebrities have bought property here.  Privacy and unadulterated scenery that takes your breath away…who could ask for more?
                                                      Patmos' old village & Monastery

Our island hopping continued to Paros.  This island is known for its outstanding quality of marble (many buildings in Athens have been made with Paros marble).  But it also known for its wine.  The most famous producer, Moratis, hosted Wine-Knows for a private tasting with an impressive lineup.
                                                 We're the only tourists in sight

Ikaria was also a port of call.  Totally off the beaten track, this island derives its name from Ikarus in Greek mythology who fell into the sea nearby.  Ikaria has received world-wide attention lately as its inhabitants are some of the earth’s oldest and healthiest.  The Mediterranean lifestyle and diet are thought to be contributory factors, as well as the island’s plant-based diet…meat is reserved for only special occasions.

                                           Ikaria:   a stunning recipe for longevity

The Princess Karia, however, is not just a luxury yacht---it has a formidable professionally trained chef.  Meals are served on the upstairs terrace on a beautifully coiffed linen-draped table.  First courses typically are a mélange of 5 or 6 small plates varying from a smoky eggplant spread, a beet salad with wild herbs, roasted peppers, or stuffed uber-fresh tomatoes.  A variety of olives in every color and shape are always on the table…even for breakfast.  Main courses we have enjoyed included succulent local island lamb, grilled prawns, a perfectly executed quick fry of calamari, and dreamy grilled veal chops.  All have been accompanied by a hand-picked assortment of Greece’s award-winning wines that were brought on board special for Wine-Knows.


Tomorrow we will disembark the Princess Karia on Santorini.  It will be very difficult to leave this once-in-a-lifetime experience behind, however, our trip’s last three nights will be spent exploring Greece’s most visually spectacular island.  Moreover, we’ll be visiting the island’s top two wine producers to learn about Greece’s most well-regarded white wine.  Grown in volcanic soil on centuries old vines, these whites are nothing short of fabulous.

Twelve travelers…six crew.  I love the numbers...and I love the people.  This is how I would like to sail through life.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Istanbul’s Sensational Spice Market

                                                 A Don't-Miss Stop for Foodies

I’ve been in glorious Turkey for nearly a week.  One of my favorite experiences in Istanbul is to wander through their Spice Bazar.  A virtual symphony of smells, colors and textures, this place is a must on any foodie’s list while in this extraordinary city.  Located only a 15-20 minute walk from the Blue Mosque, it’s a convenient excursion.

Turkey’s position at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, has long enabled the country to be a central hub for trading.  For centuries the country was an important destination of the camel caravans that travelled the Silk Road.  Herbs and spices brought by merchants travelling the road have made their way into Turkish cuisine.  The modern day Spice Market attests to the plethora of exotic products that were brought from near and far cultures.

The Spice Market is situated near the Bosphorus in an impressive building from the 1600’s.   There are nearly 100 shops inside, with an equal number spilling over into the side-streets that surround the market. Most stalls sell a mind-boggling array of spices, herbs and Turkish food products that are stacked and sacked in a cacophony of visual displays seemingly out of National Geographic.  Most shops, on the other hand, specialize in certain herbs or spices.  Vendors often speak some English, and many will let you taste.  Below are items to consider for purchase for your kitchen, or as gifts for friends who love to cook:

  • Cumin: Turkish cumin is preferred by many Michelin-star chefs.  Buy the seeds, toast & grind them at home for the most pungent aromas and flavors.

  • Sumac: A very typical spice in several Middle Eastern countries, this one adds a lovely tangy element of lemon.

  • Cinnamon:  Half the cost of that in the US, it comes in sticks and powder.

  • Paprika:  Some of the finest in the world, this rich and flavor-chocked version is great for adding smoky elements.

  • Kefke Spice:  a mixture of several different items, this is the perfect seasoning for Turkey’s ground meats/meat balls (kefke).

  • Dried pomegranate seeds:  called “zeresk,” these are stupendous morsels that can be added to a variety of dishes from savory to sweet.

  • Dried Eggplant:  one of the most dazzling Turkish dishes I have ever had was made from dried eggplant that had been reconstituted and then stuffed with minced lamb and topped with yogurt.

  • Dried Garbanzo Beans: flavored with different herbs, I bought tons of these and used them in place of nuts for a simple and unusual nibbly at a party with a glass of wine.

  • Turkish Delight:  This is Turkey’s signature sweet.  Available in every flavor of the rainbow, I especially love the pink ones (laced with rose-water and studded with pistachios).

This is a do not-miss experience even if you don’t buy a thing.  The smells, tastes and people-watching are priceless.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Counterfeiting of Iconic Wines

 The last few years have been wrought with scandal after scandal of fraud in the wine world.   It stands to reason that if one is going to swindle someone  that one would follow the money---steal from those who are buying the globe’s priciest wines.  That is exactly what happened.  The world’s most expensive maker of Burgundy was duped when fakes of the winery’s old vintages were sold at auction; a winery in Tuscany attempted to substitute table wine for its posh Brunello di Montalcino; and, one of the world’s richest men was duped when he bought the supposed historical bottles of Thomas Jefferson’s at auction.

An investigation involving suspicious bottles of Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC) at auction uncovered a counterfeiting ring.  DRC’s average price per bottle is $13,000 although there are bottles that have sold for nearly $39,000, creating a perfect storm for counterfeiting.  Investigators discovered a ring that was something out of a spy novel with conspirators in Italy, Hong Kong, Russia, Belize and even Switzerland.  The two central figures were both involved in the wine merchant business.

Another scandal involving fakes of DRC wine involved a young Indonesian living in Los Angeles.   The first person tried and convicted for selling false collectible wines in the US, he had been dubbed by collectors as “Dr. Conti” for his love of DRC.  But this counterfeiter did not just target DRC.  At trial, three of Burgundy’s top winemakers testified that bottles of their wine that had been sold by the defendant bearing their winery’s labels were fake.  Investigators, who had seized >1,000 bottles from the criminal, found all of these to be bogus.   Sentenced to 10 years in federal prison, the crook was ordered to pay > $28 million in restitution to his victims, and to forfeit $20 million in property.

Billionaire William Koch was caught in the above web of deception.  Koch, who considers himself somewhat of a counterfeit crusader, has invested >$25M in lawyers and investigators.  He sued not only the young man above, but the auction house that bought the phony wine and resold it to him.  He won on both accounts and this win has forced auction houses to change their policies from “buyer beware” to  more liberal policies where returns could be made if the wine as “suspect or counterfeit.”

Friday, May 8, 2015

Perfect Foodie Gifts to Bring Home from Italy

I'm on my way to Italy with two different groups.  Often times on my tours I am asked by my clients what gifts are best to bring home  for their food-loving friends.  My answer depends on the district of the country in which the group is----each region has certain gourmet specialties.  Below I’ve listed my recommendations beginning with Umbria and Tuscany as that’s where Wine-Knows has rented villas this June, however, I’ve added ideas for many other regions.  My suggestions are based on the weight of the item, ease in packing it, perishability, and uniqueness.

   ~ Umbria is world famous for its black truffles.  Truffle oil and truffle paste are great because they are not near as perishable as fresh truffles.
   ~ Nothing says Umbria like a piece of Deruta pottery for the kitchen.  There are all sizes and shapes of these colorful ceramics available, many of which never make it to the export market.

                                                             Deruta's tempting wares

   ~ Vin Santo (a dessert wine often eaten with biscotti)  is a Tuscan tradition.  While available in the U.S., many of the boutique producers’ Vin Santo does not leave the country.  As it is frequently packaged in half bottles, it can easily be brought home packed in your suitcase.

                        Biscotti, another Tuscan specialty, pairs beautifully with Vin Santo

   ~ Finocchiona salami is a specialty of the Chianti wine region.  This savory deeply flavored salami is chocked full of local fennel.

Emilia Romagna:
   ~ The capitol of Italy’s gourmet cuisine, there’s a plethora of goodies to tempt you (e.g. home of Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma and Balsamic Vinegar).  Pasta attains true stardom in this region and you’ll see shapes and sizes that you’ll  never see again.  If packed between layers of clothes, a package of dry pasta weathers the journey home nicely.

                                Butterfly-shaped pasta in the colors of the Italian flag

   ~ Balsamic is in every grocery store these days, however, aged Balsamico is not.  Pickup a small bottle of 20 or 30 year old rich, aromatic, syrupy Balsamic for drizzling back home on fruit dessert (or add it at the last moment to a savory sauce for major complexity).

Amalfi Coast:
   ~ Gigantic lemons are one of the hallmarks of the coast.  While US customs forbids bringing them back, you can bring back a memory of them in the form of a kitchen towel, pot holder or even a small ceramic platter decorated by local artisans with colorful lemons.  All are very abundant in shops.

                              When life gives you monstrous lemons, make limoncello
~ Superbly yummy San Marzano tomoatoes are grown on the slopes of Mt Vesuvious which looms over the entire Amalfi Coast and Bay of Naples.  Tomato paste (double or triple concentrations are the best) are fabulous gifts to bring home…I usually buy a dozen and stick one in to a hostess gift.

                         Paste comes in 3 strengths:  regular (L), double (C), & triple (R) 

   ~Capers are available in every province in Italy, however, the Sicilian varietal is the pinnacle.  Dry-packaged in salt (which is rinsed before serving), these taste like no other caper you’ll ever have.  They are expensive but worth every Euro.    

                                 Meaty, plump capers like you're never had before

   ~Bottarga is another Sicilian specialty.  Somewhat like dried caviar, it is a salted and cured fish roe.  Expensive, it is often added in small amounts to pasta dishes, although it can also be served on a crostini.

   ~ Northern Lombardy is home to polenta, risotto, Gorgonzola and Taleggio, all of which are widely available in the US.  It is also home to mostarda, a heavenly savory fruit condiment somewhat like chutney.  Served with meats or even cheeses, this labor-intensive delectable can make even the simplest dish into a masterpiece.

                                     Mostarda made from plums, pears, peaches & apricots

   ~ Home to the Slow-Food movement, this northern most district that shares a border with France is one of my favorite for gourmet gifts.  Piedmont is synonymous with the white truffle, the King of truffles.  Truffle-centric gifts are everywhere from salami to truffle oil.  Truffle shavers are also available in every shop.
                  White truffles are so expensive that they require a shaver to thinly slice them
   ~ If it’s not summer, than one of the best gifts to bring home from Piedmont is gianduja, the marriage of chocolate and hazelnut.  Gianduja is an art-form here as exotic, imported cocoa beans are mixed with the smoky local hazelnut.   (If it is summer, bring home just the unusually rich, and intense local hazelnuts).

                                            A Italian marriage made in heaven 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Umbria’s White from Orvieto

                                  There are 2 reasons to visit Orvieto & this is one
Next month Wine-Knows has rented a 10,000 square foot villa in Umbria. A few days before the tour begins, however, I’ll be in nearby Orvieto---Umbria’s most famous wine city.  Orvieto has been producing wine since the Middle Ages.  Although the area produces both reds and white, it’s well known for white.  The city is also known for its jaw-dropping cathedral.  I'm going to see it, but also to visit two killer wineries.

Orvieto white wine is made primarily from a blend of Grechetto and Trebbiano grapes. Although Grechetto’s origin are thought to be Greek, this varietal has been grown for so long in Umbria that it is often credited as native to the area.  Grechetto is primarily a blending grape.  Trebbiano is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world.  By itself, it does not produce a high quality wine---blended with other grapes, it contributes fresh fruity flavors with some acidity.  Also added to Orvieto’s whites are aromatic Malvasia and Verdello which, like Trebbiano, is added for acidity.

Orvieto’s white wines are some of Italy’s most well known wines.  Typically inexpensive, these wines are often mass produced and exported around the world.  Generally, these are not serious wines, but rather refreshing, crisp wines.  There are some exceptions.

Some winemakers are pushing the envelope and breaking away from the pack of mediocrity.  Their results have been phenomenal.  If you can find either of the following two producers, buy them as they are terrific examples of what Orvieto is capable of producing:  Decugnano dei Barbi or Palazzone.  I’ll be taking a case to the villa for the group's welcome dinner.