Articles in Agriculture
It’s 9 a.m., and I’ve just been poured five glasses of inky purple wine from bottles labeled only with question marks. It’s primeur time in Bordeaux, and I’m sitting in a quiet room in a Médoc château overlooking just-spring vineyards, about an hour’s drive north of the city.
During the primeur week, the top châteaux present their unfinished, unbottled wines from the most recent harvest to wine critics for assessment and evaluation. This helps them determine how the wines will age and their opening prices on the market, as if they were futures. (For more about how this works, see my article Bordeaux Primeurs’ Primer).
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The 118 French and international wine writers invited to this annual ritual are divided between those who taste blind — about two-thirds of us — and those who prefer to know what they’re tasting as they taste it. The blind tasters get the list of producers after they’ve finished; it’s more fun that way. The only clue we’re given by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC) — the federation that comprises the 131 top châteaux and organizes these tastings — is the appellation where each wine is produced.
The appellation divisions are geographical, as are the tasting sessions. On Monday, we start with the year’s crop of dessert wines, from Sauternes and Barsac, before moving to the Garonne River’s Right Bank for Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, then back to the Left, tasting and spitting our way up through the Graves area to the Médoc. We end on Friday at Margaux, one of the world’s most iconic production zones. Most of the first-growth châteaux send their wines to the group tastings; others only pour their wines at their château by appointment.
So what’s the point? After all, these are wines that won’t be released for at least another year and may take 10, 20 or more years to reach full maturity.
“The tasters’ first task is to form an opinion about the quality of the vintage,” explains Denis Dubourdieu, professor of oenology at Bordeaux University. “Beyond that, the object is to assess the wines of individual châteaux, giving them scores and valuations ahead of the châteaux’ price declarations. The aim is to decide which wines are worth investing in.”
That sounds straightforward enough, but there’s a catch. These are wines in their infancy whose exuberant fruit and often harsh tannins can easily mislead mouths more accustomed to the finely tuned balance between nose and palate of well-aged wines. Tasters trained in Bordeaux have developed ways to judge the wines fairly and objectively.
Bordeaux Primeurs and the secret to wine
“There’s no magic wand: A wine can only become great with age if it was great in its youth,” says Jean-Marc Quarin, an experienced Bordeaux wine critic who writes a successful wine blog and publishes a vast guide to Bordeaux’s wines (soon to appear in English too). “One of the secrets to understanding wines this young is to concentrate on what happens in the palate rather than in the nose.”
His approach is analytical and instructive: If the nose can deceive at this early stage, the experience of the wine once it’s in the mouth — including its structure and impact — shouldn’t lie and can be a more reliable indicator.
“You have to focus on each stage of the wine’s passage through the mouth, from the initial attack, as we call it, to the mid palate and the finish,” he says. “That’s when you can spot the differences between rough and fine-grained tannins, hollow and full bodies, and short and long finishes.” Quarin gives each wine about 10 seconds in the mouth when he’s tasting, and analyzes every sensation carefully to pick out wines whose potential will be fulfilled over time. It’s a complex art, but his method is helpful.
So how did the 2012 vintage fare? The year’s weather conditions were not simple, but some terrific wines were made nonetheless, especially by estates with the means — in financial and manpower terms — to carry out a lot of extra work in the vineyards to counter the erratic climatic effects. This went from removing under-developed bunches in summer to selecting the ripest berries — one by one, if necessary — before the winemaking.
The new president of the UGC, Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier, emphasized this ability: “Bordeaux’s viticultural know-how and winemaking skills have come a long way in recent years,” he said. “We are now able to make very good wines even in difficult vintages such as this one, by making choices about how to adapt to the climate’s impact. It takes a lot more effort to produce these good wines, but those who rise to the challenge are seeing very good results.”
Professor Dubourdieu concludes: “Key factors in Bordeaux are our range of soils — from well-draining pebbles to moisture-retaining clay — and our diverse grape varieties: Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc in smaller quantities. They give us the flexibility in our blends to adapt to the vagaries of the weather.”
Indeed, we found silky Merlots that were wonderfully ripe yet not lacking in freshness on the Right Bank, and elegant white wines in the Graves: This was a good vintage for the whites. As for the Left Bank Cabernets, they varied, but in the terroirs where they achieved good maturity, such as at Haut Bailly, in Saint-Julien and parts of Pauillac and Margaux, they have produced finely textured wines when blended with the sweet Merlots. Many of these wines will be at their best in five to 10 years, so we won’t have to wait too long to enjoy them.
Photo: Bottles for blind tastings. Credit: Carla Capalbo
Follow Danielle Nierenberg, and you will end up in interesting places. I learned this reading the missives she e-mailed from developing nations around the world during her tenure with Nourishing the Planet and the Worldwatch Institute. The Tufts-educated Missourian delivered awful truths about the world’s broken food system with an upbeat focus on inspiring individual-sized solutions. I missed her ever-present freckle-face grin when the e-mails stopped.
Now she’s back! With her new venture, Food Tank, Nierenberg and partner Ellen Gustafson remain focused on solutions, but this time they are the sweeping, world-altering kind.
Food Tank will bring together farmers, policymakers, researchers, scientists and journalists with the funding and donor communities to participate in a clearinghouse of information and data. Solid information about what’s working, they believe, will lead to more and better research and development. It’s a step-by-step scientific process toward food justice and a sustainable agricultural system.
I recently asked Nierenberg to share some background on herself and Food Tank.
You have worked to raise awareness about food quality and availability for a long time. What led you to become involved in this cause?
I’ve always been obsessed with food. I’m the person who wants to know what she’s having for dinner at lunchtime. I had the opportunity to work with a lot of farmers right after undergrad as a Peace Corps volunteer and that really helped me understand the connections between how we grow food and the impacts on health and the environment. Since then I’ve really tried to highlight what farmers, business, entrepreneurs, researchers, youth, policymakers and others are doing to make the food system more sustainable.
How did that work lead you to create Food Tank? What do you hope to accomplish?
We want to build a network of eaters, producers and policymakers and highlight the solutions that are already working.
There is so much focus on investment in big, sexy technologies, and we want to highlight how many of the answers to our most pressing social and environmental problems are already out there.
If we start now, there is an opportunity to develop a better vision for the global food system. Fixing the system requires changing the conversation and finding ways that make food production — and consumption — more economically, environmentally, and socially just and sustainable.
We also want to work with our advisory group to develop a new set of metrics to measure the “success” of a food system. For the last 50 years, the measurements have been based on calories and yield and not on the nutritional quality of food, or whether a food system protects water and soil, or whether it promotes the empowerment of youth or gender equity.
What organizations and individuals are working with you on this project?
Ellen Gustafson is the co-founder of Food Tank. She and I have had a mutual crush and admiration for one another for years. Often she and I are the only young-ish women who end up at both industry conferences and sustainable food conferences. Ellen’s work has been more on the entrepreneurial side. She co-founded FEED Projects with Lauren Bush and started 30 Project.
My work has focused on more on-the-ground research and evaluating environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty. Over the last few years I’ve traveled to more than 35 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America talking to farmers and farmers groups, scientists and researchers, policymakers and academics, youth, journalists and others collecting their thoughts about what’s working to increase incomes, raised yields, improve nutrition and protect the environment.
People around the world seem to be far more aware of the issue of food quality and food security. What has caused this awakening?
I think that since the food and economic crisis began in 2007 and 2008 there’s a growing movement around how not just to feed people, but nourish them. Most of the investment in agriculture is on starchy staple crops and less has been invested in leguminous crops, protein-rich grains or indigenous vegetables. These are crops that are not only more nutritious, but tend to be resistant to drought, disease, pests, high temperatures, etc.
And more and more young people are getting involved in the food system — as producers in urban gardens in Asia, as bakers in New York, as seed distributors in Kenya, and as chefs, food manufacturers, etc. The food system and agriculture have often been something young people feel forced to do, rather than something they want to do. We need to find ways to make it more economically and intellectually stimulating so it becomes something that people want to do and know that they can make money from.
If you could snap your fingers and make one change in the food system, what would it be?
There’s no one thing that can happen to change the system, but a big thing I’d like to see is more investment in agro-ecological practices. Again, most of the investment in agriculture is in sexy technologies and commodity crops and starchy staple crops, and not in the things that are already working — everything from agroforestry and solar drip irrigation to combining “high” and “low” technologies through using the Internet and cellphones. The solutions are out there. They’re just not getting the attention, research and investment they need.
Top photo: Danielle Nierenberg at a site visit to the AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania. Credit: Bernard Pollack
I watched a butchery demonstration by third-generation meat cutter Kari Underly at the annual Chef’s Collaborative conference last year in Seattle. One of the attendees was the editor-in-chief from a national cooking magazine. I asked her what drew her to watch a skilled professional divide muscles from bone and fat. “I just love watching people cut up meat,” she said. “I won’t ever use this stuff, but it’s fascinating.”
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Observing a butcher elegantly wield a knife is a spectacle, one I recommend to anybody tempted by the smells of a burger on the grill. Years ago in cooking school, I was rapt by my first butchery demonstration on a lamb, and I wasn’t even a meat eater then. Since there’s no blood to speak of (slaughter and butchery are two vastly different steps in the process), the butcher’s craft is akin to witnessing a master wood carver create an end table from a stump.
Underly is one of several pro butchers to publish a book on her craft, “The Art of Beef Cutting.” Her step-by-step illustrated guide is geared toward professional meat cutters, but is approachable for motivated home cooks. Other recent books are for the general meat eater eager to learn their striploin from their skirt steak. They include San Francisco 4505 Meats butcher Ryan Farr’s “Whole Beast Butchery” and New York-based Fleisher’s owners Joshua and Jessica Applestone’s “The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat.”
Along with “The Butcher’s Apprentice,” these books aim at the DIY market and the mania for home-cured bacon and assorted salumi. The newest butchery book out this spring is “Butchery & Sausage-Making for Dummies.” Written by San Francisco Chef Tia Harrison, co-founder of The Butcher’s Guild and co-owner of Avedanos Meats, this book brings butchery to the masses.
As I paged through illustrations, photographs and diagrams of animal carcasses and cuts in each of these books, I wondered how many people would find it both fascinating and useful.
Butchery is back, but is it relevant for everyone?
By the time I witnessed Underly in action in Seattle, I had years of informal experience cutting up parts of beef, elk, pork and lamb, whole rabbits, chickens, duck and turkey.
Laying my hands on primals and smaller muscle groups gave me firsthand understanding of how those parts related to the whole. I had an intimate understanding of how the composition of the shoulder differed from the leg, right down to the muscle texture and color.
These experiences handling, cutting, trimming, chopping and grinding my own meat not only improved my knife work, they also enhanced my cooking knowledge and skill with anything meaty.
Even if you don’t aspire to break down a whole hog or side of beef, there are surprisingly many transferable skills to be learned from a bit of butchery. Butchery guidebooks such as these are an accessible starting point for seeking out new opportunities to use your knife.
You can also sign up for a class, watch an online video or enlist a more experienced friend.
Here’s what some hands-on butchery experience can do for you:
- Connect with the meat you eat, its source and quality. Once you get up close and personal with your meat, it’s impossible not to ask questions, including how was this animal raised? What was it fed? How was it slaughtered? You become a more conscious carnivore.
- Learn the location and composition of cuts. Carcasses are like jigsaw puzzles. When you take just one piece at a time, you can more easily grasp the whole. You can then translate what you know about beef to pork to lamb, or chicken to duck to game birds.
- Increase your confidence at the meat counter and in the kitchen. Have you felt shy approaching the butcher counter? Or, do you only buy steaks because you know how to cook them? With a little experience, you become the master your favorite meats.
- Understand the reasons for different cooking methods. The proportion of lean to fat in any cut determines whether it needs slow cooking or can be roasted, grilled and sautéed. Demystify the cooking and your options open wide.
- Waste less and use more of the meat you buy. Whether you purchase a whole tenderloin to trim or a pork shoulder to smoke, you’ll find a good use for every morsel of meat, fat and even bone. Stock and sausage making are natural next steps.
5 Butchery Skills for Beginners
With your knives — a boning knife and chef’s knife are all you need — freshly sharpened, here are some beginning butchery skills anyone can try at home:
- Slice your own steaks from a strip loin (or boneless rib roast or top round roast)
- Bone a whole chicken
- Bone a leg of lamb, roll and tie it
- Butterfly pork loin
- Trim a whole tenderloin
Top photo: A butcher Frenching a rack of lamb. Credit: David L. Reamer
The first article in this series on coffee covered its early roots and routes. Coffee has planted itself all over the globe from the forests of Africa to the Middle East, the Indian Ocean Islands, South and Southeast Asia and the tropical Americas. Nearly all the commercial coffee varieties (97%) that grow globally are derived from either Coffea arabica or Coffea robusta. But how do different coffee varieties emerge? What are some of the favored varieties? Before the green beans are roasted, what are the factors that affect quality? How can someone roast coffee beans at home?
AFRICAN ORIGINS OF COFFEE
A three-part series:
Definitions and progression:
» Caramelization occurs when sugars in a compound are heated, release water, brown and produce new flavor compounds. It usually occurs at temperatures up to the first crack of coffee roasting.
» First crack produces caramel-like notes.
» Maillard reaction occurs when a sugar and a protein interact when heated to produce browning and a range of different flavor compounds. The Maillard Reaction takes place slowly at room temperature, at higher temperatures and proceeds quickly during and after the first crack.
» Second crack produces smoky woody asphalt-like notes.
What are some of the salient characteristics differentiating Arabica and Robusta?
- Superior taste
- More susceptible to pests and disease
- Slightly larger beans
- Higher fat and sugar content than Robusta
- Best for all types of roasts
- Self-pollinating, which results in less genetic diversity and less variability
- Inferior taste
- Less susceptible to pests and disease
- Smaller beans
- Higher caffeine (double) and chlorogenic acid (CGA) content
- Best for dark roasts and espresso
- Cross pollination, which results in more healthy plants
How plant varieties emerge
from soil to soil
From Arabica emerged two well-known varieties, C. arabica var. arabica (typica) and C. arabica var. bourbon. According to genetic researchers, historical data indicate that Typica originated most probably from a single plant from Indonesia that was subsequently cultivated in the Amsterdam botanical gardens in the early 18th century. The Bourbon genetic base originated from coffee trees introduced from Mocha (Yemen) to the Bourbon Island (now Réunion) in the early 1700s.
When a plant migrates and grows in a new location, it adapts if it can. The migration may be around the corner to a sunnier side of the slope or as far away as another continent. The first coffee plantation on the Bourbon Island (Réunion), for example, yearned for the soil it first grew in — yes, I am attributing human qualities to a plant, but stay with me. Coffea arabica said — and certainly not with an ancient Latin accent but more like a Kafa accent with a tinge of Yemeni Arabic and the sailor slang of the Mocha Port — “Where am I, this soil is too sandy, and this sun’s heat is a bit much for my forest montane constitution and the salt in the air. Ya Allah, enough with the salt! And why do the minerals in the soil taste so nasty? And, hold on, what the hell is that fungus creeping on my leaves!” Get my point?
So the coffee cherries that survived got replanted. The second generation adapted. A unique tasting coffee bean emerged unlike its ancestors from distant Yemen or Ethiopia. This generation’s crop, now firmly identified as Island coffee, possibly contained more sugar, less of a particular protein or a different concentration of minerals. When the ultimate alchemical roasting occurred, new flavor compounds surfaced, and the world got Coffea arabica var. bourbon. That is one story of a coffee plant. Manifold factors determined taste. On the one hand, a brilliant creation of a new coffee variety materialized, on the other, the diminution of genetic diversity ensued. Wonderful and catastrophic, all at the same time.
Dry, wet and natural pulp-drying processes
Ripe coffee beans are processed in one of three ways.
Dry process is the original method that uses less machinery. Dried directly in the sun, the green seed is torn out of the dried dark fruit. This process can result in including unripe beans. And it requires more labor to hand pick the defects and contaminants.
Wet process entails removing the fruit, then washing it in water so unripe beans, defects and contaminants float to the top. The beans are fermented to remove the final mucilage fruit layer surrounding the bean and then dried.
Pulp natural process is a hybrid of the wet and dry. The fermentation process of the wet process is skipped and instead, the beans dry with some fruit still attached. This newest technique produces a cup that is less acidic and more full-bodied and is a cleaner process. It has been dubbed the “miel” or honey process in Costa Rica. (Sweet Maria’s is an excellent source for information on all aspects of green coffee beans.)
What to look for in a green coffee bean?
To assess a quality batch of green beans, look for uniform shape, color, size and evenness. These characteristics allow for even roasting of the beans. This ensures a consistent and defined taste.
Top photo: Green coffee beans. Credit: Sarah Khan
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.
I’ve long been a fan of the “other” Cabernet, but most of the ones I prize are French. This spicy, delicious 2011 Broc Cellars Cabernet Franc, with fresh, plummy fruit and savory accents, is, surprisingly, from warm Paso Robles in California. It’s a light, layered, easy red, with hints of olives and the kind of sappy acidity that makes a wine wonderfully food-friendly.
Elin McCoy’s Wine of the Week
Region: Paso Robles, California
Grapes: 100% Cabernet Franc
Serve with: Blanquette de veau, roast chicken
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Last week, a West Coast wine colleague brought a bottle of this gulpable wine to a lunch at Le Philosophe, a tiny French bistro on Bond Street in New York. Since one wall of the restaurant has large black-and-white photos of famous philosophers, the wine seemed an especially appropriate choice: Broc Cellars’ owner and winemaker Chris Brockway obtained a degree in philosophy before eventually turning to wine. With the restaurant’s creamy blanquette de veau, this Cabernet Franc, his second vintage of the variety, was perfect.
One of the several interesting urban winemakers in the Bay Area, Brockway works out of a 1,400 square foot facility in Berkeley. Committed to a thoughtful wine philosophy of minimal intervention in the cellar, he’s part of the new wave of winemakers who are changing the taste of California wine. He dumps whole clusters of grapes into fermenting vats, relies on indigenous yeasts for fermentation, uses an old fashioned basket press and a tiny percentage of new oak barrels for aging, and adds only a small amount of sulfur for stability. The result is a wine with a pure, transparent, mineral character that speaks of the grapes’ terroir.
Cabernet Franc one part of the experiment
Brockway started making his own wines back in 2004. An experimenter, he offers a dozen or so bottlings, many from varietals popular in southern France such as Counoise and Picpoul. In the way of so many winery startups, he searches out organic vineyards with great terroir and buys the grapes.
On May 11, he’ll be pouring some of them at Bergamot Alley wine bar in Healdsburg, alongside 16 other vintners who make wines from little-known grape varieties. The tasting is billed as the “Seven % Solution,” which refers to the fact that 93% of the vineyard acreage in Northern California are planted to just eight varieties.
Well, Cabernet Franc is hardly an unusual varietal, but the 2011 Broc Cellars version is an unusual example from California, one that I can hardly wait to try again.
Top photo composite:
Broc Cellars Cabernet Franc label and bottle. Credit: Courtesy of Broc Cellars
Daniel Nguyen is not your average farmer, and VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative in eastern New Orleans is not your average farm. At a time when urban agriculture seems stuck between taking flight as a scalable and real solution to urban food supply and being written off as another harebrained and all-too-precious scheme of flannel-clad hipsters, an inspiring story of scrappy success couldn’t be more welcome.
VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative’s current agricultural operation, previously known as Viet Village Urban Farm, is sandwiched between an old playing field, rows of tidy brick ranch-style homes and a ditch filled with debris leftover from Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 ambush on the neighborhood. In mid-March, its 3 acres accented with neat stripes of green — early signs of newly planted crops ready and waiting to take off in New Orleans’ early summer — seemed misplaced, or perhaps like peace offerings to some unruly god.
Nguyen, too, seems anomalous in the neighborhood. A tireless worker in the fields, he’s also a provocative thinker helping drive the farm’s cooperative organizing and marketing strategies as well as its agricultural inventiveness.
Young, toned, tanned and with a mane of dark hair that stretches most of the way down his back, Nguyen recently greeted a group of students and me to the farm. Clearly unaccustomed to speaking in front of crowds, he spoke quietly and waited to be prompted with questions, zigzagging and veering as he recounted the story of the farm.
“NOLA East is home to nearly 60% of the metro area’s population,” Nguyen explained, glancing down at his rubber boots. “But we’ve got only one supermarket.”
I let this sink in for a minute. After years of working with food-security measures, I couldn’t recall another area so underserved by retail food outlets.
As a result, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative operates with an eye toward production and efficiency. And they’ve gotten there remarkably quickly.
Urban farm a bright spot in struggling community
When the farm took hold, the community had been looking for innovative strategies to bolster economic resilience. At the time, things were looking bleak, even for a community that had been living on the fringes for years. Katrina struck in 2005, and when British Petroleum’s rig started leaking into the Gulf in 2010, the community’s strongest resource — both in terms of food and income — became off limits almost overnight.
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“Before the spill, 1 in 3 people in the community were involved in the fishing industry,” Nguyen explained. The pressure was on. The cooperative needed a poverty-alleviation strategy, ideally one that would supply calories as well, and they needed it fast.
“We began in 2011 with funding from [the charity] Oxfam,” Nguyen continued. “And in 2011, we officially formed a co-op.” Meaning each of the farmer-members working the land — who range in age from their mid-20s to their late 70s, and half of whom are women — has partial ownership in the business. Nguyen, whose parents are Vietnamese immigrants who settled in San Diego, arrived in New Orleans after Katrina with verve, a green thumb honed in childhood and a head full of ideals inspired by union-organizing.
He worked as a bus boy in some of the city’s finest restaurants for a stretch, interested in the world of food, but itching to do something with a long-term impact. He began working to organize Vietnamese fishermen, and as he grew close to members of the community, he saw that many gardened at home. Some were even selling off surplus to neighbors. His first thought was to create a cooperative of backyard gardeners, but he quickly realized production would be too disparate to make marketing efficient. So the community began the search for land.
Today, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative is growing on the kind of acreage rarely seen in urban America. For what’s known as a “dollar lease,” the group has secured long-term use of the land for a minuscule fee, just enough so the land isn’t officially “gifted” to them in the eyes of the law. The plot we visited is 3 acres, plus another 1 to 2 acres in brambly wetlands, where the group has plans to raise ducks, expand its composting operations and experiment with aquaponics. Another 7 acres are in the works.
The farm doesn’t come without challenges. Space is a limiting factor, and even with sophisticated techniques like closed-system aquaponics, companion planting and heavy mulching, VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative is, like any outdoor food operation, subject to weather, ever wary of another dramatic climatic (or man-made) event. Even more complex are the neighborhood politics: Many are wary of cooperatives, Nguyen explained, because of the economic devastation communism wrought in Vietnam.
Still, the farm has garnered a lot of attention. Today, there’s a wait list that includes African-Americans, Latinos and young adults. A youth training program is in the pipes, as are expansions into farmers markets, local gas stations and quick marts, a strategic way to intercept the stream of junk food locals consume based almost entirely on convenience.
For now, the farm regularly sells out of traditionally Vietnamese crops and more common vegetables. Nguyen’s connections in the restaurant industry have proved invaluable. Relationships between chefs and farmers can be tough to navigate, but cooperative members show up at approximately 15 restaurants several times a week with a van full of produce, making it easy for chefs to pick and choose what they want. Close to 70% of the farm’s produce goes to restaurants; a small percentage is sold at the local Vietnamese Saturday morning market, while the other 20% goes to member-owners.
When pressed about measures of success, Nguyen said a survey showed some members have used the farm to increase their income more than 100% since before the BP spill. Nguyen said the goal is to hold steady or increase that statistic for all member-owners.
But Nguyen, like most farmers, is still scraping by on what he makes from the farm. Still, he shows up every day, doggedly committed. “I have no social life,” he laughed. “But most days I get to drink a beer with these guys,” he said, gesturing to a slender older man bent over a newly tilled row, leveling out the soil with a piece of worn plank.
Top photo: VEGGI Farmers’ Cooperative founder Daniel Nguyen in fields at the farm. Credit: Sara Franklin
OK, maybe it’s because I’m a little under the weather as I write this but, dagnabbit I am more than a little bent right now.
What can it take, for the love of Mike, to get a decent, well-priced glass of wine at a restaurant? Time after time, meal after meal, I bring a bottle of wine with me to dinner, seeing as I am in the business. But I always take a look at the list, just in case there is a cool, reasonably-priced by-the-glass option to kick-start the evening. Alas, more often than not, I’m rippin’ out my bottle straight away and gladly paying the $25 corkage fee, realizing I might have to pay that twice knowing the crew I run around with.
How hard can it be? Why do restaurants consistently charge $10 (or more) a glass for a bottle that costs $6 (or less) wholesale? I understand the concept of getting your cost back on the first pour, but c’mon, this is getting silly.
Since I am a wine seller, life for me will go on. I have enough wine street smarts to navigate lists and find something decent or bust out my own bottle if it’s not happening. My concern, however, is for that group of wine drinkers that we fine wine merchants (and, we hope, progressive restaurateurs), are trying to transition over from Two (and a half) Buck Chuck and Yellowtail to another level of wine, one that, while not much more expensive ($10 to $12 a bottle retail instead of $2.49 or $8) delivers another dimension of flavor and styles.
If restaurants are going to be content with trying to squeeze as many dollars as they can out of a bottle, we will soon lose touch with this new wave of wine drinkers. We won’t be able to bridge the gap and continue to nurture their palates if these people are forced to pay $12 for a glass of mediocre “coastal” Cabernet, when they could be paying $6 for a fabulous Old Vine Grenache from Spain, or Picpoul from the Languedoc. At $12 for an OK glass of Cabernet, I would be reaching for beer provided I didn’t have that wine in my bag.
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And that’s the point. Merchants and restaurateurs have to work together to foster and educate this new generation of wine lovers. There are numerous studies showing that millennials are very curious about wine but, like many folks nowadays, do not have serious money burning a hole in their pockets. That said, these consumers are also curious about craft brews, so they often have a unique, artisan drinking experience for less — simply because there is some kind of archaic formula in place dictating the minimum price for a glass of wine.
What if restaurants charged $6 (the price of a 12-ounce beer, for the most part) for an interesting glass of wine? Not wicker basket Chianti, not corporate Cabernet, not private label Chardonnay sourced from Fresno, but a real, authentic, genuine bottle of wine that could open eyes. Would they lose money or sell more wine? Would they gain customers because they were offering cool wines at great prices? Granted, more restaurants have expanded their wine lists to include many offerings south of $50 a bottle. But let’s be honest, that was born out of necessity based on the economy, and was hardly a peace offering to those of us who couldn’t find a bottle less than $75 just a few short years ago. Why couldn’t restaurants apply that same philosophy to their by-the-glass programs?
Smaller dining establishment, more wine for a fair price
Trust me when I say the corporate wine world wants to keep everything just the way it is. There is a wealth of boring cheap wine tied into the spirits business. This wine is essentially sold for nothing to engage restaurants to purchase bar liquors from these large wine/spirits conglomerates. One thing I’ve noticed is that when the dining establishment is smaller, and has no spirits, the wine selection tends to be stronger. Coincidence? I think not. The “big boys” want the restaurants to do one-stop shopping since, to them, wine is merely a greaser to sell more gin. The problem is, more than a few restaurants are all too happy to comply.
I say to those restaurants, “fight the power!” and don’t let the man keep you down. Take a chance, engage your customers, and show them the world of wine is more than whatever the distributor is closing out that month. Find interesting, food-friendly wines and sell the wine for a fair price. I’ll help you out. Email me, or look at our list of sub-$10 wines on our website. Before you know it, I think your customers may be having a revelatory moment like Steve Martin’s character in “The Jerk”: “Well if this is out there just think how much more is out there!”
Top photo: Kyle Meyer. Credit: Mina Bahadarakhann
The 2009 vintage in Bordeaux was hyped as yet another “vintage of the century,” and the top chateaux released prices that were astronomical. Luckily, there are also some serious bargains to be had, like this dark, soft, plush 2009 Chateau Fourcas-Borie, a wine with a personality as silky and seductive as its sexy black lace on red label.
I sampled it recently in Bordeaux at a dinner with the chateau’s owner, Bruno Borie, who’s better known as the proprietor of the great second-growth Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou in Saint-Julien.
Elin McCoy’s Wine of the Week
Region: Listrac-Médoc, Bordeaux
Grapes: Merlot, Petit Verdot
Serve with: Roast chicken, veal stew
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The Borie family bought Chateau Fourcas Dumont, in the Listrac-Médoc appellation of Bordeaux, at the end of 2008, and renamed the property Chateau Fourcas-Borie. Their first vintage was this 2009, which we sipped alongside a dish of white asparagus wrapped with salty bacon and topped with thin slices of parmesan cheese. This red was a surprisingly good match. The key to pairing wine with asparagus, says Borie, who also happens to be an excellent chef, is adding other, more wine-friendly ingredients, such as the bacon, to the preparation.
Listrac is one of the six appellations in Bordeaux’s Haut-Médoc region, and one of its least prestigious. The Borie family has a history there — Borie’s mother was born at another estate, Chateau Ducluzeau, which has been in her family for generations.
The wines of Listrac, all red, have the reputation for being lean and dry. This area south and west of more famous Saint-Julien is fairly far from the temperature-moderating influence of the Gironde River and Borie says Listrac’s cooler climate makes it tough for Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen easily. Part of what makes this 2009 Fourcas-Borie red so appealing to drink is its high proportion of Merlot.
Merlot works well
for Chateau Fourcas-Borie
The estate’s 30-hectare (74-acre) vineyards are divided between clay and limestone soil, where Merlot does well, and gravelly soil, where Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot are planted. The wine spends 12 months in barrels, less than one-third of them new and Borie makes it in a deliberately juicy, round, approachable style, aiming for a mix of sturdiness and elegance.
No, this 2009 Chateau Fourcas-Borie doesn’t have the grandeur of Borie’s 2009 Ducru-Beaucaillou, which sells for 12 times more. But it does have lovely richness and real Bordeaux character at a more than reasonable price.
Top photo: Chateau Fourcas-Borie owner Bruno Borie. Credit: Elin McCoy