Articles in General

Wine author George Taber. Credit: Cliff Moore

For wine drinkers, these are the worst of times and the best of times. It’s the worst because wine prices have exploded in recent years, especially when it comes to French prestige wines. The entry of wealthy Chinese into the market has pushed up the prices of those rare wines to astronomical levels. Who would have thought that Lafite would be selling for $1,500 a bottle? I fear that my tongue will never again be blessed with the wonderful experience of a Mouton or a Richebourg.

At the same time, though, it’s the best of times because the world’s wine surplus, which is driving down wine prices, is unlikely to evaporate anytime soon. In addition, the quality of bargain wines is better than ever. Not everything out there is great, but much is outstanding.

Average, run-of-the-mill wine is better than ever before thanks to several major developments in the wine world. The first is that there are now very few technical secrets in winemaking. Technology flows at Internet speed from vineyard to vineyard. There was a time when the French had a lock on the world’s knowledge of how to make great wine. But today at dozens of enology schools around the world, students are learning new and better techniques. Young winemakers now routinely work two harvests a year, thus speeding up their professional development.

Terroir? Winemaking has gone global

The biggest benefactors of all this transfer of technology are the world’s hot wine regions. They have long been able to produce massive amounts of fruit, but until recently had to accept the tradeoff of low quality. Thanks to new technology such as drip irrigation and night harvesting, regions like Mendoza, Argentina, or the Central Valley of California are producing huge harvests with better quality.

Winemaking in the past century has spread from its European roots to just about every part of the world except the North Pole and the South Pole. Wine is made in every state in the U.S. Just in the past six months, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing the wines of Croatia and Colorado on their home turf. Connoisseurs looked with disdain on the wines of California until May 24, 1976, when some upstart winemakers from Napa turned the world upside down at the Paris Tasting. The Californians had simply copied French best practices and adapted them to the growing conditions nature gave them. That experience has now been repeated in many other countries.

Winemakers turning out $100 bottles or $1,000 bottles, though, have to keep preaching the myth of terroir to keep up their prices. They have to spread the belief that their grapes come from a unique spot of earth that has perfect growing conditions. The dirty little secret is that really good wine can be made in many places.

For the past four years, I have been working hard in the vineyards of bargain wines. I’ve tasted some terrible products, but they have been exceptions. The wines that average people drink on average days have improved. They may not be the wines you want to serve at a wedding or a golden anniversary, but they are perfectly fine daily wines. In the business they are known as Wednesday wines because that’s what people regularly drink on a Wednesday night at home when no one is looking. In my book “A Toast to Bargain Wines,” I listed some 400 Wednesday wines selling for less than $10 a bottle, and dozens of what I called splurge wines that go for less than $25.

Bargain wine lovers: Here’s an eye-opening blind tasting

I regularly do blind tastings with friends to help educate anyone with an open mind about undiscovered gems. I had such an event on a recent weeknight. As part of a charity auction, I had offered to do a wine tasting at my home on Block Island, R.I., which is located 12 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. After looking around my wine cellar, I decided on a tasting of Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot and picked three in each category.

The four tasters were regular wine drinkers, but not connoisseurs. They enjoy all sorts of wines, but one woman admitted that she bought more expensive wines to give as gifts than what she drank regularly. She said she drinks mostly $10 wines.

The wines fell into three categories: inexpensive, moderately priced and expensive. The three Sauvignon Blancs: Charles Shaw 2010 ($3); Clos Floridene Graves 1999 ($26); Moraga Blanc 2007 ($65). The three Merlots: Charles Shaw 2010 ($3), Château Reignac 2000 ($18); Plump Jack 2004 ($52). I had bought the Charles Shaw wines in New Jersey, so my Two Buck Chuck was Three Buck Chuck. The French-style wines were generally blends, but with a predominance of Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot.

My guests tasted both the whites and the reds before I let them know the results. In the white category, three of the four selected Charles Shaw as their favorite. Among the reds, there was a tie between Charles Shaw and Château Reignac. I was not surprised because I’ve now done similar tastings dozens of times, and the other results were similar. In a blind tasting average wine drinkers seem to prefer inexpensive wines. So why do people buy $100 or $1,000 bottles of wine? I don’t get it. Are they really just buying the label?

We then discussed the results and the implications while drinking a bottle of 2000 Vin de Constance, one my favorites dessert wines, in part because Napoleon asked for it on his deathbed. There is story in every wine bottle.

Photo: George M. Taber.  Credit: Cliff Moore

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Chef Claus Henricksen of Denmark

An hour west of the thriving culinary mecca of Copenhagen is an 800-year-old castle clinging to the shore of the frigid North Sea. Unlike so many of the country’s castles that have been transformed into museum pieces, the fortified white walls of Dragsholm Slot envelope a thriving industry that includes a hotel and two restaurants.

One restaurant is a casual bistro called The Eatery that serves traditional Danish fare, the other is a fine dining establishment overlooking acres of land from which nearly all of the tasting menu’s ingredients are sourced. It’s an idyllic place for chef Claus Henriksen, 31 and the former sous chef of Noma. There he oversees both restaurants and the castle’s robust catering and events division.

Henriksen eschews meat-heavy dishes in order to showcase the intensely flavored vegetables he harvests from his garden each day: Grilled asparagus and garden sorrel with crispy rye bread croutons and garden herbs; glazed lamb brains and new potatoes with onions, pickled tapioca and lovage; and thyme and mint granita with fresh goat cheese meringue strike a perfect balance between protein and produce.

 

 

The extraordinary surroundings of electric green hills spilling into rich fields, ancient orchards and hedgerows populated with beehives sustain his frenetic seven-day work week and remind him to slow down and absorb the sublime energy reverberating around him. In this interview with Henriksen, we discover why visitors to Copenhagen who invest the time to journey to Dragsholm are justly rewarded by an experience that not only stimulates their palettes, but ignites their spirits.

What do you like most about working at Dragsholm Slot?

It’s the quietness. If you have free time here you can walk outside and enjoy everything that’s around you. The only thing you can do in the middle of a city is step out your door and drink. If you need ten carrots here, you can go and get ten carrots instead of calling a producer and telling them you need ten carrots.

Where do you think this New Nordic obsession came from?

Until around twelve years ago the only thing Danish chefs desired was to purchase everything from France. It’s the way the chef was brought up. We didn’t understand the meaning and significance of our own surroundings. And then we started to look more internally. When you’re growing, there comes a point when you want to do something different than what you’re parents are doing. That’s what happened to Danish chefs. We wanted to rebel against the status-quo and use Danish products instead of imports. A lot of our chefs went out in the 90s and the beginning of the 2000’s to work abroad. They started to see that in other areas of the world, chefs only used local products and we started to think that we could do the same thing. [Chefs cooking] New Nordic cuisine focus on the ingredients and listen to the environment in order to truly understand it. These principles can be applied anywhere in the world.

I asked a chef many years ago why we were using asparagus and cherries all year long. He said, “I don’t care. It’s in season somewhere in the world.” Twenty years ago that was the philosophy. I think this is what inspired Danish chefs to cook differently. The way we cook now in Scandinavia is fresher and more thoughtful. Twenty years ago everything revolved around a prime piece of meat such as tenderloin, and supporting it were truffles, foie gras, lobster, langoustines. Now we are more focused on flavors. If you spend more time coaxing out the flavor of something simple, you will be rewarded. It’s more challenging to do this, but it’s more fulfilling too.

Is it an exciting time to be a chef in Denmark at the moment?

If you don’t look at it as an exciting time, you might as well quit. You have to appreciate the challenges and the virtues in every season and find virtue in your work each and every day. If your interest wanes, stop and reassess. If you’re happy, then your guest will be happy, because your happiness comes through in your cuisine.

What are the fundamental principles that guide you when cooking?

For me the most important thing is to have a contented guest who understands what I’m doing. If my cuisine sometimes get a little too crazy, I will dial-it back and begin all over again. You have to be willing to do this. I think that one problem in kitchens all over the world is that people are afraid to start over.

The cooking here is very personal. It’s about integrity. It’s about using, producing, showing the produce in its best light ,and then you can always add something for a final flourish. I want it to be balanced. Sometimes people say it’s a little too powerful and that’s true, because it’s filled with flavor. This doesn’t mean that we’re adding a lot of elements, it tastes so intense because the natural flavors are so fresh. We are showing here the best of what the farmers and fishermen are doing. You can do fancy things but if you don’t have the best ingredients, it won’t work. And vice versa. There has to be a balance and this balance must include the best of everything.

Top photo: Claus Henriksen of Dragsholm Slot. Credit: Sandeep Patwal

Slide show credit: Sandeep Patwal

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Elin's Wine Pick: 2011 Handley Pinot Gris Helluva Vineyards

Only a handful of California wineries make good wines from Pinot Gris. One of them is the round-textured 2011 Handley Cellars Pinot Gris from their Helluva Vineyard, with its lemongrass and honeysuckle aromas. Another winner from this year’s Critics Challenge annual wine competition, it’s a white that combines coastal freshness, nectarine and mineral flavors, and enough weight to match rich salmon or pork dishes.

Milla Handley was one of Anderson Valley’s pioneers. She first made wine there in 1982, when she fermented and aged 10 barrels of Chardonnay in her home basement. Now the winery produces a wide range of varietals, from Gewürztraminer to Pinot Noir (she makes four), and an excellent sparkling wine, too.

Most vintages of Handley’s Pinot Gris are blends of grapes from three vineyards located in both the cooler and warmer ends of the valley. But cold, rainy weather in 2011 posed even more serious challenges than usual in the Anderson Valley — especially in the cool northern end closer to the ocean. On my tasting tour during last fall’s harvest, I encountered worried winemakers bemoaning the gray skies, hoping for some sun to ripen the grapes, and wondering how long they could dare to wait before picking.

Grapes in two of Handley’s Pinot Gris vineyards were pretty much a washout. Only those in Helluva vineyard, near Boonville in the hotter, southern part of the valley, managed to ripen, which is why the 2011 is labeled as a single vineyard. Even so, the alcohol level is nearly a degree lower than Handley’s 2010.

The same and different: Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio

Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio (as it’s known in Italy) are actually the same grape. Yet the two names have come to stand for quite different styles of wine. Pinot Grigio is generally lighter and crisper and all too frequently fairly innocuous. Wines labeled Pinot Gris tend to be modeled on the fuller-bodied, richer examples from Alsace that can age for decades.

Handley’s version is closer to Alsace, but 2011’s cool weather gave it a tangy acidity. That combination of crispness and luscious round texture makes it a terrific — and versatile — food wine for summer or the rest of the year.

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After its opening in 1999, Melisse restaurant in Santa Monica quickly became the hallmark of fine dining in Los Angeles. Chef-owner Josiah Citrin has since earned two Michelin stars for his sophisticated dining room and the thoughtful and exuberant California-French cuisine that comes from his kitchen. When other chefs were re-imagining their menus in the face of the recession, Citrin plowed on with his intricate dishes, artful showcases of premium ingredients at their inspired best.

Now he’s written a cookbook to show the rest of us how it’s done. “In Pursuit of Excellence” is not for the dabbler cook. When Citrin suggests reading his recipes several times before starting, believe him. A call for a quarter-cup of grape juice means blending a cup of grapes with water and passing the mixture through a chinoise. A rabbit recipe involves turning a whole bunny into a rillette.

Line up the pots and pans

The chapters, organized like a menu, begin with amuse bouches. These are not your average appetite whetters: Fennel flan with orange gelee, cashew foam and vanilla; Kabocha squash agnelotti with pomegranate seeds, black trumpet mushrooms, walnut crumble and sage froth.  Next comes a parade of first courses: Seared foie gras with banyuls-poached figs and ginger spice; Alaskan king crab with asparagus puree, asparagus royale and passion fruit-rosemary emulsion. (Citrin likes to present a single ingredient in different styles on the same plate.) After completing any one of these dishes, your guests will understand if you order out for the rest of the meal. You can pass the book — large format, glossy-paged, with gorgeous photos by Matt Kiefer -– around the table to show what you might have done with a bit more time and kitchen help.

But for the indefatigable and ambitious, Citrin and writer Patricia Aranka Smith provide a cornucopia of expert possibility, a take-home course in out-of-the-park fine dining. True, these dishes tend to require an involved series of elements, but Citrin holds readers’ hands through each: Côte de boeuf with mini potato leek tortes, pan-simmered little gems lettuce, sauteed mushrooms, herb butter and herb jus; Chatham Bay cod seared and confit, with purple Peruvian potatoes, red wine onions, red onion puree and Melisse broth; paper roasted rabbit with white bean hummus and Meyer lemon gastrique. Conceivably overwhelmed at a glance, a beginner cook can start by choosing just one element, the hummus say, or the leek torts, and work their way up the ladder — as they would in a restaurant kitchen. The soups –- fava bean, creamless pea, potato leek –- are well within reach (put Argan oil on your shopping list), as are several seasonal salads.

A chapter on cheeses and appropriate accompaniments such as walnut bread and candied kumquats precedes the chapter on desserts. The latter, no surprise, are complex, but, again, any cook can find a single element and call it a day — forget the mousse, flan and bon bons of the chocolate chocolate chocolate extravaganza and just make the soufflé. The sticky toffee pudding can stand proudly on its own, minus the hibiscus consommé and mocha malt ice cream.

Help is on the way

Citrin, aware that his recipes are challenging, offers plenty of support. “In Pursuit of Excellence” begins with tips on Melisse methodology. For instance, store sauces in a thermos so they stay hot, and invest in an immersion blender to make soups. He suggests a garnishing salt-and-pepper mix of three parts Fleur de Sel to one part cracked Telicherry pepper, and tells us what olive oils and vinegar he prefers. Various cutting techniques are described alongside vibrant photos of vegetables reduced to dice, batons and julienne strips. The final chapter comprises what Citrin considers base recipes: preserved lemons, duck confit, banyuls vinaigrette and Maine lobster with butter made from its coral.

Melisse has stayed at the top of the heap in a notoriously fickle restaurant town through dint of Citrin’s unfailing passion, an expertise forged through decades of hard work, and a creative genius that seems constantly renewed through expression on his plates. With this self-published book, Citrin shares his pursuit of excellence to inspire ours.

“Buy Josiah Citrin’s “In Pursuit of Excellence” Now!


Zester Daily contributor Margot Dougherty, the food editor for Los Angeles magazine for many years, is a freelance writer and Zester contributing editor living in Venice, Calif. Her work has appeared in Saveur, More, Town & Country and Conde Nast Traveler among other magazines.

Top photo composite:

Josiah Citrin. Credit: Charles Park Photography

Book jacket. Credit: Matthew Keifer

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I’ve been a full-time Hamptons resident for 15 years, yet I’m still caught by surprise when July Fourth weekend rolls around and Main Street in Sag Harbor becomes as congested as Broadway after a matinee. Dining out is difficult. Restaurants that do take reservations are booked weeks advance. Restaurants that don’t take reservations ask patrons to cool their heels at the bar or on the sidewalk into the wee hours. Since planning ahead is not my strong suit, and neither is patience, I simply don’t go to restaurants during the height of the season. Because of the bounty of vegetables I harvest at Quail Hill Community Farm, the increasing availability of local seafood, poultry and meat at the market, and house guests who expect homemade desserts because I’ve bragged about my baking expertise for years, I cook and entertain at home.

That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the simpler food pleasures that this unique area has to offer whenever I get the chance. Here are a few places where I enjoy summertime treats on the spur of the moment and without a hassle:

Bay Burger: Yes, you can dine at Bay Burger, an excellent drive-in restaurant where Joe and Liza Tremblay grind their own beef and bake their own hamburger buns. But I come here for the superb homemade ice cream (their slogan: “It’s from the Hamptons, so you know it’s rich”). The civic-minded owners often create new flavors for special occasions. To celebrate the John Jermain Memorial Library Centennial Celebration, they came up with the amazing Liberry — strawberry ice cream with raspberry swirls.

Blue Duck Bakery: Southampton’s own artisan bakery has a storefront on Hampton Road, but also delivers daily to two of my favorite haunts, Schiavoni’s Market and Pike Farms Stand. The seeded baguettes are so rich they could double as dessert. The Blue Duck also sells bread at the Sag Harbor Farmers Market every Saturday, but get there by 9:15 a.m. if you want to enjoy a croissant before they sell out.

Cavaniola’s Gourmet:  When this fantastic cheese shop opened just steps from my house I thought I was dreaming. Six years later, it has expanded to include prepared foods and interesting wines. My extremely spoiled children like to buy freshly fried potato chips and panini made with sopressata and fontal or asiago and artichokes here, elegantly packaged in butcher’s paper and twine, to take to Sagg Main Beach for lunch.

Channing Daughters Winery: I often stop by this award-winning boutique winery on my way home from Mecox Beach to sample at least six different wines while enjoying the view of the vines from the tasting room’s terrace. Members of the wine club (I am a proud one) drink for free. For nonmembers, the cost is $8, less than the price of a drink at the American Hotel.

Cilantro’s: Sag Harbor’s very own Mexican take-out place. I’ll pick up an order of Nachos Grande, with freshly made salsa and guacamole, for my family to eat on the patio as we take turns rinsing the sand from our feet after a day at the beach.

Cromer’s Country Market: During the rest of the year, I cherish Cromer’s for its expert butcher’s department. In the summer, I go there like everyone else for the best fried chicken east of the Shinnecock Canal.

Goldberg’s Bagels: My parents, visiting from New Jersey, typically shake their heads in disbelief at the summer crowds out here. In their opinion most of the food is “nothing special.” The exception is Goldberg’s bagels in East Hampton, where slightly sweet bagels with super-shiny crusts are made the old-fashioned way, poached and then baked.

Honeybee Café: A new favorite, this little cafe at Marders Nursery in Bridgehampton serves excellent espresso and sells Bees’ Needs organic honey and honey products (beekeeper Mary Woltz actually has some of her hives out back). After I’ve gotten my coffee buzz, I like to browse the garden shop, which has a great selection of hostess gifts, gardening books and fashionable rubber boots imported from France and England.

Horman’s Best Pickles: Horman’s pickles, artisanally made in Glen Cove by a scion of Long Island’s premier pickling family and sold at the Sag Harbor Farmers Market, are an only-on-Saturday treat (you can also buy them on Fridays at the East Hampton Farmers Market).  I like the spicy varieties — horseradish, jalapeno, wasabi — but there is something for everyone in the pickle barrels trucked in for the morning. Many shoppers actually prefer Horman’s pickles on a stick to Blue Duck croissants for breakfast.

coffee roasterJava Nation: Sag Harbor’s anti-Starbucks, Java Nation, is a hometown coffee roaster with ultra-fresh beans and a bit of an attitude. You can often find me (along with our village’s other coffee addicts) sipping their excellent iced coffee on the steps leading up to their small cafe off of Main Street. I wouldn’t buy my coffee anywhere else.

Plain-T: An oasis squeezed between an auto body shop and Riverhead Building supply in Southampton. Plain T began as a wholesale purveyor of fine organic teas to fancy places like the Regency and  Sant Ambroeus. Last summer, owners Tathiana and Alex Teixeira opened their chic white-washed showroom to the public, so anyone wishing to escape the heat can all pull up a stool to the rustic wooden bar and enjoy expertly brewed white, green, or black tea as well as Plain-T’s absolutely delicious and unique iced teas.

Sag Harbor Variety Store: We are fortunate to have an old-fashioned five-and-dime store right on Main Street, a one-stop shop for random items like canning jars, spray starch, flip flops, and contact paper. Near the cash register is an ice cream freezer filled with Fudgsicles, Creamsicles and strawberry shortcake Popsicles.


Zester Daily contributor Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated and The New York Times. She is the author of 14 books, most recently “Cake Keeper Cakes” (Taunton, 2009) and “Cookie Swap!” (Workman, 2010).

Photos, from top:

Bagels at Goldberg’s Bagels.

Joe & Liza’s ice cream truck.

Java Nation’s coffee roaster.

Credits: Lauren Chattman

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Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week


2009 Domaine Gerovassiliou G Malagousia

Price: $23
Region: 
Epanomi, Macedonia, Greece
Grape:
 100 percent malagousia
Alcohol: 
12.5 percent
Serve with:
 Grilled fish, summer salads

Greece has a bewildering number of native grape varieties with unpronounceable names, and many make simply stunning wines. The whites especially are worth discovering — like this delicious 2009 Domaine Gerovassiliou G made from Malagousia. It brims with very fresh, floral, almost jasmine-scented aromas and distinctive flavors of citrus and melon overlaid with a faint smokiness and minerality. Delicate yet intense, round yet crisp, and incredibly food friendly, it’s a perfect partner to grilled fish and summer salads.

The Malagousia grape very nearly died out completely. Evangelos Gerovassiliou, who started his eponymous winery in northern Greece just southeast of the city of Thessaloniki in 1981, is the one who rescued and revived it. At his estate, this pioneer who has led the country’s modern wine revolution cultivates the largest and oldest plantings of the varietal in Greece.

The rediscovery of Malagousia seems like some sort of strange miracle. Greece’s 300 or so ancient native grapes had nearly disappeared by the end of the 19thcentury because of the taxation of vineyards and Muslim prohibition of alcohol during the four centuries of Ottoman occupation.

In 1970, a Greek ampelography professor hunting for native grapes found the last Malagousia vine growing in a remote mountain village in a pergola, a trellis covered with vines designed to create a spot of shade. During the occupation, these provided enough grapes for farmers to make small amounts of wine without being taxed.

The professor brought cuttings of Malagousia — and many other varieties — to Porto Carras, the largest estate in Greece and the cradle of new winemaking. There winemaker Gerovassiliou propagated them in experimental vineyards.

The rest, as they say, is history. It took Gerovassiliou 25 years to establish the best clone at his own estate on a peninsula surrounded by the sea. The result is this unique crisp white with depth of flavor that shows just why Greek whites deserve to be more popular.


Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”

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Think of it as a mollusk dating service. The goal of the annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition is to find the West Coast wines best suited to hook up with an iced kumamoto or olympia as it slithers down a diner’s throat. The ideal wine, says Jon Rowley, who dreamed up the PCOWC in 1990 and has been wrangling and instructing judges ever since, will “exalt” the oyster. Could there be a more noble matchmaking endeavor?

Rowley was a restaurant consultant in the 1980s, a career that included what he calls “a nice niche putting together oyster programs and bars around the country.” When asked for advice on what wine to drink with the oysters,  “I’d find myself recommending French wines,” Rowley says. “The French know about that sort of thing.” But he got to thinking: With the West Coast wine scene booming, surely there must be American alternatives that would do a bivalve proud.

He turned his search into the inaugural PCOWC, held in Santa Monica, Calif. It was not a success. The judges included Russ Parsons from the Los Angeles Times; Ruth Reichl, who was the Times restaurant critic; the late Tom Stockley, a wine writer from the Seattle Times; and the late Michael Roberts, then chef of a restaurant called Trumps. “We met at Ocean Avenue Seafood,” Rowley remembers, “and everyone brought three wines. They weren’t very good.”  The team, valiant sorts, vowed to eat more oysters and drink more wine until they got it right.  Rowley solicited better bottles from West Coast wineries, charging a $35 entry fee. He broadened the reach, holding tastings in New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston as well as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. The competitions were a hit, but Rowley was losing his shirt — the entry fees didn’t even cover his travel costs. He pulled the plug on the PCOWC.

After a three- or four-year hiatus (this is not the sort of operation that wastes valuable time on record books), demand for the resumption of the competition persuaded Rowley to up the wineries’ ante to $100. The esteemed PCOWC  has been back in business since.

Earlier this spring five Seattle judges winnowed 119 submitted wines to 20 semifinalists, downing 1,200 kumamotos in the process. (A judge has to do what a judge has to do.) They looked for crisp whites with a clean finish, genteel wines that wouldn’t get into fisticuffs with the oysters’ brininess or power slam the delicate sweetness of their spineless suitors. The judges emerged with a collection of sauvignon and chenin blancs, pinots gris and grigio, and a few signature blends, all of which showed potential for oyster dating.

A few weeks ago Rowley, who handles the marketing for Taylor Shellfish Farms, the sponsors of the PCOWC, met up with his L.A. judges at the Water Grill for the 17th annual competition.  The panel included Parsons, now the Los Angeles Times food editor, Mary Sue Milliken of the Border Grill; Lou Amdur, of L.A.’s beloved winecentric restaurant, Lou’s; the L.A. Weekly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Jonathan Gold, Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey and myself, among others. We took our places at separate tables, each with an iced platter of a dozen kumamotos set before 20 sparkling Reidel glasses tagged with letter-bearing stickers: A, B, C, etc. A  scoring sheet, pencil and sobering slices of bread completed the setting.

Rowley started the proceedings with a final reminder to look not for the best wine, but for the best oyster wine — a distinct category. Then, as PCOWC tradition requires, he read a quote from Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” the passage that long ago spurred Rowley’s love of oysters. “I closed up the story in my notebook and put it in my inside pocket,” the quote begins, “and I asked the waiter for a dozen of the Portugaises and a half carafe of the dry white wine they had there.”

As Rowley finished, Water Grill staff began pouring the first flight of wines from bottles swaddled in silver cellophane. For the next hour or so we exercised our best alchemical judgment in matching mollusk and minerality, vine and brine, notes of land and sea. Some judges judiciously used their spittoon, others of us couldn’t get a wine’s true measure until it ran by our tonsils. Some chewed and sipped thoughtfully, others instinctively. Some worked through the rows methodically, others zigzagged, retasting D to compare it to M, sipping S yet again to be sure. One judge was moved to perform intermittent chest-opening exercises, perhaps an indication of the stamina and fortitude required by the event, or maybe just a reaction to the onslaught of B-12.

We took notes, ranked and re-ranked until we each settled on our top 10 oyster wines. Our lists would eventually be combined with those from the Seattle and San Francisco tastings to calculate the PCOWC 2011 Wine Winners but at that moment, we had a quiet interlude of judging satisfaction. We hadn’t just tasted 20 crisp white wines and eaten oysters to our hearts’ content for personal gain or glory. We did it because it had to be done: What is a world in which oysters aren’t properly exalted, in which unsuitable wines rob them of their superlative bestness? We do this, selflessly, for oyster lovers everywhere, to steer them to the often unsung and eminently affordable whites (most under $20) that will make their raw bar visits that much more joyous.

As the waitstaff took up the glasses, we gathered with Rowley in the Water Grill’s bar to cleanse our weary palates — hefty glasses of ale all around. It’s likely nobody felt the relief of the competition’s close as much as the aptly named Abel, the restaurant’s premier shucker. He’d cut his way through more than 300 oysters in the name of invertebrate blind dating.


Margot Dougherty, the food editor for Los Angeles magazine for many years, is a freelance writer and Zester contributing editor living in Venice, California. Her work has appeared in Saveur, More, Town & Country and Conde Nast Traveler among other magazines.

Photo: Oysters on the half shell with a perfect white. Credit: Jon Rowley

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The bell rings, and a herd of famished students eagerly flock toward their gritty feeding ground. The school cafeteria: a raucous haven from the classroom, breeding area for youth entrepreneurship with insider “candy trading” policies, and now, combat zone against obesity?

One of the front-line soldiers in the battle is Chef Timothy Cipriano, the executive director of food services for New Haven, Conn., Public Schools, Cipriano has created a variety of programs to educate New Haven students on the benefits of fresh and healthy eating.

Cipriano worked with the First Lady and the White House on the Let’s Move campaign. In April of 2010, he was selected by President Barack Obama as one of two school nutrition chefs to attend the Childhood Obesity Summit.

Oft-referred to as “The Local Food Dude,” Cipriano’s one-sentence food philosophy is “Be a vocal local, buy locally grown; support the local economy.”

Tackling ‘typical’ desserts’

Cipriano’s nickname lauds his successful introduction of local produce into the school lunch program. In the New Haven school district where Cipriano works, the cafeteria does not serve what he calls “typical desserts” and opts for fresh, local, fruit and produce as delicious and healthy palette-cleansers. Somewhat sheepishly, Cipriano acknowledges that the cafeteria did stray from its healthy-food agenda during the Christmas holiday meal, when it served sugar cookies. But generally high-sugar, high-fat foods — even if made from local produce — are not on the menu. The point isn’t just to eat locally, it’s to make healthy decisions about local food.

He also introduced the Cooking Matters program “to educate people on how to not only shop via food stamps for the healthier, more nutritional alternatives but also to educate them on how to cook the same food.” Ultimately, Cipriano’s goal is “to end childhood hunger by opening up access to more food programs, and creating a model that is sustainable.”

A sustainable model for healthy school lunches will require more than the initiative of local food advocates, according to author Janet Poppendieck. Her book “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America” reviews school lunches and the policy that shapes them in the United States.

She is opposed to the current policy that she accuses of aiming $1.5 billion in food advertising at school-age children.

Ending stigma of free lunches

This “fundamental structure that makes children consumers” is largely problematic because it forces food service directors to provide children with the most “appealing” food that, as customers, they are most likely to buy. More often than not, this sort of food is junk food.

She also asserts in that a majority of the students who truly need school lunches for financial reasons do not participate in the program because of embarrassment.

In a Washington Post article, Poppendieck writes that “there is a stigma attached to free meals, which deters some families from applying and discourages some students from eating the meals for which they qualify.” Many students then choose to forgo waiting in the stigmatized free lunch line and instead opt toward the cheapest, often unhealthiest alternative sold in the cafeteria.

The current school lunch system, based on family income, is destructive, according to Poppendeick. Instead, she advocates for federally financed free meals for all children, regardless of family income. She acknowledges that this would cost close to $12 billion a year. In our era of budget-tackling policy reforms and tax cuts to public schools in many states, this option seems very unlikely.

Many Americans might balk at the suggestion to subsidize lunch for students, arguing that parents should provide for their own children. However, Poppendieck finds this explanation faulty. “We say: ‘Parents are responsible for feeding their own kids.’ We need to rethink that because many parents can’t feed their children nutritionally. The family structure has changed so drastically that we need to rethink the whole notion that this is the parent’s responsibility. The kids are in school at lunchtime. The school should nurture them.”

Alice Waters, in her essay “Slow Food, Slow Schools: Transforming Education Through a School Lunch Curriculum,” maintains that “our system of public education operates in the same strange, no-context zone of hollow fast-food values” as a museum cafeteria, and “what we are calling for is a revolution in public education — a real delicious revolution.”


Erica Hellerstein is a Berkeley, Calif., native and recent Johns Hopkins University graduate. She lives in New York City, where she is an intern for The Nation.

Photo credit: Lauri Patterson / iStockphoto.com

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