This week’s post differs in that it is only about cooking. However one of my latest Forbes posts is about a British Columbia winery. In the future we’ll be covering more British Columbia wine producers.
Now, to the kitchen.
Years ago I read books both by Julia Childs (My Life in France) and Julie Powell (Julie and Julia) and thought that Julie’s idea – cooking 524 recipes in 365 days was original – yet simple and facile. It seemed anyone who cooked up that notion could simply plunge through.
The process of compiling a cookbook has for myself involved collecting over 100 recipes from 15 countries, formatting each to be consistent, converting measurements to both Imperial and Metric units, and then…
To make recipes consistent, each recipe must identify preparation and cooking times and how many people will be served. Some contributors supplied this information; many did not (they were not asked to). In some recipes the ingredient list did not tally with subsequent cooking steps. Some recipes lacked clarity.
Which meant – it was time to cook each recipe.
In youth I baked cakes: four layered spice cakes; banana pan cakes – all taken from a Better Homes and Gardens, or a Betty Crocker cookbook. Later I learned to make yeast breads. Kneading became almost meditative. The majority of other meat, fish, poultry and vegetable dishes? Not so much.
In cooking these recipes (a task not yet completed), here are a few lessons learned.
- As with all actions, with time and practice you learn to economize. Cooking the first 50 recipes was slightly stressful (because I would not otherwise have selected them). The process was new and unknown. Planning what to buy, organizing ingredients within a relatively small kitchen, timing, and taking notes required leaving a comfort zone to which there is no return. The book My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz is inspiring because he understands the challenge of operating within a constricted working space. With foods you never worked with before you learn improved economy of operations and new ways to wield knife, bowl, cutting board and oven.
- Much delicious food is simple to cook. Vegetable stock? Slice and dice greens and reds and orange carrots, toss in a pot, cover with water, simmer for an hour and strain. Done.
- Some cooking is complex. Petite triangular pasta pieces individually stuffed with cheese and spinach? The taste is unworldly, though the preparation effort requires the concentration of a dentist. Decide carefully before committing to what you will cook for friends, then practice at least once in advance.
- Some kitchen gadgets are helpful. After college I skied days and worked nights as a dishwasher at the Grand Banks Restaurant in the town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Since then I had not used a dishwasher in decades. No reason. Weeks ago it became clear that constantly balancing a mini-ziggurat tower of pots, pans, dough encrusted ladles, parmesan smudged forks and a spinach draped colander over a small drying board was an admirable, though unstable act. A gust of wind from an open window could crash the pile. Instead, I recently tried out the dishwasher and was delighted at the improved results of the machine compared with decades ago. No wonder they endure.
- However, not all amazing kitchen equipment is necessary. A blender does not have to tell digital time in three languages, and a plastic ladle from Ikea often works just fine.
- Eating healthy and home cooked food feels beneficial in several ways. Instead of chowing down packaged foods with unpronounceable ingredients, you can feel pride ladling out butternut squash soup from vegetables bought at the morning market, followed by risotto made with fresh mushrooms. Sure, we don’t always have the time for cooking. But turn off the TV and you certainly will have more.
- Appreciate the effort of cooks. Anthony Bourdain was right: writing for money is easy in comparison to cooking because you can sit down. Cooking can be physically demanding, frenetic, hot, challenging, and always subject to the availability of ingredients. Unfortunately, your audience will not wait.
- Some of the best recipes require you to do everything. Yes, everything. No supermarket bought pie-crusts. No canned vegetable stock. No rice in a bag. Slice ’em, dice ’em and assemble all ingredients – fresh. Twist in your hands the very turnip or carrot or pea pod you will transform into lunch.
- The Europeans are onto something with their weight rather than volume measurements. Ever tried to measure four tablespoons of unsoftened butter pulled from a fridge? If you know what the weight is in grams, plop it on a scale and get a readout. Simple.
- Consider visual presentation. A dash of green herbs, shreds of cheese, or a slice of bread or red radish added to a dish can improve the appearance immeasurably. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
- If you burn rice or make crappy lasagna or your potatoes are cold and your cod looks mangled – wonderful. Learn from your errors.
- By choosing new recipes, you learn about foods never heard of before. Jerusalem artichokes do not resemble artichokes; quails and pheasants are certainly not chickens. Leeks and sweet potatoes? Prepare to become well acquainted with them.
- Improvisation and substitution are essential. I received a beautiful and excellent recipe for Dhuka crusted Kangaroo; fortunately the Australian chef provided an alternative to kangaroo meat if unavailable. Lack an ingredient? Check for substitutions online. No ricotta cheese? Try bourse. No carrots for vegetable stock? Chop up a zucchini. Live large and go for it. Have the audacity to be creative.
- Be grateful that most of us are quite fortunate. We have refrigerators, stoves, blenders, electricity, thermometers, oven proof glassware, zesters, peelers, excellent knives and knife sharpeners, timers, plastic bags, aluminum foil, olive oil available year round, trash disposal systems, dishwashers, cookbooks, online tutorials, television channels, FDA food quality standards, electric kettles, measuring cups, scales, pot scrubbing abrasive pads, kitchen fans, freezers, internet answers to questions, and – of course – corkscrews. We are not living in North Korea. Be very thankful.
- Thanks to all recipe contributors. I am often amazed after following steps to find that a dish emerges not only bizarrely creative and beautiful, but delicious. Each recipe is a river that runs its own unique course.
- Thanks also to author Michael Pollan (whose books will encourage you to eat and cook healthier foods) as well as Betty Crocker and Molly Katzen – cookbook authors from years gone by.
Established as a wine appellation in 1987, Pessac-Leognan was formerly referred to as Haut-Graves. This wine region sits just south of Bordeaux city. Actually, part of it is within the city.
I drove there in early December to visit the Portes Ouvertes, a delightful French tradition where dozens of wine châteaux in a given region pour free samples from 10.00 am to 6.00 pm on a Saturday and Sunday. In this case more than 40 wine chateaux in eight communes poured non-stop while streams of cars on exploration tours followed special countryside signposts.
The northern wine chateaux are within the periphery of Bordeaux city. Château Baret is a stately white stone architectural beauty with vineyards spreading out before—a sizable Renault dealership. This is a land of community swimming pools, warehouses, schools, offices and industrial zones. Only after you slip out of the town of Leognan further south does the countryside abruptly transform to swelling agricultural fields, forests and vineyards. The sight of this open space will make you exhale with relief.
The region is known for both red and white wines, though I found the whites exemplary (usually a blend of 5 to 55 percent Sauvignon Blanc; the balance being Semillon) while the reds (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, primarily) were balanced and smooth but generally lacking zest or distinction.The range of variety is noticeable within Pessac Leognan—in terms of architecture, size of operations, quality and price. Some of it is similar to the Languedoc in southeast France where you can drive to adjacent wine producers and find large differences between the quality and cost of what they produce. I visited one large château oozing with wealth where scheduled bus tours arrived each hour. They served high-priced mediocre plonk and had difficulty identifying which grapes they had blended.
Yet the overall variety of this visiting experience was colorful and rich. The Bordeaux Hells Angels had parked outside Château Fieuzal to stop in for a taste, while Château Mancèdre included an exhibit of the winemaker’s photographs from rural Galway, Ireland. At Château Mirebeau the winemaker gave talks about biodynamics while at Château Eyrans groups of visitors were given barrel samples of Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Because the cold snap of winter arrived days ago, the fireplace in Le Ferran, surrounded by couches, was welcoming.
The below wines—ranked for value—are all white, good quality, and priced between $15 and $25 a bottle.
|Vino Value™ Scoring of Selected Wines – Pessac Leognan Wines December 2016|
|Winery||Wine||Retail Price – Euros||Retail Price – US dollars equivalent||Value Score|
|Château Baret||2015 Blanc||€ 17.00||$18.12||Superlative Value ♫♫♫|
|Château Mancèdre||2014 (white)||€ 20.00||$21.32||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Château Larrivet Haut-Brion||2014 Les Demoiselles (white)||€ 15.00||$15.99||Superlative Value ♫♫♫|
|2015 Héliotropes (white/biodynamic)||€ 23.50||$25.05||Good Value ♫|
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Work on the book The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion continues. We’re still cooking recipes, and this week spent time with graphic artist Lou Dorémus on the layout of pages. Elena Malgina is also focusing on publishing contacts.
Here’s a recipe for pumpkin soup to ward off the chill of December. The aromas of these vegetables when they are frying is beautiful.
Potimarron (Pumkin) Soup
From Valérie Eymas, Co-owner of Château La Rose Bellevue, Saint-Palais, Côtes de Blaye Bordeaux, Gironde, France
Preparation Time and Quantity –
35 minutes to prepare, 50 minutes to cook. Serves 6 to 8 people.
Ingredients and Amounts
Leeks (only white part) – 3
Small pumpkin (‘potimarron’) – 1 (or use ½ normal sized pumpkin)
Potatoes (medium) – 3
Sweet potato – 1
Chestnuts – 1½ cups (200 grams)
Jerusalem artichokes – 4
Garlic cloves – 2
Coarse salt – 2 tablespoons (35 grams)
Olive oil – as needed
Sweet garam masala – 1 tablespoon (8 grams)
Fish sauce – 3 tablespoons (45 grams)
Coconut milk – 3 tablespoons (45 grams)
Water – 1¼ quarts (1¼ liters)
- Chop leeks.
- Peel and chop all potatoes – regular and sweet. Cut to approximately 1 inch (2 centimeter) squares.
- Peel and chop artichokes to same size as potatoes.
- Scoop out innards of pumpkin, then cut the interior flesh into chunks about 1 inch (2 centimeter) squares.
- Heat chestnuts.
- Peel and chop garlic cloves.
- Sauté the leeks in oil until browned, then add chopped pumpkins and potatoes.
- After a few minutes of frying, add other vegetables and chestnuts and fry for about 10 more minutes.
- Top up with the 1¼ quarts of water and bring to the boil.
- Reduce heat and let simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
- While simmering, add garam massala, fish sauce and coconut milk.
- Put in blender and purée.
Valérie writes –
“Serve with garlic croutons, shredded cheese, and a few coriander leaves on top.”
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Recent Forbes posts include one published today – about how a Michelin star meal can be affordable. Other posts include the opening of Vinitech in Bordeaux and the drink you’ve likely never heard of spelled Pineau (but pronounced Pinot).
The photograph below, and the recipe that follows, are of veal cooked in Barolo wine. I wrote a few pieces about Barolo recently after a visit to Elton John’s concert there months ago, and a stay in the countryside of Piemonte where we compared this wine country to that of northern California.
This recipe requires patience: the meat cooks in wine for eight hours.
‘Brasato al Barolo’ – Veal Cooked in Barolo Wine
From Chef Valter Quirico and Winemaker Flavio Fenocchio of Marchesi de Barolo, Barolo, Piemonte Region, Italy
Preparation Time and Quantity –
20 minutes to prepare, 8 hours to cook. Serves 4 to 6 people
Ingredients and Amounts
Boneless veal shoulder roast – 1 [about 2 to 3 ½ pounds (1 to 1 ½ kilograms)]
Red onions – 2
Carrot – 1
Celery stalk – 2
Bay leaf – 1
Olive oil – as needed
Salt – 1 teaspoon (6 grams)
Barolo Cannubi wine (or similar Barolo wine) – 3⅓ bottles [2½ quarts (2½ liters)]
- Chop onions.
- Slice carrots and celery stalks.
- Cover bottom of saucepan with olive oil and place over medium heat.
- Add veal and chopped vegetables – onions, carrot, celery, bay leaf.
- Cook until beef is browned.
- Add salt and Barolo wine.
- Cover, and cook over low heat for 8 hours.
- Take meat out of liquid and allow to cool.
- Whip sauce left in saucepan.
- Cut meat into pieces and serve with sauce.
Flavio writes –
“To accompany this special dish I particularly like to drink our Barolo Sarmassa, elegant but so full-bodied to cope with a very tasty meat dish.”
Valter writes –
“After slow cooking, the veal is so tender that there is no need to use a knife to cut it!”
Flavio writes –
“Our cook Valter has been working with us for ten years. He has this special recipe, a very traditional dish here in South Piedmont and one of my favorites. And guess what? It needs Barolo wine!”
Tom’s Comments –
It’s true—you will not need a knife to eat this tender, savory beef when it’s ready. Serve with cooked vegetables, as well as pasta, rice or potatoes and a full red wine with plenty of body (such as Barolo). This meal showpiece is hearty, but still light. If Barolo is not available, try another tannic wine.
When cooking, remember to check now and then and adjust the heat so the liquid stays at a simmer.
The bottles most cherished in my little cellar are neither renowned or expensive. Instead, they deliver memories. There is the 2008 Clos Apalta, purchased in Chile after meeting the winemaker (and months before Wine Spectator Magazine declared this Wine of The Year). There are magnums of biodynamic Cabernet Franc purchased from Clos Cristal of the Loire Valley after walking vines with the winemaker last year. Those bottles—one and a half liters of liquid magic—cost 30 Euros apiece are no longer available after the vineyard shut down. Or the few boxes of unique 2012 Les Angelots, made by friend Nicolas down the road. The label drawing includes two blue stone angels mounted on the winery’s outer wall. Somehow, Nicolas managed to bottle one of them. When I returned in spring after months working in Asia, the first priority was to phone and purchase his final box.
Memory of place, people and situations can makes bottles of wine—open and finished, or unopened—more memorable than any association with expense, renown or prestige. That is a strange and simple truth about wine.
The notion that precious does not have to be expensive applies not only to wine, but travel. Traveling off-season can mean purchasing less costly tickets, paying reasonable prices for accommodation and bumping into fewer streams of visitors wearing multicolored neoprene tight and speaking your own language. Even day trips, often unexpectedly, can turn as memorable as a week spent in a distant country.
On Sunday I visited the city of Cognac, an hour drive north. Soon I’ll write more about the city and the local drink Pineau (pronounced, yes—Pinot; it’s confusing). This blend of cognac and non-alcoholic grape juice is wildly popular here, yet apparently unknown in much of the world. In the meantime, here are some panoramic photos from that countryside drive and afternoon city walk. This getaway was precious, not costly. Tip of the week? When Google Maps alerts you to an alternate, non-highway, more scenic route that only adds eight minutes to a one hour drive—choose YES.
What else in life can be precious, without necessarily being expensive?
Food, sometimes. That’s one unsung benefit of Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S.—the joy of sharing a long lunch or dinner with friends and new faces, often at home, sometimes with a drink or two, maybe with decent conversation and perhaps followed by a walk.
Here in southern France the cool season has arrived. It’s not cold enough for a wool hat or gloves yet, but that time draws close. The leaves that turned brown and gold weeks ago are now spalling off vines.
As for food, two European recipes are included below—from Italy and France. They are easy to prepare, will keep you warm, and could even be a T-Day appetizer or dessert.
The first recipe comes from the Alto Adige region in northern Italy (location of the gorgeous toothed Dolomite mountains) while the second is from Bugey in the Rhone region of southern France. Thank you Andrian Wines, as well as Marjorie and Bernard Rondeau, who supplied these recipes.
Terlaner Wine Soup
From Rudi Kofler, Cellar Master of Andrian Wines, Terlano Wine Region, Alto Adige Province, Italy
Preparation Time and Quantity –
5 minutes to prepare, 25 minutes to cook. Serves 4 people.
Ingredients and Amounts
Broth – 2 cups (½ liter)
Egg yolks – 4
Cream – ⅕ cup (50 milliliters)
Terlaner wine* – 1 cup (¼ liter)
Bread cubes – from 1 stale roll
Butter – 1 tablespoon (14 grams)
Cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt – to taste
- Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius).
- Tear bread chunks from the roll so they are about ½ inch (1 centimeter) square.
- Mix cream and egg yolks until smooth.
- Pour butter over torn bread cubes, then roast for 10 to 15 minutes in the pre-heated oven.
- Remove bread from the oven and sprinkle with cinnamon.
- Pour broth and wine into a saucepan over low heat.
- Add cream/yolk mixture.
- Add a pinch of salt, a little nutmeg and cinnamon.
- When at a boil, remove from heat.
Pour into bowls. Top with bread cubes and sprinkle with nutmeg and cinnamon.
Andrian wines tells the history of this soup –
“The Terlaner wine soup was first served in Berlin in 1965 at a culinary event presenting South-Tyrolean specialties. Andreas Hellrigl, Josef Theiner and Franz Tauber, three renowned South-Tyrolean chefs, elaborated old recipes and created the Terlaner wine soup.”
* Terlaner wine is a composition of the Terlano wine region’s three most traditional grape varieties – Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc (the Pinot provides freshness and an acidic structure, the Chardonnay delivers warmth and mellowness, and the Sauvignon adds fine aromas). Choose a suitable blended white wine alternative.
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‘Tarte Bugiste’ – Tart from Bugey
From Marjorie and Bernard Rondeau, Owners of Domaine Bernard et Marjorie Rondeau, Boyeux-Saint-Jérôme, Bugey, France
Preparation Time and Quantity –
35 minutes until dough ready for first rising; 1 additional hour (after dough has risen) to finish preparing and to cook. Serves 8 people.
Ingredients and Amounts
Flour – 3½ cups (350 grams)
Sugar – 3 tablespoons (37 grams)
Butter (soft) – ¼ cup (60 grams)
Eggs – 2
Fresh yeast – 4½ teaspoons (15 grams) [or 1 sachet dried yeast]
Salt – pinch
Milk – 1 cup (240 milliliters)
Powdered sugar – as needed
Butter or heavy cream – as needed
Chocolate chips or chunks – as needed
- Warm milk and set aside.
- Melt butter.
- Add yeast to warm milk and stir.
- Beat eggs with sugar.
- Add melted butter and a pinch of salt to egg/sugar mixture.
- Add flour and milk/yeast mixture to the above mixture.
- Knead for several minutes (8 to 15) until this becomes homogenous, soft dough.
- Put dough in a bowl, cover with a damp towel, and let rise for 2 to 3 hours in a warm location.
- When dough is ready, pre-heat oven to between 480 and 520 degrees Fahrenheit (250 and 270 Celsius).
- Punch down dough, knead again, then roll out to a disc and let rise a second time for 15 to 30 minutes. It’s okay if it looks lumpy and bubbled.
- Sprinkle dollops of butter or heavy cream (or both), and powdered sugar on top of dough, and (as Marjorie says –“for being greedy”) add chocolate chips or chocolate chunks.
- Bake in pre-heated oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
Marjorie writes –
“Bon appétit. The specialty of our region is this Bugiste tart with cream.”
Tom’s Comments –
Sinfully soft and delicious. Try this with a sparkling rosé.
The amount of dough is small enough that you could knead it on a decent sized cutting board, if you don’t want to flour up a counter or table. Add flour liberally to keep the dough from sticking. Knead the dough the first time for 8 to 15 minutes or so, until it pushes back, turns springy and homogenous and looks slightly glossy.
Put on a lower shelf in the oven to avoid the top burning.
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Elena Malgina of Lugano, Switzerland will provide additional assistance to move the book The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion forward. Elena’s background is working in financial management, though she recently opened her own literary agency, Ithaka. In the past months she arranged for the translation and publication of letters written by renowned Russian writer Andrey Platonov and recently represented a book about President Obama’s policies. The choice to work with Elena was based on her intelligence, energy, and enthusiasm for the publishing industry. “One of my most exciting epiphanies of the last couple of years,” Elena wrote soon after we met, “was the simple realization that profession and passion can simply coexist and make a magical synergy.”
Finally, my latest Forbes pieces are here, including one about jazz pianist Daniel Gassin who is now in Dubai helping Quincy Jones open a jazz club. Future articles in the coming weeks will be about Loire Valley wines, Mont Saint-Michel island, the intriguing life of a flying winemaker (who is also a remarkable chef) and a Michelin starred lunch that costs less than a meal at Denny’s.
As always, thanks for tuning in.
The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion cookbook is now being represented by an aspiring young literary agent (also with a background in financial consulting) who is based in Lugano, Switzerland. She has a growing web of international connections and ample enthusiasm. We’ll introduce Elena more fully in a few weeks.
My latest Forbes posts include pieces about biodynamic wines, cannéle pastries, Roman wine merchants, wine bars at LAX airport, and the ‘lost’ grape of Bordeaux: Carménère. I was also recently asked to write a review for London’s Sunday/Daily Telegraph newspaper about a five-star hotel in Bordeaux city. Their wine list is good, but it’s worth exploring city wine bars for even more diversity.
After asking friends to recommend wine movies, the input included surprises. For example, Andrew Carr of Kansas City recommended Star Wars.
We’ll get back to that one later.
More traditional wine related movies include romance or suspense and often both.
Bottle Shock was recommended by Californians Lynne Barry and Diane Sanders-Rehberger. This is actually the only movie I’ve seen 13 times. It is based on a renowned wine tasting that took place in 1976 which brought California’s wines to the attention of the world, and is set in both Paris and Napa Valley, California. (Friend Tiffany Tedesco Baumann informed me that the ‘Parisian’ scenes were actually filmed on the main square of Sonoma city in California.)
The movie A Good Year was recommended by Stephen Barrante of Connecticut and New York, as well as Tiffany Tedesco Baumann from Sonoma, Lisa Tyreman from London (and sometimes Palo Alto; she has an intriguing blog), as well as wine merchant Stephanie Niblock Cohen of vinously renowned Glenview, Illinois.
In the movie, financially motivated but fiscally dodgy London banker (Russell Crowe) inherits a vineyard in Provence, France – and with it comes a coyly attractive young American relative, encounters with an eye-catching French waitress, and a mystery wine that may be either stellar or plonk.
Back in the U.S., the cult classic Sideways (recommended by Kerry Harker of Laguna Beach, California and Stephanie Niblock Cohen) actually reduced the sales of Merlot wine in the U.S. for years. It also introduced many Americans to the finesse of Pinot Noir, and alerted the world that south of Napa Valley and north of Los Angeles spreads the magical Central Coast wine country with excellent quality wines at decent prices (as well, apparently, as heartache and romance associated with road trips).
Back in France, a recently released movie I’ve not not had the pleasure to see yet (though I wrote about it before) is titled Premier Crus. It is based in Burgundy and revolves around what appears to be a rough harvest and family travails. The movie is subtitled in English.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria was recommended by Peter Ratray from Sussex in the U.K. I’ve not yet seen this (though did read the fictional book a few years ago). Free and full editions of the movie are available on YouTube. Made in 1969 and starring Anthony Quinn and directed by Stanley Kramer (of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame), it’s about German occupation of an Italian village during the Second World War, and the hiding of precious wines.
A recommendation from Martin Robinson from London, as well as Kamala Balachandran Wright in the U.S., is for The Year of The Comet. This appears to be about a precious wine bottle hidden in a castle on Scotland’s Isle of Skye that must be transported to London by a beer loving Texan and his new girlfriend. Scenes involve thieving thugs, helicopter chases and a cliffhanger or two.
Kelly McGrath Quevedo of southern California suggested watching Mondovino. This documentary regards the impact and controversy associated with Robert Mondavi’s winemaking style and the changing of wine production techniques throughout the world.
Another documentary (released this year) is the second in a series about sommeliers, titled Somme: Into the Bottle. It is better than the first in the series. The variety of people interviewed helps keep the narrative grounded.
Diane Sanders-Rehberger also recommended A Walk in the Clouds, a 1995 movie about a young lady returning to Napa Valley with a few surprises for the family.
Back to Star Wars…
The original bar scene in the first episode (“a wretched hive of scum and villainy,” according to Obi-Wan Kenobi) is memorable, but the only mention I found of wine was from books associated with the series, not the movies themselves. ‘Wookieepedia’ informed me that Hans Solo kept the odd bottle of Corellian wine aboard the Millennium Falcon, and apparently Princess Leia once refused his inebriated advances by splashing this wine in his face.
The documentation is clear: the association of romance and wine historically stretches back a long time to a far, far away galaxy.
Thanks for tuning in. We’ll be back again with some more recipes and wine news later this month.
Some friends, known since youth, joined gangs, fraternities, rotary clubs, professional associations or workers unions.
A few became “garagistes.”
According to French lore, garagistes, or garage winemakers, began producing, well, vins de garage in the 1990’s. They were reputed as slightly edgy, streaked with rebellious tendencies and prone to wander far from any pack. They produced (or procured) grapes to produce low-yield, small volume wines produced with new oak.
Consider Château Valandraud, in Bordeaux, France. This one hectare (2.5 acre) plot of vines produced such superior low-quantity wine that, in the eyes of wine critic Robert Parker – it ranked higher than the famed Pètrus wine for quality. In the 1990’s word of this silent rebellion spread to the Ribera del Duero in Spain, then to Australia. California garagistes, though previously unlabeled, had been producing such wines since the 1980s, with cult labels including Screaming Eagle and those from Harlan Estate.
What made these bottle desirable, and pricey?
The answer is simple: their lack of availability, uniqueness and quality.
Ah, the lure of exclusivity.
Today the term garagiste refers to individuals who produce limited wines, often doing much labor themselves. They rarely have links to large capital investment or deep pocketed wealth, are not beholden to traditional beliefs and are often wary of predominant mindsets. They are as much entrepreneurs as agriculturalists.
They brought bottles to a recent gathering at Sheep Ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California (as well as their rosé). The red was wonderful – layered, complex, excellent with food, and the rosé crisp and delicious.
At the same gathering, Richard and Diane Steinberg from Los Altos brought their own bottles – including Syrah grown on their own acres using 19th century plantings from the Barossa Valley of Australia. Again, superb taste and professionally executed – balanced, full, well crafted.
To be honest, many wines I tasted after sampling these garagiste wines – bottles from professional winemakers in California – were surprisingly blunt in comparison. I found the handcrafted wines – honed from years of experience – to be a treat because they had an edge of individuality, and were not crafted to suit mainstream market tastes.
The point? When traveling, sample local wines when possible but also don’t be afraid to venture to a friend of a friend who produces small quantity, little known wine. I once tasted low volume Merlot produced by relatives of my nephew’s wife, Iris, in Italy – in the freezing cold weather of winter outside the shed where it was made. It was superb. Fortunately, Iris and her husband Malachi labeled the wine, then served it at their wedding.
Thanks for tuning in to this site again. My latest Forbes post includes a reason why spending time at LAX international airport terminal might actually be enjoyable.
During past weeks I’ve traveled from NoCal to SoCal, as they say – from the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California to the gilded sand of Laguna Beach in southern California, stopping now and then to sample local wines.
The good news is that there are still ample great wines at decent prices (less than $20 a bottle) in California and that the styles – whether fruity or powerful – are usually well-balanced and delicious.
The rise of the ‘urban winery’ is also evident. I recently drank at a winery in Laguna Beach producing bottles using grapes taken from northern California (Napa and Sonoma), as well as at the inland Rancho Capistrano Winery – which also sources grapes from throughout the state.
California friends are also producing their own wines, including Corner Lot Winery’s Sangiovese from Sonoma County, and Rattlesnake wines from Los Altos (the vineyard includes 19th century vines from Barossa, Australia).
And good news – congratulations to Norm Benson of Dark Star Cellars for selling his winery – after years of dedicated, hard work.
When I tell California friends about France, they are intrigued by the notion of long afternoon lunches with good food and wine, walking to local markets for high quality cheeses and breads, and visiting ancient structures dotted throughout the countryside. For friends from France, the image of California beaches and a Beach Boys surfing lifestyle is attractive. When I asked my Spanish/French friend Monica in Bordeaux what she wanted me to bring her from California, she just said, “Malibu beach.” But of course!
While getting a haircut in San Luis Obispo in the Central Coast of California, a woman who had moved to that town with her young child from Durango, Colorado, told me she loved the local lifestyle with good food, wine, free concerts and sunny beaches. She then made it quite clear that she also wanted to adopt the French lifestyle that included two-hour lunches with wine. (We used to have the three martini business lunch decades ago in the U.S….there must be a productivity related reason why that culture faded away.)
The openness and hospitality is quick and confident in California – including immediate invitations for porchside pizzas and Pinot Noir. In France, in contrast, it may take a more time to establish friendships, though once formed – the consequent depth and degree of camaraderie is solid and assured. And there will rarely be veneer with the people you befriend; what you see is what you get.
But in this age of high-speed trains, AirBnb and relatively inexpensive flights – I mostly notice mutual curiosity between our nations.
We want to learn about each other. When over a glass of wine people describe memories of train trips and language courses taken overseas (whether in the U.S. or in Europe, or anywhere out of the country), their voices often take on emotion, as though they were describing a flood or hurricane or eclipse – that of wonder at having been exposed to new or unknown facets of reality.
“Vous êtes un énigme,” my French friend Annabelle once told me (“You are an enigma”) when she learned that I, an American, had moved to live in her rural town in France. No other US citizen then lived there. Why would I leave the beaches of California for the vineyards of Bordeaux? My reply, during a two-bottle lunch/language lesson, was – why not? As long as I can secure overseas contract work part of the year to pay bills, I am happy to be able to walk to open air markets, enjoy visiting the local park that is also a world heritage site, and purchase affordable and good quality food and wine in a laid back countryside atmosphere.
It works both ways. Other French musician friends – Laurence and Christian – left France to spend summer traveling around Wyoming and the Dakotas in the U.S. this year. Their pictures show them viewing bison, checking out ancient gun museums and dining casually off campground picnic tables (what a relief – just weeks ago Christian was visibly upset when, at a concert in France, he saw me drinking wine out of a plastic cup. He immediately replaced it with a stylish glass).
The French had their 18th century revolution soon after the U.S. war of independence. In the 19th century they graded their best Bordeaux wines in a way similar to how our third President Thomas Jefferson also ranked them. Their capital city has been a refuge and point of inspiration for many U.S. artists – including Woody Allen and author Ernest Hemingway, and Samuel Morse – inventor not only of a code, but a dedicated painter who thrived in Paris. Our curiosities are similar, our politics have parallels, and our mutual respect for the freedom of speech is enduring. In summary, there is no ‘California versus France.’ Differences do not divide us; mutual curiosities – instead – draw us together.
Some French (and American) friends still believe I’m a spy, providing some mysterious degree of high level intelligence to aid our U.S. national security forces. I’m not sure what intel related to French wine production techniques could be translated into national defense policies. Still, if someone offers to pay for that information, I may take them up on it. After all, it may prove that the two-hour, two-bottle lunch really does provide excellent input for slowing any decline of civilization.
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My latest posts on Forbes are about wineries in California – including in Calaveras County, Malibu city, and Laguna Beach.