Monday, December 31, 2012

The end is here....

     Well, it has been a full year since I started this blog and readership has grown from a handful of hits to thousands. I have expanded the coverage to include things only tangentially related to wine and plan to continue. I will include in the new year my own experience of having a novel published that's ostensibly about the fine wine business but is really the story of making it in America - and holding onto your own cherished piece of it. And I will bring back Nose himself, the indefatigable sleuth in the imaginary valley of northern California's Caterina River, the original inspiration for this blog.
     Many of you true oenophiles have been patient with this amateur's less-than-rigorous approach to the subject, and I'm grateful. I hope you had a happy and reasonably sodden New Year's Eve.
Here are the favorites for 2012:

The Red Room:

The Joys of a Small Cellar:

Controlled Fire:

Bottle Stock: Smith-Madrone:

Hands Across the Sea:

If It's Not in the Vineyard:

There's a Fly in My Glass:

Dr. Silvius's Revenge:

Pretentious Punts:

The East Coast's Most Expensive Cab:

 So You Think You Have a Wine Club:

Beyond the Paris Tasting:

The Napa-ization of the Willamette:

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bottle stock: Single field tequilas

    From the New York Times cocktail specialist, Toby Cecchini. I haven't tried this version of Ocho but do know the cheaper blanco version (merely $40), an introduction provided by my friend and tequila fan Randy Dunn. That Ocho, too, has the "primordial vegetal embrace of agave" the writer speaks of, plus a smokey undercurrent. Straight, or with a lime slice, it's very, very good. 

Tequila Ocho Single Barrel, Potencia de la Barrica 109.2 proof/54.6 percent, $75
Tomas Estes is an American who has devoted his life to tequila. He owns a number of restaurants in Europe based around the spirit and has, over the past few years, nurtured a small, ferociously curated label of single-origin beauties, Ocho, made by the cult distiller Carlos Camarena, the man at the dials of El Tesoro, Tapatio and Excellia, among other brands. Estes has also just released a book about his odyssey of a life in pursuit of tequila. Whenever people ask me what they should buy for a friend who likes tequila, I often reply “anything from Ocho.” This creature, a lightly tinted añejo delivered without any filtration and at barrel strength, is such an anomaly it can’t help but stand out. The only thing that I ask from a real tequila is that it carry across some of that primordial vegetal embrace of the agave from which it’s made. So many lack even a trace of it. This beauty has that covered with so much to spare. Every time I approach it I get new sensations: along with a touch of wood, grilled tropical fruits, minerals, camphor, horehound candy. How do you drink it? Not in margaritas. Despite its potency, it is a perfectly genteel sipper.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Report: The Napa-ization of the Willamette?

An edited version of my earlier piece in Gourmet and an indication of demands made on vineyard land that are re-surfacing in Oregon with a vengeance:

From this high, fallow hill you can see much of Oregon’s famous Willamette Valley where pampered pinot noir vines march off in neat formation toward scattered settlements and woods and fields thst comprise a kind of visual agrarian homily. Oddly enough, this bucolic setting, where swallows dip in the soft evening light, became the site of land use struggles so familiar in Napa valley and other viti-cultural venues. Controversy was limited to “how big the corn dogs would be at the annual Turkey-rama,” according to Jason Lett, winemaker at Eyrie Vineyards, and a leading opponent of a planned five-star hotel here.

In worn jeans, rimless glasses and beard shadow, Jason didn’t much resemble his late father, David, who left the Napa Valley back in the ‘sixties to prove that good pinot could be grown in the Dundee Hills. He entered his 1975 South Block Reserve pinot noir in the blind tasting held in Paris in ’79 that included the world’s best pinots, including wines of Robert Drouhin. Eyrie won, inspiring disbelief and consternation overseas and etching Oregon pinot onto the vinous world map.

Lett and two other pioneers, David Adelsheim and Richard Ponzi, began to travel together around America, proselytizing to the trade about their wines. Comity and mutual assistance were taken for granted in those days, when all the Willamette vintners could fit into Nick’s restaurant in McMinnville. Today Nick’s requires reservations, in large part because of tourists attracted by agriculture. To sacrifice vineyards is to harm both that business, and quality wine-making. As David Lett said of the plan to build the hotel, “People turned out to be greedy, and dumb.”

Many narrative lines converge on this particular hill, most of them happily. Half-way down is the Douglas fir where nesting redtail hawks gave rise to the name, Eyrie. Jason Lett grew up almost in that tree’s shadow, eating Pacific staples his father got by trading away Eyrie’s Pinot Blanc — “it went great with salmon and Dungeness crab” — when money was tight. Jason took over as winemaker and today successfully emulates his father’s style of wine and has another of his own.

Look to the left and you will see the roof and extensive, closely-spaced vines of Domaine Drouhin, proof that Robert Drouhin himself decided, after the fateful 1979 tasting, that if this New World terroir was serious stuff, why not buy some? Today Domaine Drouhin produces— ironically — the more up-front, luscious style pinot noir, while Eyrie, devoid of new oak, is leaner and more classically structured.

    Farther down the hill sits the Sokol Blosser Winery, founded by Bill and Susan Sokol Blosser in 1977. They, along with David Lett, helped convince Yamhill County to terminate what was then five-acre residential zoning, so vines could be planted instead of houses. “The American ethic of ‘I can do whatever I want with my property’ has got to change,” said son Alex, referring to the prospect of a hotel rising from green waves of vitis Vinifera. And he echoed the sentiment heard often here: “We don’t want the Napa-fication of the Willamette.”

The Willamette isn’t Napa. It’s too large, for one thing, and too diverse. Two hundred and fifty commercial crops are grown, whereas Napa’s trellised monoculture occupies every square foot of tillable land. By contrast, the views from wineries spread around the northern Willamette — from Elk Cove to Bethel Heights, from Amity to Cristom — are of fields of grain, cattle, wood lots, and rolling country with some vineyards and mercifully few McMansions.

The Dundee hills come closest to the Napa Valley analogy: many wineries, concentrated wealth, a couple of aspiring châteaux, and traffic jams on Highway 99 down on the valley floor. This resembles Napa’s Highway 29, but here more of the cars are bound for the Spirit Mountain casino than for tasting rooms. The highway passes through the towns of Newberg, Dundee, Lafayette, and McMinnville, which has a well preserved historic downtown that attracts tourists and an occasional limo. B&Bs have sprung up in the Dundee Hills, too.

Enter now David Kahn, in pristine white sneakers, stepping from the red Lexus he used as an extension of his Portland real estate office. He and his investors had development rights on the hilltop. Kahn wanted nothing more, he told me, than to bring world-class R&R into the coveted heart of Oregon pinot-dom, and to help everybody in the process. “It can be done here,” he said, meaning that a five-star hotel and spa would prosper in the midst of so much rural eye candy. He lovingly referred to his proposed hotel as “the Auberge de Soleil of the Willamette,” referring to that $600 minimum-a-night “inn” that clings to a mountainside above Napa Valley, where tourism has come to rival — and challenge — agriculture.

Kahn lauded the number of private jets that he had seen in the air over Napa, and other high-end manifestations in that crowded Eden, including the specialty cuisine-cum-condiment boutique, the Oakville Grocery, which he called “the greatest place on earth.” Such enterprises greatly stimulate the local economy, he pointed out, and would here, too. But both it and Auberge de Soleil were grandfathered in; they could not be built there today.

This hill in Dundee, however, could support vines, despite its altitude, as proven by those growing all around it. Oregon has long prided itself on the preservation of its agriculture. Long-standing land use laws prohibit commercial projects in the midst of farmland because they interfere with farming and permanently remove the land from the possibility of ever being farmed. Additional issues with Kahn’s proposed hotel included a falling water table, increased traffic, sewage, various sorts of waste—including, possibly, brine brought up from deep marine sediments where well-diggers would likely have to go—and permanently altered views from below.

Two dozen vintners joined hands and signed a letter opposing Kahn’s project, but Yamhill County’s three-person governing board of commissioners granted him an exception anyway. The sole Democrat on the board, Mary Stern, a lawyer, said she had no choice but to vote for the exception because Kahn and his lawyers proved to her satisfaction that a five-star hotel could succeed nowhere else in the county. “If I could have voted against it,” she said, “I would have.”

But the vintners’ lawyer said that the county had no idea where such high-impact facilities should go, or how they should function. “It shouldn’t be done on an ad hoc basis. We need a comprehensive plan.”

“Kahn’s bill passed,” said Lett, “simply because a lot of people with a lot of money want to stay in wine country.” Among the hotel’s other opponents was Domaine Drouhin’s manager, David Millman. “The hotel’s a great idea,” Millman admitted over a glass of chardonnay on Domaine Drouhin’s deck, “but in the wrong place. Kahn couldn’t do this in Burgundy, or in Napa.”

The county commissioners’ ruling went to the Land Use Board of Appeals and ended up in Oregon’s court of appeals. After deliberating for many white-knuckled weeks, the court asked for an extension, an indication of the importance of the case and the novel questions it raised. The court sent the application for the hotel back to the Land Use Board of Appeals for further consideration. Both protection of farmland and growing urbanization had to be better addressed in granting such exceptions, the court said.

Vintners in the Willamette fretted then over the generally roiled state of land-use law in Oregon, where the notorious Measure 37 referendum, which passed in 2004, allowed some residential development in ag zones after a hiatus of 40 years. A new referendum, Measure 49, designed to counter Measure 37, narrowly passed but only patched up the damage done by the earlier one.
Although the prospects of any luxury spa capping the Dundee hills dimmed and finally were extinguished, it was clear that pro-development sentiment in rural Oregon wasn’t going away.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Wire: Stealth developers in the temple of pinot

    The latest tip from the Willamette Valley is disturbing in its implications: "I think you might find what's going on in Oregon quite interesting.  A group of pro-development  wineries have taken control of the Oregon Wine Board and are using winery legislation to undermine Oregon land-use law."
     If vineyards and wine are used to weaken the state's inspired and long-standing land use policies, it would be both ironic, and tragic. A luxury hotel in the middle of some of the best vineyards in America was narrowly defeated in recent years in the Willamette  (I'll post a condensed version of the story I wrote about it for the last issue of Gourmet), and everyone thought thesue settled. Apparently it isn't.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Read with pleasure (I hope)

This is a review from Bill Marsano's blog, Poured with Pleasure, which I liked a lot even before he reviewed my novel:

James Conaway’s earlier and excellent non-fiction books on Napa Valley’s heroes and villains [read those, too] inspired his fiction: Nose, a mystery that’s funny, witty and murder-free. The plot’s maguffin is a wine: a mysterious Cabernet that tantalizes Napa no end and provides targets for Conaway’s sharp elbows: cult wineries, ridiculous geekspeak, self-important bigshots, land abusers, chemical polluters, and the overall cheapening of Napa’s heritage [although I guess they call it a ‘brand’ these days]. Also lifestyle pomposity and hard-eyed lawyers, courtesy [da-dum!] of a blogger who knows too much. A blogger hero? Who knew?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Go: Chicago, city of pig shoulders

     “Chicago’s not the city of big shoulders, it’s the city of pig shoulders,” said Phil Ponce, television news anchor on Channel 7 and a local celebrity, peering into the new, up-scale Gene’s Deli in north Chicago’s Lincoln Square, at the amazing array of sausages dangling from overhead racks. It was Sunday afternoon and the streets were jammed with strollers enjoying what was once the enclave of Germans and eastern Europeans but now it was a more diverse neighborhood with a new steel archway proudly announcing “Lincoln Square” and dozens of shops and galleries.

     Here sustainable urbanism applies to restaurants, since they are one of the city’s great draws. Xoco, a mile north of the Loop, was designed for a chef renowned for his Mexican dishes, a television show, and ecological and social concerns, Rick Bayless. His restaurant was a bright, narrow space with a kitchen in the front window, full of wonderful smells of chiles and slow-cooked meats, packed with people waiting for sumptuous caldos and tortas baked in the wood oven. Electricity costs were kept down by substituting a combination of incandescent and LLD lighting for more efficiency without losing the friendly glow. And the vents over the stoves were specially designed to reduce heat loss, a revolutionary step. “All materials used come from within 500 miles of here. You can’t tell, but it makes me happy.” He added, “People don’t get lectures on environmental ethics, just good food.”

Next door were two other Bayless restaurants, Topolobampo and Frontera, an ecologically-concerned Mexican culinary island a mile north of the Loop. Bayless’s offices were upstairs, where he wore a chef’s jacket even when behind his desk. “If we don’t manage our resources better, we’ll run out. Our children will face much harsher realities.” He supported the “locavore” notion of buying food from within that 500-mile radius, including vegetables grown within city limits.

That included those from City Farm, started by social activist Ken Dunn in the impoverished Cabrini-Green neighborhood, part of what Dunn called “addressing the community’s needs,” a concept he wanted to see applied to the whole city. “This was once the poorest tract in the nation,” said Dunn, driving me in his little red Honda to an intensely cultivated truck garden next to a housing development. This formerly abandoned property belonged to the city and was a real, and profitable, horto in urbs. “It will stay this way as long as we can sell hand-grown arugula, Brussels sprouts and rainbow chard to up-scale restaurants.”

For context I decided to visit a couple of Chicago’s old-line eateries not known for their ecological concern. The one favored by pols and sports stars, Gibson Steakhouse, was the prime venue for 10-ounce Martinis and red meat. “Have you seen the show?” asked the waitress, showing me a tray on which are arranged slab of raw protein. I chose the charcoal broiled “W.R. Chicago Cut,” an extra thick rib-eye with bone attached, and it arrived between layers of carcinogens like book covers. But in between was some of the best beef I’d ever tasted, accompanied by a potato the size of a small football, under a blanket of melted Wisconsin cheddar, sort of local, but definitely not lo-cal. Then came a slab of “Texas” pecan pie too large for the saucer. “Don’t worry,” I’m told by a woman sitting nearby, “food hanging over the edges of plates is very Chicago.”

     Another hoary stand-by, the Cape Cod Room in the historic Drake Hotel, had low ceilings and lots of nautical art on the walls. It was a favorite port of the good ship Metameucil, judging by all the gray heads hovering over scallops wrapped in bacon, and snapper in papillote. Enough of the old stand-bys, I thought, on to the new, like Avec, west of the Loop, like a boxcar paneled with natural wood and packed with thirty-somethings, shoulder-to-should at community tables, knoshing on the famous medjool dates stuffed with chorozo and wod-oven braised pork shoulder with Prince Edward Island mussels and tripe. I was beginning to realize that eating out in Chicago is a complicated endeavor that transcends politics and ecology, and traditional favorites having their own spin and fierce defenses.

Like the Reuben egg roll from a local vendor in the Richard Daly Civic Center Plaza; the strong, creamy cappuccino from Intelligentsia cafes; crispy fried Lake Erie perch and tempura-like lemon slices in the airy Terzo Piano restaurant at the Art Institute; enchiladas with pork and red chile sauce in Leon in the Latino quarter known as Pilsen, south of the Loop. And sausage in most any guise, most anywhere in the Second City, a name settled on Chicago back in the 1950s, in a New Yorker article by the late A.J. Liebling suggesting that Chicago couldn’t measure up to Manhattan.

Well, Chicago has given the world the car radio, mail-order sales (Montgomery Ward), the television remote, and the Otis elevator that enabled Manhattans, too, to ascend, and… the North Pond Café in Lincoln Park is near the zoo, the Lincoln Park Conservatory, and the relatively new Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. The ambitious menu could be perused while overlooking North Pond, and seared fois gras with wild huckleberries and roasted wild wood pigeon happily consumed in the cozy atmosphere of earlier times. This stand-alone structure isn’t just surrounded by parkland, but its interior is also done in natural wood, with a quote on the wall from Thoreau: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world”

Excerpted from my piece for National Geographic Traveler

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Report: Patrick O'Connell's - and the Inn's - salad days

      What follows is the chef's account of launching his career and that of the Inn at Little Washington, taken from my notes for an earlier magazine piece:
             If you have a desire to cook, all you need is an audience.

The Inn’s an outgrowth of the home table. We bought a house in 1972 on the county line. The mountain folk had stacks of wrecked cars. Trailers and school buses were starter homes. The number of food stamps you received depended upon which county your kitchen was in. I had read philosophy in college and realized that everyone has a geographical place, and that this was where I belonged.

Cooking was something you did if you couldn’t find a real job, by people who weren’t quite acceptable. I had studied theater at Catholic University and found restaurant people stimulating. America had no real chefs at that time, so I decided to take a year off and go to Europe. It was a revelation to see how Europeans viewed chefs. I saw then that this was my career.

I worked for two years in Charlottesville, then at Chez Francoise near Washington, D.C. Meanwhile I researched restaurant possibilities in Rappahannock County. This was a country store with a junk yard, garage, and an outhouse. I rented half of it for $200 a month, and borrowed money to build a kitchen in what had been the garage’s grease pit. It’s now the living room. Locals all asked, “Why are you doing this? Who’s coming?” The idea that people would drive all the way out here from D.C. just to eat was unthinkable.

French cuisine was the only one Americans took seriously then. Julia Childe was an inspiration for me. The feeling of a restaurant in France was what I wanted to convey – a sense of place reinforced by food and cooking. But all the classic French country dishes – kidneys, sweetbreads, frogs’ legs – were considered wildly exotic. I had one kitchen boy and two wait staff. I didn’t think there would be enough weekday visitors, so then I would just cook and serve. Then the first weekend night we had 75 people. The reviewer for The Star asked me if I was sure I wanted him to write about us, and his review changed everything.

I would take reservations in the kitchen. In the mornings I would go to the Florida Avenue market in D.C. and buy food for the evening and pile it in the old Dodge Dart. Then I found someone to go to the market for me. One day he was very late. People were waiting for their food, so I served them all a demitasse of soup, to buy time, and it became a tradition.

What we dealt with in those days was hysterically funny. We served an awful lot of iced tea in the beginning. One woman asked if the soft-shell crabs could be fresh way out here, and I said, “They’re so fresh they haven’t even arrived yet.”

The kitchen helper wore a doo rag and wouldn’t eat the food. He brought his own bologna sandwiches. One night when we ran out of food I asked if he had anything in his car, and he said, “Sack of plums.”

I said, “Get them,” and made a plum sauce and served it on shrimp.

We started getting our herbs and vegetables locally and realized they were so much better. We would trade and barter. Everybody had an excess of something. They would bring zucchinis as big as your arm, and I said I want them the size of your finger. “Can’t make no money on that,” they’d say, and I said “I’ll pay for them - four times as much.”

            Eventually we trained local 50 farmers to provide us. We became known for regional American cuisine, one of the first. People were realizing how much better it was, and that they should eat seasonally. It created a lot of interest, and we offered our own kind of French country cooking. I’m still expanding on that idea. People want to be able to walk through the cherry and apple orchards, and the herb garden. Americans were learning, and they craved another experience. If they could take something back with them, it increased their enjoyment.

            Turning point came when I exercised the option to buy the place. It led to the development of rooms, and a garden where the junkyard was. I wanted a fantasy, something that felt like it had been here a hundred years. It needed a patina of an authenticity. We sent the architectural drawings to Joyce Evans. She had been a pupil of the British architect who did interiors for the royal family, and could render a phone booth to look like a ballroom. She sent back a watercolor that was amazing.

In the off-season every year we traveled to the great restaurants of the world, and started to go to the great country houses in England, Ireland, France. We made a list of the best, and soon realized that France had the best food and England and Ireland the best taste in country houses, the most charming and comfortable. So we did an American adaptation of those. Joyce patterned our kitchen after the cheese and dairy room at Windsor Castle. The hallmarks are the ceilings, too often neglected in America. They’re the last thing you see at night and the first thing you see in the morning, and set the tone. They must invoke an enveloping feeling.

    Joyce has been here for more than 25 years. We gave her an unlimited budget, and she exceeded it. Initially she chose the fabrics, wall coverings, and furniture and bought it over there. Then we became her only client.

     Ours is never an adaptation but a refurbishing of old buildings in Little Washington from the American colonial period. She had also done a lot of stage and costume design, and understood what a great restaurant needs – it has to both evoke drama, and make you smile when you walk in. The eye can never absorb it all. On your tenth visit you’re still noticing things because we strive for a layered feeling, something that only we can bring about.

     It has evolved like that for 30 years. Joyce has the drapes put in, lined and inter-lined. It’s so different from the way tings are done in America. When you’re dealing now as we are with five-star inspectors you have to look hard for the flaws. The patina is so important – for instance, a carpet must have the right amount of wear, showing that important people have walked there. We live in an age when the average restaurant fails in three years, and this is all part of the strategy to keep the Inn going.

     When you grow something like this from a grease pit, you can’t shake that memory. No one could replicate this because it has been evolving for three decades. It’s never static – that’s the key. I think of it as a garden, always being pruned and tweaked, elevating everything to the same level. We look daily for tangible changes. I would have become bored years ago if it was all just about the food.

     You need a point of view that reflects the creator’s evolution. Just like you can’t serve food you don’t want to eat, you can’t create an environment you don’t want to be in. But as you grow your taste changes. If you’re not embarrassed by what you did a year ago, you’re not progressing. To create this level of sophistication, so close to that original shack, is very exciting. Even living in that old shack I wanted dinner to be formal, as if in London.

Still, sometimes I open the frig and something falls out, and I think, “Of course! Use it! Black-eyed peas under fois gras!”

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Eat: The Inn at Little Washington

   The façade has the requisite white columns expected in the Old Dominion, and a handsome door held for you by a smiling young man in black livery. Step into what can be described as a full-press sensory adventure decked out with richly layered fabrics on walls and ceilings, tapestries, fireplaces with polished mantles, oriental vases, antiques of muted splendor, and original oils more Constable than Wyeth.
   Your primary reaction won’t be awe – there’s that, too – but keen anticipation: You’ve come to dine. So follow the hostess across a dense carpet on a wide-board floor from a 17th century French chateau. You have driven from wherever to Washington, Virginia, older than its namesake on the Potomac 67 miles to the east, a well-preserved bit of the historic piedmont graced with beautiful Colonial brick houses and a view of the Blue Ridge reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales.
   Here are period chairs to ease into, and an icy glass of champagne at the ready. “Everything has a story at the Inn,” says the man who created it, chef Patrick O’Connell, “just as it might in someone’s house.” He wears the signature Dalmatian print apron and has taken a break from his fabled kitchen. “Everything’s unique. The goal is to take you to a place you’ve never been.”
   The knowledge that this was once a general store and auto mechanic’s shop doesn’t interfere with his vision or temper the amazement that the strikingly original menu engenders. He started the Inn in 1978, which became a literal overnight success, and bought it soon afterward. It was inundated by diners eager to come all the way from Big Washington and beyond; it has received the highest professional accolades, from the AAA and Mobil Travel Guides to Zagat’s Washington DC Restaurant Survey and the James Beard Foundation. 
  “What movie set do you want to be in?” Patrick asks. This one’s a grand souffle of Atonement and Babette’s Feast, although he and his helpmate, London set designer Joyce Evans, would probably find such comparisons lame. The recent $5 million remodeling of kitchen, eight bedrooms, six suites, and two guest houses has maintained the aura of age and privilege traditional at the Inn, Evans’ only client. All the furniture has been shipped from England, for instance. “The place has become a folie in the best sense,” Patrick adds, laughing. “The food by itself wouldn’t be enough.” 
     In the kitchen are silver chalices and an incense burner, droll visual metaphors for what Patrick refers to as “the temple.” Here the holiest of holies is prepared on a massive new center island range in British racing green, under a brass and copper canopy, by sous chefs in the same black-and-white aprons. All dishes must pass beneath the chef’s critical eye before being released to expectant diners. 
    Take a seat at a corner banquette in the dining room, under a fringed lampshade, and unfold a big, crisp, white napkin. The first course is a culinary contrast: four fresh Island Creek oyster “slurpies” on the half-shell, each topped with different ices – cucumber, passion fruit, wasabi, and cocktail sauce – and brimming with the essence of ocean. Another is the explosive Mediterranean medley of crispy Rouget in gazpacho with an olive tapenade crouton.
   This is followed by an elegant Napoleon of wild mushrooms in a kind of froth of mushrooms, butter, and shallots. The stacked layers of phyllo, wild mushrooms, and fresh herbs look like it has been snowed on by a Parmesan cloud and conveys a delectable seasonal earthiness in an enduring Inn standard. The pan-seared Peking duck breast comes from nearby Four Story Hill Farm and is served on one of the many white plates specially designed for particular dishes, this one deep, with broad shoulders, accentuating the four slices of duck breast fanned on a bed of creamy corn pudding and surrounded by a dark reduction of braised cherries. The triumph of this particular creation is the distinct, “real” taste of very different, very fresh components.
    Various bubble teas made of fruit plucked almost within sight emanate from Little Washington. This day it’s strawberry, a perfect, palette-resuscitating transition to the final indulgence: homemade mint ice cream draped with chocolate streamers. This lays the taste buds happily to rest and completes an intimate acquaintanceship with local ingredients transformed through the minor miracle of French country cooking and American inventiveness into something entirely, yes, unique.
    “It’s never static here,” Patrick has said. “I think of the Inn as a garden, always being pruned and tweaked, elevating everything to the same level. Just as you can’t create an environment you don’t want to be in, you can’t serve food you don’t want to eat.”

    From Veranda

Saturday, December 1, 2012

For all things Napan...

     People ask me sometimes what's happening in Napa, as if I should know. Generally I don't, but Paul Franson most definitely does, the Renaissance-esque creator of NapaLife and the valley's insider (, and Paul's NapaLife Insider's Guide to Napa Valley can be held in your hands, as it's a real book available on the website and an indispensable accoutrement in the luggage of those Napa-bound.  

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Report: So you think you have a wine club

 “We’ve been here since records began,” says Brigadier Michael Smythe, formerly of British artillery corps, now chief executive of Vintner’s Hall, at the intersection of Queen and Lower Thames streets, London. A striking figure in a dark, two-vent English suit, the Brigadier adds, “That would be 1362,” when a structure went up on this side of the river to unload wine from sailing ships. “Unfortunately some of the records were lost in the great fire of 1666,” but not the charter from King Charles who forgave the Vintners for siding with Parliament in the 1642 rebellion.
The Vintners - the eleventh of The City of London liveries, others including not just the Butchers but also the Drapers, Fishmongers, Plaisterers, and many more - also own a third of the swans in England, the rest belonging to the crown and to the Skinners. “Every year we go up the Thames, collecting and tagging the new signets. It’s great fun.”
Vintners Hall isn’t accessible to the public except on special tours that can be arranged at the kiosk next to St. Paul’s. But persistence often pays off with the accommodating Brits. Here the Vintners’ descendants have found themselves in possession of heirloom art and furnishings accumulated over six centuries, and some of the most valuable real estate on earth.
Lots of other treasures also survived, including silver and gold that went to building the massive classical façade outside that looks more like a Roman bureaucracy than a temple to the grape. Some 15,000 bottles of mostly vintage Bordeaux and port lie somewhere under our feet, with a fulltime cellar keeper.
“That’s our view mark,” the brigadier says, pointing to a coat of arms: three wine casks arranged on a shield. The Vintners has some 500 members, many of whom are “patrimonies,” meaning their fathers belonged. Others are eminent in the wine trade, and that doesn’t mean bottle drudges in The City’s many wine shops, but importers, merchants, and people prominent in their fields. “So far checkbook membership has been avoided, although we do need a certain number of bankers and brokers to advise us on our holdings.”
My tour includes a statue of St. Martin Le Tours, 14th century patron saint of wine. “We made our first contact with France through Eleanor of Aquitaine. Wine was soon coming into the country, and fabric going out. French was as likely spoken here as English in those days.”
We enter the richly paneled council room where two dozen of the most august members meet once a month. Standing on an Oriental “worth a quarter of a million pounds the last time we had it looked at,” they discuss the charities and other organizations benefiting from the Vintners’ largess, under the eyes of another St. Martin, this one possibly painted by Van Dyke.
A former Swan Warden “kitted out” the adjoining room, says the Brigadier, circa 1710: peer glasses with candle holders, lots of shields of former vintners, two paintings of Charles I, “although one of them could be William – there’s no mustache, you see.”
The magnificent carved staircase leading to the second floor “is an Ancient Monument, the highest classification by the government.” It creaks, “but if you bring out a hammer and saw, people get very up-set.” Five kings having dinner together in the stained glass window watch us pass on our way to the document room. Illuminated parchments adorn these walls, “all saved from the Great Fire. This one’s from 1352, and signed by John Chaucer. His son, Geoffrey, worked in his father’s tavern and picked up all those stories” in The Canterbury Tales.
Here also are the Vintners’ charter from 1363, 15th century pall cloths used to cover vintners’ coffins, and a roll of honorary members including Lord Mountbatten and Margaret Thatcher, and British wine writers Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent. Once a year the Vintners, like the Butchers, don traditional raiment to be blessed by their patron church.
The Vinters process en masse across Upper Thames Street to St. James Garlick, known as “Wren’s lantern” because of all the windows, led by the Grand Master and his official Sweeper. “He removes any refuse from his path.” We're talking horseshit here. “Last year we had to cross Southwark Bridge, to a ceremony on the South Bank, and were led by two mounted policemen. One of the horses had to choose that moment to let go. It was a true test of the Sweeper.” The Brigadier pauses. “He failed.”

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bottle-stock: Concha Y Toro

      Don’t know about you, but I suffer from malbec fatigue. It’s a fine grape, and so are some of the wines made from it, but malbec has to be treated well, and carefully. Remember, the word’s a conjunction of the French for bad, and nose.
      Malbec fatigue’s right up there with dreaded Australian Shiraz syndrome - jammy, boring, same same – so if you detect these things in, say, Argentine malbecs, and if you like American wines, just jump over the Andes. To Chile.
     There the standard’s cabernet, and a fine, affordable one’s still made by Concha y Toro - the 2010 Gran Reserva. Concha y Toro remains one of the best cabernet bargains on earth, a tribute to that winery’s long-standing tradition of excellence and affordability.



Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Eat: Citronelle

To reach the inner sanctum of Franco-California cuisine in Georgetown, Washington DC, I must first leave behind narrow streets dating back three centuries, cross the inner courtyard to the elegant Latham Hotel, navigate the lobby and pass a mural of sunny Mediterranean vineyards before descending, through aromas both enticing and mysterious, into a thoroughly contemporary world of natural wood and abundant light.
This is Citronelle, ultimate creation of Michel Richard, recipient of the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Chef award. He worked with Duncan & Miller Design to make food preparation part of this exceptional dining drama. The large tilted mirror provides diners at even the most discreet tables a view of a kitchen designed by Tim Harrison of San Francisco where, in an arena of stainless steel and bright yellow tile, various ranks of aspiring chefs arrange in little paper cups the airy, razor-thin potato crisps twice-fried in clarified butter or manipulate – with long-handled tweezers, no less - shaved medallions of filet, scallop, ahi with black beans and dabs of micro-greens drizzled with basil oil, all for a visual tour de force called Mosaic.
Supervising, of course, is Richard, who studied in France and whose on-going culinary adventure in America has included his own pastry shop-cum-restaurant in Santa Fe and full-scale restaurants in Los Angeles (Citrus), San Francisco (Bistro M), and Carmel, Calif. (Citronelle at Carmel Valley Ranch). But this, the original Citronelle, is his flagship, and Richard looks downright piratical in his full-bodied black chef’s jacket and white beard. However, he’s smiling. “You’re too thin,” he tells me, with mock Gallic severity, “but don’t worry, we’ll do something about that.”
           He will indeed, with a menu specially prepared for Veranda. It’s launched with a diminutive white plate of four amuse bouches - a tiny, delicate crab cake in remoulade sauce, a “cigar” of sauteed mushrooms in phyllo with an emulsion of ginger, a mini-taco, and a thin, glistening round of salmon sausage garnished with baby watercress.
          Then comes one of Richard’s signature dishes, the Jackson Pollock Soup, an allusion to the abstract painter’s famous paint squiggles made with multicolored noodles of shaved zucchini, beet, and carrot, all these gently subsiding in a concentrated, powerfully-flavorful beef stock.
          Next comes the lobster burger with French fries, deceptively simple-sounding but in fact an ardent reversal of New World inventiveness and Old World tradition. The meat is partially cooked in order to remove it from the shell, then chopped, formed into patties, lightly sauteed and placed on brioche spread with fresh mayonnaise and shaved ginger. This diminutive American variant is then served with those crisps as an accent, a Maine staple that never got better treatment and emerges light, fresh, and imaginative, with the ginger a welcome parting wave.
           Devouring my last crisp, I notice a framed watercolor on the wall of an apple, lovingly painted in its various shades of red and yellow. Two minutes later Richard joins me at the table with a portfolio of his paintings of his culinary creations. He also designs each dish he invents, and the fruits, vegetables, and pastries in these paintings going directly from model to morsel. This is a way of conceptualizing what he later intends to create, a kind of artistic double entendre.
           A lovely half-brick of orange and lemongrass mousse arrives with, as a garnish, a fan of dried pineapple, thin as parchment. I wondered how I could possibly eat all this, but quickly realized that air – and flavor – are the primary constituents of this dessert laved in raspberry sauce and further accented with slices of fresh orange. This is followed by an assortment of farewell sweets that includes another Richard creation – a seedless grape rolled in melted white chocolate and doused with powdered sugar.
           “Delicious,” says the chef, who has been watching. He sounds almost wistful, not bragging, just summing up. And I say to myself, “He’s probably hungry.”

     From Veranda

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Here's an early review from Kirkus:

Author: Conaway, James
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's
Pages: 336
Price ( Hardcover ): $24.99
Publication Date: March 12, 2013
Category: Fiction

     Conaway (Vanishing America, 2008, etc.) pens a lighthearted novel centering on oenophiles cavorting in a lush, grape-growing California valley.
     Conaway’s catalyst for his wine-country appreciation is an unlabeled bottle of Cabernet. The bottle ends up on the sampling table of Clyde Craven-Jones, known to wine lovers as CJ, head of the mega-influential Craven-Jones on Wine. CJ is a British expat and something of a corpulent, self-absorbed snob. His wife is the younger, winsome Claire Craven-Jones, who escaped Arkansas trailer-living by marrying the wine expert. It’s Claire to whom Clyde has assigned the task of determining the origin of the unlabeled bottle—“Big nose, briary, just enough forward fruit. Fine tannins”—the first California Cab he believes worthy of 20 points, a rating never before awarded by Craven-Jones on Wine. To trace the bottle's origins, Claire hires Les, farm boy turned reporter, out of work and unable to settle his bar tab, and so he’s pretending to be an investigator, thanks to recommendations from ponytailed Ben, owner of the Glass Act, a decrepit bar stocked with expensive, exotic wines. There’s Sara Hutt Beale, daughter of Jerome, a less-than-scrupulous developer now deep in debt after turning a valley vineyard into Hutt Family Estates, a modern high-end wine factory. Sara’s own land adjoins that of melancholy Cotton Harrell, a river ecologist turned philosopher turned vintner, mourning the death of his lover. Like blending Merlot-Malbec grapes for the perfect Bordeaux, Conaway uses this cast, and an assortment of quirky supporting players, to weave multiple narratives into a cozy, no-murder and not-quite mystery, all set in motion after CJ accidentally dies when he becomes stuck in a giant metal tank of wine. Les helps the conservative Claire reenergize Craven-Jones on Wine—and her love life—while simultaneously using an anonymous blog to decant murky wine-country secrets, the most damaging of which is Jerome’s machinations to turn part of the Hutt Family Estates vineyard into a forest of McMansions.
      The cheerful complexity of Conaway's novel rivals the richest, most nose-worthy, palate-pleasing Cabernet.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Drink: Smokin' peat

It was the only tasting I have ever attended where half the participants carried weapons. They wore dirks - daggers - either on their belts or thrust into the tops of their knee-length stockings. “This is a skean dhu,” said the man next to me, (all spellings approximate) drawing his dagger and placing it on the table. “It means ‘black knife’ in Gaelic. The blade was blackened by the peat smoke, you know.”
He was a ghillie laird. Don’t ask me exactly what a ghillie laird is, but he and others
belonged to a club devoted to tasting single-malt scotches and they had gathered to sample three vintages of Macallan single highland malt scotch. If you think this a casual enterprise then try to pronounce the club’s name, Cuideagh 0 Corn 0 Uisghebeathe (roughly, “tasters of the water of life”). I tried with some success to distinguish among multiple peaty heats while keeping a clear head.
     The ghillie laird had more to tell me, but the bagpipes got in the way. He stood up, smoothed his kilt, and went off for a chunk of smoked salmon. I ate another oatcake to mop off my taste buds, concentrating on the task at hand: evaluating an array of amber liquids, accustomed to tasting wine, not single malt scotch, subjecting them to the regimen of wine tasting, a humbling experience.
     The whiskey industry is no longer in precipitous decline and sales of single-malt scotch have romped for a couple of decades now. Its popularity reflects the heightened awareness of quality among drinkers of everything from tequila to cognac and a willingness to pay for it.
“Single-malt,” as everyone knows these days, simply means the whiskey that comes from a single producer. The process enjoys more latitude than you might think, and the results, though they all taste like scotch, are as various as the components: malted barley, peat smoke, in some cases old sherry or bourbon casks, good water, and something else unquantifiable. According to one Cuideagh O C’orn Uisghebeathe enthusiast the Japanese attempted to assemble their own “scotch” over there, with ingredients – including water - imported from Scotland, and failed.
     There are more than a hundred scotch distilleries in Scotland, most of them tiny. The scotch that Americans are most familiar with is blended, and comes mostly from the Lowlands. It’s generally lighter in appearance than single-malt, sometimes with caramel dumped in to make it look “authentic," and the various blends taste more or less the same. Single-malts come from the Highlands farther north, and from the west coast, and are highly individualistic. Devotees collect vintages of single-malts, and trade them like well-ranked Bordeaux.
     Scotch is made from barley that has been soaked in water so it will germinate, kiln-roasted, and subjected to peat smoke in varying degrees. It’s then “mashed” and soaked again to liquefy the starches and convert them to sugar, and fermented like beer or wine. The resulting brew goes into a pot still that eventually produces a clear spirit of about 140 proof. Later, spring water’s added. The whisky will already bear the taste of the cooking and the peat.
     But another palatable element is yet to come – oak - which adds more taste and color. Traditionally scotch was  aged in casks once used for shipping sherry, a lovely symbiosis. The advent of tankers for bulk shipment made sherry casks rarer, and therefore costly, so most scotch found its way into old bourbon barrels brought over from the states. These became the most common cooperage for scotch, but some of the good single-malt distillers still use sherry casks. Firms like Macallan made arrangements with sherry houses of Spain that supply them with staves imbued with the taste of Amontillado and Oloroso.
     What this does to clear spirits dripping from a pot still in the Scottish Highlands reminds me of those glasses of single-malt lined up on the table. They contained a 10-year-old Glenmorangie, still one of Scotland’s most popular single-malts, and three Macallan vintages, aged 12, 18, and 25 years. I learned that the way to smell any strong spirit was to pass the glass under your nose twice at most. The Macallans were “lightly peated” and lacked the oily quality of heavier single-malts made in the west of Scotland, which I discovered on a trip to the inner Hebrides and will write about another time.
Lagavulin and Laphroaig are neighbors on the isle of Islay (pronounced “Eye-lay”), that smell vaguely of tea and iodine derived from the vast ocean on their doorsteps and the wind that blows off it pretty much all year. The older ones are deeply amber, with a sweetish, complex nose. A more lightly-peated - and less expensive - single-malt from Islay is Bowmore.
     Finally, single-malts taste better with a dollop of (un-chlorinated!) water. And forget about an ice cube if you find yourself in the presence of a single-malt partisan wearing a skean dhu.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Music to my nose...

This from The British Journal of Psychology (Aug., 2012):
…a small number of studies indicate that auditory stimuli can influence perceptions of the freshness of foodstuffs. Consistent with this, the results reported here indicate that independent groups’ ratings of the taste of the wine reflected the emotional connotations of the background music played while they drank it. These results indicate that the symbolic function of auditory stimuli (in this case music) may influence perception in other modalities (in this case gustation); and are discussed in terms of possible future research that might investigate those aspects of music that induce such effects in a particular manner, and how such effects might be influenced by participants’ pre-existing knowledge and expertise with regard to the target object in question.
     In other words, music listened to affects one’s enjoyment of wine. But the question remains – as it often does when choosing, and that’s which wine? Cabernet for Eddie Vedder, pinto noir for Phillip Glass? Or does one pick up components – black fruit, cigar box – more readily in the presence of certain music?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Friday, September 28, 2012

The novel

    This is the cover of my new novel (some slight variations possible), due out from Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin's Press) early in the new year. No, it has nothing to do with this blog, but then there is a blog within the novel. Worlds within worlds.

    Excerpts to follow, so stay tuned.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Joys of a Small Cellar

    Collecting wine can be dangerous to your health. I’m not talking livers here, but minds. I know of a doctor who began collecting wine as a hobby, and ended up with an obsession. He rented space in temperature-controlled rooms all over town for his considerable cellar of fine bordeaux, burgundies and ports. He owns more wine than he can ever drink. A lot of what he buys nowadays won’t even mature in his lifetime, yet he can’t stop.
    The big collectors are different from you and me. Consider the case of a man who stored his extensive wine cellar with friends in an exclusive section of a large American city. The friends had three teen-age children who, with their buddies, got into the habit of dipping into the cellar on
unsupervised weekends and popping corks. Being orderly, they re-corked the empty bottles and put them back in the crates. This ritual got them through high school in some fashion – I don’t know about their grades, but their palates should be awesome – and only later did the owner discover that about $50,000 worth of less-than-well-aged wine had gone down somebody’s gullet.
    Here’s the big difference between that, and losing a bottle of cooking sherry to a thirsty guest. In between lies the need for a reasonable assemblage of wine reasonably monitored. The joys of a small cellar are many, and usually subtle. They have more to do with convenience than value, more with generosity than ostentation. With a small cellar, you can produce something special to drink when a friend arrives. You can enjoy wine regularly without having to cart it home every night. You can purchase wine by the case, and thereby take advantage of bargains. As a student of wine, you can have a modest library.
    A small cellar is a relative thing. Two cases of wine are too few, 20 are too many. My definition of a small cellar is one whose contents you can recall, however hazily. You know you have a few cases of bordeaux, and – roughly - which vintages. There's some less expensive cabernet from Chile for immediate drinking, and that mixed case of reduced California chardonnay. Also some pinot grigio in big bottles for parties, and a white Graves for oysters, should they materialize. Only one bottle of port, and some sparklers. You can correct deficiencies as soon as the sales begin.
    A small cellar should, however, contain some surprises. You should occasionally come upon something you forgot was there, a sensation similar to that produced by finding money on the pavement. You originally paid for the wine, but that pain belongs to the past. Or the bottle may have been brought by a friend and put away until the proper time to drink it.
    Gifts are another advantage of keeping a small cellar. How many times have you wished, going out the door to dinner, that you had a bottle of something decent to take along? Having some, wine on hand solves that problem, and offers larger possibilities as well. When my son’s 21st birthday loomed, as everyone’s must, I wanted to give him something memorable, but also usable. He, naturally, wanted cash. In the cellar I had a case of '81 Lynch-Bages, a cru classé from Pauillac. I made copies of descriptions of the chateau and vintage for him, figuring the wine would be ready to drink about the
time his preference for beer ameliorated.
    Small cellars must meet certain standards if the wine is to last even a short time. First, there must be an absence of light, which can ruin wine faster than you realize. If absolute darkness isn't possible, then a shadowy nook is far better than shelves exposed even to a light bulb a portion of each day. Store wine bottles on their sides, to keep the corks moist and therefore airtight. Try to store them away from washing machines and other sources of vibration, which over the long run will terminally discombobulate your wine.
    Temperature is very important – both the degrees, and daily fluctuation. Summer heat can spoil wine left in basements that people assume are cool enough. If the temperature in your basement exceeds '70 degrees, you need an air conditioner, period. Furnaces can produce more heat than
wine and corks can stand, so bottles should  stored far from them, and clothes driers. Whatever the season, the temperature shouldn’t fall below the mid-’50s, and shouldn’t change more than five degrees in a day. Not everyone has a basement.
    In apartments, the cellar requires more imagination. Wine storage units that resemble refrigerators can be had, but most people improvise with closets. Granted, closets are often dark, but they are also often hot and stuffy. If you use one, try to cut off any source of heat to it in winter, and leave the door open to air-conditioning in summer. A little light is less harmful than an August on the Potomac.
    I   know an ardent enophile who lives in a two-bedroom apartment. One bedroom is for him, the other for his wine. There the shades are always drawn; in the winter, the wine is stacked against the outside wall. In summer, he moves it across the room and cranks up the central air-conditioning. 
    There are stranger wine cellars. Some people even keep them on sailboats. I knew one wine writer who maintained a small cellar in the trunk of a car. It didn’t do much for the wine, but it did wonders for her sense of well-being.

soild post, sir! like everything, there is so much bs due to information innundation. thank you for not only cutting though the bs, but adding great color.