Food, Nostalgia, and Something about Androids

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It has become common knowledge—at least since Proust and his madeleine—that food has a peculiar capacity to provoke memories. When we eat, we can never escape the past; the role of nostalgia in much of our food writing is testimony to this fact.

Furthermore, the culinary arts are inevitably bound up with food traditions simply because every diner comes to a new dish with a history of eating experiences that will shape how she understands the dish.  All creative cooking is in some way commenting on food traditions.

Yet nostalgia often has a bad name—it’s too conservative, excessively romantic, divorced from the truth, a fig leaf for suspect ideologies, etc. So how should we think about the connection between food (wine too) and nostalgia?

That is the topic of my Three Quarks post this month entitled “Do Androids Dream of Electric Tomatoes? Food and Nostalgia”. Head on over and give it a read.

Wine Review: Antinori Solaia Toscana IGT 1999

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solaiaDrinking an iconic wine is in some respects like watching McCartney or Jagger perform—it is as much about the past as it is the present, as much a celebration as an aesthetic experience. Yet, there are important differences.

We know the iconic rock star is over-the-hill; that goes without saying. But we’re willing to accept the importance of reputation over performance without complaint, as long as the performance is not too horrifying. We’re content with memory filling in the chasm between an irretrievable past and an imperfect present. And so we relax and enjoy the moment.

But when opening a celebrated, aged wine there is a veneer of anxiety coating the experience. Perhaps it was stored improperly or maybe we’re opening it before its peak. Perhaps the price is more a function of reputation than flavor. 1999 was a great vintage, but will it show well enough to justify the cost? And how does it measure up to its peers? We’ve put the Stones vs. Beatles debate to rest years ago. But Solaia vs. Sassichia vs. Ornellia—that one’s still alive and must be addressed.

And so with some trepidation and anticipation we (at Wine Elite’s San Diego Wine Society) open the “99” Solaia.

Solaia is an icon because it traces its origins to the early history of the emergence of Super Tuscans. Unhappy with the poor quality of Chianti wines in the mid-20th Century, the della Rochetta and Antinori families cooperated in producing Tuscan wines using Bordeaux varietals.  Della Rochetta’s Sassicaia,  a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc was first with its initial release in 1971.  Antinori’s Tignanello, 80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet followed shortly. And encouraged by the success of Tignanello, in 1978 Antinori releases the first vintage of Solaia, which is now a blend of about 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Sangiovese.  Because they violated the regulations governing Chianti wines,  they could not be sold as “Chianti” and were labeled as mere table wines. Despite the difficulties of selling high quality, pricey wines as “table wine”, quality won out and today Super Tuscans are highly-regarded, recognized by the wine laws of Italy, and the whole episode of their birth is a story of how dedicated, talented individuals can start a revolution.

Knowing the backstory provides context for appreciating a wine just as knowing the history of the Beatles or Stones helps us understand their music and its evolution. Does knowing the backstory influence our judgment of the wine? If you are aware of the story’s potential influence and consciously try to exclude it from your evaluation I see no reason why it must. To taste a wine like Solaia blind would be a waste since your awareness of its history is part of the appreciation, although not necessarily part of the evaluation.

So what about the Solaia? The first sniff exudes power. After well over a decade in the bottle it is no longer tight. Bold, black cherry and sweet, dried fig aromas leap from the glass. The rich radiant fruit flavors shade to baked earth and a seriously smoky essence, gently kissed by fennel notes in the background. The fruit is still vibrant and youthful but it is surrounded by indicators of age as the oak is becoming more integrated. On the palate, structure is front and center. Big fruit, high acidity, and firm tannins provide the framework around which more subtle qualities playfully intervene.The palate is rich and velvety on first encounter but bristling acidity swells to a crescendo which releases you into a long, spicy, finish supported by fine grained, drying tannins that are still a bit too prominent.

It has definitely entered its drinking window and if served with a big steak will be glorious. But I don’t think it has reached its peak. The tannins still need to soften a bit more. There is a toughness to this wine as if it is disdainful of too much charm. It doesn’t seduce you with graceful elegance like, for instance, a Margaux, and it is denser and more ripe than the 2009 Sassicaia I tasted last year, yet less voluptuous than the best Napa Cabs. I’m not persuaded that the best expression of Cabernet Sauvignon is to be found in Tuscany.

But it is a serious wine, deserving its reputation and its place in history.

I suppose we are willing to give aging rock stars a break, because if they are over-the-hill so are we (if we are their contemporaries). Wine is different; it is supposed to get better with age and we can demand perfection in a wine because it cannot protest our unrealistic standards.

 

Score: 94

Price: $217 (Ave.)

alc: 13.5

Budget Wine: Bodegas Faustino Rioja 2010

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faustinoWe’re fascinated by novelty forever chasing the next new thing until innovation itself seems routine. And so when we encounter something old school, really old school, it seems fresh and new.

This wine is really old school Spanish Rioja. Cherry notes typical of Tempranillo but they barely show through the musty  earth, smoke, and light vanilla. I could sniff a funky nose like this all day. It’s like being downwind from a barnyard fire. (There may be a little brett but if so it adds rather than detracts.)

The palate is lively and refreshing but a little tough and austere,  medium weight and a medium length finish with forceful, grainy, slightly coarse tannins.Firm acidity keeps it all in balance. 4 months in new American oak gives the wine complexity but the oak component doesn’t overwhelm.

No pretentions to elegance or refinement. Fiercely humble, a fiery defense of rusticity. It’s what cheap Bordeaux aspires to be but only rarely achieves–vin ordinaire with flair.

Bodegas Faustino has been making wine for 150 years in Rioja and they are justly famous for their celebrated Reserva and Gran Reserva. But this bottom shelf bargain is a worthy achievement as well.

Score: 90

Price: $10

Alc: 13%

Dumbing Down Dining

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fast food wineMany decades ago, as the result of our frantic, mobile lifestyles and general disregard for the quality of sensory experience, Americans gave up family dinners for fast food.

Today, several fast food operations—from Sonic to Chipotle–are trying to introduce alcoholic beverages because:

Fast Food CEOs seem to believe that Americans are increasingly interested in having a dining experience—not just a meal on the run—when they eat out, and this often includes the addition of alcohol.

So apparently we now no longer see fast food as, well, fast food—it has become a “dining experience”. What in the past was done solely for convenience becomes so familiar it acquires intrinsic value and so we now think sitting in a plastic booth eating mystery meat slathered with condiments sipping wine from a plastic cup is a “dining experience”.

It would really be a good thing if we stopped allowing CEO’s to define our “experience”

Will We Soon Have Young Raw Milk Cheese in the U.S?

buffala mozzerellaOne among the many great things about visiting France or Italy is the cheese—great variety, vibrant flavors, pungent aromas. Some claim, with justification I think, that European cheese is superior because it is often made from unpasteurized milk. In the U.S., raw milk cheese must be aged 60 days before it can be sold because young, raw milk cheese can harbor bacteria that cause food poisoning.

But the French will have none of this claiming that their centuries of cheese-making shows that young, raw milk cheeses are perfectly safe.

Apparently, scientists are beginning to figure out why the French have been successful a making safe, raw milk cheese:

 In fact, French scientists seem to have figured out the Holy Grail of raw milk cheese: how to make it safer. And a lot of how they do it comes down to how to use good bacteria to battle the bad ones.

Learning those French secrets could help cheesemakers in the Anglophone world make safer and more delicious cheese, says Bronwen Percival, a cheese buyer with Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. So she’s spearheading a Kickstarter effort to raise about $20,000 to translate a technical French government manual on cheese microbiology into English.

And the feds are apparently taking an interest:

But following a regulatory flap over bacteria growing on the wooden boards cheese has traditionally aged on, Dutton, Percival and others say there’s a renewed U.S. government interest in opening a dialogue about how microbial colonies in cheese function. “I felt like it was a positive shift in the discussion,” Dutton says.

I wish they would hurry–I’m craving a good made-this-morning, raw-milk bufala mozzarella.

The Wine-Tasting-is-Bunk Meme Won’t Go Away

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I’m working on a longer article to show why the studies that purport to show that wine expertise is bunk are misleading. But this article from the Guardian last summer entitled “Wine Tasting is Junk Science” was in the news again recently because of philosopher Alva Noë’s piece on NPR so I wanted to make a quick point about these headlines that periodically appear.

I don’t know anyone who thinks wine tasting is a science or that even expert wine tasters can achieve the level of accuracy required for scientific testing. Certainly every expert I know admits the difficulties of wine tasting and readily grants that we often get it wrong. The fact that wine experts are inconsistent in their evaluations is no surprise to anyone who pursues wine tasting seriously.

There is plenty of science that shows that our response to wine is influenced by all sorts of contextual factors—weather, temperature of the wine, the order in which you taste the wine, the kind of music playing in the background, price, reputation, one’s mood, conversations about the wine around you,  and most importantly, past experience. This doesn’t make wine different from anything else.  All of our judgments are influence by these factors.

Expert wine tasters are people who have training and experience but who also try as much as possible to reduce the influence of some contextual factors. But we only succeed to a degree.

The deeper question is why people insist on scientific objectivity when we evaluate wine. We don’t expect scientific objectivity from art critics, literary critics, or film reviewers. The disagreements among experts in these fields are as deep as the disagreements about wine. There is no reason to think a film critic would have the same judgment about a film if viewed in a different context, in comparison with a different set of films, or after conversing about the film with other experts. Our judgments are fluid and they should be if we are to make sense of our experience. When listening to music aren’t we differently affected by a song depending upon whether we are at home, in a bar, going to the beach, listening with friends or alone? Why would wine be different?

I suspect what we are witnessing with all this skepticism about wine tasting is the corrosive influence of the point system in evaluating wine. It is a handy device for consumers but it leaves the impression that wine evaluation is subject to mathematical precision. But nothing could be further from the truth.  A wine that receives 95 points is judged on a particular day in a particular context. There is no reason to think a critic (or a different critic)  would assign exactly the same score in a different context, in comparison with a different flight of wines, under different social and environmental conditions.

What we want from critics whether of music, art, or wine is a judgment made in light of their vast experience, one that can show us something about the object that we might have missed without their commentary. That can be accomplished independently of whether the critic is perfectly consistent or objective. We want the critic to have a certain kind of bias because it is that bias that enables her to taste what she does.

Some people seem to be psychologically invested in the “wine tasting is bunk” meme. I wonder why?

Wine Review: Montalbera Laccento Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato, Piedmont, Italy

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rucheThere are thousands of grape varieties from which wine is made. But only a relative handful find their way to the international wine markets. Robert Parker and others have argued that there is a good reason why most varieties are obscure—they don’t make good wine. Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc. are popular for a reason. That may be so, but unearthing neglected varieties is a worthwhile task because their may be gems among the discards.

And indeed I discovered one this weekend at a meeting of the San Diego Wine Society. The grape is an Italian varietal called Ruché that hails from a small DOCG wine region of about 100 acres near the town of Castognole Monferrato in Piemonte. 10% Barbera or Brachetto is allowed in the blend.

One sip and it will have you thinking of the poets and their flowers:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
~William Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” 1804

Luxuriant, perfumed floral notes leap from the glass but strawberry jam and candied fruit lie in the background and grace the palate, which also displays intriguing orange zest flavors, unusual in red wine. Just short of medium weight and dry, the texture is gentle though it doesn’t quite caress like the best Pinots. But the acidity is bracing and the finish is propelled by surprisingly vibrant tannins that have a sparkling quality, and residual bitter notes that mark it as Italian. There really is not another wine quite like this.

This combination of intensity and tenderness is why I drink wine. This with a pork rib roast basted with a light orange rosemary glaze would be a slice of heaven.

If you haven’t tried this grape, drop what you’re doing, jump on the Internet, go to Wine Searcher and buy  a case. The production is very small and when word gets out I cannot imagine this wine not exploding in popularity. Of course, it will not please everyone, but if you like intensely aromatic wines with soft, textures and strong acidity along the lines of a Pinot Noir you will really enjoy this.

The Italian wine critic Luca Maroni gave it 99 points. I’m not prepared to go there. But any wine that puts me in mind of Wordsworth is worth a 93.

Score: 93

Price: $24

Budget Wine: Honoro Vera Garnacha Calatayud 2012

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honoro veraGrenache is usually a blending grape in France, but across the border in Spain it is a standalone varietal producing rich, deeply concentrated wine, especially when sourced from the hillside vineyards of the hot, dry valley of the River Ebro from whence these old-vine grapes hail.

Winemaker Juan Gill is an illusionist with this wine. Concentrated dried strawberries, just short of raisins, with bright cherry aromas, herbs and smoked meat suggests big, sweet, and heavy. But the palate is polished and luscious, medium to full body, but lively and crisp with good acidity and just a hint of glycerin. Restrained tannins stay in the background for a short but spicy finish.

Subtly seductive and mercurial like an exotic dancer, you can’t do better for $10.

 

Score: 88

Price: $10

Alc: 14%

Culinary Conservatism is Harming us

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salmonHere is an example of how conservatism with regard to taste is harming us. As this article by Sea-to-Table argues, 91% of all seafood consumed in the U.S comes from outside the U.S. and two thirds of that is shrimp, salmon, Tilapia, and canned tuna, much of it farmed under less than sustainable conditions. We eat the same stuff over and over.

Yet U.S. waters contain hundreds of species of seafood, such as pollock, mullet and dogfish, that taste good and have not been over-fished. If only we could overcome our reluctance to try new things.

Chefs will have to take the initiative

Food, Wine, and Nostalgia

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proustThe world of food and wine thrives on a heavy dose of nostalgia. Culinarians (“foodies’” in the vernacular) chase down heritage tomatoes, ferment their own vinegar, and learn to butcher hogs in the name of “how things used to be” before industrial agriculture created TV dinners and Twinkies.  As we scour the Internet for authentic recipes, we imagine simpler times of family farms supporting family feasts consuming real food, prepared in homey, immaculate kitchens with fruit pies on the windowsill, and the kids shelling beans at the table. Similarly, the wine industry continues to thrive on the romantic myth of the noble winemaker diligently tilling a small vineyard year after year to produce glorious wines that taste of the local soil and climate.

Of course, in reality the winemaking of days past was not so romantic. Bad weather would have ruined some vintages and difficulties in controlling fermentation temperatures and unsanitary conditions in the winery rendered many wines barely drinkable. As to the way we ate in the not-to-distant past, for most people, food was scarce, expensive, of poor quality and often unsafe. Kitchens, if they existed, were poorly equipped and their operation depended on difficult, relentless work by women. Only the wealthy could eat in the manner approaching the quality of contemporary nostalgic yearnings, but that quality usually depended on the work of underpaid kitchen staff after slavery was abolished.

Nostalgia is a form of selective memory, history without the bad parts  enabling us to enjoy the past without guilt.

Does this dependency on myth render our contemporary fascination with the foods of the past a kind of kitsch—a sentimental, clichéd, easily marketed longing that offers “emotional gratification without intellectual effort” in Walter Benjamin’s formulation, an aesthetic and moral failure?

No doubt nostalgia can be dangerous—sometimes people are prepared to die for their myths which they confuse with the truth.

The word “nostalgia” has Greek roots—from nostos and algia meaning “longing to return home” . Are contemporary culinarians and wine enthusiasts longing for a return to the “good” old days? I doubt it.

It seems to me there is a distinction between trying to return to the past in order to rebuild it vs. the appropriation of the past as a kind of aesthetic celebration in looking towards the future. Rather than a return to the past, the contemporary fascination with food traditions is a reinterpretation and recontextualization of the past with an eye toward a better tasting future, much as the rock traditions of the 60’s reinterpreted the old blues traditions to invent a new form of music.

On the question of whether this reinterpretation is a form of kitsch,  I will have to think on that a bit—a topic to be revisited in the near future.

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