Budget Wine: Skeleton Grüner Veltliner Burgenland 2013

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skeletonTheir marketing is clearly aimed at the dead among us. But if you’re feeling life slipping away this “gru-vee” will give you a reason to hang on, especially at this price.

With apple, hints of white pepper and lime, and celery in the background, this doesn’t quite have the standard “salad bowl” aromas of Grüner Veltliner but there is plenty of depth and complexity.

In the mouth,  apple with mineral undertones dominate turning to lime and a pleasing chalkiness on the long finish. Medium body with some viscosity, with flesh on the bones this is enjoyable to sip as well as to serve with food.

Interesting, complex, and refreshing– what else do you want for a $10 bill. And it comes in a 1 liter bottle for those extra long nights where 750 ml won’t quite knock you out.

Burgenland is a warm region primarily known for its red wines so the flavor profile shows more citrus and weight than wines from the Grüner-centric regions to the North.

Grüner Veltliner is one of those wines the experts keep predicting will become the new go-to white wine. But Austria’s production is too small and they keep most of it for themselves, so I doubt these predictions will pan out. But these are terrific wines bursting with flavor and the better ones will age. Definitely worth seeking out.

 

Score: 88

Price: $10 per litre

Alc: 12.5%

So Why Does It Taste So Bad?

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Vox had an interesting article this week on the people who try to indentify food trends and instruct companies on how to capitalize on them. Lamenting the fact that food trends can come and go before companies can marshall the resources to bring a product to market, the big companies are at a distinct disadvantage:

But for companies like Pepsico or Denny’s, the innovation cycle takes years.

Ideas are brainstormed, prototyped, kitchen tested, debated within dozens of boardrooms, tested in select markets, subjected to refinements and focus groups, prepared for a launch, advertised to the public, and slowly rolled out store by store, state by state, and country by country. The time line from the initial idea for a food to a consumer’s first bite can be months in the quickest-moving companies and years for the largest ones, with the whole process costing many millions of dollars.

So why does their food taste like crap? All that money and effort resulting in Denny’s latest bland and boring offering. Maybe food design by committee is not such a good idea.

 

 

Fast Food Without Guilt

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appleI eat lots of fast food—otherwise known as an apple.

I’m not a big fan of fast food restaurants because they are just not very interesting. By necessity it’s standardized, chain-restaurant food and thus by definition it’s boring.

But we all lead busy, mobile lives so sometimes fast food can’t be avoided. Thus, the arrival of fast-food restaurants that make an attempt to serve healthy, fresh, sustainable food is on the whole a good thing.

As Julie Moskin reports in the NY Times:

A handful of rapidly growing regional chains around the country — including Tender Greens, LYFE Kitchen, SweetGreen and Native Foods — offer enticements like grass-fed beef, organic produce, sustainable seafood and menus that change with the season. Most promise local ingredients; some are exclusively vegetarian or even vegan. A few impose calorie ceilings, and others adopt service touches like busboys and china plates.

And despite the higher costs and prices, all are thriving and planning national expansions, some directed by alumni of fine dining or of fast-food giants like McDonald’s.

Their success marks a milestone: After decades of public hand-wringing about the empty calories and environmental impact of fast food, the farm-to-table notions that have revolutionized higher-end American restaurants have finally found a lucrative spot in the takeout line. The result already has a nickname: farm to counter.

“This is not a passing fad,” said B. Hudson Riehle, the research director for the National Restaurant Association, who added that locally grown food and sustainability were the top two customer priorities reported this year in the group’s annual poll of American chefs. “It’s only going to get stronger.

Of course, the problem is that these new chains are serving a different market than McDonalds and Burger King—it’s unlikely that Tender Greens will replace McDonalds. So this development will have little effect on overall health.

Basically it gives people who can afford to pay $10 for a salad, who already think of that as a meal, and who are committed to sustainability, the opportunity to eat fast food without feeling guilty.

A reduction is guilt is a good thing but it isn’t revolutionary.

A Natural Debate over Natural Wines

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I guess it must be that time of the year again. Every six months or so, it seems, the wine blogosphere erupts in a cascade of screed, accusation, and innuendo about so called “natural wines”.  This latest go-round was initiated by an intemperate article in Newsweek entitled “Why ‘Natural’ Wine Tastes Worse Than Putrid Cider”. As you might imagine, that provoked some wine writers to come to the defense of natural wines and others to offer somewhat more restrained denounciations.

If you are one of the billions of people on this planet who avoid the wine press and wine blogs you might never have heard of “natural wines”. Essentially these are wines made without cultured yeast, mininimal (or no) use of the preservative sulfur dioxide, no modern winemaking technology such as reverse osmosis or micro-oxygenation, no additives such as mega purple or additional acid, no filtration, and using only grapes grown organically and/or sustainably–the way wine was made 100 years ago.

So what is wrong with modern winemaking technology? Well, environmental issues such as soil depletion and potentially harmful chemicals to start with, but natural wine enthusiasts also claim modern industrial winemaking destroys flavor, creating generic wines that lack freshness, complexity, and that no longer reflect the unique characteristics of the grapes’ origins.

This is controversial because modern winemaking technology is, in part, designed to eliminate flaws, bad bottles, and to preserve the wine for shipping and storage. So making (and purchasing) wine without that technology is inherently risky. It is, however, not quite true that natural winemakers eschew modern technology. The natural winemakers I know obsessively test their wines in the lab, use the latest in storage technology, and are scrupulous about cleanliness in the winery using the best equipment they can find to make sure their facilities, storage containers and equipment are free of bacteria. The idea that they are luddites is absurd.

So what does this controversy come down to? On one side, the traditionalists claim that natural wine enthusiasts are ignoring flavor in favor of a dogmatic ideology, deceived by the romantic lure of the idea of “authenticity” into making inferior wine. On the other side are the enthusiasts who claim that the wine revolution is upon us if only the close-minded and hidebound apologists for big business would get out of the way.

In the middle are the vast number of artisanal wine producers who use technology when necessary but only as a last resort, who believe vineyard expression is what matters most but that some intervention sometimes is necessary to produce the best wine they can.

Part of the controversy arises because the word “natural” is ill-defined and there are no standards for what counts as natural wine and often no way of knowing whether a wine is natural or not. There is a simple solution to this–require ingredients to be listed on the bottle so consumers can make their own decisions about what they prefer and are less dependent on the marketing of the word “natural”.

But another main source of confusion is the idea that we can somehow distinguish flavor from the idea of what we’re drinking. Flavor is an idea influenced by our past, our environment, and most importantly our thoughts about what we’re tasting. Natural wine enthusiasts are not ignoring flavor in favor of dogma. They define flavor differently because they have a different idea of what flavor should be. The traditionalist notion that great wine must be made from very ripe grapes, filtered, and heavily oaked is itself a kind of dogma. There is no neutral ground called “flavor” that defines what flavor is and our various ideologies inevitably influence our judgments.

The attitude I find most disturbing is one expressed by Matt Kramer whose writing I usually admire. He writes

For those of us on the sidelines, watching the crusaders on both sides saddle up for yet another joust leaves a bad aftertaste. And that is surely not what fine wine is supposed to be about.

The idea that we shouldn’t disagree about these things takes wine out of the realm of the aesthetic. As Kant insisted, the idea of beauty (as opposed to mere subjective preference) produces judgements that aspire to be universal. The fact that the taste of wine matters enough to argue about and take sides with the aim of convincing others means that wine is not just a preference but an attempt to experience something of genuine value and import. If it were like a preference for Orange Maid or Sunkist then arguments would appear to be beside the point. Everyone in the wine world should welcome this controversy because it is a sign that wine is not merely a commodity like orange juice but a work of art worthy of our commitment.

In closing let me weigh in on the controversy. Some natural wines are better than others. Some are flawed or just ordinary. But I’ve had natural wines that are extraordinary. Someone who claims that they all taste like “putrid cider” is just ignorant. The trick is to know the producer so you can return a bad bottle, buy local, and drink young to avoid the need to store them.

Wine Review: Weise and Krohn Valtorto 2011 Red Blend Douro

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valtortoI’m fascinated by the capacity of wine to evoke ideas and images. It is not true of every wine, but some have sufficient personality and character to send the mind traveling across worlds and through time.  Happily,these wines are not necessarily the most expensive.

This red blend from Portugal’s Douro river valley is a perfect evocation of that region. Characterized by steep, rugged hillsides, with poor, rocky soil, infernally hot and dry as a bone in summer, growing and harvesting grapes in the Douro defies gravity and common sense notions of what is humanly possible.  Although many of the large port houses own sculpted, terraced vineyards that ease the difficulties of harvest, many small vineyard plots and steep slopes still survive. Weise and Krohn are a small, but established port house. I have no idea whether their grapes are sourced from growers using traditional methods or not, but this wine is a metaphor for that hardscrabble existence endured by centuries of growers trying to eke out a living growing grapes.

Powerful and sturdy yet sinewy and lean, it opens with the deepest, darkest blackberry notes, set off by baked earth, coffee, and hints of tarragon. There is an intriguing caramel note that rewards some careful sniffing. On the palate, intense dark fruit, tar and bitter herbs give way to coarse, dry tannins and robust acidity. Despite all that savory intensity it feels lively not weighty and manages to be rustic yet well-balanced, tough but pleasing.

It doesn’t have the classical character of fine wine. It is what it is—a wine with personality.

This is a blend of the standard port varietals—Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional, and Tinto Cao—which make interesting, savory red wines. In fact, if you want bargains I would buy Portuguese wines right now. They are usually under $15 and almost always rewarding.

 

Score: 89

Price: $12

Alc: 14%

Budget Wine Review: Guenoc Chardonnay 2013 California

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guenocGuenoc is Langtry Estates entry level wine which is now part of the Foley Family stable of wineries. It’s a widely available supermarket wine produced at their Lake County winery using less than 15% estate grapes with the rest coming from various vineyards in California.

This is a straightforward, modern-style, warm-climate Chardonnay, not too oaky, no butter, with tropical fruits and crisp acidity but exceedingly average in quality.

Good intensity on the nose, showing pineapple, baked apple, and lime but with faint medicinal notes if you look for them. Restrained oak notes.

The oak influence is a bit more apparent on the medium-bodied palate which shows some roasted pear, but the flavor disappears mid-palate, overwhelmed by the bite from the acid. A crisp and tangy mouthfeel but dull on the finish as it turns a bit sour. This will work well with salmon or butternut squash soup for dinner but won’t impress as a sipper.

A good bargain if you find the price discounted, which I did at BevMo.

Score: 85

Ave. Price:  $10

Alc: 13.5

Do We Need Psychoanalysis to Learn to Eat Well?

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therapylandscape_1651411cIn his recent interview with Ezra Klein, Michael Pollan expresses puzzlement at the Obama administration’s reluctance to take on the food industry.

“The energy sector is a powerful lobby,” he says, “but the President seems willing to go after them. But not agriculture….The agricultural sector generates more methane than any other sector. But for reasons I can’t fathom, when they announced the new rules governing methane in the energy sector, they called for voluntary measures in the agricultural sector.”

Reducing the use of antibiotics in livestock gets a similar voluntary treatment. Pollan attributes Washington’s reluctance to regulate the food industry to public resistance to changing one’s diet:

 “People’s eating choices are more fundamental and closely tied to their identity than their driving decisions or how they choose to heat their house or anything else. If you challenge my right to have a cheeseburger, that’s getting a little intimate.”

Perhaps Pollan’s right about our reluctance to change our diet but if so that is pathetic. The environmental impact of eating meat could be substantially mitigated by choosing to eat meat less often. Moving to a plant-based diet three times a week would make a big difference.

So what does choosing an occasional plant based meal have to do with one’s identity? If eating pasta primavera insted of a cheeseburger is a threat to your identity–well your identity is a bit too fragile to survive the slings and arrows of human existence.

I recommend psychoanalysis along with the change in diet.

 

 

 

Does Jiro Dream Only of Sushi?

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jiroI finally got around to watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the documentary about famed Sushi chef Jiro Ono and his three-Michelin-starred restaurant, where diners pay the equivalent of $300 for a 15 minute meal. (Jiro discourages lingering or socializing–its all about the food)

It is a well-done documentary with scrumptious shots of sushi, a behind the scenes look at a fish auction, and music by Philip Glass. But the main attraction is Jiro Ono’s character. Now 86 years old, and a perfectionist with extraordinary discipline and dedication, he still goes to work each day, detests holidays, and, despite being the best sushi chef in the world, dreams of making better sushi. His sons seem to be happily following in his footsteps.

He pours over every detail of his operation from how long fish is marinated to the placement of place mats and seating arrangements. His apprentices spend weeks learning how to slice an egg and decades perfecting a dish. He apparently has no other interests, eschews all recreation, his home life is never mentioned, his wife never appears.

He has a mission, the value of which he is absolutely sure, and each moment of his life is aimed at carrying it out. His self-certainty pervades the film. No doubt driven by an exquisite form of love, his life embodies Nietzsche’s  stirring paean to single-mindedness:

O thou, my Will! Thou change of every need, MY needfulness! Preserve me from all small victories!

Thou fatedness of my soul, which I call fate! Thou In-me! Over-me! Preserve and spare me for one great fate!

And thy last greatness, my Will, spare it for thy last–that thou mayest be inexorable IN thy victory! Ah, who hath not succumbed to his victory!

Ah, whose eye hath not bedimmed in this intoxicated twilight! Ah, whose foot hath not faltered and forgotten in victory–how to stand!– (Zarathustra, Part III, 56)

There is something to be said for having only one goal in life—a kind of simplicity and absence of doubt. Jiro enjoys the inherent  satisfaction in achieving excellence and deep although limited aesthetic appreciation. But daily life is repetitive and perhaps lacking imagination, and human relationships seem constrained and circumscribed by his singular goal.

And so the film starkly raises the question–is such a life of dedication and obsession a good life or is it too unbalanced?

I’ve been thinking about this issue for 40 years and I’m still not sure.

Nederberg Cabernet 2011 Winemaster’s Reserve Western Cape South Africa

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nederbergSouth Africa makes some fine Cabernet but at the low end of the price range quality is uneven. Nederberg has two centuries of winemaking behind them but this entry level Cab is ordinary.

It does have the characteristic South African herbal quality. A mélange of eucalyptus and smoke with coffee background and red current give the nose some interest. But this is not fruit driven and suggests a lack of ripeness.

On the palate, simple cherry flavors dominate with a touch of candied sweetness, but the body is meager and the finish tart, like a new acquaintance with a bright smile and a sour disposition.

Refreshing with good acidity but the medium grain tannins grip a little  and with the burst of acidity give the wine an impression of rusticity.

This is old world winemaking—California-trained palates will find it austere. It will go well with pizza but is a little overpriced.

 

Score: 85

Price: $12

Alc: 14%

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