Budget Wine: Buscado Garnacha Spain 2013

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Oh my. Caveat Emptor.

Previous vintages of this wine have received some glowing reviews, not the least from Wilfred Wong who gave the 2011 93 points, saying “This one is fully-loaded, the flamboyant ’11 Buscardo Garnacha explodes with raspberries and blueberries; saturated and balanced from start to finish.”  It is one of the stars of Bevmo’s 5-cent sale. So I grabbed a couple bottles of the latest vintage, though I was puzzled by the the shelf-talker that still includes Wong’s previous review.

It is not good. On the nose there is some cherry, strawberry jam, and herbs but twiggy, green notes predominate suggesting a lack of ripeness. In the mouth, sour cherry with an aggressive acid bite and excessive bitterness mar this wine. There is just not enough fruit to keep it in balance. If you have some of this already, it is not quite pour-down-the-drain bad. It’s adequate to wash down a pizza but it is really quite unpleasant as a sipping wine.

It is entirely illegitimate for Bevmo to use a review of a previous vintage to sell wine, especially when it bears no relation to the current vintage. Shame on them. Of course this is nothing new in the wine industry.

Score: 81

Price: $9.95

Alc: 14%

Crowdsourcing Recipes: Is it a New Paradigm?

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crowdsourcingWhen we eat in a restaurant, we typically choose what we want to eat, but the design of the dish and ultimately how it tastes is up to the chef.

But a company called Dinner Lab thinks that is “idiotic” and is inventing a “new paradigm” for restaurant dining.

The company wants to bring the wisdom of crowds to fine dining, and it does so at about 1,500 events a year, in 20 cities. Soon it will try this approach in a more conventional setting: a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The company plans to open at least one, and perhaps as many as three, in locations and with menus determined by the input of thousands of diners….

When you attend a Dinner Lab event, you are given an index card and asked to rate each dish’s creativity and taste, as well as each drink pairing, on a scale of one to five. You also decide whether or not the course was “restaurant worthy.”…

The scores are fed into a computer, and each week the numbers are crunched and the results are relayed to chefs, along with suggestions gleaned from the comments space on the cards and from emails sent in by diners. Maybe some people thought the burnt pepper sambuca sausage with fresh mustard was a little dry. Perhaps the chilled avocado and yogurt soup lacked zing….

It is the job of Dinner Lab’s chefs to take this information and to learn from it, tinkering with and improving recipes.

As an event, this actually sounds like fun. Chefs cook in the middle of the room, discuss their concoctions with diners, diners are encouraged to think about what they are eating, and there is plenty of convivial interaction:

The meals are designed to maximize interaction. The process of scribbling scores inevitably leads to discussions. Long tables help, too, as do family-style courses.

But a new paradigm for restaurant dining? Why think the wisdom of crowds is better at designing recipes than creative chefs? The end result is what the “average” diner prefers. This may be a safe way of designing dishes that avoids culinary disasters since these will be eliminated through the crowd’s vote. But how many creative, unusual dishes will fall by the wayside as well. This cannot help but result in lowest-common-denominator cooking

It used to be “design by committee” was a pejorative because when committees design something the compromises necessary to get agreement lead to less than optimal results. But apparently today, if the committee is large enough, the results are unassailable.

The problem with this way of thinking is that when you aggregate many random opinions, you get an average opinion. But this is not wisdom; it’s just statistics—the law of large numbers—and has little to do with originality, creativity, or high quality.

Is Tipping Justified?

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This essayno tipping by Emrys Westacott, for the most part, gets it right—there is no good justification for the practice of tipping in restaurants. It is doubtful that it encourages better service and we are so inconsistent regarding who we tip that the practice is not based on a rational idea of what good service deserves—why not tip your doctor or your car mechanic if good service deserves a tip? And why should servers rather than the kitchen staff get the tips?

If servers were paid a decent wage and treated like professionals, as is the case in much of Europe, I suspect the quality of service would improve rather than diminish.

Notice I wrote that the practice of tipping lacks justification. That is emphatically not to say that you should fail to leave a healthy tip for your server when out to dinner. They depend on those tips to pay the rent, and failing to leave a tip because you disagree with the practice is just petty and thoughtless.

But I doubt that the practice of tipping will disappear in the U.S. Restaurant owners like it because it reduces their labor costs and keeps the menu price down. Customers seem wedded to it for some reason, which I don’t quite understand.

A few years ago, a San Diego restaurant—The Linkery—received national recognition for eliminating tips and adding a 18% service charge, which was shared with the kitchen staff. The policy created no end of controversy, many customers resented it, and the restaurant is now closed. The degree to which the no tipping policy contributed to the closure is itself a subject of great controversy. But, to my knowledge, no additional local restaurants adopted this policy and the policy created no groundswell of sentiment for eliminating tipping.

Which just raises the question: Why do Americans prefer the hassle of deciding upon a tip? After all many, many countries throughout the world with a sophisticated restaurant culture eschew it and find our custom to be peculiar. I suppose we like the feeling of exercising control over the waitperson, a motive that is mean-spirited and subject to abuse. The idea that someone’s income should be harmed by a minor, inconsequential mistake, a slow kitchen, inadequate training, or a less-than-scintillating personality strikes me as inordinately vindictive.

I just leave 20% across the board regardless of service—but with one exception. In very high end restaurants where I’m spending hundreds of dollars for the experience, it is reasonable to expect the highest professional standards to be met with consequences if they are not. But having the power to stiff the waitstaff at your local bistro just doesn’t turn me on.

Besieged Ravenswood Winery Old Vine Blend Sonoma County 2012

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besiegedWhat would you expect from a wine called “Besieged”—over-the-top alcohol, tannins that grip like a masseuse with a mean streak,  acid that bites like a thousand teeth? Or perhaps the reference is to a threat of  Biblical proportions:

“And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates, until thy high and fenced walls come down…” (Deuteronomy) That is one scary wine.

Who knows what the wine-marketing gods had in mind.

But I’m not feeling besieged only bewitched by this well put together offering from Ravenswood. They are known for their Zinfandel but this is one of those odd blends in which the whole is better than the sum of its parts–35% Carignane, 20% Petite Sirah, 18% Zinfandel, 13% Mourvedre, 9% Alicante Bouschet, 5% Barbera—it you want to experience the art of blending this would be a good place to begin. This is a winemaker’s wine.

Opaque, deep ruby, shading to purple in the glass. Abundant aromas of fresh, ripe blackberry,  with toasty wood and light spice, cardamom to be exact, and hints of chocolate. Only medium intensity but there is plenty of complexity to hold your interest.

On the palate, it is rich and round, full bodied, and the flavors have depth for a wine at this price. Medium acidity with plenty of zing and a medium length finish that continues the oak theme bolstered by soft tannins.

Easy drinking but evocative, the story here is the well-tempered oak which creates interest without being overbearing. It is aged in 40% new French oak for 10 months.

Score: 90

Price:  $17

Alc: 14.5

Budget Wine: Marchigue Carmenere Reserva Colchagua Valley 2012

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marchigueI am a fan of unusual wines, especially when they are inexpensive. With the hundreds if not thousands of wines available on any city block, 1/2 of them tasting so much alike, it is cause for celebration when you find something strikingly different.

On that score Carmenere almost always delivers. Although originally a Bordeaux varietal, it is now seldom grown in France due to its susceptibility to disease. But it has found a home in the drier, geographically protected, valleys of Chile. And it usually produces a wild and unpredictable tasting experience, sort of like meeting Charlie Sheen for dinner.

This Carmenere plays to type. The fruit is almost prune-like, very ripe and dark for Carmenere but wild herbal notes, marjoram and mint, bushwack the senses, with coffee and fresh earth playing more subdued background music. The palate has an oily texture with some viscosity, very full body for Carmenere, with some sugar apparent. But the ample acidity and bitter herbal flavors on the finish balance that richness and give it hints of rusticity. Tannins are soft and the finish relatively short.

Easy drinking but interesting, it seems a bit manufactured on the palate perhaps with added sugar to boost viscosity but the wild and wonderful flavors make this a real treat at this price. The hint of sweetness will make this a good barbecue wine or serve it with meat sauces that have a bit of sweetness to them like a mole.

Score: 89

Alc: 13.5

Price: $8 at Trader Joe’s

Ban Negative Reviews?

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yelpResponses to this article have been lighting up my Facebook feed; most emanate from this distinguished group of food writers.

A group of French restaurateurs and hoteliers have launched a petition to effectively ban all “defamatory” reviews. The petition (translated), which the Local writes was started by Michelin-starred chef Pascal Favre d’Anne, currently has well over 1,700 signatures. It requests that the Minister of Commerce prohibit “judging and of posting defamatory comments and subjective observations on members of staff in our restaurants. We ask reviewing sites to moderate their users and to ask for proof of their visits to our establishments.”

The complaint is about sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor that allow anyone to comment. And their accusations about Yelp have some validity. Because anyone can comment, business owners can pay people to write favorable reviews of their services or unfavorable reviews of their competition, people with an axe to grind or a grudge can negatively influence public perceptions of a business, and reviewers usually lack the expertise to make informed judgments about the businesses they criticize.

The result is that small businesses, especially restaurants, who lack the resources to mount a Yelp campaign can be subject to vicious criticism before they have a chance to get their feet on the ground. Getting all aspects of a new restaurant to function efficiently can take months which is why professional restaurant reviewers decline to write about new restaurants until they have time to get their act together. Yelp reviewers have no such restraint. And If you are trying to do something unusual or unique, your chances of pleasing the Yelpers are slim since most will not understand it. Many business have failed because of unfavorable Yelp reviews which meet no standards for objectivity.

Frankly, I find Yelp is useless when seeking a restaurant to try. The problem is not the irrational, ill-informed rants you find there—it is easy enough to ignore them. The problem is effusive, over-the-top praise for mediocre food. The best restaurant of a certain type will seldom be the one that gets the most votes from Yelpers, simply because most of the people who post there are clueless about good food and are not seeking something unusual or interesting. You simply cannot get expertise from the input of 1000 non-experts—which is the fallacy behind crowd-sourced reviews. The only thing I can discover about a restaurant by reading through Yelp reviews is whether they have fast, friendly service most of the time.

Restaurants who take the time to make good food will be systematically disadvantaged by “reviewers” who really only care about stuffing their face. And making good food does take time. Yelp and similar venues have done nothing to improve the quality of dining, and in fact are probably contributing to the dumbing down of cuisine. So I sympathize with these French chefs and other business owners who must figure out how to navigate the shoals of uninformed public opinion.

However, the idea of banning negative reviews is not the way to go. If you ban negative reviews then only positive reviews are permitted. But then I have no reason to believe the positive reviews since I’m getting a biased picture by default. By banning negative reviews you make reviews themselves irrelevant.

And there is simply no way to be sure people who post on Yelp have actually visited the place of business. The resources required to monitor compliance would be enormous; but more importantly such a requirement, at least in the U.S. , would be laughed out of court for clear violations of the First Amendment. Courts have consistently ruled that compelling a publisher to guarantee the accuracy of assertions of fact would lead to intolerable self-censorship. False speech, except in very particular contexts, is generally protected in U.S. courts (Which of course does not apply to France. I don’t know the French legal context)

One common sentiment the keeps popping up in this discussion was that there ought to be some protection from vicious, stupid or ill-informed people. Indeed there ought to be. Moral philosophers have thought so for millennia. When we have found that protection we will have achieved utopia—it won’t be in my lifetime.

This debate about Yelp is interesting because it raises fundamental issues about democracy. Yelp (and other such sites) have democratized criticism—everyone’s a critic with no demonstration of expertise. That has certainly harmed criticism and food writing in general, and as I noted above, it has probably harmed the practice of dining as well. This trend toward diminishing the importance of expertise is troubling. But that is a price we pay for democracy.

To argue that Yelpers should be banned from commenting is to assert that the stupid and ill-informed ought not have a voice. That is profoundly anti-democratic and if implemented generally would have baleful effects on society.

A Puzzle About Tacos

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tacoThe political writer Kevin Drum went off his beat last week. Using the New York Times new tool for counting the mentions of a word in their archives, he investigates mentions of the word “taco”.

Back in 1877, a full 3 percent of all Times articles mentioned tacos! In fact, tacomania was a feature of the Times during all of the 1870s and 1880s, before suddenly falling off a cliff in 1890. What’s up with that? Why did tacos suddenly become verboten in 1890? Did a new editor take over who hated tacos? And what’s the deal with the blip from about 1917 to 1922? Did World War I produce a sudden explosion of interest in tacos?

Here is the chart detailing the mentions of “taco”.

blog_times_taco

I doubt that tacos were well known in the Northeast in the late 19th Century. But perhaps food historians out there will correct me.  In fact, food historian Jeffrey Pilcher claims the first mention in the U.S is in a newspaper in 1905, which is incompatible with what the Times database is showing.

My guess, along with many of Kevin’s commenters, is the spike in mentions is the result of an OCR transcription error since I would imagine these archives have been scanned. But that doesn’t explain the drop-off in mentions in 1890.

But at any rate, this is a useful tool for tracking food trends.

Ageing Report: Seghesio Sangiovese 2007

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seghesio sangioThe vast majority of wine reviews are about recently released wines, and for good reason. The purpose of most wine reviews is to guide consumers, and only recently released wines will be widely available for consumers to purchase. Furthermore, the vast majority of wine sold in the U.S will not age well beyond a year or two anyway so there would be no point in tracking their development.

However, this practice of reviewing only recent releases ignores the fact that age vastly improves wines of quality and serious wine connoisseurs have a deep interest in knowing which wines will age well. Wine writing that ignores the aging process misses one of the most significant dimensions of the wine-drinking experience. So, on occasion, I think it is useful to write about wines that have been cellared, especially when we can answer questions about wines that lack the reputation of  being age-worthy.

We know that quality Sangiovese will age well—Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico Reserva, despite some inconsistency,  are among the world’s great wines for age-ability. But what about American Sangiovese? Will it stand up to the Italians?

Seghesio Family Vineyards is one of the more well-established Sonoma brands having produced wine there since 1895. Although best known for their Zinfandel, they produce several Italian varietals as well and are a good representation of quality American Sangiovese.At 10 years post-vintage, this wine is still going strong and is, I would think, now at its peak.

Still a bright ruby with little rim variation and no bricking, it shows ripe, red plum on the nose, just on the edge of raisin but the fruit is reticent enough for dried floral notes to present. But the most prominent characteristics are oak-derived aromas, vanilla and pencil lead with some freshly-turned earth. The fruit is darker on the palate but quickly shades to tea and is packed with scents of wood and chocolate. This never was a fruit bomb and at this point the fruit is really taking a back seat to polished and refined secondary flavors.

The evolution of textures on the palate is lovely—initially soft and round, the mid-palate swells with ample acidity  giving way to a medium length finish with finely knit tannins, drying but with no bite. This is not a rustic wine; it is pleasant, elegant, and comfortable with nothing out of balance. Just a bit of heat and bitterness on the finish from the alcohol.

Compared to Italian versions, American Sangiovese tends to be riper, with higher alcohol, slightly reduced acidity, and liberal use of typically American oak.  Seghesio’s Sangiovese fits that description. But despite the differences in approach it is still recognizably Sangiovese and has aged wonderfully. However, although the best Brunellos can age 20 years or more, I would drink this in the next few years as the fruit is becoming less prominent.

Opened: August 2014

Score: 90

Alc: 15%

Price: $30 when released

Budget Wine: Skeleton Malbec Mendoza 2013

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skeleton malbecThere is a debate among wine critics about whether we should write negative reviews. Most say they don’t have time to waste on bad wine. But film, art, and music critics write negative reviews and so do consumer guides. Negative reviews don’t take that much time to write—how many minutes does it take to write “it sucks”? And why are wines above criticism?

I was enthusiastic about this wine because I loved their Grüner Veltliner,  which I reviewed here. But we all know the fact a winery does one thing well is no indication that their whole lineup will impress. I know nothing and can find out very little about this winery. I suspect they buy grapes on the open market; and the fact that Argentinean Malbec has been in demand as the new “hot” grape for a few years now may mean only inferior grapes are available at a good price. That’s just speculation but it would explain this mediocre wine.

Simple black cherry on the nose with some earth notes that provoke mild interest. But the palate is meager and watery with muddy flavors and sour acidity that enters the picture early and monopolizes the finish. At least it is very dry. No standard signs of a flaw; just cheap grapes. Drinkable but you can do much better for less money. But if you like the label, well then…

Score: 81

Price: $10 (1 liter bottle)

Alc: 13%

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