Walter Becker RIP

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Walter Becker, lead guitarist and co-songwriter for Steely Dan died over the weekend at the age of 67. I fondly remember back in the day spending hour after hour meticulously copying Becker’s guitar solos to see how they worked, pondering the enigmatic lyrics he wrote with Donald Fagen to find hidden meanings, marveling at the studied perfection of their studio work.  In other words, from their first major album Can’t Buy a Thrill until I left the music business, Becker and Fagan were my constant companions.

Black Friday contained one of his better known guitar solos.

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Give It Up Guys

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female winemakerThere is a mountain of evidence suggesting that women have a better sense of smell than men. Julie Case takes us through a summary of the data.

Then, in the 1980s, Richard L. Doty, a professor of otorhinolaryngology and the director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and a team of researchers designed the Smell Identification Test, which asks subjects to identify 40 odors. When the test was later used in a study on sex differences and the ability to identify odors—the results were published in 1985 in the journal Neuropsychologia—women consistently outperformed men. The test has since been commercialized and used in a myriad of ways, including the study of air pollution and olfactory dysfunction and the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

Beyond merely identifying odors, however, Doty says women also seem to perform better than men in detecting odors at the lowest levels of concentration, and in tests of odor discrimination and memory. In the late ’90s, a research study used MRIs to examine the volume of the brain activated when men and women were subjected to olfactory stimulants The MRI activation maps for the women’s group showed up to eight times more activated voxels (by analogy with “pixels,” “voxels” are an element of three-dimensional space) than the men’s group in specific regions of the brain.

And so on. More studies leading to the same conclusion. But then at the end of this informative article she does what women too often do when male egos are at stake—she defers:

Does having more neurons and glial cells, and being better at detecting aromas, make one a superior winemaker or somm? Not necessarily. For some, all of the extra details and minute aromas are distractions.

Well yes but you can learn to manage the distractions. If you lack the ability to detect aromas there is nothing you can do. Is it better to have lots of money that must be managed or too little money with no recourse?

Unfortunately, we get more of the same lame excuses’:

Just as the fastest person in the world doesn’t make the best soccer player, or the strongest person in the world doesn’t make the best wrestler, [wine] tasting is so much more than just being able to taste the compounds,” says Rob Ord, prestige manager for Treasury Wine Estates in California and a former diploma instructor for the International Sommelier Guild. “It’s being able to put everything together in the puzzle.

Right. But is there any evidence that women are less adept at puzzle-solving?

Moreover, says Ord, it’s impossible to be able to smell something—or at least to identify a smell—unless it’s been described, defined, or imprinted in memory with a label attached. “It’s very difficult,” he says, “to be able to pick out those compounds and say, ‘Oh yeah, this smells like peach,’ unless you’ve actually spent time smelling peach and really defining that in your palate.” Even people with the most sensitive olfactory bulbs won’t be able to break down an incredibly aromatic wine if they can’t name or define what they’re smelling.

So is there evidence that woman lack the discipline to practice labeling smells? Of course not.

Obviously, a good sense of smell is not sufficient to make you a good winemaker or somm but without it you’re at a real disadvantage.

Give it up guys—they’re probably better than we are at the most important skill in the wine business.

Should Wine Lovers Open Their Arms to Mead?

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hidden legendFall is just around the corner—it already feels like fall here in Northeastern Wisconsin where I’m decamped for a few weeks. If you’re looking for a darker, heartier beverage to warm you up on chilly nights you might try mead, aka honey wine.

I always thought of mead as that thick, sickening-sweet sludge you used to wash down a turkey leg at the Renaissance Faire. But a recent visit to Hidden Legend Winery and Meadery in Missoula Montana has disabused me of that idea. Some meads are indeed thick and sweet but some very sophisticated mead makers have entered the market all across the country and are ramping up the quality level making meads that run the gamut from sweet to dry, from light and refreshing to rich and massive.

After all mead is made like wine. Add yeast to honey and water, let the yeast convert the sugar to alcohol via fermentation and you’ve got mead. Like wine, you can stop the fermentation leaving some sugar in the beverage which is the traditional way of making it. Or you can make a modern style by fermenting it all the way to dry, producing a beverage that is surprisingly light and refreshing. And just as wine is profoundly influenced by local characteristics of soil and weather, the taste of mead is influenced by the plants the bees are pollinating.

So what does mead taste like? Traditional, sweet meads taste like honey with the added heat of alcohol. Contemporary, pure honey meads taste like honey without the sugar again boosted by alcohol and with a background yeast aroma similar to beer. That relative absence of sugar also seems to bring out more floral aromas. But there is a long tradition of mixing mead with spices (called metheglin) and fruit (called melomel). Hidden Legend is now making a sparkling mead that was quite good. Some mead makers are aging it in oak or stainless steel, although mead is less reactive to oxygen than is wine. So the range of flavors, weights, and textures is extensive.

One of the more interesting meads is made with dark honey which has been caramelized prior to fermentation. Called bochet, it is what I happen to be sipping tonight.

I’m drinking Hidden Legend’s version which is semi-dry, with just enough sweetness to balance the bitter flavors that emerge from the caramelization. In the glass it’s dark brown and opaque with malt, caramel, burnt orange and smoke aromas. Round and viscous in the mouth, the heavy taste of malt and honey evolves into fresh, pure honey flavor supported by lifted, racy sensations, before the finish unfolds gradually revealing layers of bitter coffee beneath the racy acidity.

I tried serving this both at room temperature and chilled to around 60 degrees. I vastly preferred it chilled to mask some of the bitterness.

Am I ready to declare mead to be as interesting, complex, and diverse as wine? No way,  although I haven’t tasted enough to make an informed judgment. But while I’m traveling the world in search of the perfect Pinot Noir I’ll occasionally be taking a detour to check out what’s happening in the world of mead.

Wine Review: Fujishin Family Cellars Viognier Idaho, Washington 2016

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fujishinA symptom of the shortage of grapes in Idaho, this lovely Viognier is made from 60% Snake River Valley fruit and 40% fruit from Washington State.

A seductive perfume of citrus and peach mingle and merge with whispers of jasmine. Grapefruit pith blooms on the shapely, medium bodied palate that is lusciously viscous without being heavy. Bitter top notes enter midpalate in equipoise with an underlying, delicate sweetness giving this wine a lovely balance of contrasts. Fresh and energetic while lush and enveloping, very sexy, clean and fresh, the long mineral finish like breathing azure air, this unoaked treasure is a fantastic value, an example of the fine Viognier coming out of Idaho.

Score: 90

Alc: 13.3%

Price: $17

In Massive Attack’s Teardrop, the lengthy silences in the piano phrasing seem to give the wine persistence and length while the heady, sinuous vocal from the Cocteau Twin’s Elizabeth Fraser resonate with the seductive perfume.

Missoula, Montana: Meat, Mead and Mountain Wine

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The vineyards at Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery

Can they grow wine grapes in Montana? There are some hardy souls who try. Excessive cold, meaning sustained temperatures below –10 degrees, will damage the wood on all vitis vinifera varietals, the species of grape that includes the familiar varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. For some varietals such as Merlot or Syrah 5 degrees above zero is risky territory. There are a few growers who persist with vinifera in Montana’s unforgiving winter climate but the consensus is it’s a losing proposition. So most growers are planting the cold hardy grapes—French-American hybrids and native varietals that are bred to survive deep freezes. Most wine drinkers have never heard of these grapes; many probably never will. The quality level of wines made from these grapes is, shall we say, improving. But you have to go to war with the grapes you have, and the allure of winemaking is so strong, many are willing to endure years when severe crop losses effect even the cold-hardy varietals.

Andy Sponseller, co-owner of Ten Spoon Winery in Missoula, went so far as to bring in helicopters twice in one season to blow frost off his vineyards, an expensive proposition for a marginal business. He started growing Pinot Noir in 2003 but has since abandoned it using fruit from Oregon to satisfy Pinot lovers and planting the cold hardy grapes for those seeking local flavors. It was actually cherry wine that got Andy and his wife Connie through the lean years; now since 2014 he is showing a profit making a satisfying St. Pepin (a aromatic white wine with a plump palate) and a field blend of 5 cold-hardy grapes called Range Rider that features a big, spicy nose and full body. And that Flathead Cherry wine? It’s delicious. Making wine in Montana is not for the feint of heart but with the right grapes and some non-grape wine to fill in the gaps it can be done successfully.

Ken Schultz of Hidden Legend Winery had a different solution. He was an amateur winemaker when he moved to Montana from Ohio in 1979, long before the more recently developed cold hardy grapes were available. But one thing Montana has in abundance—bees. And so Ken started to make honey wine, aka mead. You might think mead would be sweet and heavy, like honey. But not in the hands of a master mead maker. After all, mead is wine, you can ferment it dry where it becomes light and refreshing, age it in oak so it picks up caramel and coffee notes, ferment it with elderberry or chokecherry to add complexity, add carbonation for sparkling mead, or blend it with maple syrup which can be warmed and served for breakfast. He makes a line of traditional, i.e. sweeter, meads from clover honey and a line of contemporary meads, lighter and drier, from wildflower honey.

Like wine grapes, mead’s flavor will depend on local characteristics, not the soil obviously, but the type of flower that the bees are pollinating. I lack the experience with mead that would enable me to distinguish Missoula mead from any other, but tasting through Hidden Legend’s lineup was eye-opening with regard to the savory complexity and multiple expressions of this ancient beverage.

Ken has not forsaken grape wine. He makes several Montana-grown, cold hardy varietals such as a scintillating St. Pepin, as well as Marquette and Marechal Foch. But the most surprising taste sensation was his crisp, light-bodied dandelion wine showing delicate herbal notes.  In a blind tasting I probably would have guessed Pinot Grigio.

There are only a handful of wineries in Montana but their definition of “wine” is as expansive as their Big Sky.

What does grow well in Montana is bison, elk and other game, which can often be found on local menus. Buffalo burgers have become a staple of some menus in the U.S. But what you’re actually eating is bison.  Buffalo as in “water buffalo” or “African buffalo” are native to Africa and Asia and are part of the same bovine subfamily as bison but are a different species. Early explorers in America called bison “buffalo” because of their resemblance and the name stuck.

Although “buffalo burgers” are reasonably common, I seldom see bison steaks on menus but in Montana it’s relatively easy to find. I found a bison tenderloin at The Red Bird, Missoula’s fine dining restaurant.   It’s leaner than beef with a milder flavor and a dense, yet delicate texture, but the accompanying shell filled with molten roquefort cheese to be lavished over the tenderloin was a bit much conquering the subtleties of the meat.

Another dish that Montana can claim as its own are elk meatballs, especially when served with a sauce made of huckleberries, a fruit grown in abundance here. Blue Canyon’s elk meatballs were slightly gamy, reminding me of ground lamb, but with a softly crumby texture like good sausage. The huckleberry sauce was perfectly balanced, slightly tangy with bright berry flavor.

montana-1And finally, Montana’s traditional comfort food is a dish they share with the rest of the upper midwest—a meat pie called a pasty (rhymes with nasty, although it’s not). Legend has it that pasties came to the U.S. via Cornish immigrant miners who needed a portable, hand-held lunch. They consist of cubed or ground beef, potatoes, and sometimes onion (in Wisconsin they add rutabaga) wrapped in a shortcrust and baked. Montanans, at least at Lisa’s Pastry Pantry, serve them with brown gravy. I’m sure if you grew up eating pasties it’s the bee’s knees but I find them a bit dry and uninteresting, a good vehicle for gravy but not something I would voluntarily seek out. However, I will be in the upper Midwest for the next several weeks and I feel duty bound to investigate pasties further.

Of course, when visiting Montana, even the most finely-honed food and wine obsession will be subordinate by the unsurpassed natural beauty of this place. My quest for the perfect Pinot seems trivial.montana-4

Thought of the Day

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winemaker at work 2Italian wine blogger Alfonso Cevola writes:

Red wine. White wine. Rosé wine. Orange wine. Sparkling wine. Dessert wine. There comes a point, when looking at all of this from the sky box of the Hindenburg, when one can see that every one of these wines matter. French wine. Italian wine. German wine. California wine. Texas wine. Virginia wine. Even the ones you don’t prefer.

I’m not sure that all wine matters. Some wine is just a commodity, a means to make money. It might as well be soy beans or corn. Yet, although the bulk wine market is huge it is dominated by a few firms. For the vast majority of wineries in the world every vine has to be carefully tended, every fermentation nurtured like a new born child, every barrel probed and contemplated until it yields some semblance of beauty.

Those wines, all of them, matter because they mattered to someone.

Hoist By His Own Petard

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conventional wisdomHippie punching has been one of the mainstream media’s favorite pastimes since, well, since there have been hippies. Now there is a  new subgenre of this tired work horse—hipster punching.

In an article entitled “The Perils of Wine Groupthink” Robert Joseph writing in Meininger’s Wine Business International seems to have lost his irony detector:

Despite many people’s belief to the contrary, the plural of anecdote is not data; it’s anecdata, a term that’s as helpfully meaningless as the kind of information it describes.

The fact that a vociferous group of people with hipster beards in New York restaurants are to be seen drinking natural wine does not indicate a fast-growing national trend for the style across the US.

When a specialist wine retailer says, “more and more of my customers are asking for wines with less alcohol” it does not mean that the average strength of the billions of bottles on supermarket shelves is visibly falling.

The tendency to extrapolate from one’s own personal observations – and more especially one’s own tastes and opinions – is widely recognised by statisticians and researchers, who’ve even given it a name: confirmation bias…. What has started out out as a partisan view now evolves into Groupthink. ‘What we believe and observe must be true of the wider population’.

It’s not at all clear how a belief that a trend which is clearly observable within one’s cohort might catch on with the wider population constitutes group think. Group think occurs when bad decisions are made because pressures to conform prevent the objective assessment of evidence. It’s hard to see how promoting unconventional wines or enclosures would count as groupthink since the aim is clearly to identity trends that currently fall outside the mainstream.

Apparently what Joseph would have trendsetters in the wine business do is look at aggregate data from supermarket purchases to find potential new trends. Good luck with that. By the time the trend is discovered it will be on its way out. That is the very definition of groupthink. Conventional wisdom isn’t always wrong but it is always conventional.

The underlying mistake that Joseph makes is failing to see that the wine business is actually two distinct industries. In the U.S., the top 30 wine companies account for 74% or all the wine sold. Those are the wines you find in the supermarket, essentially a homogeneous product differentiated by marketing and branding. That’s one kind of industry. By some estimates that leaves about 7500 wineries fighting over the rest. That’s a distinctly different industry. The wineries in this second industry won’t succeed by doing what the big guys do.  Why buy their wines if they’re identical to what I can get at the supermarket? Participants in this second industry succeed by selling to those “hipster beards” and others who exist on the long tail, the niches, or in other words, the anecdotes.

It’s Joseph who is guilty of groupthink by crediting only what has been normalized as real.

Wine Review: Split Rail Petit Verdot Snake River Valley 2013

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split railPetit Verdot, one of the minor grapes in Bordeaux blends, is getting some attention as a stand-alone varietal in wine regions such as Idaho and Washington State where it seems to do well in the warm, dry, high desert climate. Although it has a reputation for green tannins, the high desert heat seems to hasten phenolic ripeness bringing out its juicy, floral character without the mouth-ripping rusticity that has been its reputation.

Split Rail, an urban winery near downtown Boise, provides a good example of this change in Petit Verdot’s fortunes.

The nose is an exotic, evocative mix of red plum, black pepper, black licorice and freshly turned earth playing about on a stage of pleasant, dried herbs. Really quite enticing.  The palate is restrained at first but picks up momentum with high-toned acidity that carries through the juicy, relatively short finish. Medium bodied and linear with tannins that stay in the background, this is a genial wine but with some tension from the acidity that gives it a capricious aspect.

A lovely wine from an interesting winery. Winemaker Jed Glavin is always experimenting. He writes “Our goal is to never make the same wine twice, while always making awesome wine. Why? Well, while consistency is comforting, its not that exciting.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Billie Holiday’s amiable insouciance on Ain’t Misbehavin’ captures the essence of this wine.

Score: 90

Price: $22

Basque’n in Boise

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boisebasque-5Like most wine regions, Idaho’s Snake River Valley has a growing food scene anchored by the city of Boise. They boast several highly recommended restaurants serving contemporary American cuisine, but when visiting a region I always look for something unique that is hard to find elsewhere. In Boise that would be finger steaks. Finger steaks are finger-sized pieces of steak, breaded, deep fried and served with a classic cocktail sauce for dipping. It’s only bar food but it’s a thing here in Boise. To be honest, I didn’t have high expectations. I imagined tough, gristly, overcooked meat with greasy breading. But at Lindy’s, the widely acknowledged masters of finger steaks, they take this dish seriously. The thick, crunchy batter was crisp and the meat, medium rare and very tender. I can’t claim to be a connoisseur of bar food but these were damn good.boise basque 4

However, Boise has a lot more to contribute to the food revolution than bar food. They feature a long-established Basque community that brings plenty of Iberian flavor to the Mountain West.

I’ve written about American Basque cooking before—one of my favorite  things to do (on second thought, the only thing to do) in Bakersfield, California is to dig into a plate of pickled beef tongue accompanied by cabbage soup, pinto beans and salsa served at the many Basque restaurants there. Washed down with glasses of picon punch, it’s all a set up for a plate of oxtail stew or roast lamb. This rustic, family-style, amalgam of American comfort food and traditional Basque cooking traces its origin to Southern French Basque immigrants from the French side of the Pyrenees who were drawn to California by the gold rush in the mid-19th Century. When that didn’t “pan” out their traditional skills at sheepherding came in handy in the ranchlands of Southern California.

By contrast, the Boise Basque community hails from the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, along Biscay Bay, via the 19th century silver mines of Northern Nevada. And their cooking reflects their Spanish roots. Paella, pintxos (small tapas-like dishes), Spanish chorizo and croquettes are ubiquitous. This cooking is refined, includes lots of seafood, and features pimenton as a prominent flavor ingredient. Close your eyes and you might think you’re in San Sebastian.

The most prominent Boise Basque restaurant is Epi’s, a quaint, homey spot with a remarkably welcoming staff. You will be greeted by Chris the owner like you’re part of the family. It’s comfort food—lamb stew, tongue in pepper and tomato sauce, a scrumptious bean soup, fried chicken—but all prepared to perfection.

For a more casual experience, Bar Gernika downtown has outstanding croquetas and solomo (a pork loin and pimento sandwich) with a good beer list as well. The croquetas are addictive, bite-sized balls made from a stiff Bechamel, rolled in bread crumbs, and then deep fried. Soft and pillowy on the inside, crunchy on the outside, and sometimes stuffed with ham, if I had to choose between croquetas and finger steaks for consummate bar food—I would just order both.

The Spanish meat balls in a brown sauce at Leku Ona, another downtown Basque restaurant, were good although I can’t recommend their service.

boise basque1But the best overall Basque food experience can be found at the Basque market for Wednesday or Friday lunch. At 11:00 they put various pintxos on display—Banderillas, marinated olives, glidas, jamon and toast w/ tomato jam, etc.

Then at noon the seafood paella (pictured above), cooked outdoors in the (updated) traditional paella pan, is ready to be served until they run out. The flavors were spot on, the seafood perfectly cooked, and the rice firm but tender. Unfortunately, the formation of socorrat (the crunchy crust at the bottom of the pan) was incompatible with serving the paella on time, so the experience was not utter perfection. But short of a trip to Madrid it’s the best paella I’ve had in the U.S.

I wouldn’t quite call Boise a foodie destination yet, but with a burgeoning wine region and fascinating Basque cooking, its well on its way.

The Food Revolution Cannot be Co-opted

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applebeesOrdinarily I wouldn’t be much concerned about the closing of chain restaurants but this story caught my eye because of the clueless reasoning behind it.

Applebee’s announced this month that more than 130 of its restaurants will close by the end of the year.

The casual dining chain rebranded itself in the past few years as a modern bar and grill.

Applebee’s executive John Cywinski recently told investors that the company had hoped the effort would attract a new kind of customer.

The chain aimed to lure “a more youthful and affluent demographic with a more independent or even sophisticated dining mindset, including a clear pendulum swing towards millennials,” he said.

Applebee’s wanted to lure millennials with dishes like barbecue shrimp in a sriracha-lime sauce; chicken wonton tacos; and a pork, ham and bacon sandwich.

But that triple pork bonanza — and the rest of the company’s makeover — didn’t seem to catch on with customers. Sales at Applebee’s dropped more than 6 percent from last year.

The interesting part of this is the aim to attract “a more youthful and affluent demographic with a more independent or even sophisticated dining mindset,”

So young people with an “independent” mind set who are also “sophisticated” about dining are going to frequent a chain restaurant because chain restaurants just scream “independence” and “sophistication”. Because, of course, anyone who is independent and sophisticated immediately salivates when sriracha or pork-3-ways appears on the menu.

The intellectual standards for CEO’s must be dropping. People who are independent and sophisticated will avoid chain restaurants because chain restaurants by their very nature are homogeneous and cater to conventional tastes. It doesn’t help that Applebee’s was latching onto trends that are at least a decade old.

I “sympathize” with the plight of chain restaurants who want to capitalize on the food revolution. You can’t package and market authenticity and difference because, once packaged and marketed, it’s no longer authentic or different. I suppose they have to try to stay relevant in order to mollify shareholders, but it’s a losing proposition.

Which is why I argued in American Foodie that the food revolution might actually survive attempts to co-opt it.