Monday, March 27, 2006

Enroll Early, Enroll Often.

Look into my eyes. You want to learn about German wines. And Austrian wines. And Eastern European wines. You want to taste them. You want to impress your friends with your command of the wines of the Rhine and Danube.

Now you have the chance.

UC Berkeley Extension will offer a six-week class on Wines of Germany and Eastern Europe in the summer session, and I will be teaching it.

Sign up now. Sign up your significant other. Book a second seat just so you'll have elbow room. Not local? Think what a great gift this class would be for your Bay Area friends. All of them. And their families. You should, at the very least, let them know about it.

I'm happy to pad the class with friends and boosters.

Didn't see the link to enroll? Here it is again. (There are more great classes as well.)

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The OWF "Eat 'Til You Drop" Tour: New York Minutes

Patience. Or is it Fortitude?
Photo by Melissa Schneider.

I know I'm dragging out the posts about our "Eat 'Til You Drop" tour, but before I write the last post, the one that all the wine lovers will want to read, here's a quick look at the rest of our Manhattan gastronomic adventures.

Jen and her then-fiancé Mike, online acquaintances through our mutual friend Meriko, waited patiently for us at Pegu Club while we struggled with wine shipping laws and gnarly Queens traffic. We hit it off with our new friends, dicussing anything and everything over small spicy, meaty duck sloppy joes and other well-prepared bites. The interesting cocktails are your best beverage choice, but the wine list will keep lighter drinkers happy. We ambled through Soho to Vintage New York for yet more food, flights of Long Island wine, and conversation (I didn't take notes).

How many times did we visit Fried Dumpling, five minutes from our divey little hotel. Twice? Three times? This Manhattan foodie favorite doesn't serve spectacular dumplings—but it does sell five very decent potstickers for $1. No wonder we returned to the tiny space.

I wanted to save room for the Ultimate Lavish Dinner that night, but Melissa convinced me to stop at Shake Shack. I loved the juxtaposition: a park kiosk that sells high-quality hamburgers, beer, and wine. Shake Shack owners, if you're reading this, don't you think a San Francisco location would do really well? Please? Pretty please?


I'm gonna be a matzoh man
Photo by Melissa Schneider.

The Lavish Dinner diners recovered from our hangovers and found room in our stomachs for lunch at the now-closed 2nd Ave Deli. The delicately flavored dumpling and crystal-clear consommé in the matzoh ball soup earned oohs and ahs from the table. "Be sure and write about the cheese blintz," said Melissa about lunch's other hit. A tender pancake encased a rich and just-tart-enough filling; this version shares nothing but a name with the gluey and monotonous brunch blintzes you find elsewhere. I had a taste of the soup and the blintzes, but saved my stomach for the pastrami on rye. I stuffed myself and hoped that I'd have room for dinner at wd-50.

Good-bye, 2nd Ave. We'll miss you when we return, but we'll find solace in Katz's arms.


Photo by Melissa Schneider.
We joined New York photoblogger extraordinaire Joe Holmes and his wife Sara for lunch at Vong. The fusion-themed lunch satisfied without wowing, but the conversation kept us all happy. Melissa and Joe talked about photos as the three of us walked on Roosevelt Island and they snapped shots of the riverscape from the middle of the Hudson.

Kitchen Arts & Letters demanded a visit. The good-sized bookstore specializes in food and wine literature. The shelves overflow with every cookbook and wine reference you can imagine. The owners were personable, especially when I mentioned I'd written for The Art of Eating—the store carries more back issues than the magazine's website. I bought a couple hard-to-find books, an older issue of AoE, and another food newsletter that looked interesting.

We sampled a bite of the Batali empire when we ate dinner at Lupa with Patrick Martins and Sarah O'Braitis of Heritage Foods USA. I don't know what we ate or drank—Patrick "ordered" by urging the chef to bring us dishes that used Heritage Foods meat and telling the sommelier to be creative—but Melissa and I almost licked some of the plates. We'd go back in a heartbeat, even if we had to yell a little over the hubbub of the crowded restaurant. Oddly, the staff was quick to distance themselves from Batali-ness, even when I didn't ask about it: "He rarely stops by," and "He likes what we're doing and leaves us alone," were common comments.

We crammed activities into our last twenty-four hours in Manhattan. We had an early lunch at the justly popular Mary's Fish Camp (decadent lobster roll for Melissa, robust oyster po'boy for me), and then a late lunch at Artisanal. We planned to eat a simple cheese plate from Max McCalman's extensive cheese portfolio, but the torrential rain outside the large brasserie-esque space steered us towards a rich and warm cheese fondue (I neglected to write down the cheeses, which weren't the normal Emmentaler, Gruyère, and Appenzeller).

We walked off our lunches so that we'd have room for dinner at Craft with Adam from Amateur Gourmet. I can't hope to top his review, so see his post for the menu. We haven't brought him out for houseboy duties, but we're still working on it. Nor have I tried to replicate the bacon and egg risotto. Yet.

Melissa fell in love with New York—this was her first visit—and she wistfully looked through the cab's back window. We ate well, and walked up and down Manhattan so that we could eat well again.

"We should have stayed here two more days," she said mournfully.

Dinner in Tampa changed her mind.

Come back soon(ish) for the last stop on the "Eat 'Til You Drop Tour:" Bern's Steakhouse.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

O, Kumquat Ye Faithful

Photo by Melissa Schneider.
I already used "Little. Orange. Different" for my SFist post about kumquats, so I had to come up with some new and even more horrendous pun for OWF. See Melissa's stylish photos and my ideas for using these small citrus fruits.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Wine Writers Symposium 2006

When I attended last year's inaugural Wine Writers Symposium, I felt like an impostor with just three clips, only two of which were about wine. What could I say to a luminary such as Frank Prial or Karen MacNeil? (A lot about blogs, as it turned out; I go on behalf of my paid work, but blogs intrigue my fellow symposium-goers).

A year later, I was more confident. For every celebrity in the room, there are half a dozen people like me, further along in our writing careers then we were a year ago, but not as far as we'd like. I knew that the stars I admired were just people, and that everyone in the room has something interesting to say.

Inevitably, some of this year's presentations were repeats from the first symposium. Jack Hart gave an entertaining, no-nonsense talk about how to improve your writing, a near-twin of last year's presentation but full of good reminders. Other presentations were similar to their previous incarnations. Last year, Frank Prial and Lettie Teague interviewed one another in the "how to interview" talk; this year, Andrea Immer Robinson led us in an (admittedly unorganized) interview of Joel and Amy Aiken. Last year, we wrote about a cooking demonstration performed by John Ash; this year we watched Hugh Davies saber sparkling wine bottles before we started writing. Some presentations got dropped— I was sorry that "The Business of Wine" didn't come back—and others appeared for the first time—"Writing About Terroir" comes to mind. I think there was more writing practice this year, rough drafts scribbled out in reaction to a presentation.

While I couldn't tell you how much new information I got from the panels, the writing exercises taught me something: I fall easily into a particular genre and particular style of writing. I default to writing reports, but I want to push myself into the nonfiction stories and essays that I enjoy as a reader. I took advantage of Jack Hart's one-on-one coaching sessions to ask for recommendations on expanding my horizons. He also offered advice on my long-term goals and ambitions. In a twenty-minute session, there was little he could do other than point me to some resources, but he used an unedited draft of mine to give a quick analysis of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. (I came out better than I thought, which is preferable to the reverse.)

I socialized with more people this year, which is perhaps the most valuable aspect of the conference. It's a good opportunity to talk to editors—two of my assignments since the first symposium stemmed from those personal connections—but mostly it helps you develop friendships and learn from other writers. I came home to an assignment from one of my clients, and I thought of three people at the conference who had a valuable perspective on the topic. I contacted them, and I'm already well grounded about a topic I've barely started researching.

Is it worth it? I would say yes if you've not been before and you're not a well-entrenched wine writer. As Alder said, the conference itself is a bargain with three days of talks, pretty good food, and tons of Napa wine. The posh rooms of Meadowood—even at a sizeable discount—add a lot of expense, as do a plane ticket and a rental car if you need them. Is it worth it to return for a second time? That's harder to answer. It was for me, but I live an hour and a half from Meadowood, and my full-time job finances the trip. (Plus, I'm teaching a class on wine writing in the Spring, so it's valuable research.)

In the end, I was glad I went. For editorial writers (no PR-only writers), I'd recommend you make the trip out, even if you only come once. The conference inspires new ideas, and motivates you to write more.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Riesling in the Mosel Valley, The Art of Eating, Issue 71

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

A little less than a year ago, Melissa and I traveled through Germany's Mosel region, home to some of the world's best wines. I envisioned the trip as a vacation, but it seemed silly to not sell an article about the area.

That article, which appears in The Art of Eating, Issue 71, is winging its way to mailboxes and stores throughout the country. It describes the unmistakable expression of terroir in these most transparent of wines, and it talks about the reputation of German wine in the U.S. Because AoE is an order of magnitude better than virtually every other food and wine publication, I'm sure you already have a subscription, and you can expect your issue soon. On the off chance you don't take the magazine, the easiest way to get a copy is to call the offices—despite its unmatched reputation, it remains hard to find—but you can set up a subscription while you're at it. Either way, you should definitely write the editor and tell him how much you appreciated the article about Mosel Riesling. Regardless of what you actually thought.

We spotted an issue at the store (Market Hall, for East Bay readers), and Melissa giggled adorably—and unstoppably—when she saw her numerous photos in the issue. I remember my first AoE byline; I understand the Cloud 9 sentiment. This nine-page article is our biggest joint effort to date, and you can imagine that her pictures bring the people and the region to life.

The issue also covers Olympia oysters and the unusual pane sciocco, along with a number of book reviews and notes about oyster knives and the like (I knew in advance which knife Ed recommends, and Melissa got me one for Christmas; I haven't tried it out yet).

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Michigan Sparkling Wine

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

Melissa and I tried Sex for the first time on Valentine's Day. No need to cover your eyes: Sex is the attention-grabbing name of a bubble-gum-pink sparkler from Michigan's L. Mawby winery. The wine gushes strawberry and raspberry aromas like a Jolly Rancher candy. The palate-cleansing acidity and light body make it a perfect aperitif, and the name will certainly help break the ice at a party: "Would you like some Sex?" It was a bit overwhelmed by the duck confit I made for dinner, but would pair nicely with light appetizers.

Oddly, this is the second Michigan sparkler I've tried in the last few months. A reader sent me a bottle of Fizz, a non-rosé from the same producer. Fizz offers tart Granny Smith apple flavors in place of Sex's berries, and we served this off-dry wine with Christmas breakfast. (Michigan's wine shipping laws make this present barely legal at best, so I won't name names).

Michigan Primer
These days it's easy to learn about those wine laws, but almost impossible to learn about the wines. Don't bother with the standard references, which skip from Illinois to Missouri—just visit the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council to get the basics.

The most basic of basics is the weather. The bitter cold of the northern winters constrains the state's wine region. The best vineyards huddle around Lake Michigan, which stabilizes the local temperature: Blanketing snow replaces killing frost, buds hide inside the growth tissue of the plant until winter's worst passes by, and the growing season lengthens by four precious weeks.

My tiny pool of Michigan wine knowledge has held onto the factoid that the state has earned praise for its sparklers. Bubbly wines require grapes with low sugar and high acidity, an obvious fit for a region where "warm" is a relative term.

L. Mawby
L. Mawby has hitched itself to the sparkling star. For the M. Lawrence label that includes Sex and Fizz, wine maker Lawrence Mawby uses a stainless steel tank to contain the secondary fermentation that creates the bubbles. The technique, called cuvé close or Charmat, tends to produce wines exactly like the ones I tried: friendly, vibrant, and appealing. Under his original L. Mawby label, he produces creamier, more complex sparkling wines through the laborious méthode traditionelle used in Champagne. Let me know if you've found those. The winery only produces 4,000 cases of wine, well below what you need for good national distribution produces 40,000 cases of wine a year, but not much seems to get to California, so I'm lucky I found Sex at Paul Marcus Wines.

And the name? Aside from its obvious eye-catching quality, I suspect it's a pun on sekt, the German term for sparkling wine.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Ten Pounds of Pork Belly

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

A ten-pound slab of pork belly blankets my large cutting board. From the top, the white smears of fat look like wavelets in a sea of pink meat. From the side, the meat is the interloper, pushing its way through the thick cushion towards the smooth, tan skin.

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

I bisect the belly from top to bottom, moving my knife firmly through the inch or more of flesh. One half requires additional effort: I carve off the skin and cut the meat into thick fingers. The chunks spend the night in an aromatic wet cure before I cook them slowly in homemade lard to make pork belly confit. The best way to reheat this treat? Deep-frying.

The other half of the slab requires patience. I leave it intact and dredge it in a dry cure: one part sodium nitrite, four parts sugar, and eight parts kosher salt. I seal it in a Ziploc bag for a week, checking every day to ensure the meat hasn't spoiled. Finally, I pull it out and smoke it over apple wood chips for four hours, testing the temperature of the darkening slab until it reaches 150°.

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

I've made bacon, a solid mass of smoky, porcine flavor. I shave off three pieces and fry them gently over a medium flame. I cut them in half, and share with our friends who own the house where our smoker lives. The slices have a clean, balanced flavor. They taste as bacon always should and yet rarely does.

Every night during the week, we have fresh bacon for dinner. Sometimes for lunch. We've rarely tasted any version as good as my batch. For a potluck, I make quiche lorraine, the ultimate marriage of bacon and eggs.

I think I need more pork belly.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Wine Blogs at The Wine Writers Symposium

Here's a talk I gave at the Wine Writers Symposium about blogs and wine writing. This isn't a transcript but an idealized form of a presentation that's fresh in my mind. I wrote it as I intended to speak it—maybe I should have formatted it as a podcast. It's long, but I've broken it up. Those of you who read have seen Alder's notes from the conference; I'll add my own shortly, as he and I came at it with different agendas

I love the raw, unfettered voice of the author on blogs. I also hate it. Some of you have complained about rambling posts and rampant typos. Plenty of blogs have those problems, but the best offer writing that matches or exceeds most mainstream media. You can't dismiss them outright.

Blogs Are Changing the Landscape
It's clear that blogs change the landscape. Peer-to-peer conversations replace the standard writer-reader relationship. When I write a post, readers leave comments and start a discussion. Another blogger can link to my post, and expand on it at his/her site to start a conversation with that blog's readers. The fact that I have a blog has nothing to do with your ability to start one. It's not like a magazine where you have n slots to fill and too bad for the writers who don't make it in.

This interaction builds a trust relationship that marketers want to exploit. I get email from PR firms all the time who want me to promote their product to my devoted readers.

Magazines And Blogs
Magazines have also noticed the changes. I recently heard a radio interview with Ruth Reichl where she said that Gourmet has changed the way it does things because of blogs. Gourmet no longer does one-off restaurant reviews because the bloggers get there first, and they get there more frequently. At any rate, their reviews, not Gourmet's, come up first in a Google search.

The same is true of wine. If you type in the name of a wine, you're not going to find yourself in the Wine Spectator database, because that requires paid access. But you might find yourself at a review on a blog, which will often tell you something more about the wine. If you get to Alder's site, you'll learn something about the wine makers and the winery. If you get to mine, you'll see some general comments about the region and the style, as well as my thoughts on why I paired it with certain food.

Newspapers and Blogs
Newspapers now incorporate blogs to capture more readers, to run news that didn't fit as a full story, and to build online ad revenue. As many of us know, print ad revenue is down, online revenue is up. Mark Fisher's Uncorked is a good exammple of this form. Mark writes about wine for the Dayton Daily News, and his blog has brought new readers to the site. The online ad revenue is their fastest growing segment, but he's quick to point out that it's still the smallest—it's easy to double when you go from 1 to 2 [Ed. note: These aren't the real numbers].

The most radical example outside of food and wine is in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the News & Record looked at its declining circulation, a common problem among the nation's papers, and decided to reinvent itself. The paper now runs numerous blogs, and the editors, writers, and readers engage in a dialog about articles the public would like to see or follow-ups to stories. The editors don't know if this redesign will solve their problems, but they had to do something or die out.

Personal Blogs
That's why publications might run blogs. On a personal level, a blog provides writing samples to send to editors or a platform from which to pitch a book. Wolfgang [an attendee] got his job at Wine & Spirits in part because of the writing samples on his site. I used a writing sample from OWF to sell my first piece, though looking back on my older posts, I'm surprised it got me the job.

I also think that winery blogs are an untapped gold mine. Imagine giving your customers a sense of ownership by providing a glimpse into how the wine is made. They'd go crazy for it.

Creating a Good Blog
Once you decide to start a blog, some basic techniques will help you attract readers. Number one: write well. A reader has 0 investment in your site. They haven't paid for it, and they're already annoyed by your site's load time when they see it. Grab them right away. Also, realize that people don't read web content—they skim it. Shove all the important words up front, add subtitles to provide anchors, and perhaps highlight keywords, though I don't do this on OWF.

Have a personality. Here's your chance to not write in an established editorial tone. Let yourself shine. Have an "about me" section on your front page so readers know your stance (mine's probably too far down the page).

Have something new or interesting to say. A lot of food and wine blogs write about similar topics. People read them, but if you write in that style, you'll have a hard time rising above the noise. Tom Wark's blog provides a good example in the wine blog world. Tom writes about the business of wine, and how the world of wine PR works. No one else does. His site is probably one of the most widely read wine blogs because of this unique stance. Outside of food and wine, I thought of a site, not even six months old, that rocketed into the Top 100 list maintained by one site [Ed. note: Of course it's not on the list today]. The site is called Cute Overload, and they just post pictures of cute animals all day [Laughter]. Yes, it's ludicrous, but that site has more readers than many of the publications we write for.

Work on your look. When you start your blog, your software comes with a handful of standard designs. You choose your favorite, start blogging, and then realize that four million other people chose that same template, and yours looks like all of the others. I'm the first to admit that OWF doesn't have a great design, but even my changes have had an impact: I interviewed someone recently who said, "Oh, I know your site; it's the one with the copper pots."

Publish on a regular schedule. Readers like the comfort of putting a blog into their routine [Ed. note: News readers would have been off topic and confusing]. Some of the most popular bloggers publish several times a day. Alder publishes almost every day. On the other hand, Regina Schrambling's snarky commentary about the food world at Gastropoda comes out on Monday. It doesn't matter what the schedule is, as long as it's predictable [Ed. note: My readers will note that I don't do this, but I don't pursue readers in an active way]

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Independent Food Festival 2006: Charcuterie to Swoon For

I tasted Fatted Calf's high-end charcuterie products long after most of my friends did. But as soon as I nibbled on a cured sausage, I fell in love. Hard. I'm not alone: Local foodies rave about the salumi, bacon, and terrines. The only way to get choice items at their farmers' market stall is to sign up for their mailing list and reserve items in advance.

Taylor Boetticher, tattooed like a rock musician, and his wife Toponia Miller, whose small frame snakes adeptly through large crowds, do charcuterie the way it should be done, which is why I'm happy to give them my Charcuterie to Swoon For award for this year's Independent Food Festival. The operation embodies the principles that make for great food: The two chefs use traditional, artisanal techniques, they use only the best ingredients, and they keep their operation small.

Photo by Melissa Schneider.
Taylor got the charcuterie bug when he worked at Berkeley's Cafe Rouge, well-known for their offbeat meat dishes. Then he spent some time with Tuscany's world-famous Dario Cecchini, learning the craft of Italian salumi. Now, he and Toponia make charcuterie from all over Europe and regions influenced by its cuisine. On any given day, you might find pancetta, merguez, or chorizo among the many other products they sell.

Food lovers in the Bay Area often say there's no point in making your own bread, because great bread is easy to get. Fatted Calf presents the same problem for those of us interested in charcuterie: Why bother with all the work, when heaven is so close at hand?

Lemons on SFist

Photo by Melissa Schneider.
I'm at a wine writing conference this week (and what a coincidence! So is Alder.) But I still did a quick post about lemons for SFist.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Relearning Duck Confit and My Recipe Philosophy

Duck Confit...
I love duck confit, legs (usually) salt-cured and cooked slowly in fat. I order it whenever I see it; I try different recipes at home.

But the duck confit at Jojo is my benchmark. I rarely find duck confit as good as Curt's, even when I make it myself. When we ate there for New Year's Eve (one of very few restaurants I'd eat at on that night), I mentioned this to Mary Jo, and she suggested I ask Curt to teach me. So I did, and he said, "Sure."

Now don't get all excited; I'm not going to share his recipe. That wouldn't be very nice, since I didn't ask for permission and anyway, there is no top-secret recipe, as you'll see. But I will share one lesson that I learned from Curt, because it touches on my personal philosophy.

"When I teach duck confit," said Curt as he trimmed duck legs in the restaurant's back area, "I use it as an exercise in balancing flavors." He started adding spices to a bowl: highly aromatic spices. The smell of each flooded the small area. As he added handfuls of this and that, the mixture's aroma evolved and changed. He had me smell it at various points and identify the components that stood out. He adjusted amounts and tried again.

Suddenly, the mixture changed. It didn't smell like anything, really. Just an aromatic, spicy blend in which you'd be hard-pressed to identify any of the pungent spices he had added. Everything was in balance.

It was amazing. It was like when you taste a perfectly balanced wine and you suddenly realize that this is what most wine is merely trying to achieve. It happens so rarely that you forget it for a time, until out of the blue it happens again, and you rediscover the sensation.

...and My Thoughts on Recipes
You may have noticed that I don't include recipes on this site. Partly this is laziness—testing or asking for permission to reprint takes lots of time and energy. But the main reason is that I believe there's a limit to what you can learn from recipes, and there's a limit to the kind of cook you can become if you rely on them.

Don't get me wrong: I learned how to cook gourmet food out of Bon Appétit and the Silver Palate Cookbook. But eventually those recipes lost their ability to teach me. Think about what you learn from a recipe. How to follow instructions? Most of us are pretty good at that by now. If you learn new techniques, you won't have the context you need to recognize them in other recipes.

Cooking is a sensual activity. Use your nose to determine if something smells right. Use your taste buds to evaluate it. Use your eyes to see how it looks. Look at the dish you made, evaluate it, think about what you might do differently next time. And when you need a recipe, look to books like The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, which actually try to teach you something other than how to parrot a recipe writer's whim.

How'd my unreciped confit turn out? I found the balance of the spice aroma. The seasoning was great, maybe a touch saltier than Curt's. I'll adjust it down a bit next time. My meat wasn't as tender, perhaps because I didn't cook it long enough, perhaps because he uses the legs from foie gras ducks while I use regular duck legs. I paid attention, thought about it a bit, and I know what I'll do differently next time.

But here's the thing. I also made pork belly confit shortly after my lesson with Curt. I didn't follow the author's recipe for a cure: I looked at the spices and mixed them to find a balance. Maybe those were close to the same amounts the authors mentioned; maybe not. But the flavors did what I wanted in the final product.