Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Burros on Whole Foods

Brett mentioned this in the comments to my recap of the Pollan-Mackey event, but I know not everyone skims the comments. Marian Burros wrote a piece in today's New York Times asking if Whole Foods is straying from its idealistic roots. Worth a read, though be sure to check out Ric's response in my previous post.


Vs.! Pollan and Mackey

"Pollan-Mackey Smackdown" was the entry on my calendar. Michael Pollan, the tall, thin journalism professor whose The Omnivore's Dilemma described Big Organic and the "supermarket pastorale" of stores such as Whole Foods, and John Mackey, the sandy-haired Average Joe CEO of Whole Foods, had engaged in an open, Internet-wide debate for months, and the two were going to continue it in public. The food blogs buzzed for days when the announcement came.

Mackey knows how to work a crowd. In front of a 2000-person audience where half or more of the members were critics, he tossed gold bits into his 45-minute preamble to tip the balance to his side. He outlined the gray areas around every food issue. He described, in a humble way, how The Omnivore's Dilemma caused him to rethink Whole Foods' business. He mentioned the company's investments, plucking the crowd's heartstrings with feel-good slides that showed farms and the equipment they had bought with loans from the chain. He peppered his talk with first-time announcements of new initiatives, from a "Whole Trade" label for ethically traded foods to a rating system for organic farms. He closed his talk with a question aimed to put his critics off-balance, "I've told you what Whole Foods has been doing about this for the last 27 years. What are you going to do to make these changes happen?"

It's easy to be cynical when the CEO of a major corporation speaks: For instance, a suspiciously similar amount of clapping greeted each announcement of Whole Foods' accomplishments. But Pollan underlined the point that few men in Mackey's position would engage in such an open debate with their critics. Mackey seems sincere enough about his ideals—he sacrificed three or four minutes of his talk to show a video detailing the horror of factory farms, prompting Pollan's comment, "you can tell a P.R. firm didn't make that for you." He has made real changes in response to critics. He has a passion for animal welfare (he's a vegan and good friends with Lauren Ornelas, the head of Viva! USA). He blamed Pollan for exaggerating the industrialization of organic food. "It doesn't seem to have hurt sales too much," said Pollan, alluding to the booming-business numbers for organic food in Mackey's talk.

Few of the men's questions, or the handful they took from the audience, shed new light on the debate the two have had since the middle of last year. Mackey noted that after The Omnivore's Dilemma came out, it became open season on the company. "Trader Joe's is our biggest competition," he said, "but the press hasn't touched them." Mackey asked Pollan what his vision would be, echoing the challenge at the end of the 45-minute talk. Pollan hemmed and hawed but then presented an answer: less corn and more grass, more thinking about food, and transparency throughout the food chain.

There's no doubt the two men disagree about a number of issues, but this debate, close to a year in duration, has created notable changes in the Whole Foods chain and has given the public much to think about. Even I have softened my view of the company; although their anti-union stance and the obliteration of small, established organic grocers remain sticking points that keep them off my normal shopping beat.

I distrust Mackey as I distrust any Fortune 500 CEO, but my hats off to him for setting an example that few other CEOs have the courage to follow.


Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Videoblogger ze frank demonstrates how to make a pankegg, "not quite a pancake, not quite an egg." The demonstration is near the end of the video, so skip ahead if you'd like.


Saturday, February 24, 2007

Awful Offal?

Over the last couple of weeks, I've noticed a number of foodies pronouncing offal, the organs and whatnot of animals, with a long o. Like "oaffal." I've heard it from enough savvy people that I began to alter my own pronunciation—a rhyme with awful—assuming I had been wrong all this time. Today, I looked it up. My dictionaries only list the "awful" form; they flag the "o" as either the -aw sound in paw or the short-o sound in pot, a distinction of length and harshness but otherwise hard to hear.

So why the sudden rise in the long-o form? Is it a regionalism? Or does some celebrity chef use it? Most of you know by now how much I enjoy language, so I'm curious about this shift.

I assume many see the newly-trendy word, think of its association with French food, and guess that the word uses French's softer, longer vowels. (The term has been around since Middle English, but it has an Old English root.)

But maybe this is a subtle campaign. Puns that take advantage of the rhyme are legion and tiresome. Perhaps this new long-o form is a way to get the term into people's heads without the rhyming connotation of "really bad." Maybe it's a way to make the food sound more elegant, so that people don't immediately veer away when they read it in a trend piece. Could that work? Maybe I'll keep the long-o pronunciation after all.

How do you pronounce this word? And if you use the long-o pronunciation, where did you hear it? I'd love to know.

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Pruning at Meadowood: A Writing Exercise

Note: Prior to the Wine Writers' Symposium, participants had the option to prune some vines in the Napa Valley Wine Reserve, the 50-acre vineyard at the entrance to Meadowood. Members of the Reserve can participate to whatever extent they like in wine making—sort of an upscale Crush Pad. The winery's caves even have carved-out spaces where members can store their wine libraries.

After the pruning lesson, we went inside for a writing exercise where we talked about the morning. This is mine, and I've left it unedited except for what we did in the session.

I mean no offense to the Meadowood staff or the many hard-working folks in Napa. I actually enjoyed myself and found the exercise educational, but I was struck by the observation that the posh life was never far away. I couldn't avoid the obvious metaphor. Alder, who writes better first drafts than I, shared the more common view of the morning.

Snap. My pruning shears squeeze shut, a branch falls off the vine, and a glistening drop of sap oozes from the wound. The vineyard manager walks up and eyes my work. "Not bad," he says, "but cut this shoot a little closer because you want the one that's nice and straight, not the one that's crooked."

I pretend, for just a moment, that I'm learning the secrets of grape growing and wine making from polished experts. The sun is shining, it's a cool-but-not-too-cold day, and I'm deciding which shoots to prune from a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon vine, a plant that will in a few months produce the country's most expensive wine grapes.

But in fact, I'm a modern-day Marie Antoinette, playing in a little garden outside a palatial retreat, my Versailles the luxurious Meadowood resort in St. Helena. I'm just one of countless would-be wine makers who tromp through these 50 acres, working as much or as little as I choose to produce a custom wine.

The Disneyland atmosphere tints the day. My pruning shears glisten with a suspiciously new sheen; the staff, waiting out of sight like the Magic Kingdom's security guards, will clean the tool after I leave. The fruit I've helped shape will be brought into a winery so clean you could dine on the floor, so manicured that the stainless-steel tanks have been custom designed to mimic the large, conical oak fermenters in the next room. Should a drop of rain threaten my city-dweller's garb, the voluptuous Meadowood umbrellas cluster by every door. I'm half-surprised there aren't animatronics or little trolleys that we can ride in.

Perhaps it's not Disneyland after all, but just Napa, an area where migrant pickers pluck the fruit owned by dentists and movie directors who used their fortunes to become winery owners, who "make" wine by hiring knowledgeable staff. Perhaps my morning of wine making was an authentic Napa experience after all.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

How To Get Spam To Me

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

OWF Quiet:Wine Writers' Symposium

I'm away this coming week, attending the 2007 Wine Writers' Symposium at Meadowood. This year, I'm going on a fellowship, one of a few granted to wine writers who apply with samples of their writing; I applied with my Mosel and Vinovation pieces from The Art of Eating. Thanks to Saintsbury for funding my ticket—it's no coincidence that I recently read their namesake's book.

I'll try to post at some point in the next few days, but if the blog is quiet, you know why.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

Notes on Notes on a Cellar Book

As a buying guide, George Saintsbury's Notes on a Cellar Book is useless. He recalls the wines he's enjoyed in 60 years of drinking, but you'll never get to taste the bottles. It's bad enough that he mentions the '69 this or the '72 that, but these are years from the nineteenth century, not the twentieth.

As a window into wine appreciation 80-100 years ago, however, this book is fascinating. Offhand comments remind you that oidium, phylloxera, and Prohibition were current events. Wine came from "shippers," and you bought it by the cask. German wine was called "hock," after Hochheim in the Rheingau. England was the center of wine criticism and the export market everyone wanted to be in.

But the armchair time travel isn't just between the lines. Saintsbury opens with chapters on sherry and port, topics often left out of today's general-purpose wine books. His choice wasn't odd; England imported these wines by the boatload as a residual effect of British imperialism—to this day, most major Port companies belong to English families. Bordeaux and Burgundy, on the other hand, share a chapter. Aside from Champagne, the rest of the wine world is dealt with in a chapter entitled "Hock, Moselle, and the Rest." Saintsbury suggests wine and spirits as cures for specific diseases, and gives glimpses of his and other cellars where you'd find beer casks and containers holding a mix of port and sherry, combined when each had gotten stale in the decanter. And he has none of the prosy tasting notes we're so used to seeing. The modern tasting note is a fairly recent invention; Saintsbury merely praises the virtues of different drinks. Even I, who hates the blandness of modern tasting notes, wanted to know how those wines tasted.

On the other hand, it's easy to draw modern parallels to Saintsbury's opinions. He argues that wine's proper place is alongside good food and charming company, an early version of the romantic wine writing we find today. He rails against England's temperance movement, much as we shake our heads at states where you can't purchase wine on Sunday. He takes shots at the blanket opinions covering all wines from a single vintage, a silliness that persists to this day.

At least, that's what I think he says. My inner wine geek enjoyed the comparison of connoisseurship then and now, but my inner writing geek noticed how the definition of good writing has changed in the same period. Clauses and tangents interrupt the text like facial tics. Saintsbury assumes that his reader can blithely translate French or Latin phrases, know the meanings of uncommon words, and understand shorthand allusions to poets and other contemporary writers. I often had to re-read sentences to make sure I had followed his meaning through the maze of asides. On the other hand, Saintsbury might find my "cut all that you can" style terse and staccato.

My mission as a wine writer is to make the subject approachable to more people. But I admit that a part of me enjoys this glimpse of a more elite wine scene. Elaborate parties, with true ladies and gentlemen bedecked for dinner. Tables laden with crystal. Clubs where members sipped sherry and played dominoes. But in the end, I'm happy to draw the curtains over that window and look out my own, where everyone gets to play the wine game.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Violent Acres On Children's Diets

The caustic voice behind the Violent Acres blog asserts, with only a few points of empirical evidence, that processed food and special attention turn kids into picky eaters. It's worth noting that she doesn't have kids (or I don't think she does), but Jacques Pepin suggested the same principle. He's always seemed to have a good attitude: This is what we're eating for dinner, and if you don't like it the kitchen is right over there.

But I'll let you parents make your own decisions about her post.


Beaucastel, Old and Young

This site has provided me with a wealth of new friends, but it has also connected me with old ones. Some, from my high school days, have found their way here after searching for my name. Others have jumped to this page from somewhere else, recognizing my face as they landed.

My friend Fred, whom I know from my days at BMUG, found his way here and dropped me a note to say hello. He, too, has been bitten by the food and wine bug, and he recently sent me an invitation to a tasting at his house. His friend would be pouring older and newer vintages of Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and did I want to come? I jumped at the chance to taste these legendary wines, bottles from one of the most famous producers in one of the world's most famous wine regions.

Old wines, the good ones anyway, present a rare treat; you've probably heard "wine is a living thing" from wine lovers like me, but an old bottle drives the point home better than a thousand blog posts. The fruity aromas of youth fall off and become something new and extraordinary, something that you wouldn't have predicted: They're so different that wine geeks reserve the word "bouquet" for these scents. Of course they can also be a crap shoot. A 40-year-old wine has four decades of potential mishandling under its capsule. Maybe the wine wasn't stored well for some portion of its life. Maybe the cork allowed a little too much air into the bottle. Until you sip the wine, which no doubt cost you a pretty penny, you don't know what you'll get.

Here are my tasting notes for the evening. The whites were all Château de Beaucastel Roussane Vielle Vignes. The reds were the Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the same winery. Beaucastel uses more Mourvedre than other producers in the region, but other than that the grapes could be any of the 13 allowed in the appellation. However, It's a safe bet that there's some Grenache in there, as well as Syrah, and probably Cinsault. (Note: Beaucastel also flash heats the grapes to 176° Fahrenheit before pressing, which they claim extracts more flavor and color and allows them to press without sulfur.)

The Whites
1988 - My goodness, I love white wines that age well. This well-balanced favorite of the evening was a charming mix of mature and young, like a bank executive with a giggle. The wine still had a thick, clear edge with a well of light gold in the center, but the nose had the heady wax aromas of bottle age. I teased out subtle tropical fruit aromas and a soft stoniness. "Wow!" say my notes of the ferocious acidity that hit my tongue, a refreshing quality I might have expected from a bottle just out of the winery's cellar. Flavors of wax and stone lingered for a nice long finish. But don't let this wine sit in a glass for too long, as its flavor fades fast.

1999 - This wine was more restrained than its older brother, offering subtle aromas of wax and smoke, and an almost watery body, with modest acidity. I didn't find it very exciting.

2004 - I liked this young wine, which had an aroma I often get from German wines and which I write down as Honey Nut Cheerios. I also noticed a slight cheese aroma. The light-bodied wine has a menthol quality on the midpalate, with a nice long finish that has just a hint of the waxy aroma that so dominated the '88.

The Reds
1966 - My favorite red of the evening was an Energizer Bunny of a wine. Even after an hour in the glass, the wine's complex nose oozed salumi, offal, and paprika. There was a funky smell—I wrote "skunky, but in a nice way"—that defied easy description, as most complex wines do. The wine still had a good acidity, and not surprisingly the tannins had become feather-light over the last 40 years. The flavor was as complex as the nose, adding a mushroom finish as a final flourish.

1978 - "Burnt coffee" was a dominant comment from the tasters at my table, even from the one coffee hater in the group, me. As with the 1966, I got salumi aromas, which might come from Brettanomyces, or "brett" for short, a yeast that produces "barnyard" scents. These can add complexity in small amounts, but in large quantities are usually considered a fault. The finish for this wine had a bit of vanilla, but mostly a strong mineral element. Great acidity and solid tannins suggest that it still has room to mature.

1985 - Speaking of brett, this wine had plenty, though it never crossed into unpleasantness. In fact, I gave it a +, my "this is a good wine" mark—the 1966 got a *. Sweat, leather, and salumi all showed up in the aromas, alongside a warm earthiness. The wine still had nice fruit, tasting of baked cherry with subtle leather. Mild tannins and only a decent acidity make me wonder how much longer this wine will mature.

1990 - Add more brett to the mix as this wine opened. But the first sniff was all smoke and meat, with a leathery flavor. The tannins were still quite strong, though not in an unbalanced way, and the finish held both mushrooms and the heat of slightly unbalanced alcohol. Regardless, it warranted a +.

1995 - This relatively young wine had aromas of raisins and dust. I thought I noted a hint of volatile acidity, but I left it with a question mark, never able to recover the vinegar or ethyl acetate aromas I first noticed. Flavors of smoke and wintergreen faded to a meaty finish. Interesting enough on first sip, the wine lost all its character within an hour of being poured into the glass. A stark contrast to the 1966, which was still delicious.

2001 - Lots and lots of raisins and strawberry jam—"Don't you mean raspberry?" joked the young woman next to me—dominate the nose, though forest floor and pine contribute in subtle ways. On the other hand, flavors of dried cranberry and button mushrooms came through on the palate, ending in a raisiny, hot finish. There's good structure here, so maybe I'll tell you what it tastes like in 40 years.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

What Every Boy And Girl Wants

Looking for the perfect Valentine's Day gift? How about a cool six-week-long UC Berkeley Extension wine course in San Francisco, starting in early April? You might think this is a hard gift to find, but you'd be wrong. Click the link, pull out your credit card, and taste wine with me.

I'm putting together my syllabus, and I wanted to share the top-level class descriptions with you so that you can see how much fun you'll have.

  • Class 1: Your Tongue Tastes...
    Discover how different amounts of acid, sugar, tannins, and alcohol affect the taste, feel, and structure of a wine. Then taste typical store wines, and describe where each one falls on the line of acidity, sweetness, tannin, and alcohol levels.
  • Class 2: ...But Your Nose Knows
    Smell through countless vials, and try to identify the items hidden within. Smell some of those items immersed in glasses of wine. Then smell varietal wines typical of their grapes, and identify the scents in the glass.
  • Class 3: Pew! What Is That Stink?
    Learn to identify some of the most common faults in a bottle of wine. Learn that one wine's fault can be another's feature.
  • Class 4: How Much Wood...?
    Learn about the effect of oak on wine. Taste wines made with French, American, new, and old barrels. Compare to wines made in stainless steel tanks, and learn how barrels are made.
  • Class 5: Become A Terroirist
    Terroir, the idea that wine has a sense of place, is one of the industry's big buzzwords. Is it real? Or is it bunk? You'll taste similar wines from different geographies and learn how the complex mix of soil and sun can shape the fruit.
  • Class 6: Go On A Blender
    Make your own Bordeaux blend. You'll have varietal wines from each of the major Bordeaux grapes, and you'll have to mix them to your taste.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A Lotta Frittata

Photo by Melissa Schneider.

My father and mother, who shared cooking duty in our home, influenced my cooking style in different ways. From my mother, I acquired a love of the elegant: tarts, soups with swirls of crème fraîche, and planned platings. From my father, I acquired a taste for improvisation, ingredients and techniques sifting though my head like pachinko balls and producing something better than I expect. Each of them could work in the other's style, but my parents, in my memory, gravitated toward those differences.

So perhaps it's appropriate that I had to improvise a dish for my father's 60th birthday, the Monday of a weekend-long family celebration. He had rented a house in Cayucos, a small coastal town near Hearst Castle, and a week before Melissa and I drove down Highway 101, he called and asked if I'd make breakfast for the 12 celebrants.

I steered towards a frittata, a flat omelette that's baked in the oven and not on the stove top. I don't know that anyone would label my inch-thick sheet of fluffy, cooked eggs a frittata, but my family loved it and asked for the recipe. Of course there isn't one; I made up the dish on the spot. But I based it on techniques that I've used dozens of times. You probably have, too.

I cut two large onions in half through the poles, peeled the hemispheres, and sliced them into longitudinal arcs, from edge to center. I melted most of a stick of butter in a pan, and added the onion curves, reducing the heat to very low. I let the onions wilt, but not caramelize, while I worked on the rest of the dish, about 30 minutes.

I sliced my ham, a Fatted Calf petit jambon, into thick pieces and heated some oil in a pan. I crisped the thick ham slices, two at a time, and sliced them horizontally and vertically into rough squares. (If you're not using a beat-up nonstick pan in a rental house, be sure to degrease and deglaze the pan with white wine, letting it reduce to a syrup and adding that to the eggs as well).

Finally, I whisked 24 eggs and added a splash of milk, a few pinches of salt, the ham squares, the onion arcs, and 3/4 pound "Swiss cheese," one of three options at the Cayucos market, a glorified convenience store. I buttered a 9" x 13" baking pan, the only item we could find that would hold the mixture, and put it in the oven. I could tell you that I cooked it at 350° but that was more of a starting point. I increased the temperature a little more each time I checked the "frittata," ending at 425° about 40 minutes after I put it in. I took the pan out when the egg mixture was solid around the edges but still jiggly, not sloshy, in the center. Just as you do for any egg dish.

The result was a pillowy brunch item that we served with sausage and a simple fruit salad. I worried that I had made too much, but my teenage cousins—and their younger sister, a burgeoning gourmet—polished off the last few pieces.

Wine Notes
As soon as we finished brunch, we all set out for three hours of driving. But if I had served wine, I would have chosen a sparkling wine made in the Champagne style. We were celebrating, after all, and the bubbles add body that can stand up to the richness of the eggs, while the acidity cuts through the tongue-coating fat. The dish has similarities to Quiche Lorraine, and the regional pairing of Alsace Riesling or Pinot Blanc would also provide good acidity to contrast the rich egg and salty meat.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

Edible East Bay, Winter 2007

The latest Edible East Bay is back from the printers; expect to see it within a week at farmers' markets and key stores throughout Alameda County and Contra Costa County—Andronico's, Vintage Berkeley, and Berkeley Bowl, among others.

This season's issue has a profile of the Bittersweet chocolate café (chocolate bar?), written by fellow food blogger Anita Chu, an ode to Monterey Market, and a look at Hearst Ranch's grass-fed beef. Several other quality articles fill the issue.

My editor and I decided to push my major piece to the next issue, but this one has a small blurb by me about the East Bay Vintners' Alliance, the organization of wineries in Berkeley, Oakland, Emeryville, and Alameda.

Don't feel like hunting down each issue? You can always subscribe.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Slate on Pollan's Latest

Every food blogger has pointed to Pollan's sprawling New York Times article about "nutritionism." I'll add my voice to the multitude: You should read it.

Because I enjoy being perverse, however, I'd also suggest that you read Slate's rebuttal. I generally side with Pollan, but I'm happy to read critical analyses of anyone's work.