Friday, February 22, 2008

A Wine Primer Part 2

As I mentioned before, wine comes from grapes. Grapes are a plant. Some of you might eat grapes. These grapes are usually not the same grapes you make wine out of.

My point is, grapes are a fruit that grows from the ground. They're a surprisingly hearty fruit that grows well in some of the most intimidating landscapes in the world.

And as we've learned, virtually every wine-making grape varietal is the exact same species. Vitis vinifera is very prone to natural mutation. In fact new research has suggested that all white grape varietals come from a single vine that had a rare mutation of two genes.

What I'm saying is, even though they're all the same species, the cultivars are strikingly different. Different grapes have different characteristics, properties, and as a result certain grapes grow phenomenally well in some areas and grow for shit in other areas.

What are some general rules about grapes?

Generally speaking, cold climates produce white wine. Germany, Austria, and Alsace produce almost exclusively white wine, the red wine production limited to pinot noir and other thin-skinned early ripening red grapes. Why is that? Most red varietals ripen much later than white varietals, but colder climates have a much shorter growing season and wines like zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon would be painfully underripe if harvested before snows and frost freeze the grapes on the vine. Additionally, acidity (a product of near-underripeness) is a characteristic that is immensely appealing in most white wines but is not desirable in most red wines. Conversely, overripeness is almost universally deplored in quality white wines but if properly controlled in certain red wines hints of extra ripeness can be beneficial.

If something like a riesling grape is planted in southern Italy, the grape would ripen fully too early and be rich, overripe, grapey, and cloying. If a pinot noir is harvested too soon, it will be tart, bitter, and generally crappy.

Certain grapes grow better in certain regions because of how compatible the grape's development schedule is with the climate of the region.

So yeah, think about climate when you think about wine. If it's a cooler climate, think acidic white wines like riesling, gruner veltliner, pinot blanc, and chardonnay, as well as pinot noir, and some other red grapes you probably have never heard of like Dornfelder and Schiava. Sparkling wine will generally come from cooler climates as well. Warmer climates think rich ripening reds like cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel (a wild card that also likes some cooler climates), tempranillo, as well as Rhone and Italian varietals.

Really hot climates (eastern Australia, California's Central Valley, parts of southern France, chunks of Spain, southern Italy), think cheap, ripe, inoffensive, and innocuous wines with little character and complexity.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Breakfast at Brown Sugar Kitchen - Oakland, Ca

There's something about being white, middle-class, and ostensibly Jewish that makes me love soul food. Slow-cooked greens and pork. Corn bread. Fried chicken. Black-eyed peas. Corn bread. Biscuits. Hush puppies. Okra. Pecan pie. Corn bread. Mmmmmm. Corn bread.

Let's just ignore the fact that half of my extended family lives in Virginia. That has nothing to do with my love of southern food. Nothing at all.

The only thing keeping me from enjoying soul food more often?

I'm scared of West Oakland.

I decided to transcend my apprehension for locations whose addresses are "______ & Mandela" and head out to Tanya Holland's newest venture, Brown Sugar Kitchen.

The food was pretty g-d good.

Girlfriend Charlie and I headed out for a late breakfast while she had the windshield on her Bentley replaced. The restaurant's located on a pretty barren stretch of Mandela just north of West Grand on the edge of an emerging residential neighborhood.

The space is sleek and stylish while still being home-y. The smokey aromas of barbecue were present but not overwhelming. We sat at the counter and were immediately given a couple beignets with meyer lemon marmalade and plum jam. It was something the kitchen was experimenting with that morning. Light, fluffy, and crisp and dusted with powdered brown sugar.

The breakfast menu's small but has what you need--granola, baked goods, poached eggs and grits, egg and bacon sandwich, egg and vegetable tart, and cornmeal waffles (add chicken for $5).

Charlie had the sandwich (with the optional ham). It's pretty damn good, served on a soft wheat roll. I opted for the chicken and waffle. The waffle was fantastic--light and airy but with a crispy crunch. The chicken was also tasty and well-spiced. It's cooked in advance and kept warm so it lacked the immediate crunch that fresh-fried chicken has, but it was still moist. I doused the plate with Tabasco and maple syrup and it was quite satisfying.

We also got a fresh buttery biscuit (with more fabulous plum jam) and a mini pecan pie (so fresh that there was a bit of shell in the pie) with a fresh un-syrupy sweetness.

The restaurant's barely been open a month which was reflected in the inconsistent (but friendly) service and the inconsistent (but friendly) timing issues in the kitchen.

The lunch menu looks rock-star fabulous and we'll head back soon to try the jerk chicken barbecue, po'boy, and probably another couple pecan pies, for what it's worth.

Also, good looking wine list and local beers on draught.

Fresh, reasonable, rich, and tasty.

Brown Sugar Kitchen
2534 Mandela Parkway
Oakland, Ca 94607

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Wine Primer Part 1

Wine is delicious. This cannot be contested by any single person in the entire world. I challenge ye!

Wine also is not as complicated as it is made out to be. Just because something can be expensive does not mean it's particularly more complex than beer or whatever else.

Hell, in many ways wine is simpler than beer as wine doesn't require cooking and has fewer flavoring components than beer.

But that's a digression.

Over time at HFF I'll throw out some simple explanations and studies to demystify the wine world.

Some things to know:

1. Wine is made from grapes. Most of you know this. Know however that there are over 2000 different grape varietals from which wine is made, and there are scores of varietals that are used to make wines that are held in high esteem but wine drinkers, makers, and collectors.

2. Most wine is made from one grape. Or rather, one species of grape. Virtually every table wine is made from vitis vinifera, that probably originated from the Caucasus region of Eurasia. Every wine grape you can probably name (except for Concord and Scuppernong) is a cultivar of this grape species. Think of wine grapes like dogs.

3. In most of the world, wines are NOT labeled by varietal. Varietal naming is something that is more or less unique to the New World (Alsace in France, Germany, and Austria being notable exceptions). In most parts of Europe where the grapes are grown and the wine is made is of the most importance. Over time, certain grapes became associated with certain regions and that has since been codified into regulations that now require wines labeled in a certain way to contain a specific varietal or combination of varietals. More on that in a bit.

So who makes wine?

There are two over-arching wine-growing areas, the New World and the Old World. The Old World is just that, Europe and parts of Asia. Many of the former Soviet states were esteemed wine producers in the years prior to Soviet rule but collectivization resulted in artisan wine-making being virtually halted in favor of high-yield production for cheap mass consumption. That is slowly changing. New World wine producers include North America (mostly the USA, but also Canada and Mexico), South America (Argentina and Chile, primarily), Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

In the Old World, France, Italy, and Spain outproduce all the other countries by a hefty margin. The wines of Germany and Austria (which despite the similarity in grape varietals and language are markedly different) are very highly regarded in export markets and produce white wine that is rivaled only by France (and for significantly less money). Portugal, Greece, and increasingly Slovenia are playing a significant role in the export market. Hungary produces a modest amount of wine for export (mostly the incredible Tokaji dessert wine) and Israel is increasingly working its way overseas. That being said, every country in Europe, Asia, and North Africa south of grape-growing latitudes and non-Islamic fundamentalism produce wine, most of it for domestic consumption.

In the New World, the United States, Australia, and Argentina are the major producers. Within the US, winemaking takes place mostly on the west coast, with a few well-regarded producers in New York and Virginia. Australia's Barossa Valley produces some of its most esteemed wines (as opposed to the cheaper college party staples like Yellowtail and Lindemann's). In Argentina, Mendoza is the main wine region. South Africa is a small but excellent producer of some specific grape varietals and New Zealand is garnering respect overseas for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Canada is producing some of the best ice wine (a type of dessert wine) in the world.

So going back to my point about varietals, it can be very difficult, especially for Californians growing up with domestic wine labeling conventions to navigate wines from other parts of the world. Here's a basic overview of what grape varietals you'll USUALLY find in wines from the major international wine producing countries. Know that there are producers trying out many other varietals in all these regions.

New World (New World wines are almost always varietally labeled)

United States:
- California: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir (red) and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (white)
- Oregon: Pinot Noir (red) and Chardonnay (white)
- Washington: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir (red) and Riesling, Chardonnay (white)

Vidal (for ice wine)

Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon (red) and Semillon (white)

South Africa:
Cabernet Sauvignon (red) and Chenin Blanc (white)

Malbec and Tempranillo (red) with very limited white production, usually Sauvignon Blanc and Torrontes

Cabernet Sauvignon (red) with very limited white production, usually Sauvignon Blanc

New Zealand:
Pinot Noir (red) and Sauvignon Blanc (white)

Old World (Old World wines are rarely varietally labeled)

- Burgundy: Pinot Noir (red) and Chardonnay (white)
- Bourdeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot (primary, with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec as subsidiary) (red) and Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc (white)
- Loire: Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc (white) and very little red
- Rhone: Grenache, Syrah (primary, with Mourvedre subsidiary) and Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier (white)
- Alsace: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat (white) and very little red
- Provence: Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (red and rose) and very little white
- Languedoc: Carignane, Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah (red) and Grenache Blanc (white)

Riesling (white) and very little red for export

Riesling, Gruner Veltliner (white) and very little red for export

- Northern: Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera (red) and Arneis, Garganega, Pinot Grigio, Tocai Friuliano (white)
- Central: Montepulciano (red) and Trebbiano (white)
- Southern: Negroamaro, Aglianico (red) and Falanginha and Greco di Tufo (white)

Garnacha, Tempranillo/Toro (red) and Verdejo, Albarino, and Sauvignon Blanc (white)

Too goddamn numerous to name. Portugal is very confusing.

Assyrtiko (white) and very little red.

Egri Bikaver (actually a designated blend of three+ specific red grapes) and Furmint (used to make the white Tokaji dessert wine)

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (red) and very little white for export.

Enough for now.

Next up we'll discuss the nature of global wine growing regions and how it affects wine type, varietals, and quality.

Friday, February 08, 2008

REPOST! Dining and the Sex Trade: A Comparative Dichotomy

So this is my all time favorite post of all time. Don't worry, I'll get some new content up soon.

There's a reason that food and sex are intertwined in many aspects of our popular culture. There have been recent studies that suggest that food, cooking, and dining become sort of a proxy for the sex that gradually disappears from life as we age. The new, sleek, soft-focus, high-production value programming on The Food Network and its spin-offs reinforce this correlation. Is this a product of greater affluence and ennui? As food becomes "in" and "sexy" and therefore reaches a wider audience, is it imperative that the brainy food-nerd cooking shows and books of the past, when such programming was relegated to weekend mornings on PBS and a tiny corner of the bookstore, be replaced by the immediate gratification of Rachel Ray's apple bottom and Sandra Lee and Giada DeLaurentiis' respective racks? Not to mention Paula Deen's cockslaps of butter and Tyler Florence's panty-dropping chin dimple, all greeting us from the entire cooking wing at Barnes and Noble.

Let's look at this further.

Eating and fucking are, on a good day, total mind-body experiences that transcend their respective immediate physical gratifications. And while we're often able to fulfill our gustatory and sexual needs by ourselves to great effect (dinner for one and self-love being two of life's greatest pleasures) the addition of others can often increase the enjoyment--and in many instances make things more complicated and awkward.

And of course with all things sexual and gustatory, even numbers are better.

But perhaps the most distinctive similarity between eating and sex is how we take the activities out of the privacy of our homes and into the public world--that we're willing to utilize the services of professionals to meet the needs that we're fully capable of fulfilling on our own.

(As a side note, we use the word "fulfill" in describing our food and sexual needs I think because of its prominent compounding of "full" and "fill," two words eminently appropriate for both eating and fucking.)

For the purpose of this writing, the "sex trade" is a fairly broad term not limited to strippers, porno, dildos, and whores. I'm talking about sex-positive sex shops, mens' and womens' magazines of all kinds, sex advice columns and columnists, lingerie, swimwear, boxer briefs, plastic surgery, Abercrombie & Fitch (we sell abs!)--any business that capitalizes in whole or part upon the human preoccupation with increasing the pleasure and frequency of sexual activity. Because let's face it, we can talk all we want about these commodities increasing our self-esteem, but that increase in self-esteem ultimately comes entirely from being viewed as a more sexually attractive animal. It's cool. Roll with it.

Let's examine why we (often eagerly) seek out to exchange our hard-earned symbolic representations of our assets for food and tail.

1. It's more convenient. An acquaintance of mine is a dominatix. She once had a client pay her to put her foot into his butt. Her entire be-latexed foot into his prepared bottom. Let's say you're an otherwise normal, healthy individual with a stable home life and good job, but every now and then you need a foot in your butt. What's easier, trying to explain to your partner your desire to have a foot in your butt, or going out a few times a year, shelling out some money and discretely indulging in your secret pleasure?

I love good sauces, like a good mole or slow-simmered Indian entree, but when I feel like indulging in one of these dishes it's easier to shell out the money at a good Mexican or Indian restaurant then attempt to seek out the dozens of spices and slow-cook my food for twelve hours.

While it might be rewarding to learn to cook chana masala on your own and it might be rewarding to share your foot-in-butt fetish with your committed partner, unless your cravings for either occur on a daily basis it's probably simpler and more comfortable to leave it in the hands of professionals. Enjoy those simple, comfortable workhorse dishes at home with loved ones. And hell, definitely be adventurous with your non-remunerated partners--try out that rare artisan ingredient or exciting new bundt pan with the same titillating eagerness as a new vibrator or kama sutra position. But if you find yourself deviating into the aforementioned foot-in-butt and beyond, probably best to take that to the dungeon.

A corollary: unless you're a drug-addled rock star you probably don't want to be married to a coked-up stripper but unless you live in a Mormon cave (and even then....) you've probably enjoyed a lap dance from one. It's easy, refreshing, and probably won't result in having your bank account cleaned out and your kids grow up to be junior development executives for basic cable, things that would no doubt happen were you to marry the stripper.

Lastly--just throwing this out there--you don't pay a prostitute for sex, you pay for him or her to leave afterward. See? Convenience!

2. It's cleaner. Building on that previous idea, it could be said that we don't go out to eat for the food, we go out to eat to have somebody else clean up afterward. This is why rich people have man-servants. Rich people are inherently more noble and shouldn't have to get their hands dirty.

Do you really want to clean that out of your jacuzzi or wipe that off of your foot? Professionals of all kinds have the experience, tools, cleaning products, brass polish, insurance policies, and changes of clothes to deal with the gustatory and excretory problems that may arise from their lines of work. Because even if you're cooking the simplest pasta dish, you're still going to have some dirty dishes afterward and it's just so much more relaxing to not have to deal with that.

And it's also cleaner for a variety of socio-emotional reasons touched on in the previous entry and that I'll touch on in the following entry.

3. It eliminates personal responsibility. I would argue this is the most significant reason for the seemingly growing popularity of dining and sexing-up outside the home. If we cook food in our own home and it sucks, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. When I talk to people about why they don't cook, fear of failure underlies any reason that they give. And as with anything, if we don't keep reading, studying, learning, and experimenting, we'll never get better. I don't mean the quick-fix open a can and heat "cooking" that you get from Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee, but actual intuitive from-scratch cooking.

If we go out to eat and we don't like the food, we can call it somebody else's fault. If we turn ourselves over to the vicissitudes of dining trends and prepackaged commodities, we eliminate the vitality that personal opinion, culture, region, and taste plays in how we enjoy food. Fear of sexual inadequacy underlies almost every human insecurity so no wonder we like to trust "experts" and "techniques" instead of "our bodies" when it comes to sex and relationships, because then it's the technique's fault and we don't have to actually do anything ourselves.

But If we turn our sex lives over to guidebooks, videos, Carrie Bradshaw, and "hot tips" from Cosmo, we eliminate the personal responsibility of being in tune with our own bodies, tastes, and pleasures. Not to mention it creates the presumption that all men like some degree of anal stimulation, a gross exaggeration perpetrated by womens' magazines. Food magazines also seem to suggest that we as a people are way into tiny "slider"-type sandwiches. This is (or at least should be) a similarly gross exaggeration. That's right loyal readers, gourmet sliders equals a finger on the prostate.

Moving responsibility for sexual fulfillment over to movies, clothing, advertisements, jewelry, and (oh what's this?) food allows us to sidestep the actual problems. We're too fat. We're no longer attractive to or attracted by our partner. We're not good at sex. We come too soon. We're just not sexually compatible with our current partner. We can't cook chicken without it drying out. We don't know how to clean mushrooms. We don't even know where to begin to make a pie crust. So let's go buy a new car. Or a diamond necklace. Or have a couple children. And let's go to Zuni. Or the truffle dinner at Oliveto. Or finally eat at the French Laundry (sort of the dining equivalent of two $10,000 Vegas call girls and a kilo of coke).

But you might find, just maybe, that learning how to cook really well and learning how to fuck really well will enrich your life in ways that can't be made proxy. We're talking about a critical learning experience here though. It takes effort. You need to learn how to do the things you aren't good at, not find versions of things to do that fit better with what you're already able to do. Try. Error. Learn. Get better. What's great about both cooking and fucking is that the processes are a hell of a lot of fun and worth doing a lot.

4. It's fun. And this is what it all comes down to, doesn't it? There are plenty of people who can cook really well and fuck like champs who still love the French Laundry and a good coke orgy.

Plenty of happily married people still love flirting, strip clubs, and pornography because, hell, it's just a lot of fun. They fulfill (there's the word again) needs that, without placing judgment, cannot be met by a home-cooked meal or a home-fucked partner, no matter how good the respective meal or partner. To the same tune, a loving stable partner and a fabulous home-cooked meal fill voids that no Perfect 10 model or twelve-course tasting menu can.

But going out to eat and being treated well in a beautiful space with the added reward of a spectacular meal is a blast. Going to a tastefully appointed gentleman's club to enjoy a beverage and discuss the issues of the day, while beautiful scantily-clad women with daddy issues dance to earn money to open their tanning salon is a lot of fun. They're also our Allah-given rights as Americans.

So I'm saying it's not all doom and gloom. Four star restaurants and hookers are not telltale signs of a collapsing civilization, even if they might be better indicators than gay marriage and teen pregnancy. In fact, I'd argue that going out to eat and the sex industry are not just parts of, but essential to a functional modern democracy--there's a reason that market regulation and liberalization of the sex trade is a hallmark of virtually every developed country in the world and there are very few Michelin-starred restaurants in countries' whose GDP per capita is less then dinner for four at the Ritz-Carlton (cf. sarcasm). They're market-driven animals that fill gaping voids in our aimless, postmodern societies. Of course they also filled gaping voids in our aimless, god-fearing societies of yesteryear too.

Pulitzer Prize nominating committee, this has been humbly submitted for your approval.