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An Insider's guide to restaurants, wine, spirits and culinary travel

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           the confidence game that changed wine

The recent death of Hardy Rodenstock reminded many wine collectors of an earlier and more innocent era: a time when consumers could buy fine wines without worrying about whether they were fakes.

Rodenstock, whose real name was Meinhard Gorke, was born in Germany in 1941. He spent the early phase of his career as a manager for rock bands. In the 1980s he suddenly gained fame as a prominent wine collector, best known for omnibus wine tastings conducted annually in Bavaria. These elaborate events were initially held for friends and celebrities, and eventually included some of the world’s prominent wine critics. The most notable was a vertical tasting of Chateau d’Yquem conducted in 1998, which featured 125 vintages dating back to 1794.

In 1985, Rodenstock claimed to have “discovered” a stash of old bottles of Bordeaux that supposedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson and which were engraved with his initials. The Jefferson wines became highly sought after in the auction world after Christopher Forbes paid the equivalent of $157,000 for a single bottle of Chateau Lafite. Billionaire collector Bill Koch spent half a million dollars for four of them after they were authenticated by world-famous expert Michael Broadbent. The discovery of the Jefferson bottles was followed by similar incidents in which Rodenstock miraculously stumbled upon qualities of unbelievably rare wine in great condition.

In 2005, Koch was preparing to lend the bottles to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for an exhibition, and his staff searched for provenance on the Jefferson bottles. They found none. The bottles were submitted for analysis and determined to be fakes: Jefferson’s initials had been engraved with a modern high-speed drill. Furious, Koch hired a former FBI agent and launched a decade-long legal battle against the merchants who sold him the wine, which was eventually resolved in his favor. Rodenstock was indicted, but he could never be extradited to this country for trial.

Few lessons were learned from this debacle. Counterfeit wines, which had been rare prior to Rodenstock, proliferated to the point where some experts estimated nearly 20% of the bottles sold by certain auction houses were fakes. Cynics observed there was more vintage Lafite for sale in Hong Kong than was ever made. Rodenstock’s adventures were taken to the next level by Rudy Kurniawan, a counterfeiter who simply relabeled cheap bottles as expensive ones. He was convicted in 2013 and is currently in prison.

If you’re wondering how this could happen, the answer is simple. There are few people on the planet who know what very old wine is supposed to look and taste like, and that group doesn’t include the collectors who buy it. Today’s auction bidders need to rely on common sense, alongwith the old adage: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. The Hardy Rodenstock era ended the age of innocence in the wine world, and transformed a gentleman’s industry into a modern business.

    celebrate world gin day with a frozen negroni

For some people, every day is World Gin Day. If you’re not one of those folks, the date is Saturday June 9. Most cocktail enthusiasts will celebrate with either the trendy gin and tonic or the classic martini, which evokes nostalgic images of James Bond.

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              the unhealthiest appetizer in America

Every July, the Center for Science in the Public Interest announces their Xtreme Eating Awards, honoring the worst calorie-laden dishes in American restaurants. The winners usually rank high in the areas of fat grams and sodium content as well. Last year’s stars included items such as Chili’s Ultimate Smokehouse Combo, boasting 2,440 calories, 41 grams of saturated fat and 7,610 milligrams of sodium---well above the recommended daily intake for most human beings, and the proverbial heart attack on a plate.

This year, we didn’t have to wait for July. May 5 was the FDA’s deadline for restaurants to list calorie counts on their menus. Not everyone has complied, due to lobbying from Domino’s Pizza, convenience stores and supermarkets, but there are some horrifying results among the establishments who have chosen to follow the law.

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             talking tequila with pepe hermosillo

Since establishing Casa Noble, José “Pepe” Hermosillo has been a pioneer in the super premium tequila category. He took some time recently to share some of his reflections with us.

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       the single barrel tequilas from casa noble

Super premium tequila is hot: According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., category sales have increased a staggering 805% since 2002.

There was very little luxury tequila back then. The category was created in 1989 by Patron, who charged an unthinkable $40 per bottle at the time. Prior to that, tequila in America had been the drink of bikers, frat boys and bums. In fact, the standard method of ingesting it---downing a shot quickly, along with a dose of salt and lime---had been developed specifically to mask the aroma and flavor of the stuff.

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the wine industry hits the baby boomer trifecta

Fueled by interest and affluence from the baby boom generation, the wine industry has been having a very good run. A bottle of Harlan Estate, if you’re not on the mailing list, will now cost you $1300. This is the equivalent of $340 in 1978 dollars, but back in 1978 no wine was selling for $340---and no one imagined that it ever would.

Nor is the madness confined to California: The 2015 Chateau Margaux will run you $1600 per bottle. I bought the 1988 vintage of that wine for $60. These are extreme examples, of course, but it’s not uncommon for a Napa Cabernet to fetch $150 today, compared to an unheard-of 1978 price of $40. You don’t need a degree in economics to realize that there has been a prolonged gold rush in the wine business.

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                      verdicchio: Lost and found

In the broadest possible terms, the universe of the grape can be divided into two categories: serious wines and quaffers. There’s little overlap between the two. Serious wines tend to be expensive, complex, vineyard designated and estate-grown (and thus heavily dependent on vintage and weather conditions). Quaffers are not only affordable, but they are made from fruit purchased from dozens or hundreds of growers, so they tend to taste the same year after year.

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                       Glass Half full: 4/24/2018

A roundup of the most interesting food, wine and spirits stories on the web (because even Al Gore, who invented it, doesn't have time to read them all)

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         flavored olive oil and balsamic vinegar

                                                               By Ken Schechet

        Our roving correspondent looks at a culinary trend going mainstream

Did you know that olive oil can reduce the risk of many types of cancers? It can make you less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.  It can slow the aging of your heart, lower your bad cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of stroke and of getting Alzheimer’s. Such are the claims made by the Olive Oil Times, (yes, there is such a publication), as well as many, many other sources.  There is a lot of evidence that the monounsaturated fats, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties of olive oil can have a very real and positive effect on your well-being. 

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                        a primer on vietnamese food

                                                                  By Ken Schechet

This is the last in a series of dispatches from our correspondent, who has been eating his way through Asia

I have been to Vietnamese restaurants in the United States, France, and several Asian countries.  I recently spent two weeks eating my way from one end of Vietnam to the other and quickly realized that before I got here I had absolutely no clue what Vietnamese food was all about.

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                                 hanoi street food

                                                                      By Ken Schechet

Eating his way through Asia, our correspondent has reached Vietnam. Here is his report on the street food vendors of Hanoi.

Like many foodies I have a Tony Bourdain addiction.  I have followed him through three networks, actually ran into him filming in a butcher shop in Tuscany, and have seen every show he’s done from his favorite country, Vietnam.  According to a recent New York Times Magazine story he seriously considered moving to Vietnam, specifically Hanoi, a few years ago.  So Vietnam went to the top of my bucket list and I finally got there recently.

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                              singapore street food

                                                                    By Ken Schechet

This is the second in a series of dispatches from our correspondent, Ken Schechet, who is eating his way through Asia.

Singapore is probably the most food obsessed place I’ve ever been.  It is a constant topic of conversation.  Cab drivers ask you where you’ve eaten.  It’s a place where WTF stands for “Where’s the Food”  (I didn’t make that up.  It was on a billboard.)  Being a major trading and banking center there are no end of fine restaurants, but what Singapore is famous for is street food.

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                              singapore food wars

                                                                  By Ken Schechet

This is the first in a series of dispatches from our correspondent Ken Schechet, who is eating his way through Asia.

If you’ve ever been to South Philadelphia and are a foodie, you have probably been to the corner of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue where the two signature cheese steak joints, Pat’s and Gino’s, are directly across the street from each other and staring each other down constantly.  Of course, you need to try them both.  Rivalries like these are so delicious to me, on so many levels, that when I heard about two similar situations in Singapore I had to see them on a recent visit.

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                     great wine for under $15?

It’s not a typo, oxymoron or stupid question. There’s a lot of very good wine at very low prices, but discovering it is a challenge---particularly when you’re strolling the wine aisle of your local supermarket or beverage superstore, staring at a tsunami of unfamiliar labels.

The answer is Mark Spivak’s Affordable Wine Guide to California and the Pacific Northwest, available as an e-book for $7.99. The book profiles 43 producers and contains hundreds of wine reviews, and gives you a clear-cut view of the good and the bad. The criteria are simple: What does the wine taste like? What kind of food does it go with? Is it worth the money?

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