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

blog archives

reflections on casamigos, george clooney's                                         billion-dollar tequila

Yesterday, beverage giant Diageo announced they were buying the Casamigos tequila brand for $1 billion: $700 million up front, and the rest in performance incentives. Casamigos was founded four years ago by George Clooney and his friend Rande Gerber, husband of supermodel Cindy Crawford.

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                            glass half full: 6/21/2017

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

Katz’s Deli is on the move:

Several weeks ago we reported that Katz’s, the legendary deli on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was building a production facility in New Jersey and planning to ship worldwide (The Global Power of Pastrami). Now it seems they’ve opened in Dekalb Market Hall in Brooklyn, a culinary center showcasing 40 vendors “who reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the borough.”

Here’s one blogger’s account of a Katz’s pastrami sandwich in Brooklyn:

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     the southern steak and oyster bar, nashville

It’s not easy to bridge the gap between funk and fusion, but The Southern Steak and Oyster Bar in Nashville manages to do just that.

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                           glass half full 6/15/2017

A roundup of the most interesting stories on the web recently (because even Al Gore, who invented it, doesn't have time to read it all).

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                          etch restaurant, nashville

The conventional wisdom is that Nashville is the new Charleston, but there are differences. In Nashville, the frenzied pace of high-rise construction is obliterating what’s left of the historic downtown. Like Charleston, though, restaurants exist on one end of a continuum: either rustic, down-home BBQ joints or temples of new-wave fusion.

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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

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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                    speyburn: Affordable single malts

Speyburn was founded by John and Edward Hopkins, two brothers from Speyside, in 1897. They located their distillery near the town of Rothes and close to a pure water source, the Granty Burn, which was a tributary of the River Spey. John Hopkins appointed Charles Doig, the celebrated distillery architect, to design the plant, and Speyburn still has the classic pagoda ventilator for which Doig is best known.

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                                          brugal rum

Mention rum, and most people will think of Bacardi rather than Brugal. Small wonder: It’s the world’s largest rum brand, with distilleries around the world and annual sales approaching 20 million cases. In the Caribbean, though, rum is synonymous with Brugal, based in the Dominican Republic city of Puerto Plata.

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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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                              cune: Rioja resplendent

CUNE, or the Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana (the Northern Spanish Wine Company), was founded in the Rioja town of Haro in 1879. It was a heady period in the region. Marques de Riscal, the first major estate, had been established in 1850, and Marques de Murrieta had appeared on the scene in 1877. Most importantly, the great vineyards of Bordeaux had been ravaged by phylloxera about a decade before, and Rioja, for lack of other alternatives, was suddenly in great demand.

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tuthilltown spirits and hudson whiskey: An                                                 american saga

If you sat down to write a script about the creation of a craft distillery, you’d come up with something very close to Tuthilltown and Hudson Whiskey.

Craft distillers today are nearly as ubiquitous as smart phones. It was a very different story in 2001, when Ralph Erenzo and Brian Lee purchased the historic Tuthilltown Gristmill in Gardiner, New York. The mill had been converting grain to flour for more than two centuries, but no one had thought of making it into a distillery. Although there were more than 1,000 farm distillers in the state producing their own booze from local ingredients prior to Prohibition, the practice was unknown more than 80 years after Repeal.

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                      the global power of Pastrami

It has been a rough decade for delicatessen. New York’s famed Stage Deli served its last overstuffed sandwich in 2012, and the Carnegie Deli closed last December. If two such icons can’t make it in the Big Apple, what hope is there for the provinces?

While the Stage and the Carnegie both had real estate issues of different sorts, the reality is that deli popularity has been declining for decades. Part of the downward trend is a general preference for healthier food, and some of it is generational: today’s consumers view a deli as a theme restaurant, while their parents and grandparents saw it as a place to get the food they ate every day. The further you get from the old country, the more sophisticated you become.

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                                   a primer on punch

Summer doesn’t begin on June 21, or on the first real beach day. It begins on the day when you get the inspiration to make some punch. And---just like paying taxes and exiting the planet---you’ll end up doing it sooner or later.

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           casual dining in california wine country

The Napa Valley now has two restaurants that have received three Michelin stars (The French Laundry and The Restaurant at Meadowood), which means you have the opportunity to drop $1000 or more for two on dinner, just as you might in New York or San Francisco. The real dining discoveries, though, are at the more casual and lower-priced end of the scale, and these are the places that mesh better with the lifestyle of California wine country. Over the past five years a collection of chef-driven restaurants has opened with relaxed décor and delicious, market-driven menus. While most require a bit of advance planning, they don’t present the daunting reservation gauntlet of the Michelin-starred establishments. Check out these destinations for either a romantic dinner or an evening of communal fun:

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                   caorunn small batch scottish gin

Gin from Scotland, home of the world’s great single malts? At first it might seem that someone didn’t get the memo. Look closer, and you’ll find a visionary who read the memo, cheerfully tore it up, and went on to pursue his dream.

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                       vietti arneis: grape archaeology

If you want to sell ice cream you usually start with vanilla and chocolate, and only after you develop a consumer following do you unveil your Macadamia Butter Brickle. Same thing with wine: most emerging wine regions break into the U.S. market with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the two fail-safe grape varieties that Americans can easily recognize and understand.

In 2017 it’s hard to believe that Italy was once an emerging wine region, but there was a time when perception of Italian wine quality in this country couldn’t have been lower. When I was growing up Chianti was poured from straw baskets, in restaurants with red and white checkered tablecloths. It was the cheapest wine on the list (or on any list, for that matter). The American perception of Chianti began to improve only when the Italian wine law was changed to allow for the inclusion of “foreign” grape varieties, notably Cabernet. Today it would be difficult to find a Chianti Classico with no Cabernet in the blend, and many Tuscan IGTs are fragrant with the aroma of Syrah.

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                         A glass of madeira, my dear

Americans tend to regard Madeira wine as the drink of spinsters and maiden aunts. This is a shame, since they can be some of the world’s most glorious wines---delightful to sip on their own, and incredibly versatile with food.

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                                   hennessy cognac

The Hennessy firm dates to 1765, when founder Richard Hennessy established a trading firm in Cognac. Eight generations of the family have taken an active role in the business, despite the fact that the enterprise is now owned by the global beverage giant LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy). Equally crucial to the continuity of the brand is the Fillioux family, also involved for eight generations as master blender from 1800 onward.

While most of us are aware that Cognac is distilled from wine, this fact frequently gets lost when we drink it. For one thing, the grape of choice is Ugni Blanc, a variety which lacks a fashionable reputation in most circles (when was the last time you settled on a bar stool and ordered a glass of Ugni Blanc?). In all but the finest Cognacs, the high level of alcohol (40% by volume) tends to obscure the properties of the base wine.

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                                       banfi under $20

Banfi is a familiar name to many American consumers, who long ago figured out that the best way to score a wine value was to avoid California. That’s not to say that there aren’t any number of outstanding bargains produced in the Golden State (see my Affordable Wine Guide to California and the Pacific Northwest, at the bottom of this page), but simply that the process of finding them is too convoluted and difficult.

Along with Spain, Italy stands out as a source of well-made and reasonably priced wine, provided you know where to look. The reason is simple: these bottles come from a culture where wine is regarded not as a trophy, not as a sign of status or sophistication, but rather as a beverage designed to be consumed with meals. The challenge is sorting through the sea of vowels to find the jackpot, and that’s one of the things we’re committed to helping you do.

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                     gaming the restaurant wine list

In this era of fast-casual dining, few restaurants have sommeliers or dedicated wine professionals anymore. The ones who still have jobs will tell you that most consumers don’t have a clue about wine, although those who aren’t intimidated by sommeliers legitimately appreciate a thoughtful recommendation. If you’re lucky enough to be in a restaurant with a knowledgeable wine professional, don’t make that person play Twenty Questions. Tell the person what you like and what you’re willing to spend, and you’ll get the best bottle available.

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        George Dickel: the other tennessee whisky

Like most U.S. distilleries, George Dickel had an interrupted history. It was founded by its namesake, a German immigrant who became a successful merchant, in 1870, and flourished until Tennessee enacted Prohibition ahead of the nation (and two years ahead of neighboring Kentucky) in 1909. The Dickel brand survived Prohibition by being sold as a medicinal spirit. After Repeal, Schenley bought the rights to the recipes and sat on them for several decades. The distillery was finally rebuilt in 1958 by master distiller Ralph Dupps and is supervised today by his successor, John Lunn.

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 adelaide Hills: the new face of australian wine

The inside story of Australian wine is a heartbreaking tale of boom and bust. Veterans still shake their heads over The Great Vine Pull of 1987: after five years of uncontrolled surpluses, the government actually paid growers to remove Shiraz vines and leave their land barren. The result was the loss of thousands of acres of the best old-vine Shiraz.

The industry recovered and another boom ensued, only to come crashing down in the recession of 2007-8. Then a strong surge in the value of the Aussie dollar made entry-level wines such as Yellow Tail no longer seem like appealing bargains. To make matters worse, consumers moved toward a preference for a cleaner, more natural style of wine, which further weakened the appeal of Barossa’s high-alcohol, overripe and heavily oaked reds.

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                                         cruzan rum

Cruzan Rum (pronounced “kru-shun”) is made on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The island was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1493---which implies that it didn’t actually exist until white people from Europe found it. What was waiting for Columbus when he landed was an abundant agricultural economy based on the production of sugar. That sugar, and the molasses derived from it, was already being turned into rum. Over the centuries the island belonged to Spain, England, Holland, France and the Knights of Malta, before being sold to the U.S. by Denmark in 1916.

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     grand marnier: the grand cuvee collection

Few liqueurs are as fabled as Grand Marnier. This famous concoction of Cognac, sugar and bitter oranges was invented by Louis Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle in 1880, and quickly became a sensation. It happened that he was a friend of César Ritz, who featured the liqueur in his hotels. After the chef at the Ritz in Paris (a guy named Escoffier) used it in Crêpe Suzette, a dish he invented for the future King of England, its popularity skyrocketed even further.

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           sidebar cellars: David ramey cuts loose

I first met David Ramey in 1992, when he was in charge of the cellar at Chalk Hill. He was obviously a winemaker of great talent, and just as clearly his future was going to be brilliant. That’s pretty much the way things turned out. After successful stints at Matanzas Creek, Dominus and Rudd, he founded Ramey Wine Cellars in 1996.

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           laphroaig: adventures on the peat meter

The Laphroaig distillery is located on the island of Islay, 25 miles off the Irish coast. The island has been described as wind-swept, and the term is probably accurate as well as poetic. It is the southernmost point in the Inner Hebrides, and became part of Scotland in the 18th century. It has 3000 inhabitants and two industries: agriculture and whisky.

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                       Pimm's Cup: the rites of spring

Pimm's Cup is proof that premixed cocktails just won’t go away, despite the fact that no one admits to drinking them. They were never really stylish in America, since they conjured up images of brown bags, bums and convenience store parking lots; in this age of designer libations, they seem to suggest laziness, as well as a lack of imagination and taste. Even so, they turn up like the unwanted dinner guest. At the recent convention of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America in Las Vegas, one of the flashy “new products” was something called Twist In A Glass, which contained a precise amount of mixer (Margarita, Cosmo, etc.) in a cocktail glass, just waiting for the customer’s alcohol of choice.

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    domaine de la vougeraie: Burgundy at its Best

The flamboyant Jean-Charles Boisset has always been a bit of a maverick. The scion of a Burgundy vintner, he was determined from an early age to move to America. When he ultimately settled in San Francisco in the early 1990s he managed the office of his family’s enterprise, Boisset America. A few years later he purchased Lyeth Estates, one California’s early pioneers in meritage wines (Bordeaux-style blends) and the first of his many U.S. properties.

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                         square one organic vodka

Square One Organic Vodka tackles one of the most fundamental oxymorons: how, exactly, can booze be good for you?

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          the world's strangest barbecue sauce?

If not, it's pretty close.

Some time back, I received a sample of the St. Francis Old Vine Zinfandel, along with a recipe for using it to make barbecue sauce. I’m very fond of this wine, and normally wouldn’t spend $25 to dump a bottle of it into a skillet, but under the circumstances (i.e., with nothing better to do) it seemed like an interesting and worthwhile adventure.

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           benovia winery: the legacy of family

The landscape of Napa and Sonoma is littered with wineries that were once family-owned operations, independent and fiercely focused on quality. Over the past decade, many of those wineries were absorbed by the Jacksons and Foleys of this world. In most cases the scenario was the same: after decades of conscientious effort, the owners had achieved a measure of critical and financial success, only to come to a point where they had no children interested in carrying on their legacy. Do those properties still make good wine under their new ownership? The answer is generally yes, but they have lost the passion and spark that made them unique.

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            St George spirits: A tale of three gins

Back in 1982, when Jörg Rupf founded St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, the craft distilling movement in this country didn’t exist. Like many other visionaries, Rupf was at least several decades ahead of the societal curve. To make matters more difficult, he decided to focus exclusively on eau de vie, a spirit practically unknown among American consumers.

As the years passed, Rupf became the Godfather of American craft distilling. He won numerous awards for his eau de vie, and trained the next generation of artisan distillers, men such as Steve McCarthy (Clear Creek), Randall Grahm (Bonny Doon) and Fritz Maytag (Anchor Distilling). However, the pivotal moment in the history of St. George was probably the day in 1996 when Lance Winters turned up to apply for a job, with a bottle of homemade whiskey in hand as his resume.

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why is every wine vintage the vintage of the century?

When it comes to wine vintages, few statements are more compelling than the pronouncement that a specific region has experienced the Vintage of the Century. Marketing is easily fueled by superlatives, particularly when they seem to come from the mouths of experts, and hyperbole can help a wine triumph over a brutally competitive field.

Recently, though, the Vintages of the Century have been hurtling at us in clumps and at warp speed. Bordeaux is one of the best examples. Robert Parker proclaimed the 2000 vintage to be one of the best of all time, and his comments triggered an unprecedented gold rush. Since then, we’ve had three more VOTCs there: 2005, 2009 and 2010 were widely hailed as superlative, and the century isn’t yet two decades old. Now we’re hearing that the next VOTC in the making is 2015. In California, by contrast, every wine vintage seems to be VOTC.

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duckhorn vineyards: The once and future Merlot

Duckhorn Vineyards is one of Napa’s iconic wine estates. It was founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976, at a time when there were a handful of wineries in Napa compared to over 500 today. From the beginning, it operated on a different philosophy from its neighbors.

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                                casa noble tequila

Three decades ago, Casa Noble didn't exist---the concept of premium tequila was unknown in this country. In fact, it probably would have been considered laughable. Tequila in America was the drink of frat boys, bikers and bums. It was what you drank if you wanted to get obliterated as quickly as possible. It smelled like rotting compost, and tasted worse. 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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                    carpano: The king of vermouth

According to legend, vermouth was invented in 1786 in Turin, Italy, the hotbed of mixology at the time. Antonio Benedetto Carpano infused wine with a mixture of 30 herbs and spices, then spiked it with spirit for good measure. He referred to it as wermut, implying that it contained wormwood as a primary ingredient. Carpano’s shop was located across from the royal palace, and his potion became one of the King’s favorites. Carpano vermouth is still the gold standard more than two centuries later, the benchmark against which all others are measured.

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     ao yun: Moet hennessy flies above the clouds

When I first heard that Moet Hennessy was going to make a super-premium red wine in China, I was skeptical. China is certainly the Wild West of the wine business these days, the one market that everyone in the trade wants to penetrate. It’s true that Moët already had a foothold in the country, with their Chandon China operation producing sparkling wine for domestic consumption.

This, however, was different. Rumors began to surface six years ago that Moet Hennessy was seeking land in the foothills of the Himalayas to make a Bordeaux-style red that would be on a par with the great wines of the world. It seemed like a tall order. Despite rapid economic development, China is not the Napa Valley or the Médoc. Then, in 2012, Moet announced they had found their Shangri-La---literally.

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               Bacardi: The facundo rum collection

Ever wonder what the Bacardi family drinks when they relax at the end of a long day? If you're willing to pony up, you have the chance to find out.

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how and why to start a wine collection:                                                     beginner's guide

A wine collection may seem like an odd thing to fantasize about, but many of us do. We visualize ourselves to be English lords, living in an ivy-covered country estate surrounded by a retinue of faithful retainers. Of course the basement houses a formidable wine collection. As the dinner hour approaches and guests assemble in the drawing room, we dispatch one of those retainers down a flight of rickety stairs to fetch the evening’s wines: a mature white Burgundy, a perfectly aged claret to pair with our well-hung grouse, perhaps a Sauternes for the cheese course and a vintage Port for dessert.

Back here on planet Earth, there are wealthy individuals who attempt to create a modern version of this scenario, with varying degrees of success. We’re going to look at the pitfalls and rewards of having your own wine collection, explore the why and how of wine storage, and hopefully help you determine if this endeavor is for you.

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are your craft spirits distilled and aged at a                                         warehouse in indiana?

Disclaimer: In the world of craft spirits and whiskey geeks, this issue has been debated ad nauseam for several years. The following post is geared toward average consumers, who may not be aware of certain industry practices.

Craft spirits are one of the hottest trends in America, but a large proportion of those spirits are produced at the MGP warehouse in Lawrenceville, Indiana.

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         stag's leap wine cellars: current releases

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is deeply intertwined with the history of California wine. Without Stag’s Leap, in fact, California wine might not exist in the form it does today. Here are the details, for those too young to remember:

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canadian club: the rodney dangerfield of whiskey

If you believe that Canadian Club was your father’s whiskey, think again.

To be sure, he probably drank it, but that doesn’t mean that the appeal of Canadian Club is old-fashioned or dated. It works brilliantly as a component of classic cocktails, and appeals to anyone who is craving both flavor and affordable luxury. Strangely enough, like the late Rodney Dangerfield, this remarkable whiskey gets very little respect in the modern era. Not so long ago, it was the most popular whiskey in the world---six million cases were purchased worldwide in 1964, with four million sold in the U.S. alone. Today, many people in the industry refer to it as “brown vodka,” a term of derision.

What happened?

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are you being ripped off by high restaurant wine                                                  prices?

Commodities tend to go up and down in price, thus creating confusion about what they’re “worth.” Gold, for example, is supposed to be a safe haven with great intrinsic value. If so, how do we explain the fact that it sold for over $1800 per ounce in 2011 and $1200 two years later?

The truth is probably that commodities are worth what people are willing to pay for them. This seems unfair in the case of wine, since there are fixed costs tied to its production. Some wines cost $50 or $75 to make and sell for thousands of dollars. There are also wines that cost $15 to produce that consumers won’t pay $10 for, or even purchase at all.

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                      jim beam small batch collection

The interesting thing about the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection is that until recently, there was no small batch Bourbon at all. Once upon a time, everyone in Kentucky made the same type of whiskey. Distillers were aware that superior barrels existed in each warehouse, but it never occurred to them to isolate those barrels---primarily because the demand for a more exclusive Bourbon didn’t seem to exist.

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in the realm of blind tasting, the one-eyed man is                                                  king

Some wine lovers view blind tasting as a serious and intriguing pastime, while others dismiss it as a parlor game for geeks. Either way, the exercise can be more than a platform for demonstrating how bright and clever a taster really is. Beyond the triumph of correct identification is the insight gained from penetrating into the nature of a wine, without knowing the pedigree, without realizing how much it cost and how impressed we’re supposed to be. Blind tasting can be a humbling experience as well, particularly when your conclusion is wrong.

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             afrohead: the new wave in bahamian rum

Musicians are cool, surfers are cooler, and people who drink rum are coolest of all. That’s the philosophy of Toby Tyler, self-styled rum savant and the creator of Afrohead.

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                    climate change in sonoma county

When I first started reviewing wine in the early 1990s, I took some controversial positions. I quickly learned that controversy stimulated discussion and readership. It’s possible that I overdid it in a few cases.

One of my more interesting positions concerned irrigation. Watering vines was against the law in most European countries, and in my view those wines were far superior to what was being made in California. I extrapolated that American vintners shouldn’t be irrigating either. In a situation where it was too warm to be growing wine grapes without adding water, I suggested those grapes shouldn’t be grown at all. One of my favorite targets in this crusade was Sonoma County.

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  behind the French laundry's $1o million kitchen

The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s famed restaurant in Napa Valley, reopened yesterday after an extensive renovation. It is one of nine in this country to hold three Michelin stars, and is widely regarded as the best restaurant in America. With only 60 seats, it’s also one of the hardest tables to get. When the renovations were first announced, most observers assumed that Keller would be enlarging his dining room to accommodate more customers.

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                         how to preserve leftover wine

Leftover wine isn’t much of an issue around my house, but I know that many people struggle with how to preserve it. The problem is simple: oxygen is the enemy of wine, and once you open that bottle the clock is ticking. The issue becomes more acute when the wine is expensive or older (although an older wine, nowadays, generally means one year or more past its vintage date).

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the holiday isle tiki bar, islamorada: Classic                                                american bars

Few experiences are more emblematic of the Florida Keys than a visit to the famed Tiki Bar at Islamorada’s Postcard Inn Beach Resort (formerly known as Holiday Isle). Once you get south of Key Largo, it’s clear that you’ve entered a strange and beautiful territory, a place where individual freedom is prized above all---a place the late Norman Mailer might have referred to as the Wild West of the Southeast.

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                          tyranny of the tasting menu

Years ago, when inexperienced diners visited fancy restaurants for the first time, one of their biggest fears was what to order. How could they possibly navigate through a long and complex menu containing dishes described in a foreign language? For many people, the challenge of choosing something they might like was more daunting than how much to tip or which fork to use.

Today that situation has been resolved for customers in high-end restaurants through the miracle of the tasting menu. You pay a set price and receive a predetermined number of dishes in a fixed order. The only choice you need to make would be wine, but many restaurants also offer a “sommelier’s wine pairing” in which a glass of wine accompanies each course, for an additional fee.

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                          health benefits of red wine

Americans have known about the health benefits of red wine since November 17, 1991.

On that date, 60 Minutes aired a segment on something called The French Paradox. The term had been floating around for a few years prior to that, but Morely Safer’s report catapulted it into the consciousness of millions. The French Paradox referred to the fact that the French had a much lower incidence of coronary heart disease than we did, despite consuming a diet much higher in saturated fat. It was based on research done by a scientist at Bordeaux University. The report---or more accurately, Safer---suggested that red wine was a possible contributing factor in the so-called paradox. Since the theory emanated from Bordeaux, the grape variety responsible was identified as Merlot, which composed a large part of the blend on the Right Bank.

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                   in search of the manhattan cocktail

It’s that time of year: if you don’t drink a Manhattan cocktail now, you probably never will. Don’t think you need snow on the ground and a roaring fire. If you live in the tropics, as I do, simply crank the A/C down to 55 and enjoy yourself.

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                                La tartine wine bar, paris

La Tartine is my favorite Parisian wine bar. It’s located at the lower end of the rue de Rivoli in the first arrondisement, at number 24---the part of the street that used to be seedy and declassé. Today the building is one of the many gems of the Marais neighborhood, a section of town that has become chic (and expensive) beyond words. The exterior bears the simple legend Marchand de Vin (wine seller), and the small terrace houses a handful of tables and the inevitable chalk board inscribed with the specials of the day.

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                         laura catena, Princess of malbec

The Catena family of Argentina has frequently been compared to the Mondavis, but that analogy doesn’t give them enough credit. For more than a century they have been involved in the relentless pursuit of quality, and arguably have done more to secure their country’s place on the international wine stage than anyone else.

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activated charcoal cocktails: A dangerous trend

You could fairly divide American mixology into two camps. On one side you have the purists, concocting classic pre-Prohibition cocktails from three or four ingredients, and using top-shelf spirits with proven levels of consumer identification.

Then you have the mavericks, the edgy guys who embrace experimentation. They’ll create the signature drink with eight or ten obscure elements, the cocktail you could never describe to anyone else (much less understand on your own). These folks embrace the new, the cutting-edge, the trendy.

Those are the guys who are likely to feature a cocktail with activated charcoal this year, and they’ll probably use Stolen Rum as the primary spirit.

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                                      fake news and wine

Despite what some partisans want you to believe, fake news is not a new phenomenon. It’s as old as news itself. The only real change, as I pointed out recently (Food and the 24-Hour News Cycle), is the proliferation of news outlets. Between the Internet and cable news, there’s now an unprecedented tsunami of reporting, and there’s no more real news on any given day.

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the mai-kai, fort lauderdale: classic american bars

The massive and phantasmagoric Mai Kai pays homage to the Polynesian craze that swept America during the post-World War II era. It is the Taj Mahal of the tiki culture, an improbable place that somehow hangs together and exercises a timeless appeal. One of the current members of the management team referred to it as “an escape from everyday life,” which is similar to saying that a private jet or a stretch limousine is a transportation vehicle.

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       when tipping is included, who gets the tip?

Tipping still remains a mystery for many restaurant diners. Given that the current standard for good service is 20%, and that number can be computed by dividing the check by five, it’s difficult to see what all the confusion is about. It’s true that some customers are addled by alcohol, and others come from cultures where tipping is included in the check. If you ask the wait staff, however, they’ll tell you that those folks are simply cheap.

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                          the cult of jack daniels

If Tennessee’s George Dickel is the smallest producer of premium spirits in the country, Jack Daniel’s stands at the opposite extreme---it is the largest distillery in the U.S. and the best-selling whiskey in the world, with an annual output that exceeds 10 million cases. It is also an icon in the realm of American spirits, as well as a pilgrimage point for lovers of Tennessee whisky.

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                         gaja: the next generation

Angelo Gaja almost single-handedly brought Italian wine into the modern world. When he took over his family estate in Barbaresco in 1961, Italy wasn’t even on the fine wine radar screen. The wine universe was dominated by France, and particularly by Bordeaux. From the beginning, Gaja’s position was that there was a place for Italy not just at the bottom of the scale, but also at the top.

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                   myths of food and wine pairing

In the wine world, there are pieces of conventional wisdom about food and wine pairing that have been repeated and burnished until they have reached the status of Gospel.

Unfortunately, many of them aren’t true, but neither are they likely to be challenged anytime soon. Aspiring sommeliers do not readily contradict the people training them, nor do consumers generally feel confident enough to question “experts” in their fields. And so these chestnuts roll on, year after year and generation after generation, acquiring the importance of commandments engraved on stone tablets.

Here are some examples:

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     the bitter bar, boulder: Classic american bars

The Bitter Bar opened in 2009 under the improbable name of The Happy Noodle. At the time, it was an Asian noodle joint that also served craft cocktails; the assumption was that both trends were hot, so why not? The two motifs didn’t blend together as seamlessly as originally thought, and the cocktails eventually pushed the soba and somen out the back door.

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          my name is todd, and I'll be your server

When I first started working in the restaurant business, several hundred years ago, the world was a different place. There were no chain restaurants, gastropubs or fast-casual establishments. In each major city there were a handful of “good” restaurants, and these were primarily French or Continental. They tended to be grand palaces of fine dining with flocked wallpaper, elaborate chandeliers and tuxedoed waiters dish, where customers could watch going up in flames. Those customers were very different as well: they were affluent, well-traveled and belonged exclusively to one social class. Ordinary people went to diners, as there were no fast-food outlets back then.

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                        chinato: Party like it's 1555

If you travel in Italy’s Piemonte region and visit a traditional Barolo producer (assuming you can find one), you may be offered a Chinato. Production of Chinato dates to the late 19th century. It usually consists of an old Barolo that has been infused with the bark of a South American cinchona tree and then flavored with cinnamon, coriander, vanilla or mint, according to the secret recipe of the winery. The final product, slightly bitter and distinctly herbal, is usually consumed before or after dinner.

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                                 north by northwest

When we talk about North by Northwest, we're not referring to Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock and a tale of espionage and mistaken identity---rather, to a Washington State wine you can drink while watching the movie on DVD.

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                           the truth about sulfites

When I conduct consumer tastings and other wine events, which I do frequently, the most common question I get from the audience runs something like this: “I’m allergic to sulfites, and wine gives me headaches. Which wines should I buy, and which ones should I avoid?”

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      classic american bars: the sazerac, New orleans

Located off the lobby of the vintage Roosevelt Hotel on Bayonne Street, the Sazerac easily the best bar in New Orleans and one of the finest in the country. As soon as you walk in, you get the comforting feeling that you’ll be in good hands. The décor is as appealing as the cocktails. All  the wood paneling lining the walls came from a single African Walnut tree. Decorating those walls is a haunting series of murals painted by Paul Ninas in the 1930s for the WPA program, depicting waterfront scenes and local street life. The long bar contains several dozen stools, and there are comfortable groupings of leather sofas and armchairs in which groups can relax.

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         candycane bagels: the end of civilization?

You may not have heard about one of the latest and hottest food crazes, and you may be better off.

There’s a place in Brooklyn called The Bagel Store, where baker Scot Rossillo has been making rainbow bagels as a novelty item for 20 years. Business Insider recently produced a video about them, which went viral and was viewed 65 million times. As a result, demand became so intense that Rossillo had to close up shop for ten days to reorganize his operation.

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                           quick sip: furleigh estate

According to an urban legend, sparkling wine from the South of England is just as good as Champagne. Unfortunately, there's no way to prove it on this side of the pond. English wine isn't exported to the U.S. (or more accurately, it's not imported into the U.S. due to a general lack of interest). Yet there's no doubt that climate change is creating some strange vineyard bedfellows. Taittinger bought a chunk of land in Kent in 2015, and they're far from the only wine estate to invest in the region.

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                  food and the 24-hour news cycle

Increasingly, it’s becoming difficult to distinguish between The Onion and many websites devoted to the culinary arts. A recent visit to revealed articles on these earth-shattering topics:

Where can you find the best cookie in Los Angeles?

What is the most underrated pastry shop in Montreal?

If you could only have one doughnut in Portland, what would it be?

What’s the best lobster roll in Maine?

The last one does have some merit---the worst lobster roll in Maine, after all, is probably going to be the best one you’ve ever had. But doughnuts in Portland (Oregon, not Maine)? Do we need a new version of the Michelin Guide, As Told to Homer Simpson?

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shackleton's scotch: You don't have to freeze to                                     death to enjoy it

You may not have the resources to mount an expedition to Antarctica, but you can drink like the explorers who got there.

In 1907, Ernest Shackleton and his men set out for the South Pole on their ship, the Nimrod. They were forced to evacuate in 1909, about 100 miles from reaching the Pole. Even worse, they had to abandon a stash of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Whisky, leaving it under a floorboard in their expedition hut.

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                         the fremont diner, sonoma

Slowly but inexorably, Sonoma is turning into Napa. Upscale spa resorts are replacing rustic bed and breakfast inns, and the grizzled winemaker in overalls is morphing into the Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Yearning for the old Sonoma? Pay a visit to The Fremont Diner.

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the curious incident of the well done steak
                                    in the night-time

We have a dear friend who prefers her beef well done. Going to a restaurant with this poor, lovely woman is a minor form of torture. Here’s how it usually goes: upon receiving the order for the well-done steak, the server will appear discomfited, as if he/she had been asked to ingest the business end of a porcupine. He/she usually explains that the kitchen prefers to serve the steak medium rare. After much explanation and negotiation and discussion, the server finally agrees to this woman's request.

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                            in memoriam: Parker beam

Parker Beam, one of the legendary figures in Bourbon country, passed away earlier this week after a long battle with ALS. He was 75.

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                             nAtional hot toddy day

Today, January 11,  is National Hot Toddy Day, which reminds us that hypochondria has its unsung benefits: There are people who pretend to be sick just to have an excuse to drink hot toddies. I suspect there are also individuals who visit ski resorts for the same reason, although this seems to be an expensive and unnecessary course; better to just take to your bed and feign a hacking cough. While there’s no evidence that Baron Munchhausen was a fan of the drink, these concoctions have been around for a very long time.

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            bonneau de martray: after the earthquake

The wine world was stunned last week by the announcement that Bonneau du Martray, an iconic Burgundy estate, was sold to an American by the name of Stanley Kroenke. While people in Burgundy are easily stunned by outside influences, or even by the presence of an outsider in their sphere of orbit, this sale seemed to represent a quintessential culture clash.

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classic american bars: williams and graham, denver

Williams and Graham is a modern American speakeasy located in the Lower Highlands neighborhood of Denver. There is a true speakeasy entrance, an anteroom posing as a bookstore. The friendly hostess verifies your reservation and checks your ID, and you enter a dimly lit space that is a beautiful recreation of a 1920s saloon. A long bar of reclaimed wood holds 15 stools, and five booths of tufted black leather line the other end of the room. Sconces mounted on the wood-paneled walls provide barely enough light to see the back of your hand.

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                   anatomy of a trip to the wine shop

Back in my collector days, we used to drink a lot of Chablis. The flavor profile appealed to my Old World palate: flinty, mineral-infused, with excellent acidity and true Chardonnay fruit. It also didn’t hurt that the category was a bargain when compared to the best New World Chardonnay, and certainly far cheaper than its famous neighbors further south in the Côte de Beaune.

I no longer collect wine because my lifestyle has changed. I still write about it, which involves tasting through an onslaught of samples that arrive on a regular basis. For a special occasion, though, I’m now in the same position as everyone else: I get in the car and head to the local wine shop in search of something suitable. We normally celebrate New Year’s Eve with caviar, a tradition that goes back at least 15 years. My wife doesn’t drink Champagne, so my thoughts naturally turned to Chablis.

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                  the ultimate chocolate chip cookie

Human beings share a number of fantasies: we’re convinced our dogs are smart, we know our children are well-behaved, and many of us believe we make the best chocolate chip cookies in the world. Having spent six months of my life baking chocolate chip cookies for resale, I harbor the last illusion.

However, the guy who really makes the best cookies on the planet is probably Francis Nelson Beebe of Gold Canyon, Arizona. Mr. Nelson, as he is known to his growing legion of fans, is a classically trained chef who now works in his own commercial bakery. He turns out 24 dozen cookies per day, four days each week, and sells them only online. They cost $5 apiece, and may be ordered in batches of six or 12---provided you log onto his site before they sell out for the day (

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         why wine, Hospitality and politics don't mix

Hospitality (noun): The friendly and generous entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers (Oxford Dictionaries)

During last year’s tumultuous political season, impassioned and sometimes hateful diatribes became standard. Those of us active on social media had to listen to them daily. This is a free society, fortunately, and everyone is entitled to their beliefs:  regardless of which side you’re on, you can state them frequently and vigorously.

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                           reflections on oyster stew

As with many American classics, the origins of oyster stew are obscure. Native Americans supposedly taught settlers how to make the dish, but dairy products were not part of their diet. Chesapeake Bay residents would probably scoff at New Englanders and call the concoction their own. When seeking out an authentic version, remember that geography is no guarantee of quality. My brother-in-law, who has lived in and around Boston his entire life, makes the worst oyster stew I’ve ever tasted. By contrast, many aficionados believe that the definitive rendering may be found at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in Manhattan, where it's referred to as an oyster pan roast.

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McSorley's old ale house, NYC: classic american                                                 bars

McSorley’s in New York's Greenwich Village is the city’s oldest continuously operating saloon. It was founded in 1854 by John McSorley, an immigrant who fled Ireland’s potato famine, and functioned for many years as a workingman’s pub. Abe Lincoln, Woody Guthrie and John Lennon supposedly drank there. The Irish laborers are long gone from the neighborhood, but McSorley’s presumably still looks the way it did a century ago: sawdust on the floor, yellowed newspaper clippings on the walls, and cheerful personnel providing a refuge from the world.

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                      last-minute champagne shopping

Heading out today or tomorrow to buy a bottle of bubbly for your holiday celebrations? Dip into the archives for some recommendations:

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                    tiny bubbles: destroying the myth

A few days ago, just in time for New Year’s Eve, research scientists debunked one of the most endearing and enduring myths in the world of Champagne:

Tiny bubbles are not a sign of quality.

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                           justin winery: paso pioneer

When Justin Baldwin arrived in the countryside of Paso Robles in 1981 there were four wineries in the area. Paso itself had been a tourist destination of sorts for nearly a century, due to the perceived healing powers of its thermal springs. Still, Baldwin’s location on Chimney Rock Road could fairly be described as the middle of nowhere. Today there are more than 200 operating wineries in the vicinity, and the region has gained fame as the epicenter of Rhone-style production in California.

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classic American Bars: proof on Main, Louisville

Proof on Main is regarded as an essential stop on downtown Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail. The bar is attached to the 21C Museum Hotel, opened in 2006 by philanthropists and art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. Brown and Wilson wanted to help reverse the pattern of suburban sprawl by rejuvenating the city’s downtown area (and, presumably, to make money in the process). The overall feel of the place is similar to living in the MOMA; the hotel’s public spaces are filled with changing exhibits of the type of art many people used to make fun of, while some still do.

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vinotherapy: spa treatments meet culinary travel

We've known for a long time that wine has health benefits when consumed in moderation. But who knew that the external application of wine to the skin could be healthful as well?

Apparently, Mathilde and Bertrand Thomas realized this back in 1993. During the harvest at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, her family’s estate in Bordeaux, she was chatting with Joseph Vercauteren, a professor of pharmacy. “Do you know that you are throwing away treasures?” asked the professor, as seeds, stems, skins and other grape refuse was discarded by the ton. Vercauteren explained that the leftover grape products were high in antioxidants and helped promote exfoliation.

Two years later, the couple launched Caudalie, a line of skin treatments based on grape polyphenols.

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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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