Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Slow Wine Guide Tasting: Italy, California & Oregon (Part 1)

When you're confronted with about 300 wines available for tasting, you have to make some hard decisions. In only four hours, no one can properly taste and give respect to all of those wines so you need to be very selective as to which of those wines you'll sample. Forced to be selective, I knew that I'd miss out on tasting some interesting and delicious wines. However, I was pleased to find some compelling wines which were well worthy of attention.

The 2019 U.S. Slow Wine Tour visited five cities, starting in San Francisco and ending in Boston, where it took place at the City Winery. The Tour was intended to showcase the release of the 2019  Slow Wine Guide, a wine review guide which doesn't use numeric scores to assess wine. This guide is an offshoot of the Slow Food movement, which was established in Italy, in Piedmont, by foodways activist Carlo Petrini as a way to protect the world’s gastronomic traditions.

Their website states their basic philosophy, "Slow Food believes that wine, just as with food, must be good, clean, and fair--not just good. Wine is an agricultural product, just like any of the foods we eat, and has an impact on the lives of the people who produce it, as well as on the environment--through pesticides, herbicides and excessive water consumption which are all commonplace in conventional wine production." The first edition of the annual Slow Wine Guide, centered on Italian wines, was published in 2010, with an English translation released the next year. To review their wines, they visited each winery, spoke about their agricultural practices & wine production, blind-tasted their wines, and then composed their reviews.

In 2017, Slow Wine decided to expand their coverage to California, so they traveled there, visiting and evaluating hundreds of wineries. The 2018 Slow Wine Guide was the first to include reviews of California wineries, 70 in all. For the 2019 Slow Wine Guide, they expanded their California coverage to include over 130 wineries. In addition, they have added coverage of Oregon, including about 50 wineries. As their website states, "Oregon’s commitment to sustainable wine-making and respect for the terroir is consistent with Slow Wine’s principles and its mission to support local agriculture."

In addition, they note, "Like last year’s book, the 2019 guide isn’t intended to be exhaustive or comprehensive: it’s a growing, living, and breathing almanac that’s meant to give voice to the new wave of America’s viticultural renaissance." Next year's guide will continue to grow, including more wineries from California and Oregon, and possibly reaching out to other U.S. states as well. Though the inclusion of other states might take a bit longer.

I didn't know until I arrived at the Slow Wine tasting that approximately 300 wines were available for sampling. I was pleasantly surprised at the size of the event. Representatives of 85 wineries were present, including 79 from Italy, 3 from California and 3 from Oregon, each pouring about three wines. Some of the Italian regions covered include Emilia-Romagna, Lazio, Marche, Piedmont, Veneto, Puglia, Sicily, Tuscany, Umbria, and more. There were also three joint tables, representing the Prosecco DOC, Lugana DOC, and Bardolino Chiaretto DOC, which added about another 50 wines. Some of the wineries were seeking importers but a significant amount are already available locally.

In the tasting event guidebook, some of the wineries and wines were marked with various symbols or phrases, indicating something special. The wineries might be marked with a Snail, Bottle, or Coin while the wines might be marked as Slow Wine, Great Wine or Everyday Wine. In short, the Snail indicates those wineries whose values align with the Slow Food movement, the Bottle indicates high quality, and the Coin indicates excellent value. The Slow Wine designation represents "an expression of place, originality and history," while the other two phrases are self-explanatory.

The tasting was spread out over three rooms, and though it was well-attended, by various representatives of distributors, wine stores, restaurants, the media, and more, it generally didn't feel too crowded. There was a table of food, snacks to help cleanse your palate, and there was plenty of bottle of water too. The event seemed to run well and I encountered plenty of other attendees that I knew. There was a casual vibe, though plenty of work got done as well.

A few of my highlights of the tasting included a Tannat/Malbec blend from Oregon, a delicious Italian Rosé made from a blend of Barbera, Groppello, & Sangiovese, and an Italian wine made from a grape that only a single winery in the world is allowed to produce. In the next couple weeks, I'll be writing in detail about some of these highlights as well as some of the other wines I tasted, sharing the best of what I tasted.

To Be Continued...

Monday, March 18, 2019

Rant: "We Don't Know How To Talk About Seafood"

"We don't know how to talk about seafood."
--Barton Seaver

It might seem strange to hear that sentiment spoken at the Seafood Expo North America (SENA), but if you think more carefully, maybe it's the perfect place to discuss this statement. This sentiment was espoused by Barton Seaver two years ago at a panel conference at SENA, yet it continues to resonate with me. As I attend SENA 2019, exploring what the seafood industry has to offer this year, his words are the forefront of my thoughts and it's worth taking a look back at Barton's thoughts. Those thoughts remain as significant and relevant now as they did then.

Barton Seaver, who currently lives in Maine, has been a successful Chef and is now a seafood activist, educator, speaker, and author of 7 books. His website states, "Barton is a firm believer that human health depends on the health of the ocean and that the best way to connect the two is at the dinner table." He is a powerful and persuasive speaker, with an easy, personable style and an infectious passion for seafood. Barton is a compelling advocate for the seafood industry,

When he began his remarks at the panel conference, he started with: "We don't know how to talk about seafood." He continued his speech, noting that we don't have a great definition of "sustainable seafood," especially as there are so many elements to the concept of sustainability. Although many, if not most, of the exhibitors at SENA tout the sustainability of their products, they all have different definitions of what that constitutes. And each year that I attend SENA, it seems the definition of sustainability expands to include additional concepts.

Another important issue that Barton raised is that seafood often isn't included in discussions about "good food" despite it being maybe the only type of food with the term "food" actually in its name. We don't talk about "landfood" or "airfood." We don't talk about "beef-food" or "chicken-food." We need to look at seafood more from a cultural viewpoint.

Barton also mentioned that seafood suffers from "otherness," being seen as different from other foods. Over time, seafood lost its identity, partially from the advent of refrigeration and a decrease in home cooking. When people commonly think of proteins, they usually don't include seafood in their thoughts. It is also the only food that is considered guilty before being innocent. It is something people think must be analyzed, to determine whether it passes a person's standards or not. These same individuals don't conduct that same analysis with their beef, chicken, or pork. A person will ask whether a salmon is farmed or wild, but that same person is unlikely to ask whether chicken is from a factory farm or not.

The culinary aspect of seafood scares people, who feel intimidated when trying to cook and prepare seafood. Education is definitely needed in that regard. Currently, Americans eat almost only 10 species of fish, 8 if you group the types of catfish together. Other fish and seafood is not seen as having the same value as these 10 species. Our fishermen catch so many other species and this is an unsustainable economic situation. We demand the market supply for fish rather than take what is caught. We must all start eating other species of fish and seafood, going beyond the common 10. We need to put less pressure on those common 10 and also help fishermen who catch all the other species.

Barton then raised an issue I hadn't considered before, but which makes much sense. He stated that one of the biggest obstacles to sustainability is the recipe. The problem is that recipes usually are composed to use a specific type of fish. For example, you will find recipes for Cod and Mussels, Salmon and Crab. Some seafood cookbooks break down into chapters for these specific seafood types. However, Barton feels that recipes shouldn't specify the fish type but be more generic, such as a "light, flaky whitefish."

The idea is to encourage home cooks to seek outside the common 10 and use other seafood species, which are similar to the common ones they already enjoy. That is excellent advice, though such a cookbook would probably need to have a list somewhere, grouping seafood species by the generic definitions within the cookbook. For example, the average consumer doesn't know what dogfish is like, so they would need to have some guidance as to what type of recipes it would fit within. Barton also had advice for Chefs, that they should not ask for specific species but should ask for what is fresh. In addition, they should "sell the dish, not the seafood."

Barton then moved on, stating that we need to "end the conversation of wild vs farmed." He feels it is an artificial distinction, that we should treat them both the same and stop arguing about aquaculture. Those sentiments were echoed in a panel conference I attended yesterday, and I'll be writing about that conference in the near future.

As Barton says, "Seafood is such an amazing opportunity" and "Seafood sustains us." He also noted how valuable it is for our health, how numerous studies show that eating sufficient seafood can reduce your risk of heart disease by about 36%. A doctor from Tufts once told him of the 3 Ss of good health: Wear Seatbelts, No Smoking, and Eat Seafood.

"Fish lacks story." Barton is not the first sustainable seafood proponent that I have heard make this point, and its validity is without dispute. Barton feels we need to use other methods to connect people to seafood, and shouldn't start with the seafood. We need to connect it more to cultural issues. For example, we can talk about social issues such as the fact that 52% of the people involved in aquaculture are women. Aquaculture provides plenty of jobs and that is a great story. In addition, we should consider the story of how we keep fishermen in business, the civic values of helping members of our community. We all should "Talk about sustainability in any measure that is meaningful to you."

Barton Seaver provided much to ponder and I hope it helps spark something within my readers as well. People need to eat more seafood, for an abundance of reasons, from improving your own health to helping local fishermen make a living. Stop treating seafood as an enemy and treat it as you would hamburger or fried chicken. Don't treat seafood as an "other."

(This is partially a reprint, with some revisions, of sections of a prior post, but one which is especially relevant as I attend SENA 2019, and which discusses many points which remain as significant now as they did two years ago.)

Friday, March 15, 2019

Vale do Bomfim & Pombal do Vesuvius: Portuguese Delights

With a history extending back to 1882, Symington Family Estates is one of the largest and most important producers in the Douro region of Portugal. They own well-known brands including Graham's Ports, Cockburn's Port, Dow's Port, Warre's Port, Quinta do Vesuvio, and more. The Douro is well known for its Port Wines, but the region also makes some excellent still wines. You can check out one of my previous posts, The Douro River Region: Beauty & Thriving Amidst Adversity, for some background on this area. I received a couple media samples of two of Symington's Douro still red wines, and I was't surprised by their quality.

Quinta do Vesuvio, which can trace its history back to the 16th century, was acquired by the Symingtons in 1989, and its 1000 acre estate is located in the upper Douro. It is considered one of the best, and largest, vineyards in the Douro Superior. The 2015 Pombal do Vesuvio ($28), the winery's second wine, is a blend of 50% Touriga Nacional, 45% Touriga Franca, and 5% Tinto Amarela. The Portuguese term "pombal" translates as "dovecote," and refers to an ancient dovecote, where pigeons or doves were housed, which is in the middle of the vineyards. It was an exceptional vintage, the weather cooperating throughout the year. giving rain when necessary.

The wine went through fermentation in stainless steel, and then was aged for about 10 months in French oak. At only 13.5% ABV, the wine had a rich, dark red color with a pleasing nose of red fruits and floral notes, a touch of violets. On the complex palate, the red and black fruit flavors were prominent, accented by some dusty spices, bright acidity, well-integrated tannins, and some underlying minerality. The finish was long and satisfying, and there was a mild earthy touch as well. Definitely an excellent food wine, with everything from pizza to burgers, steak to pasta with a hearty ragu. An excellent choice to experience what the Douro has to offer in still red wines.

The 2016 Dow Vale do Bomfim ($12.99) is from the Quinta do Bomfim, which was acquired by Symington in 1896, making it their oldest owned estate. The quinta is located just beside the town of Pinhão, and consists of a 130-acre property with over 160,000 vines. This still wine is a blend of 30% Touriga Franca, 20% Touriga Nacional and 50% Field Blend of indigenous grapes. All of the grapes come from the same vineyards they use for their Vintage Ports. The wine spent about 6 months in neutral oak, has a 13.2% ABV, and is an excellent example of the great values you can find in Portugal.

With a dark red color, it possesses an appealing fruity aroma with floral accents. On the palate, there is a tasty melange of red and black fruit (especially cherry and plum), peppery spice with some licorice notes. Mild tannins, a moderately long finish, and decent complexity for this price point. An easy drinking wine which provides better quality than many other wines at this price point. This wine will pair well with a wide range of foods, though it can be enjoyed on its own as well. Highly recommended!

Drink more Portuguese wine!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) Way back in 2007, while I was traveling across Spain, I visited the Parés Baltà Winery in the Penedes region. It was a fascinating visit, and we got to taste plenty of their delicious and well-made wines. Since then, I've often enjoyed their wines locally and now you will get a couple chances to meet the good people of Parés Baltà and enjoy some of their wines paired with compelling food.

On Tuesday, March 26, from 6:30pm-8:30pm, Tres Gatos is hosting Marta Casas and her husband Josep Cusiné Carol, the winemakers from Parés Baltà, for a Catalan Spring Wine Dinner. Parés Baltà is a small family owned traditional winery that goes back to 1790. The two women at the helm of the winemaking are both oenologists and produce high quality organic wines and Cavas with grapes from their 5 estates, situated around the winery and in the mountains of Penedès.

Chef Stephen Marcaurelle is creating a four-course menu to pair with select wines Marta Casas and her husband Josep Cusiné Carol will be pouring. Price is $65 per person (includes four-course dinner, wine, and talk).  Reservations are limited so please call at 617-477-4851 for this opportunity.

And on Thursday, March 28, from 6pm-8pm, Island Creek Oyster Bar in Burlington is hosting An Evening In Penedès: A Parés Baltà Wine Dinner. Wine Director Laura Staley recently took an unforgettable trip to Parés Baltà, and tales and photos upon her return have inspired Chef Matt Celeste to create a menu influenced by the coastal bounty of the Spanish region. Paired with our shared passion for hospitality, co-owner Joseph Cuisiné and winemaker Marta Casas are joining us at Island Creek Oyster Bar Burlington to host a special evening that will transport you to their homeland through a tasting of their wines. What began as a Cava house has become a leader in producing organic and biodynamic wines far beyond the sparkling wine the region is known for. Come escape the New England Winter and lose yourself in the warmth and romance of the region.

Tickets are $125 and include five courses, eight wines, tax & gratuity. Tickets available on Eventbrite.

3) Do you like Pinot Noir? Do you like Oregon Pinot Noir? If so, you might want to check out Pinot In The City, which will be held on Thursday, May 2, from 6:30pm-9pm (with VIP access at 5:30pm), at the Castle at Park Plaza. 60 wineries from Oregon’s Willamette Valley will be coming to this event. The tasting event features owners and winemakers pouring a selection of wines, including library and current releases, paired with delicious Pinot noir-friendly small bites. Not only will there be Pinot Noir, but there will also be Oregon Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sparkling Wines and more.

Tickets cost $90 for General Admission & $130 for VIP Admission and can be bought through Eventbrite. Tickets are limited and must be purchased in advance; there will be no ticket sales at the door.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Rant: The Seafood Expo: Why Aren't You Going?

This upcoming Sunday, thousands of fascinating and tasty creatures from the sea, a deluge of seafood, will descend on Boston. This epic event is one of the top food events of the year, but it seems to be ignored by most local writers and bloggers. Why aren't you planning on attending the Seafood Expo North America (SENA)?

Starting on Sunday, March 17, and ending on Tuesday, March 19, SENA returns to Boston, and it is probably the largest seafood event in the country. If you are a writer, from freelancer to a blogger, and cover any topics related to seafood, from recipes to sustainability, then I strongly encourage you to attend. As I have said repeatedly before, "the seafood show is fertile soil for a myriad of story ideas as each exhibit booth has its own unique and interesting story." Any writer who attends this show should easily find the seeds for at least a dozen stories, and likely many more.

SENA is a huge trade show, and last year there were about 1341 exhibitors, representing 57 different countries, showcasing a wide diversity of products and services. The total exhibit space is about 258,630 square feet, broken down into 30+ aisles of the Expo, so just walking through the show makes for great cardio exercise. With the vast number of exhibitors, you're sure to find plenty of fascinating stories. Even if you attended all three days, you still wouldn't have enough time to visit all of the booths.

This is an excellent opportunity to learn more about a myriad of seafood issues, to talk to numerous seafood businesses, to explore the seafood industry. You can discover more about different countries, such as by visiting the pavilions for Japan or Iceland. In addition, the show is fun, with plenty of delicious seafood samples, from lobster to oysters. Ever had salmon bacon? Fried alligator? You never know what might be available to sample at SENA. SENA presents a range of interesting conference panels too, and this year you can attend ones such as  "Seafood Trends & Preferences at Home & Away from Home" or "Changing the Narrative on Sustainable Aquaculture in the Culinary Community." You can also attend the annual Oyster Shucking Competition.

We all know that seafood is at the crux of some of the most important food issues in the world. The range of seafood topics touches on so many crucial matters, from sustainability to health, climate change to slavery. Seafood is integral to the economic health of many local businesses, from fishermen to restaurants. The potential extinction of certain fish species is a major concern that needs to be addressed. These are all issues which need much more coverage by the media, and which you can make your own contributions.

Why do I care? First, I view our local writers and bloggers as a community and I believe we all benefit by helping each other, giving recommendations for excellent events. Second, I feel that seafood is a vital topic which more people need to write about so that we raise attention to all of its urgent issues. That will benefit all of us in many ways. It is with greater exposure and cooperative efforts that we can cause change in the seafood industry. Third, it is a sad fact that there are four times as many negative articles about seafood than positive ones, and we need to change that ratio.

So I hope to see you next weekend at the Seafood Expo North America.

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Mind Of A Sommelier: Leo Keka

(Check out my Introduction to the The Mind of a Sommelier series.)

Leo Keka is the owner of Alba Prime Steak + Seafood and Zef Cicchetti & Raw Bar in Quincy Center. A native of Albania, he fled the impoverished former communist nation in 1990 by swimming across a lake to a refugee camp in Montenegro, before finding his way to the United States. Keka, unable to speak English at the time, landed his first job in the industry when he was hired as a dishwasher by fellow Albanian-American and celebrated restaurateur Anthony Athanas of late Boston culinary landmark Anthony’s Pier 4. Keka soon became a server, displayed a natural knack for hospitality and quickly worked his way up through management at both Legal Sea Foods and Grill 23 & Bar, before opening his fine-dining Quincy Center restaurant Alba in 2001. Such an inspiring story!

Now, onto the interview:

What term do you use to describe yourself: Sommelier, Wine Steward, Wine Director, something else?
I’m the owner of Alba but also the wine director. Wine is one of my great passions and I love that part of my job. We have a great, great staff that is very knowledgeable about wine and about our wines in particular. But at the end of the day, even as the owner, I pick most of the wines on our list and I’m proud to do so.

Please give a brief description of the wine list at your restaurant.
Our wine list is focused on American/California cabernets and Oregon pinot noirs with a heavy selection of Italian reds: super Tuscans, Barolos, Brunellos. Those big hearty Italian red wines. We have some great options and sell a lot of them.

What are your objectives with the wine list?
Our goal at Alba is to offer a great bottle of wine at a great price, no matter the guest’s taste or budget. I think a lot of wines are subject to over-pricing in restaurants. We try to avoid that. We try to come in at a very fair price for our guests. Our wine list I believe rivals that of any of the top steakhouses or restaurants in Boston. But our prices are much more affordable.

A lot of the reason why is for me very personal. We grew up very poor in Albania. We didn’t have great restaurants. We had very few material pleasures. One of those pleasures was wine. I remember one Christmas night when I was about 15 my mother brought home this giant 18-liter bottle of red wine that my grandparents had made. It was amazing.

I was hooked on that taste and on the celebratory aspect of drinking wine. I loved it from the beginning. My dad had tried before to get me to drink beer. I didn’t like it. I still don’t. But I’ve loved wine from that moment I first tasted it. I still remember drinking that bottle of wine today.

So that desire to make great wine affordable still influences our list. I’m willing to sell wine at a lower price than other restaurants if it means somebody can experience a wine they might otherwise have missed and enjoy that feeling I felt that Christmas night as a teenager back in Albania. I think our combination of world-class wine at a fair price is the big reason why we sell so much wine.

How often does the wine list change?
We’re always getting in new bottles if they fit our program. But big picture the wine lists changes substantially every six months to reflect new vintages, new bottles, new trends. We probably sample 500 to 600 bottles every six months, find the great picks, and revamp the menu to reflect those tastes. But at any given time we might pick up something new if I really like it and it fits our program.

Are there omissions on your wine list you would like to fill?
I’d love to serve more sparkling wine. I don’t think people drink enough champagne or sparkling wine. Americans in general tend to think of champagne as something you celebrate with, a special occasion wine, and not something you enjoy on its own or with food. Great sparkling wine is tremendous with a variety of foods. I wish more people would order champagne with their food like they do a bottle of chardonnay. We’d certainly offer more. I’d love to sell more.

How do you learn about new wines?
I’m always keeping up with Wine Spectator, following wine auctions, the wine blogs, following global trends. And we have a steady stream of vendors through here most every day showing off their newest bottles. We move a lot of wine for all the big houses in the region so they’re always eager to show off their best new stuff. So we stay up on top of things that way, too. Just by tasting and talking about wine every day with other people who know and love wine.

What is the most common wine question asked by your guests?
Our guests are already well educated about brand-name wines. So they typically want to know what’s the next thing we have that tastes like the wines they already know. So we like to steer them to new wines, about the winemakers, the wine-making regions. I think it’s up to us to lead them to the next great bottle of wine. We want them to buy a bottle because we like it ourselves. But of course we want to make sure it fits their taste profile.

What is the most common criticism you receive from guests about your list?
People are always trying to get more. We have 400 to 500 bottles on the list. We’re trying to pair our wine with our food and also be true to our brand. But there are always more options. People always want more options. Even with the hundreds of bottles we offer, people want more choices. They might ask for something from South Africa or Argentina because it’s great wine they read about or heard about somewhere. But usually those wines aren’t on our list. They’re not consistent with who we are and you can’t carry everything.

We also lack Sake, for example. Sometimes we’ll have a really great Sake. But not usually. It’s not part of what we do. But sometimes people ask for it. You can’t be everything to everybody. But with that said we work hard to ensure our wine list is consistent with our food and our influences and that we offer high-quality wines at a good price.

What is your greatest challenge as a sommelier?
The greatest challenge is trying to keep current choices consistent with past choices. Does that make sense? This is what I mean: somebody comes in and asks for a bottle that they loved. They may be a regular or somebody who comes in only a once a year. But we don’t carry that bottle anymore. The vintage is gone. We ran out. The distributor is out of stock. Whatever the case might be. But we need to make sure we have something comparable in terms of flavor, quality and price point that’s consistent with the great bottles we’ve offered that guest in the past.

So we have to know what our guests expect. The flavors, the styles, the prices. And we have to make sure those options are available, even if the label on the bottle changes. It’s a challenge. But it’s also one of the most enjoyable parts of the job.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the best value wines on your list?
     We sell a 1-liter bottle of Caymus Cabernet for just $95. So naturally we sell a LOT of Caymus. I believe we are the No. 1 single-unit restaurant in Caymus sales in all of New England.
     Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay is another great deal for just $45. It’s from California. It’s very balanced. Pairs well with a lot of food. It’s sexy. It kicks ass. It’s a chardonnay lover’s dream and at $45 we sell a lot of it.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the most unique wines on your list?
     Our Masseto 2015 is a pretty rare super Tuscan. A 100-point wine. An outstanding special occasion wine. A great wine to enjoy among friends. A unique blend of super Tuscans with a lot of complexity. It’s a wine most people would drink and it remember it forever. We sell it for $900 when it might run you $2,000 somewhere else in Boston.
     Also, we’re lucky to be one of the few restaurants in the region to carry Sassicaia 2015, which Wine Spectator named its No. 1 wine of 2018. This is one of the world’s great wines and we sell it for just $315.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of your favorite wines on your list?
If I have to drink wine for myself, it would be anything from Howell Mountain in Napa. I love the earthiness of the wines in that region. I like the tannins. I like big wines that need decanting. Great spices. Howell Mountain wines remind me of Old World wines. We carry wines from Robert Craig, Dunn and La Jota vineyards in Howell Mountain.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about your wine list, your work as a sommelier, or wine service?
My experience in this industry was forged soon after I moved here from Albania at some of the greatest restaurants in America most notably Anthony’s Pier 4, Legal Sea Foods and then Grill 23. When I landed in Boston I couldn’t even speak English. But Anthony’s Pier 4 had one of the best, most expansive wine lists in America and a very demanding customer base. I learned the wine business, and I learned the language, pretty fast. Then I feel like I refined my knowledge at Grill 23, which had that outstanding wine list and still does today. I learned a lot at both places and met people passionate about food and wine.

I wanted to carry that passion forward here at Alba and sell the same wines but at a better price. I’ve got to meet so many great winemakers, producers, sommeliers and have had the pleasure tasting a lot of wine. It’s helped me create a palate where I can tell you everything I like or don’t like about a wine and then convey those experiences to my staff and to my guests and hopefully help people make educated decisions about their wine.

I’ve taken all those experiences and brought them here to Alba and love sharing them with our guests. It’s really the same passion I learned that Christmas eve when I was teenager drinking my grandparent’s wine. If people get anything out of dining at Alba, I hope that get that passion and pleasure we get from serving great food and great wine.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) A Taste of Ginger will be held on Monday, March 25, from 6:30pm-9:30pm, in the beautiful Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. Proceeds from A Taste of Ginger will benefit Joslin Diabetes Center’s Asian American Diabetes Initiative (AADI) which works to enhance the quality of life and health outcomes for the rising number of Asian Americans living with diabetes, and collaborates with Joslin as they work to find a cure.

Each year, hundreds of supporters and foodies gather to enjoy a lively evening, including the opportunity to meet and taste the cuisine of more than 30 of Boston’s most celebrated chefs such as Jasper White, Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery + Café, Tiffani Faison of Tiger Mama, Tracy Chang of PAGU, Sumiao Chen of Sumiao Hunan Kitchen, Jimmy Liang of Fuji at Ink Block, and Andy Husbands of The Smoke Shop BBQ, amidst the beauty of the MFA.

Culinary chair Bik-Fung Ng has been a committee member of A Taste of Ginger since its creation in 2005; she has more than 30 years of experience in the food industry and has been an activist in the Asian Community for many years, often collaborating with the AADI on nutrition-related projects. Longtime Joslin supporter and A Taste of Ginger founder Leverett Wing, whose parents helped establish the AADI at Joslin, will serve as event chair alongside Audrey Paek, a staple in the Boston nonprofit community, including time on the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence.

Emceed by Emmy-nominated NBC 10 Boston and NECN anchor and reporter Joy Lim Nakrin, the event will honor the founding families of one of Boston’s first and largest chef-centered fundraising events and will celebrate the substantial advances the AADI has made through research, education, outreach, and culturally appropriate treatments. This event will mark the 15th year that funds raised by supporters of A Taste of Ginger have helped fund the important work of the AADI.

I've attended this event multiple times and it always is a great time, with some amazing food, and it is all for an excellent cause.

TICKETS: Tickets are $250 per guest, and can be purchased online

2) Cambridge Center for Adult Education (CCAE) has announced the chef line-up for its fundraiser, OF COURSE! 2019, taking place Sunday, April 28, at CCAE in the heart of Harvard Square. The event features a festive and interactive “Menu of Classes” at CCAE from 4:45pm-6:45pm and then the party continues as a brass band leads guests down the street to The Charles Hotel Ballroom. 

Guests will enter the ballroom to discover 17 of the city’s talented and much-appreciated chefs, restaurants and breweries presenting favorite food and drink for “A Taste of CCAE.” “It truly is a celebration of CCAE and the community” explains Linda Burton, executive director, CCAE. “At CCAE our goal is to bring education, conversation and the community together in a vibrant setting. April 28th will be one extraordinary evening where we salute not only our incomparable classes and inspired instructors, but also our wonderful supporters and many of Cambridge’s top chefs, vintners and breweries.”

There are 17 Cambridge chefs and restaurants participating:
Chef Jody Adams and Chef Pantazis Deligiannis, Saloniki
Chef Joanne Chang, Flour
Chef Tracy Chang, PAGU
Chef Peter Davis, Henrietta’s Table
Chef Carl Dooley, The Table at Season to Taste
Chef Mark Goldberg, Temple Bar
Chef Felipe Herrera, Felipe’s Taqueria
Chef Scott Jones, Luce
Chef Maura Kilpatrick, Sofra
Chef Tyler Kinnett, Harvest
Chef Tony Maws, Craigie on Main and Kirkland Tap & Trotter
Chef Peter McCarthy, EVOO and Za
Chef Michael Pagliarini, Benedetto and Giulia
Chef Kristen Rummel, Honeycomb Creamery
Chef Jeffrey Salazar, Parsnip
Chef Michael Scelfo, Alden & Harlow / Waypoint / Longfellow Bar
Chef Chris Willis, Pammy’s

The exclusive wine sponsor is 90+ Cellars, and an original OF COURSE! 2019 cocktail is being concocted by Bully Boy Distillers.

OF COURSE! 2019 is the CCAE’s primary fundraiser, providing resources to produce the 1200+ classes it presents each year, as well as to support its robust scholarship program, Conversations on the Edge discussion series, the Blacksmith House Poetry Series and its many other innovative programs and initiatives.

Time: 4:45pm-6:30pm: A Menu of Interactive Classes at 42 & 56 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA
6:45pm-7:00pm: Brass Band Parade from 42 Brattle Street to The Charles Hotel
7:00pm-9:00pm: OF COURSE! 2019 "Taste of CCAE" Gala Party at The Charles Hotel

Tickets cost $275 and are available through

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Katie's Kitchen: Delicious, Value Breakfast in Wolfeboro

Over the weekend, I spent a couple days in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, staying at Adam Japko's stunning lakehouse with a number of friends. Both mornings, I stopped by Katie's Kitchen for breakfast and every time I now return to Wolfeboro, I'll make sure I go back to Katie's Kitchen. Delicious, fresh and inexpensive breakfast in a homey atmosphere. And those Cinnamon Rolls!

Katie's Kitchen, owned by Patty Lord, is a small, homey and casual restaurant, a place frequented by many locals. Locals know they can get up and refill their own cup of coffee, or even bus their own table. Everyone seems to know everyone else, a close-knit community, bonding over pancakes or bacon & eggs. Patty presides over the restaurant like a charming aunt, extremely personable, very attentive, and with a nice sense of humor. She likes the restaurant as it is, resistant to changing anything because she feels everything works well just the way it is. For example, she won't add an expresso/cappucino machine, believing her coffee is sufficient for all. Why ruin the charm of this place with such a machine?

The restaurant primarily serves breakfast and their menu is relatively simple, though they are willing to make almost anything else you might want if it is possible. They have you covered with all the basics, such as eggs, pancakes, omelettes, waffles, and eggs benedict. Their low prices are hard to beat, such as 3 Eggs, Toast & Home Fries for only $2.20! Three good-sized Pancakes for only $2.50. Only $3.25 for an Omelette. They also make fresh muffins and cinnamon rolls each morning, in limited quantities, so make sure to get there early so you don't miss out.

(As an aside, I also want to bring your attention to a fascinating article by my friend Patrick Maguire, Overtip Breakfast Servers. He makes persuasive points about why you should tip well at breakfast, especially at such an inexpensive place like Katie's Kitchen. The usual 15%-20% gratuity just isn't adequate in this situation.)

The Cinnamon Roll is amazing, soft and full of plenty of cinnamon, as well as covered with a mildly sweet glaze. Though it comes with a large pat of butter, you won't need it for this sweet treat. This is one of the best cinnamon rolls that I've eaten at a restaurant. I'd come to Katie's Kitchen just for a couple of these pastries.

Their fresh Muffins are also quite tasty, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a Butterscotch Muffin here. I love the taste of butterscotch but had never had such a muffin. The butterscotch flavor in this moist muffin was just enough, not overly sweet or strong, but prominent and delicious. We need more Butterscotch Muffins!

The Blueberry Muffin was also quite good, moist with plenty of sweet blueberries, and a nice crusty top. Their Corn Muffin was tasty as well.

The Belgian Waffle, with a side of crisp bacon, was chewy and flavorful, just how I prefer my waffles. I also enjoyed their Blueberry Pancakes, which were large, and filled with plentiful blueberries.

A simple dish of Scrambled Eggs, Bacon, Home Fries and English Muffin. Hearty and delicious.

If you enjoy breakfast, and find yourself in the Wolfeboro area, then you must stop by Katie's Kitchen. You won't be able to beat the prices, the food will be fresh and delicious, and you'll enjoy the homey ambiance. And their cinnamon rolls and muffins are a must buy! Kudos to Patty and the entire staff at Katies Kitchen.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

2017 Herdade do Rocim Amphora: Preserving The Talha In Alentejo

When you hear about amphora, skin contact, or orange wines, you're likely to think of countries such as Georgia, Italy and Slovenia. Portugal probably doesn't immediately come to mind although it has a two-thousand year old history with amphora wines. That may change in the near future if the Talha wines of the Alentejo region gain more attention and publicity.

Although I've known about talha wines for a few years, it was only recently that I've seen any available in Massachusetts. At Pamplemousse, in Reading, I found the 2017 Herdade do Rocim Amphora Vinho Tinto ($17.99) and I picked up a couple bottles because I was intrigued.

Wines fermented on their skins in talha (a Portuguese word for amphorae), has a history extending back two thousand years to the ancient Romans. This tradition in the Alentejo region has been maintained throughout the centuries though the advent of more modern wine-making techniques led to a massive decrease in its use. There has been a recent resurgence though in the use of talha, even leading to the creation of its own DO, the Vinho de Talha DOC

It states on their website, "According to etymologists, the term “talha” comes from the Latin “Tinalia” and that refers to large pot or vessel. A talha, therefore, is a pot that varies in its porosity depending on its intended use and the type of clay it is made from. It is used for fermenting grape juice and storing several liquids, especially wine and olive oil. The talha comes in a range of sizes and shapes, according to the potter’s working style and the local traditions where it is made. It is rarely stands taller than two metres in height and rarely exceeds a ton in weight; it can hold up to 2,000 litres of must."

The Herdade do Rocim estate was purchased in 2000 by the late Jose Vieira, founder of Movicortes, S.A., a holding company which specializes in agricultural machinery. Jose's daughter, Catarina Vieira, leads the operations of the estate, which is located in the Baixo Alentejo. The estate consists of about 120 hectares, with 70 under vine. The vineyards are broken down into 53 hectares of red grapes and 17 hectares of whites. Some of the planted grapes include Alicante Bouschet, Antão Vaz, Aragonez, Manteúdo, Moreto, Perrum, Rabo de Ovelha,  Roupeiro, Tinta Grossa, Touriga Nacional, and Trincadeira.

Their stated mission is " produce wines in a sustainable manner, respecting the social, cultural and natural matrix of the region." They are also low interventionists, such as only using indigenous yeasts. Some of their vineyards are certified organic while others are organic, though not yet certified.  They wish to emphasize the terroir of their vineyards, while maintaining sustainability. In addition, they wish to preserve the ancient tradition of the talha.

The 2017 Herdade do Rocim Amphora Vinho Tinto is a blend of indigenous Portuguese grapes including 50% Moreto, 30% Tinta Grossa, 15% Trincadeira, and 5% Aragonez. Both Moreto and Tinta Grossa are more unique to the Alentejo region so it is rare to see them in any other Portuguese wines. Such an intriguing mix of grapes! The vineyards are organic, though not certified, and the wine was fermented in the talha, without any temperature control and using indigenous yeasts. Afterwards, the wine was aged for three months in the bottle.

At only 12% ABV, the wine has a deep red color with an interesting nose of earth and red fruits, with a mild floral note. On the palate, it was fresh, with deep and complex flavors of plum, black cherry, and blackberry, an earthy backbone, and a mild tomato accent. The tannins were well integrated, the acidity was good, and the finish was fairly long. There was a certain uniqueness of its complex flavor profile, though it certainly reminded me of other Portuguese wines. This is a wine that would pair well with hearty dishes, a thick stew, a juicy steak, or a humble burger.

A fine introduction to Talha wines from Alentejo, though I definitely need to find more such wines to taste. And at its price, about $18, it is a good value for the quality, complexity and taste of this wine. As I've long and often said, Portugal offers some of the best wine values in the world.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Rant: Why Is Your Restaurant Closing? Bad Service

No one will disagree that running a restaurant is a difficult, and expensive, endeavor. They usually operate on razor thin margins and the potential of closure often looms like the Sword of Damocles. This year, we've seen some high-visibility closures while other, more under-the-radar restaurants, have closed as well. A number of articles have discussed some of the reasons for these closures, exploring the significant obstacles facing most restaurants.

I'm here to discuss one other contributory factor, bad service. With thousands of restaurants competing for customers, a restaurant needs to do its best not to turn customers away. They not only need to provide good food & drink, but their service needs to be good as well. And if there are service issues, the restaurant needs to correct the issue and find a way to make it up to their customers.

Otherwise, you could be turning away a customer who will tell their friends and family about their bad experience, or even write about it on Yelp or Trip Advisor. That single bad experience could easily lead to dozens of other people, if not many more, choosing not to dine at that restaurant. Can a restaurant afford to turn away all those potential customers, especially when avoiding that matter was fairly easy?

During the past week or so, there's been three service-related incidents which have come onto my radar, bringing this issue to the forefront for me. First, while attending a local convention at a hotel, I dined at the hotel restaurant twice for dinner. Both times, my dinner was not served in a timely fashion, and in one of those incidents, a server actually gave away my dinner to someone else. Such a long wait for relatively simple dishes. In both incidents, a manager merely apologized without any offer to otherwise remedy the situation, even when I explained this was the second time in two nights that this issue occurred.

Second, a relative of mine gave a restaurant recommendation to a friend, a suburban restaurant which I like very much. The friend is a local, who had never been to this restaurant before, and who frequently dines out. Unfortunately, when she went to the restaurant, the host was so rude to her that she chose not to dine there and will never return. And I'm sure she will tell her friends about her bad experience, and more potential customers will be lost. As they say, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Third, other friends dined at a high-end, and pricey, Boston restaurant, enjoying the food, but multiple service issues turned it into what I think of as a nightmare of an experience. An inattentive server, an unfriendly hostess, a large chip in a cocktail glass, an undue delay in service of one of their entrees, and more. And nothing, beyond a perfunctory apology, was done to compensate them for all these service problems. Not even a free dessert or cocktail. At such high-end restaurants, you expect superb service and the best places do their best to resolve service issues, to make the customer happy. This restaurant allowed these customers to leave unhappy, and they will probably never return, and will also spread the word of their negative experience. For one, I won't dine there after learning of this experience.

That restaurant could have easily helped to ameliorate the situation, maybe a comped round of drinks, or comped desserts, or comp the late entree. It would have been a small price for the restaurant to pay to make the customers happier. The customers would have likely appreciated the small effort and returned another time, giving the restaurant a second chance to show its best. Instead, the customers left unhappy and the restaurant will lose them and others. That isn't the way to run a successful restaurant.

I've had service issues at numerous restaurants, including some of my favorites. The difference is in how the restaurant handles the issue. Those restaurants which make the effort to fix the issue, to make the customer happy, are those which are quickly forgiven a temporary lapse. No restaurant is perfect and mistakes sometimes get made. Most customers understand this and are willing to make allowances, provided the restaurant does its part to make matters right.

This is a factor that is fully in the restaurant's control. They need to be proactive in dealing with service errors, to try to ensure a customer doesn't leave unhappy. As an unhappy customer may never return, and as they spread the word of their bad experience, you could lose more customers as well. Can you really afford to turn off all those customers, especially when the solution is relatively easy and inexpensive?

Service, Service, Service. Never forget its importance to the success of your restaurant.

Friday, March 1, 2019

The Mind Of A Sommelier: Jose Luis Betancur

(Check out my Introduction to the The Mind of a Sommelier series.)

Jose Luis Betancur is a Chilean native who immigrated to the United States at age 27 where he began working in the hospitality industry in Boston. When he relocated to New York City, he worked for the TAO Group where he was inspired by their commitment to hospitality. It was during his time working for TAO Group that he took a great interest in wine and spirits. Luis went on to take a program of wine studies at the Sommelier Society of America, and received his certification as a sommelier. He also work for Patina Restaurant Group where he established mentors with whom he also constantly communicates.

A few years ago, Betancur was relocated to Portsmouth, NH, with his wife. He worked as a Sommelier at Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca in Boston, MA, for over three years. He was the head of beverage education for the staff at Babbo and regularly holds wine education classes for the public. For the past six months, he has served as Beverage Director at Tuscan Kitchen Seaport where he constantly develops and overseas the program there. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling and exploring wine regions around the world.

Now, onto the interview:

What term do you use to describe yourself: Sommelier, Wine Steward, Wine Director, something else?
Sommelier or “wine guy” when working the floor, but Beverage Director on my business card. 

Please give a brief description of the wine list at your restaurant. 
The wine list at Tuscan Kitchen is mainly focused on Italian wines with about 20% dedicated to wines from the rest of the world. 

What are your objectives with the wine list? 
My main objective is to have wines on the list that everyone can enjoy… this includes wines at every price point for every pocket and occasion. For example: wines with familiarity for business meetings and comfort dinners, as well as those that will make people excited to try new wines from different regions, grapes and unknown low production producers. 

How often does the wine list change? 
Understanding what is happening in the market and in the wine world is important in order to manage a profitable beverage program. The wine list changes seasonally and even more often than that if I find a wine with unique characteristics that I think would be a great addition to the program. 

Are there omissions on your wine list you would like to fill?
French wines are minimally represented since Tuscan Kitchen is more focused on Italian wines. I would like to add wine from some obscure and exciting appellations known for their food and wine pairing, such as Jura. 

How do you learn about new wines? 
I’m constantly learning from articles, colleagues, and distributors. I attend many seminars and wine tastings. I love working the floor where I also learn from my guests. 

What is your strategy on pricing the wines on your list?
The strategy is very simple: finding great quality wines in order to deliver great value, adventurous, and hard-to-find wines. 

What is the most common wine question asked by your guests? 
“What do you recommend from [a particular area] that will go great with my food?” Others will ask, “What’s your driest red or white wine?” I like when guests ask questions because this allows me to build conversation, making the experience memorable. 

What is the most common criticism you receive from guests about your list? 
I haven’t been criticized personally, but I do think that guests would like to see more classic well-known West Coast wines; we are always sourcing ideas from our guests. 

What is your greatest challenge as a sommelier? 
To continue learning and improve every day in order to deliver an extremely memorable experience not just to our guests, but also to our staff through team education. 

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the best value wines on your list? 
     Erbaluce Antoniolo: Erbaluce is an ancient grape native to Northern Piemonte. A grape that showcases floral aromas of ripe citrus fruit with a hint of white blossoms. Bone dry on the palate with ton of texture and electric nerves. A fun wine for those who like viogneir from France. The Antoniolo family owns over 14 hectares under the watchful eye of their pioneering mother, Rosanna.
     Mauro Molino Barbera d’Asti ‘Leradici’ (root of the family): This is an outstanding family-run estate producing only 12 hectares. This amazing medium-body red wine has great black, earthy and red juicy fruit with a hint of spice. This wine has a ton of character with a beautiful lingering bright finish. It’s a wine that can be enjoyed with pizza or charred steak. 

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the most unique wines on your list?
     Murgo Nerello Mascallese Rose traditional method: Nerello Mascallese is an ancient grape to Sicily, mainly vinified as a red still wine. In this case, The Scammacca del Murgo family has been producing this electric red fruity, yet crisp, bright traditional method sparkling wine for over a century. This wine is great to drink at any time but also pairs well with your favorite fresh seafood, fried calamari, or lamb.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of your favorite wines on your list?
     Cerretto Barolo ‘Brunatte’:  The Cerreto family is one of the largest landholders in the Piemonte region. Here, like with many other Langhe producers, identity speaks first. Brunatte is the name of the single Cru, where the grapes are coming from. This wine showcases innovation and the identity of the land. Red rustic cherries with a hint of sweetness mid-palate, with leathery round tannis of a classic Barolo and a great bright finish around the edges. A great wine to enjoy with your favorite truffle meal.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about your wine list, your work as a sommelier, or wine service?
The wine list at Tuscan Kitchen Seaport is always evolving. I take into consideration all aspects of the wine market and trends. I always aim to give guests a great experience. I do my best to deliver what we all look for in a dining out experience: the beauty of wine, and food.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) On Monday, March 25, starting at 6pm. enjoy an evening hosted by Clay Fritz, owner of California’s Fritz Underground Winery, at Abe & Louie’s Boston with a four course dinner paired with wine. The Fritz Winery Reception will begin at 6pm, with the first course served at 6:30pm.

2016 Fritz Winery Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc
1st Course:
Crab Cake & Lobster Bisque duo with celery root remoulade
2015 Fritz Winery Russian River Valley Chardonnay
2nd Course:
Exotic Mushroom Strew with bone marrow & chanterelles
2014 Fritz Winery Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
3rd Course:
Shallot Crusted Filet Mignon with mustard greens & Parisian potatoes
2015 Fritz Winery Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel
Layered Chocolate & Cogna Semifreddo with crème anglaise
Castello di Mangione Vin Santo Trasimeno

Cost is $125 per person. Reservations can be made by calling the restaurant at (617) 536-6300.

2) Legal Harborside celebrates crustaceans with crab specials from March 8-10 to benefit the Greater Boston Food Bank. Legal Harborside will be celebrating crustaceans while giving back by dishing out a trio of specials showcasing fresh lump crab meat in which proceeds will benefit the Greater Boston Food Bank, an organization that works to address food insecurity by providing healthy and nutritious food items to those who need it most.

The perfect way to celebrate National Crab Meat Day (March 9), seafood lovers can indulge in the following creations all weekend long:

Legal’s Signature Crab Cake ($17.95)
served with remoulade sauce, and a seasonal salad
Crabmeat Salad ($21.95)
avocado, tomato, cucumber, egg, salad greens, and lemon vinaigrette
Crabmeat Roll ($21.95)
fries and coleslaw

3) On Tuesday, March 12th, from 7pm-10pm, The Library at Explorateur Café will host an exclusive Glendalough Distillery Whiskey Dinner where guests will enjoy and learn about creative whiskey pairings from the award-winning craft distillery in Ireland. Explorateur’s Executive Chef Yousef Ghalaini and Glendalough Brand Manager Donal O’Gallachoir will team up for an exquisite four-course menu paired with craft whiskey and cocktails from Ireland’s first craft distillery.

Glendalough focuses on perfecting the ageing and finishing of their whiskeys in order to best accentuate the diverse and creative flavors, allowing each of the pairings to be unique and flavorful. With flavors from rich to nutty to fruity and floral, Glendalough whiskeys can be enjoyed with foods like Grilled Colorado Lamb and even a special dessert of Dark Gingerbread prepared by the Explorateur pastry team. Guests will begin their night with a special cocktail hour followed by a guided four-course meal with craft whiskey pairings.

The full menu for the evening is as follows:

1st Course
Curried Cauliflower Soup (Sunchoke chips, Aleppo Chili)
Paired with Glendalough Double Barrel
2nd Course
Salmon Crudo (Fennel Dust, Aji Amarillo, Winter Citrus)
Paired with Glendalough Wild Botanical Gin
3rd Course
Grilled Colorado Lamb (melted spinach, Moroccan-style cous cous, mustard jus)
Paired with: Glendalough 7-Year-Old Single Malt
4th Course
Dark Gingerbread (warm anglaise, whiskey spiced ice cream)
Paired with: Traditional Irish Coffee Crafted with Glendalough Double Barrel

Tickets are available for purchase on Eventbrite for $75/per person. Tickets include a cocktail hour and a four-course menu with craft whiskey and cocktail pairings. Reservations are required and seating is limited. Guests must be 21+ to attend.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

2015 3 Rings Shiraz: Deep Roots In Australian Wine

It all began with wine education...

In 1929, Alan Robb Hickinbotham was appointed the Deputy Principal of the Roseworthy Agricultural College, the first agricultural college in Australia, founded in 1883. Seven years later, Alan was partially responsible for establishing a Oenology curriculum at the college which quickly became well respected and eventually responsible for creating numerous important leaders in the wine industry. In 1971, descendants of Alan purchased land, and started growing grapes, mainly Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, in what would become known as the esteemed Clarendon Vineyard.

Their grapes became quite well known and valued, some of the parcels sold to a few of the top wineries in Australia. They also produced some of their own wine, under various labels such as Hickenbotham Wines. Though they sold their Clarendon Vineyard in 2012, they still own other vineyards and are involved in multiple projects. For example, in 2004, David & Dena Hickinbotham and their son, Alan, decided to establish the 3 Rings brand, under III Rings Pty Ltdchoosing to work with famed winemaker Chris Ringland. The intent of this brand was to highlight Shiraz from the Barossa Valley, though they also make a Cabernet Sauvignon.

The vineyards for their 3 Rings Shiraz are an average age of 35 years, with soils that are primarily clay over slate bedrock. The grapes for their Reserve Shiraz are from a single vineyard, in the Kalimna sub-region of the Barossa, and the vines are an average of 85 years old, with soil that is mainly sandy loam over black clay.

I received a media sample of the 2015 3 Rings Shiraz ($19.99), which is made of 100% Shiraz, has an ABV of 14.9%, and only 6000 cases were made. I'm unsure of the oak treatment for this wine though clearly it was aged in oak for some amount of time. With a dark purple color, it possessed a nose of black fruits enhanced by spice notes. On the palate, it was a full bodied and muscular wine, with deep and complex flavors of plum, black pepper and raspberry, with a vein of pepper and other bold spices. However, it wasn't a jammy fruit bomb, and the alcohol was well balanced. The finish was fairly lengthy, the tannins bold but not overwhelming, and it has a spicy kick. The wine definitely would be best accompanied with a steak or similarly hearty dish.

This is a wine of power, but it isn't overpowering. The complex taste will please and with a juicy steak, the wine shines even greater. At $20, this Shiraz delivers a very good wine, worth the price. I definitely want to try their Reserve Shiraz, to experience that representation of Shiraz.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Rant: Cupcakes, Merely a Frosting Vehicle?

What do you believe is more important, the cupcake or the frosting? Is a cupcake merely the vehicle to transport a mound of frosting? Or should they be a harmonious and well balanced combination, with neither dominating?

This issue has been on my mind lately and over the weekend, it became even more prominent to me. I tasted a number of cupcakes from Quigley's Cakes, a New York company that creates specialized cakes, cupcakes, and more. They were selling some of their cupcakes at a gaming convention, so the cupcakes all had a fantasy or science-fiction theme. The cupcakes were inventive and delicious, and I felt that they struck a fine balance between cupcake and frosting, just the way I prefer.

The origin of cupcakes seems to begin in the late 18th century though it wouldn't become common to frost them until the 1950s. Cakes had been covered with icing or frosting since the 16th century, but it too much longer for cupcakes to become commonly frosted, though there were likely exceptions. I also suspect that since the 1950s, and especially in recent years, the amount of frosting on cupcakes has grown and grown. Sometimes the height of the frosting is now the same height, if not even higher, than the cupcake itself.

When the frosting is that high, it makes it extremely difficult to eat the cupcake, if you'd like a bite of both frosting and cupcake at the same time. Instead, you have to eat a few mouthfuls of just frosting before you can enjoy the cupcake too. It is as if you are giving the starring role to the sweet frosting, when it is the cupcake which should be the star. Frosting should have a supporting role, almost like clothing for the cupcake, but the clothing shouldn't be so bulky as to hide the body of the cupcake. If the frosting is so important to you, why even have a cupcake too? Just have a bowl of frosting instead.

Many chefs will tell you that food dishes should be balanced, that you want to create a harmony with all of the ingredients. Why shouldn't cupcakes also be better if balanced? Stop making towers of frosting upon small cupcakes and return to when the frosting playing more of a supporting role. Think of balance! The cupcakes from Quigley's Cakes met that balance, and they were a joy to eat. Besides that balance, the cupcakes were moist and flavorful, the frosting creamy and tasty.

Though Quigley's is located in New York, they will deliver to Massachusetts, so if you'd like to order some unique and delicious creations, check out their website.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) The team at Bistro du Midi welcomes guests to dine on Executive Chef Robert Sisca’s latest tasting menu featuring this season’s finest shellfish and caviar dishes. a decadent meal with each shellfish and caviar dish carefully-paired with a wine selection. Chef Sisca says, “It’s exciting to taste the contrast in flavors between east coast and west coast shellfish. And as I discovered more about shellfish, my love for caviar also evolved. Eating caviar alone is special but pairing it with dishes, gives me an entirely new opportunity to create unique dishes and memories for others.”

The full Chef’s Seasonal Tasting Menu: Shellfish & Caviar is as follows:
Ora King Salmon Crudo, crosnes, blood orange, kumquat, smoked trout roe
Ayala, Brut Majeur, Champagne NV
Crusted Halibut, manila clams, spigarello, spicy crab tomato broth
Hugel, Gentil, Alsace 2015
Scituate Lobster, black pepper tagliatelle, quail egg, white sturgeon caviar
Domaine Costal, Vaillons 1er Cru, Chablis, Burgundy 2016
A-5 Kobe Beef, charred sea scallops, pomelos, champagne hollandaise, Osetra caviar
Domaine Faiveley, Clos des Myglands 1er Cru, Mercury, Bourgogne 2016
Fromager D’Affinois, blackberry coulis, passion fruit “caviar”
La Spinetta, Moscato d’asti, Piedmont, Italy 2017
Yuzu Frozen Mousse, black sesame cake, lemon granité
Petit Guiraud, Sauternes, Bordeaux 2015

The Shellfish and Caviar tasting menu is $125 per person, with the optional wine pairing for an additional $75 per person.
To make Reservations, please call 617-426-7878.

2) Celebrate National Margarita Day on Friday, February 22, from 6pm-9pm, at Rebel’s Guild with tequila pairings from Código 1530. Chef Sean Dutson has created a special menu featuring a variety of dishes that pull inspiration from Mexican cuisine, while still reflecting the American comfort dishes that Rebel’s Guild is known for. Guests will enjoy four courses with pairings that explore Código 1530’s entire portfolio of tequilas.

"Every drop of Código 1530’s tequila has been perfected over several generations the way one would a homemade recipe – embracing time-honored customs without ever veering from the traditions of the Los Bajos region and its tequilieras and jimadors. The Tequila begins with fully-matured agave aged over seven years, which is cooked in stainless steel ovens, fermented utilizing an organic family baker’s yeast in Amatitán, and distilled twice in stills handmade by the distilling family themselves. The Blanco is perfected over a lengthy, 15-day process. The rested Tequilas are meticulously aged to taste in French White Oak red wine barrels procured from the Napa Valley, which helps ensure that each and every barrel is worthy of bearing the Código 1530 name."

The full Código tequila dinner menu is as follows:
Georges Bank Sea Scallop Ceviche (red grapefruit, fennel, red onion & lime)
Código 1530 Blanco
Grilled Calamari (grilled onion, shaved jalapenos, lime & olive oil)
Código 1530 Rosa
Duck Taco (pulled duck meat, orange, jalapeno & cilantro slaw, corn tortilla)
Código 1530 Reposado
Rebel’s Rubbed Skirt Steak (grilled medium rare served with lime butter & dirty fries)
Código 1530 Añejo
Caramel Flan (candied orange with sugar cookie)
Código 1530 Origen

Tickets for the evening are $75.00 each and are available via Eventbrite at
All attendees must be 21+ with a valid ID.

3) On Saturday, March 2 from 1-3 p.m., Chef Tony Maws invites guests to The Kirkland Tap & Trotter to see (and taste) who can stake claim to the title of Boston’s Best French Fries! The Fry-Off is the third annual year for this charitable culinary competition, hosted by No Kid Hungry, and leading up to the local Taste of the Nation this summer. All proceeds from the “Ultimate Fry-Off” will be donated to the non-profit to help end childhood hunger in America.

Some of Boston’s culinary masters will throw-down the fry gauntlet, serving their best versions of French fries and dipping sauces for a cheering crowd. Attendees have the opportunity to sample all of the fries and crown a “People’s Choice” favorite, and a panel of esteemed judges will select the overall winner.

The competitors are:
Tony Maws--Craigie on Main | The Kirkland Tap & Trotter
Kevin O’Donnell and Michael Lombardi--SRV
Marc Sheehan--Loyal Nine
Mike Pagliarini--Benedetto and Guilia

Tickets are $25/person (kids under 12 are free) and include tastings of each chefs’ fries and accompaniments and two complimentary drinks.
Tickets can be purchased online at

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Mind Of A Sommelier: Sandy Block

(Check out my Introduction to the The Mind of a Sommelier series.)

Sandy Block, a Master of Wine, is the Vice President of Beverage Operations of Legal Sea Foods, overseeing the wine program for all of their restaurants. Sandy is an iconic, knowledgeable and well-respected figure in the local wine scene. I've met him numerous times at various wine events, and those he has hosted at Legal Sea Foods are usually fascinating and educational experiences. The wine lists he has created have often offered some of the best values of any local restaurant.

Sandy, an Honors graduate of Vassar College, earned a Master’s Degree in American Intellectual and Cultural History from the State University of New York. He previously worked as Assistant VP of Wine for Horizon Beverage Company, and as General Manager of Whitehall Imports and VP of Product Strategies for the Whitehall Companies. In 2004, Sandy became the VP of Beverage Operations of Legal Sea Foods.

He was also the first American on the East Coast to be certified as Master of Wine, and is one of only 353 individuals worldwide to earn this title. He holds membership in the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs and the Confraria do Vinho do Porto, and received the Diplôme d'Honneur from the Corporation des Vignerons de Champagne. Sandy’s extensive credits include serving as Wine Editor for The Improper Bostonian. He serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Cheers Magazine, the Executive Symposium Committee of Sante Magazine and the Executive Board of Boston University’s Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center (where he has taught advanced courses since 1999). He developed the curriculum for the accredited Wine Studies program at Boston University and for several years taught a wine tasting course at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.

Please note that Sandy's interview primarily deals with the intriguing wine program at the 2nd floor dining room of Legal Harborside.

Now, onto the interview:

What term do you use to describe yourself: Sommelier, Wine Steward, Wine Director, something else?
Sandy Block, Master of Wine, VP Beverage, Legal Sea Foods

Please give a brief description of the wine list at your restaurant.
We call it the Legal Harborside Collection; it’s a book of rare wines (none are available at any other restaurant in Boston in the vintage we are offering) selected specifically to balance the restaurant’s culinary offerings. My guiding principle is that in wine, everything begins with “terroir,” that mysterious alchemy reflecting harmonies of soil, climate, grape variety and the grape grower's art. Just as Chefs can only create magic with the freshest of hand-selected ingredients, wines of authenticity and character are only possible when expressing unique regional or vineyard origins. In homage to this vision, the Collection focuses on wine whose personality originates from an individual place; wine, for the most part, whose identity reflects a single family’s connection to the particular parcel of earth that it tends. Each has its own story, illustrated briefly on the menu with notes and images that evoke the place and its singular personality, as well as the family behind the vineyard. The great majority of wines are offered in both a 750 ml. (bottle) and a 375 ml. (half-bottle) size, which our service team will pour into a carafe at table, in order to encourage maximum exploration. There are 85 selections.

What are your objectives with the wine list?
To intrigue guests with unusual bottles they’ve never before experienced that will create harmonies with the food they order. To entice them to return.

How often does the wine list change?
Because these are all limited production small (in some case microscopic!) lots, I change the list whenever a wine runs out of inventory at our distributors’ warehouses.

Are there omissions on your wine list you would like to fill?
Not omissions as much as areas where it’s been hard for me to find wine that fits all the criteria. These omissions are primarily mainstream wine categories, interestingly enough. There’s no Pinot Grigio, only one Merlot (and a high end one at that). Moderately priced North Coast California Cabernet. The requirements of being family-owned, terroir-based, exclusive in the state and satisfying our quality criteria, while working in a complementary way with items on the menu, have made these categories difficult.”

How do you learn about new wines?
Through direct relationships with our small group of wholesale distributors and their suppliers.

What is your strategy on pricing the wines on your list?
We strive to keep the prices accessible and reasonable. Offering any of the wines on the list that are below $75 by the half carafe, and by the glass, enables us to encourage maximum experimentation without having to commit to a full bottle.

What is the most common wine question asked by your guests?
Something along the lines of “I’ve had Cakebread before and I love it, but what’s this ‘Cuttings Wharf Ranch,’ I’ve never heard of that.”

What is the most common criticism you receive from guests about your list?
Not enough wines in a particular category (Italy, for example).

What is your greatest challenge as a sommelier?
To maintain a healthy balance among comfort zone wines, adventurous selections, covering different styles and price points.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the best value wines on your list?
Trimbach “Cuvee M” Riesling, 2013 from the Alsatian Grand Cru of Mandelberg, just an intensely stony, mineral-accented wine with brilliant length ($49, $26 half carafe, $13.50 by the glass), and for a red, the Neyers "Evangelho Vineyard" Carignan, from Contra Costa, 2014 (same price as the Trimbach), a foot-trodden, earthy, monumentally spicy red, of which there are only 100 cases produced in the world.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of the most unique wines on your list?
The 1997 Schloss Schonborn Hochheimer Domdechaney Riesling Spätlese, from the Rheingau, because it’s rare to have such a delicious 20+ year old white wine available, and the Alto Moncayo “Aquilon,” Garnacha, Campo de Borja, 2011, possibly the most delicious rendition of this amazingly underappreciated grape I’ve ever tasted.

Tell me about 1 or 2 of your favorite wines on your list?
I have to go with two that I’ve selected from barrel. The Sonoma-Cutrer “Les Pierres Vineyard” Single Barrel Private Select, 2016 is a wine that I picked out at a blind tasting while it was still undergoing maturation in spring 2017, that comes from the vineyard’s B North and B Middle North Blocks, and is a beautiful expression of earthy, citric minerality reflecting its stony terroir to perfection (and thrilling with lobster!). The 2015 Pellegrini Family "40 Year Commemorative Cuvée" Pinot Noir, from its Olivet Lane Vineyard in Russian River Valley is a “once and forever” wine of which just 5 cases were crafted for the Sonoma County Wine Auction in 2016 and captures the essence of Russian River; juicy and rich, with silky tannins, featuring notes of bing cherry, spice, toast, and mocha.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about your wine list, your work as a sommelier, or wine service?
Just how gratifying it is to see other wine professionals dining in the restaurant.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Rant: Where Are The Breakfast Reviews?

Do restaurants that primarily specialize in Breakfast get short shrift from restaurant reviewers?

If you look back at the recent archives of some of your favorite restaurant reviewers, you'll probably find that they rarely, if ever, review restaurants that specialize in breakfast. And if they do, the articles are usually compilation pieces, discussing a group of such restaurants, maybe by locale. You might see a list of the top breakfast spots on Cape Cod or the best donut shops on the North Shore. Why is this the case? Why don't breakfast restaurants receive more attention?

This matter came to my attention recently as I prepared to write a couple breakfast reviews of my own. I started pondering why I rarely see such reviews. There must be a reason for these omissions. I don't have any definitive answer but can speculate as to the potential reasons.

First, the number of breakfast spots is certainly much fewer than other types of restaurants so it is only natural that more attention is given to other restaurants. When you look at the lists of upcoming restaurants, there are very few breakfast spots in those lists.

Second, people generally look more for advice concerning dinner restaurants than breakfast spots, especially considering how much money they might spend on a dinner as opposed to an inexpensive breakfast. It is much easier to take a risk on an unknown breakfast spot that might only cost you $20 as opposed to a dinner place where you could drop $100 or more.

Third, many breakfast spots offer the usual standard fare, with little to make them stand out from other such places. So, they don't seem as compelling to review as they don't offer something new, different or more unique.

There may be additional reasons as well, but none of them mean that breakfast restaurants shouldn't be reviewed. There are reasons why many won't ever get reviewed, but there are places that stand out, worthy of some attention. Breakfast can be such a delicious meal, pure comfort, and sometimes with a little sweetness added. And I know that I, and others, enjoy breakfast foods all day long. I can enjoy waffles for dinner, or simple bacon & eggs. An excellent breakfast spot, serving breakfast all day, is special.