Sunday, October 28, 2007

Dinner in Hudson, NY

Swoon Kitchenbar in Rhinebeck

We had dinner at Swoon Kitchenbar in Hudson, NY, on Thursday night, the 25th of October. A quick 20 minute drive north from Rhinebeck, this lovely little restaurant on Hudson's main street is a real gem. The decor is "rustic bistrot", with a tin ceiling, modern sconces and lots of wood. Tables are nicely-spaced apart, and the chairs quite comfortable. It reminded me a lot of the adorable bistrots I visit when in Burgundy or the French countryside. Service was a bit distracted, but not offensively so. In fact, we were in no rush, so it was fine. When we first entered, there was another couple at a table and someone sitting at the bar, so we were a bit apprehensive. 8pm at the end of the week and almost no one there? Hmm...

Now about the food... Wow. This place uses all locally-sourced ingredients to make some fine dishes. The prices were much friendlier than for similar dishes in NYC, though not surprising as it's 2 hours north of the city. Well, 1.5 hours if you drive like me...

We started with a plate of local charcuterie which was quite well-chosen, with some nice touches like coarse sea salt on the foie gras and grainy country mustard for the meats. Remember, while these may be regular things in NYC and other major culinary centers, Hudson is a small town.

My second course was a braised veal rib the size of my forearm. It was served with tiny lentils and roasted sweet potatoes. After the first bite, I warned the waitress I'd need a cigarette afterwards, it was that hedonistically good. Seriously. Moist and buttery soft, this just fell off the bone and into my mouth, with the purest essence of concentrated veal I've had in a while. Fan-freaking-tastic. It was so good that I forced myself to finish the entire dish, practically licking the plate. Needless to say, I was suffering from a slight food hangover the next morning.

My wife had a braised short rib on potato galettes which was almost just as good, deep and dark and just ever-so-slightly drier than anticipated. My dish, to my palate, was better. The pricing for the quality was, frankly, ridiculous. The veal rib was $22, the braised short rib $21! In NYC, they would be twice as expensive.

I cracked the well-priced list, seeking a Burg. It was cold and rainy, and Fall had definitely finally arrived. With the smell of wet leaves in the air and trees changing colors, it was the perfect time for a nice Burgundy. Then again, when is it not a good time for Burgundy?

I picked a 2001 Domaine de l'Arlot Clos de l'Arlot Nuits-St-Georges, which was delicious. Well, I do seem to be on something of an Arlot kick this past week for some reason. Oh, right, it's because they make good wine.

The 2001 Domaine de l'Arlot just jumped off the pages at me, so how could I refuse? At first pour, it was darker than the Clos de la Foret St Georges I'd had with lunch a few days previous. It also smelled completely different. Whereas the Foret still had the fruity vivacity of bright fruit, this one focused more on that lovely stinky musky smell that gives me the shivers, beautiful dark fruit wrapped in sous-bois, with just a hint of oak intermingling with everything. On the palate, this carried similar notes, with a little less exuberance than the nose. Minerally and with some nice tangy acidity, this was both medium-bodied, soft and elegant at the same time. The finish was slightly short, but nothing that I'd sneer at, ending the virtual trip back to the Cotes de Nuits, leaving me homesick but happy.

Thanks to the crew at Swoon, it really lived up to its name.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Best Lunch Deal in NYC

My mother decided to invite me to lunch to celebrate my birthday a few days early as I will be away on the Big Day. Lo and behold, she dragged me to Jean-Georges restaurant for a leisurely (ie 3 hour) lunch. Now I know where I get this love of slow food from...

This was my first time back to JG since they redid the room, and I have to say the place looks great. I liked it before, truth be told, but it was far more formal and a bit cold. Now it's soft and warm, with beige leather seats and an inviting glow from a flowing chandelier anchored to the ceiling.

We ordered the $28 prix-fixe menu for 2 dishes, still one of the city's best QPR (Quality-to Price Ratio) lunch deals. Of course, that means I could spend more money on wine... But that's for later.

The meal started off with some interesting amuses bouche: a rice cracker puff with some tuna tartar, a raw Kumamoto oyster with a briney foam, and a soup of chestnut with a ravioli filled with chestnuts. The tuna was delicious, absolutely delicious on the cracker; the oyster slightly overpowered by the foam, which was far too salty; and the soup absolutely fantastic, just the most ethereal and light essence of chestnuts, with a slightly under-cooked ravioli to mar the quality just so.

My first course was a butternut squash soup with tiny cubes of squash, chives and black trumpet mushrooms (one of my favorite 'shrooms!). Thick and creamy, this practically oozed butter but wasn't as heavy as one would think. My pet peeve with butternut squash soup is how absolutely filling it can be if not done properly. This was very, very good, nicely balanced, especially on a dark and dreary fall day. The one fault I could find with it was that every once in a while it was a bit saltier than I wanted it to be. Not by much, but enough to notice. Then again, I've begun to notice a salty trend in NY cuisines lately for some reason, and I know I'm not the only one.

Second course was sweetbreads on a licorice stick with a roast pear and some lemon sauce. Very good, but not as good as the ones I had at 11 Madison Park a few weeks ago, which were sublime. These were delicious, don't get me wrong, and yes I realize I am spoiled sometimes. Beautiful texture, if just so slightly drier than I liked, but I am picky.

Now to the wine. The list is nicely stacked, though with more recent vintages. Some wines are pretty decently priced, though there are of course those I look at and laugh... After chatting with the sommelier (something I think anyone who wants to be assured of a good choice should do at a place like this, no matter how much they think they know), we decided on a 2001 Domaine de l'Arlot Nuits St Georges Clos des Forets St Georges. This comes from Burgundy, my favorite region, and from a vintage that offered nice bright fruit and good acidity, something I love in wine. Then again, when dealing with Burgundy, there is one paramount lesson: always go with the producer, not the vintage.

At first, the wine was rather reticent, showing hints of cherries and forest floor, carried through from the nose to the light-bodied palate that ended with tart tannins. As it sat and I swirled the glass, the wine began to gather strength and depth, even seeming to become darker. Yet despite this added weight, it never lost its elegance, becoming more focused as the elements came together. Cherries, raspberries, sous-bois (forest floor), earth, some mushrooms, all danced on a frame that seemed to vibrate on the palate with an intense nervosite, ending in a medium-length finish. This is beautifully typical Burgundy. And WOW did it go well with my sweetbreads! Talk about enhancing the experience...

Then came the obligatory avalanche of small desserts and guimauve, real marshmellows still quivering on the plate. Yummy!

The only part that was off was our waiter, who while professional was rather cold and impersonal, which we both found off-putting. The sommelier, on the other hand, was warm and friendly, a nice contrast to his comrade.

All in all, a wonderful way to spend 3 hours on a Wednesday afternoon.


Monday, October 22, 2007


I receive a lot of wine samples in this job, which to most people would be like manna from Heaven. I mean, come on, we're talking free booze here! But what they don't realize is that you have to kiss a lot of frogs (no pun intended towards my French wineries and friends) to find the prince among them. And believe me, there are a lot of frogs out there...

My palate shudders to recall all the awful bottles I encounter every week: too sweet (either from over-ripe fruit or through the addition of authorized amounts of sugar, a process known as Chaptalization), over-oaked (a particular pet-peeve of mine, leading to the intrusive smell and taste of, well, wood, vanilla, chocolate, roasted coffee and some spicyness - my reactions to this range from a frown to a full-blown epilectic fit of disgust), over extraction (meaning too much fruit, which defines the old adage that too much of a good thing is a bad thing), not enough fruit (leading to green, almost weedy notes in the wine), alcohol out of balance (this gives you that hot sensation on the palate), too tannic (the winemaker let the grapes macerate with the stems and grape pips for too long), etc... The list goes on and on. Of course, one needs the right type of soil, but that's out of the hands of the winemaker. All he can do is work with what Mother Nature gives him. Sadly, it's very easy to make bad wine.

To my palate, at least, wines from the New World (CA, Australia especially) tend to show many of these faults. The warm weather makes the grapes super ripe, and the winemakers seek to extract as much fruit as possible, leading to almost jammy, sweet fruit and thick mouthfeels. In an effort to mitigate all this fruit, they then put the wine in brand new, heavily-toasted oak barrels, leading to all those flavors that I seem allergic to. To me, this is a recipe for vinous disaster. Of course, everyone's palate is different, so what I dislike is Heaven to others. I freely admit that I prefer Old World (ie European) wines. As they say, "A chacun son gôut" (to each his own).

It's amazing to me that in this day and age, some wineries can still be lazy or inattentive and make crappy wines. With the enormous amount of winemaking information out there, there are still some people who'd rather take the easy route. As I tried to convey in my post about the harvest, it's not an easy job to create a good wine. It is easy, as I said, to make a bad one. But with a little effort and passion, one can make something that brings a smile to the lips of countless consumers. And when it's done right, a good wine becomes a great wine, something to last the ages, something that stirs the soul and makes you shiver in delight and think to yourself, "Wow, there is a God."

In the end, what I look for is balance, a beautiful equilibrium between all the components in the wine. One thing leads seamlessly to the other, all the elements meshing together to create something where the sum is greater than the parts. This makes it enjoyable either on its own or with food, which is the way wine was meant to be drunk. And I am proud to say that all the wines I represent are well-balanced. This is their over-riding commonality. Whether the wine is from the Cahors and is big and brawny or from the Macon where a streak of minerality runs through it, all of them share this trait.

So go ahead, drop by your local (serious) wine store, ask for someone who knows their stuff, and tell them you're looking for a well-balanced wine in your budget range. You might be pleasantly surprised, especially if you thought wine was just alcoholic fruit juice.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Vinotas in the News!

Photo of a tasting in Narbonne published in "Le Paysan du Midi", August 3rd, 2007
(That's me in the middle, scribbling notes)

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Dinner at 11 Madison Park

There are times in life when everything comes together in the right way. The stars and planets line up to make the moment sweeter, the memory last longer, and the experience fuller. These points in our lives are fleeting and far too few in between, but when they do occur, one must try to savor them to the utmost. These are the experiences that make life worth living.

For me, one of those moments came about a few weeks ago at New York's 11 Madison Park restaurant. I have been an unabashed fan of the place since the new regime of Chef Daniel Humm, Wine Director John Ragan and General Manager William Guidara took over. This is a New York institution, in a beautiful American Art Deco space with huge windows looking out onto Madison Park. They have transformed what was a lackluster restaurant coasting on its laurels into the premiere destination for food and wine lovers from around the country, if not the globe.

That evening, the New York oenofools gathered together to welcome a travelling wine geek from Atlanta with our wines and our friendship. We had discussed what the wine theme would be, and happily we decided on Burgundy. Arriving, we handed our wine totes to the welcoming staff and sat down. While we knew we'd be well taken-care of, we had no idea what we were in for.

We put ourselves into the capable hands of the Wine Director and the Chef. Having seen our wines, he designed a menu that he thought would be appropriate to the wines present. The Wine Director also came over several times to ensure that we were happy with the serving order of our bottles. How fantastic is that? How sadly rare is it that a restaurant's crew takes the time to ensure that what you're drinking, whether you've brought it or you've bought it, matches with what you're eating and vice versa? But this night, we need not have worried.

Course after course arrived, each one better than the last, slowly building up the tension, the wines dancing (for the most part) in lock-step with the dishes. This meal was one of the best I've had there, if not the best. And I might add that it's one of the best I've eaten in the city in a while.

Here is our menu, with the wines in bold, to give you an idea of what they're capable of:

Hors d'Oeuvres
Soup with Maine Brook Trout and Smoke Yogurt

Wild Scottish Langoustine
"En Gelée de Bouillabaisse" with Cape Cod Bay Crab
2000 Henri Marionnet Vigne Pré-Phylloxerique Romorantin Provignage

Marinated in Pumpkin Seed Oil and Butternut Squash
2000 Franz Hirtzberger Singerriedel Riesling

Nova Scotia Lobster
Lasagna with Baby Artichokes, Flowers and Lemon Verbena
1997 Chapoutier Hermitage Blanc de l'Orée

Mediterranean Loup de Mer
Seared with Tomato Confit and Mission Figs
1989 Leroy Vosne-Romanée Les Beaux Monts
1991 Méo-Camuzet Aux Brulées Premier Cru

Roulade de Chanterelles
1991 Jayer-Gilles Echézeaux
1998 Mongeard-Mugneret Vieilles Vignes Echézeaux

Four Story Hill "Ris de Veau"
Herb Roasted with Celery and Burgundy Truffles
1991 Hubert Lignier Clos de la Roche
1998 Dujac Clos St Denis

Grimaud Farms Muscovy Duck
Glazed with Lavender Honey and Spices
1999 Joseph Drouhin Chambertin
1989 Château de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Selection of Farmstead Cheeses
1959 Henri Maire Vin Jaune

"Kir Royale"
Champagne Meringue and Cassis

Golden Pineapple
Soufflé with Pecorino and Lemon Thyme Ice Cream
2003 Château la Tour Blanche Sauternes


The next time you're in New York City, run, don't walk there.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Harvest

To most folks, the harvest is an ephemereal, romantic idea, a time of the year when leaves start to turn orange, the weather cools, and the vintners pick their grapes. In their minds, the grapes are tread by foot by happy workers stained red and singing La Marseilleise while eating baguettes and paté. Outside, women make the lunch while a musician plays the accordion and dogs and chickens run free through the farmhouse. Everyone's happy, everyone's got a bottle of wine in their hands, and everyone's dancing.


Well, not quite. Even in the smallest wineries, harvest is a maddening affair. It is a time when the vintner tries to ensure that everything goes right. He has spent the past year preparing for it, maintaining his machines, seeing to the health of the vineyards, and shooing pesky animals looking for a quick snack. As harvest approaches, things pick up speed, until the time the grapes are deemed ripe enough to pick. Then it becomes a race to get as many of the grapes as possible, before rainy weather/hot weather/strikes/labor shortages/migrating birds/random acts of God intervene and render the grapes useless. And it doesn't end in the vineyard. To make the best wines, grapes have to sorted (all sorts of nasties like rotten grapes, leaves, lizards and spiders must be removed) before being crushed and sent to the fermentation tanks. Even after all the prep work, Nature has a way of throwing a curve and destroying a crop-load of grapes, endangering the farmer's livelihood. So many thing can go wrong at any given time that it's remarkable that anyone would willingly underake such a risky (and nowadays, expensive) task. For those who do it right, it truly is a work of love and passion.

In 2006, I had the honor of working the harvest in my beloved Burgundy, for one of the largest and well-regarded wineries in the area,
Bouchard Père et Fils. I followed the harvest from start to finish, and even got a chance to work with the pickers one sunny Wednesday morning, in the legendary Montrachet vineyard.

To help you get an idea of what it's like to be a picker, I am reposting this tale:

Chardonnay hanging in Le Montrachet vineyard

Wednesday, September 20th was, as I was starting to say on a daily basis, another beautiful day in Burgundy. The weather forecast was for temperatures between 11° and 23°C, with clear skies interspersed with clouds.

But, to be honest, at the hour at which I woke up, I couldn’t have cared less about any forecasts. I was supposed to start picking in the Montrachet vineyard, and I could barely sleep I was so nervous in anticipation. I woke up around 5am, my stomach in knots. Looking out the window, it was pitch black, with just some hints of the approaching dawn. I ran down to the local boulangerie and picked up a croissant for my breakfast, then headed to Beaune’s train station. There I’d meet up with the pickers and the buses. The sun was rising by now, stunning gold and red colors filling the eastern horizon.

At the station’s brasserie, people were standing at the bar, drinking their espressos, and, in some cases, glasses of wine (sorry, no tasting notes). Smoke drifted through the place, as I suppose it should in France. People were in generally good cheer despite the hour and the cool, crisp air. Folks were bantering about, and some locals seemed surprised that Bouchard was starting the harvest already. I followed a group to the station’s parking lot, where several large tourist buses were awaiting the grape-pickers. There I met up with Christophe Bouchard, who handed me to a Chef d’Equipe named Nicolas. He would be my guide in the field.

I was surprised at how cheery the people in the bus were. Considering the hour at which most had woken up, they must have consumed prodigious amounts of coffee and cigarettes to be this wired. There were thin layers of morning mist in the hollows, and the sun was a fantastic ball of fire. Another beautiful day in Burgundy. The bus rolled down the N74 to the village of Puligny-Montrachet, where we took a turn and headed up the hill. Picking teams were already in the fields in some plots, indicating that other domaines were starting as well. Halfway up the hill, a small road paralled the N74, with an old stone wall on both sides. Vines stretched around as far as the eye could see. Our destination was upslope from the road.

Wow. Le Montrachet.

The bus stopped and Nicolas stood up front and told people to watch their work today, they were picking Montrachet and at 300 Euros a bottle they shouldn’t leave a grape behind. Everyone joked that perhaps they’d get a few bottles when the work was done. Really? That would be great! Then we filed out of the bus, where a pail full of sécateurs awaited us. Everyone grabbed one, then took a plastic bin and headed into the vineyard.

I was thrown right into the mix, with just a quick introduction as to how to cut the grapes. Luckily there were old hands supervising our teams and they showed me what I was doing wrong (lots!). Always cut the stem, never the wood, yank the leaves out of the way, cut the bunches hanging between the bottom and the third wire. The higher bunches are usually the least ripe, with some verjus grapes.

The grapes were large and tightly clustered, and tasted slightly sweet with a hint of white flowers. I crouched down and started clipping, grabbing bunches of big, juicy white grapes. Immediately, I learned a few things.

A picker in Le Montrachet

Leaves are my enemy.

They tease me with hints of the hidden treasure, ensnaring my hands in their vines, making me lose track of my fingers’ whereabouts, refusing to pull away the way I want them to. I grasp at them with hands wet from grape juice, the morning dew, mud and the blood from a clipped pinky (if anyone finds a fingertip in their 2006 Montrachet, please send it back to me). Grapes burst in my hands as I toss them into the bin, my sécateur quickly slick yet sticky from juice. Dirt covers my shoes, digs under my nails, somehow gets into my eyes, there’s a fine layer of moist dust on everything within a few minutes of starting. I am falling behind, but when I look around I’m as fast as the slowest ones.


Suddenly my movements become more fluid, more natural, my arm snaking its way between the hated leaf, the wire and the bunch’s stem. Clip, clip, two bunches in my hand, throw them in the bin, shuffle forward either squatting or bending over. Repeat. Hey, I’ve got the hang of this!


I’m doing great! Nope, I’m almost as slow as ever. Damn, here I thought I was nailing it. The first pickers to finish their rows hang out at the top, smoking and lazing in the morning sun, mocking the rest of us. I’m quickly spotted as a neophyte, though my black shoes (not sneakers, big mistake) are maybe the give-away. That and my speed…or lack thereof. I try to chat with my neighbors, but they quickly outpace me. People call for empty bins. They’ve filled theirs already??? Shit, mine’s only half full.

My body starts complaining at all this work. Are you kidding? Have you seen the old ladies with missing teeth, the retirees with beer bellies, the guy in midlife crisis, heck the eighteen year old girls (well, them, yes, I may be engaged but I’m not dead)? My body starts wondering what it’s done to deserve this sudden abuse. Deal with it, I tell it, we work out (sometimes) for a reason, right? Ignore the dinners of escargots, foie gras, boeuf Charolais and mushrooms. Forget the Poulets de Bresse, the almond croissants, the assiettes de charcuterie.

How do you forget it when it’s there to remind you every second that you’re crouching in the stony dirt? Mocking you like an evil guardian angel, not on your shoulder but sitting on your waist?

Wow, I’m picking Montrachet, but to me it’s nothing but hidden treasure I need to cut from its home. We’re constantly reminded that this wine costs 300 Euros a bottle. Are we getting any? Are there bottles of older Monty lined up at the top as enticement? No, not even water. Damn, I’m thirsty. And sweaty. And, judging from the flies attracted to me, stinky. A Frenchman once told me that to smell like you just made love was a good thing. I am redefining “a good thing”.


Wow, is it a tough job to manually pick the grapes. I have an enormous amount of respect for those that do, and who do it in general good cheer (though by their own admission, the weather helped a LOT). Their ages ranged from the eighteen-year old girls to the ladies who’d been doing it for over 20 years, and from students to retirees. Everyone flirts, jokes around and generally tries to take their mind off the work. The Chefs d’Equipes cajole, joke and push the pickers to do well and not take too many breaks, especially smoke breaks. So lots of folks are clipping with a half-smoked cigarette sticking out the sides of their mouths. Despite the back-breaking, foot-numbing, eye-gouging, finger-cutting work, folks seemed in good spirits. Complaints were good-natured unless something serious happened.

After several hours, when I have to leave, I am sore, tired but also a bit sad. I’ve grown fond of my little team, their spirit and courage has kept me going. I feel as if I’m abandoning them, leaving them to toil and broil in the mid-day sun. I know that while the work is fast and furious in the morning, it will slow down a bit as the day heats up and people get tired. So I head down the hill and clamber into a truck taking my grapes to the winery.

My driver, Denis Chantin, is also a winemaker in the Hautes Côtes de Beaune. With a constant smile on his face, he was a great guy to chat with as we made our way down the Montrachet hill to the winery on the outskirts of Savigny. At the winery I was met by Patrice Preney (Chef de Laboratoire) and Hugues Massu (Chef Comptable – Head of Accounting). Hugues explained that Bouchard asks all its employees, even the office workers, to participate in the harvest. It allows for a better understanding of what goes on and builds a sense of team spirit. He did seem rather happy to be out of the office and in the clean, sun-filled air.

Tasting first-press Chardonnay

The grapes were processed almost as soon as they arrived. Sorting tables quickly picked through them, though as the Chardonnay this year has been in excellent health there was very little to remove. From there they went straight to the pneumatic press, which operated at different levels of pressure to get different effects. This first juice tasted of slightly sour apple juice, with a grainy feel to it. That would be the fine dirt and other things that had collected on the skins of the grapes. Another press that was running had juice collecting at the bottom, so Patrice Preney let me taste that as well. It was a bit sweeter and rounder, with a smoother mouthfeel. Finally, depending on the health of the vintage, SO2 was added. This year not much was added as the grapes came in very healthy.

It was interesting to see how clean the winery was kept. There were people constantly cleaning, scrubbing, mopping and generally trying to maintain a relatively sanitary condition. Safety was also a key point, Hugues stressed, pointing to the CO2 alarms and the harness that the guy who rakes the grapes in the press has to wear. He said that Bouchard has all winery workers go through a safety regimen before the harvest, and everyone is constantly reminded to be careful.

And I can understand why. Folks are stressed and on edge, even in a good vintage. They have a ton of work to do and a very short amount of time to do it. By now I was pooped, my feet hurt, my back was killing me, and my pinky smarted. I went back to Beaune and was so tired that I didn’t eat (though I did have a half-bottle of something or other).

So there you have it. Sounds fun, eh?

Pictures from that trip can be found HERE, no need to sign in, just click on the first photo.