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Tipping and Restaurant Service: Thoughts on the Pete Wells' Article in the NY Times, and Some Stories

Date: Tue, Sep 10, 2013 Wine Tasting

A week ago the NY Times published dining critic Pete Wells' thought provoking piece on tipping in restaurants. In the article Wells argues that our current system of tipping does not have an impact on the quality of service we receive and that we should consider changing the way servers are compensated. He points out additional factors that he suggests might lead restaurants to do away with the current system, including lawsuits and cultural issues within restaurants.

This is not a long article and worth reading, if you haven't already. Tipping is one of those things that everyone has an opinion on. At of the time of this writing, the Times piece has generated 474 comments. I want to share some of my thoughts after reading the article.

The economics behind the tipping question are complicated and I do not fully understand them, especially with regard to the equity questions raised in sharing tips with cooks, bartenders, and other staff. But I do think that it is worth asking this: why are we using the tipping system we use? Is our goal to ensure that servers are fairly compensated? Is our goal to provide servers with an incentive to give high quality service? Is our goal to allow customers to express their appreciation for services rendered? Is it a combination of the above?

If the goal is purely about compensation of servers, then the system does not make sense. I am "served" by many people during the week, and most of them are compensated by their employers, not by me. The man at the hardware store helped me the other day to figure out how I should go about building some shelving for a closet. I paid for the lumber. His employer paid him. I felt good about the service I received and so I will return to that store the next time I need hardware.

Why do we accept the notion that each of us must help to compensate a server at a restaurant, or the driver of a taxi, but not the employee at the hardware store or behind the desk at a medical office? If we are trying to ensure that servers are fairly compensated, then let's allow the labor market to function without the tipping intervention. But compensation isn't the goal, purely. It's also about restaurants lowering labor costs, and it's completely rational for them to try to do so using any legal means.

One of Wells' main points is that the system fails as a way to create the incentive for servers to provide high quality service, and he gives several good reasons for this. The problem is, a system in which tipping is not allowed or not customary also does nothing to create the incentive for good service. And this is the thing that I wish we would talk about more when we talk about the relationship between service quality and tipping.

The way to create the incentive for servers to provide high quality service is for restaurants to evaluate servers based on their performance. A good service manager ensures that servers are properly trained and faithfully implement the restaurant's hospitality policies. A server that repeatedly fails to do so would not remain on staff. A service manager would be replaced if his or her servers too often fail to provide a high quality service standard.

In a tipping-as-compensation system, as most of our restaurants currently use, management should evaluate servers performance using qualitative data, not simply by looking at tips as a percentage of sales. Tip percentage is often not a reliable indicator of the quality of service the customer feels they have received. In a system that fully compensates servers via salary, as in most of Europe and now at some US restaurants, managers cannot rely on tip percentage as a means of evaluating servers and must therefore use other methods. Just like the manager at the hardware store does when evaluating the service provided by his or her employees.

Many of us feel as though our tipping system all too often allows restaurants to ignore their hospitality management responsibilities. They assume that customers handle this job for them, via tipping.
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When I was 18, over the summer after my first year of college, I worked as a waiter in Manhattan at a restaurant called The Lion's Rock. I had no prior experience and I still have no idea why they manager hired me. I trailed another waiter for one shift, but otherwise received no service training. Then I was given a full schedule. It was a busy restaurant in the summer with a huge outdoor section, and we pooled our tips - tips were added up at the end of the night and shared by all waiters, after tipping out the bartender at 15% of the total. This tip pooling gave me the incentive to help serve tables that were not "my" tables, because I was impacted by the tip at that table. One summer evening I was delivering food to a well-dressed couple on the patio, and as I put the plate down in front of the man I tilted it too far and spilled sauce onto his lap. Not just a little bit of sauce. It was everywhere, comical in proportion. I apologized profusely, brought napkins and seltzer, apologized again, and felt truly awful. They were nice about it and they left me a big tip - over 20%, perhaps because they sensed that I would soon be unemployed. I have no idea if the manager offered to pay their dry-cleaning bill. In fact, the manager never spoke with me about the incident.

After I graduated from college I worked at another Upper East Side restaurant that no longer exists, called May We. I worked there for almost a year while trying to figure out what to do with my life. I'm sure that I cleared plates before all diners were finished and committed many other service atrocities - I received no training whatsoever. Anyway, we pooled tips there too, and there was no turnover in the waitstaff while I worked there. After a few months I noticed that I was consistently earning more money in tips and at a higher tip percentage than some other servers, and yet we shared tips equally. The manager never noticed, or if she did notice she never did anything about it. She also never thanked me when I spotted Ruth Riechel, at that time the NY Times restaurant critic, at a table in the upstairs room and alerted the kitchen and management so they could pay extra attention to her and her food. No one had noticed her until that point. She wound up giving the place a decent review on her weekly radio show.

Because I've worked as a server at several restaurants I feel some empathy for how hard the job is, and how frustrating it can be. I tip well when service is good, but I tip less when service is not as good.

Not too long ago, and for the first time that I can remember, I left no tip for the server at a restaurant. I was with my daughters and a good pal and we went in at 5:30. We were the only diners in the room and there are perhaps 10 tables, all of which can accommodate 4 or more people. This is a pizza place, a red sauce joint in a small city in northwestern Connecticut. We had been there many times before. I asked to sit at the booth where we usually sit and the server (who I did not recognize) told us we couldn't because the booth was meant for 6 people and we were only 4. I told her we would move if a larger party came in, and that we'd be there for only 45 minutes anyway. She said no, I politely asked her if I could ask the manager, she came back and said the manager said no. We ate our dinner (because at that point there was no other way to get the daughters to another restaurant in time to also go bowling and get home to bed) and I told the server as we got up to leave that I was sorry, but I would not leave a tip. Funny thing is, she said she understood and that she was sorry.

A new restaurant opened recently around the corner from my house. The menu offers things like sweet corn hushpuppies, pickled fried chicken, chickpea chopped salads, house made pickles, and other tasty sounding things. A friend and I went and sat outside in the back garden. Right after our food arrived I noticed that my friend had a genuinely disturbed look on her face and I asked why - she pointed behind me and I turned to see a large rat on the ground, perhaps 10 feet from our table. It was sitting there contentedly, gnawing on something. This is a paved outdoor space, by the way. We got up and so as not to alarm our neighbors or cause a scene, I quietly told our server that there was a rat near our table. She asked if we wanted to move indoors, and we gratefully accepted. We sat at the bar and the bartender said "So you've met out little friend. We've been trying to get rid of him for days now." A few minutes later he said that the restaurant would like to buy us our next round of drinks, and so he did. I felt disgusted by the rat and it seems to me that a new restaurant should be a bit more concerned with my friend and I in this situation - "let me buy your next drink" is not sufficient. If I owned the place I would have comped the meal (which amounted to about $50) - I want to demonstrate how seriously I take the issue and hope that these two people will give my restaurant another shot. Or at least that they will not spread this alarming tale on Yelp, awesome Brooklyn Wine and Food blogs, or other social media. They presented me with the check, and once my dining companion left the bar for the door, I handed them $60 in cash and politely told the bartender and the server how I felt (without the social media part). The server apologized and said "You're right," but the bartender pushed my money back at me and snidely said "keep it - we don't need your money." It was one of the strangest restaurant experiences I've had and needless to say, I would never go back.

I recently had dinner at Maysville, the newish Manhattan spot owned by the people behind Char No 4 in Brooklyn. My friend and I were both struck by how great the service was. Okay, they recognized my dining companion and were being quite nice to us, but looking around, it seemed as though everyone receives that level of service at Maysville. I asked the bartender about a cocktail on the menu, but expressed my misgivings about the Jack Daniels the drink called for. Although her bar was busy, she discussed it with me and offered to substitute something else. I declined because she clearly knew what she was doing, and the whole interaction felt right (and the drink was delicious). At dinner the servers did not attempt to whisk away and deep-chill our bottle of 1995 Cazin Cuvée Renaissance (excellent). One of them did pour it a little too deep and fast but they were friendly and gracious when I asked if we could pour it ourselves. Servers appeared when we needed something, not otherwise, and we never needed to ask for anything. When I dropped a fork near the end of our meal, some one who was not my server - a runner (some one whose job is to bring food from the kitchen to tables and to clear tables when diners are finished), brought me a new fork within minutes, wrapped in a napkin, without ceremony or flourish - just brought me a new fork without my having to ask. We left a big tip.

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Rhode Island Wine Weekend, Part III

Date: Tue, Aug 27, 2013 Wine Tasting

We drank several exceptional bottles of Rioja on Saturday night. Each of these wines was a special thing, something that could be the focus of a special dinner. I've had a little experience drinking mature wines by López de Heredia, and maybe a bottle or two by La Rioja Alta. But that's about it. So drinking these wines was a wonderful way for me to get a sense of some of the other great producers in the region.

These wines also rekindled my thoughts about the objective an subjective in wine. The wine I liked the most was not, objectively speaking, the best wine. This is something that can be hard to wrap your head around as it's happening. For me, it can still be tempting to conflate favorite and best.

We began by drinking two bottles by Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, a famous Rioja producer whose wines I had never before tasted. You see this producer referred to as CVNE, which everyone seems to then pronounce as if it were spelled CUNE. The 1970 CVNE Viña Imperial Gran Riserva is the first Rioja we poured and I was blown away by the nose. To me the nose was the epitome of Rioja. I could tell you that it smelled of leather and blood, and it did. But that could describe Syrah or wines from other places. There was just something particular about the sheerness of the aromas, the way they came together as a whole, that for me was a classic expression of Rioja. The wine was not as complete on the palate, but it was delicious and I loved it.

The 1978 CVNE Imperial Riserva was thought by everyone to be the better wine, and as the night wore on, revisiting them both, I do not disagree. Also lovely on the nose, but with a more floral aspect, and more complete on the palate, the wine was great. It made me think of Burgundy, in a way, and I got hung up on this after the essence of Rioja that was the Viña Real. It's perfectly fine that I preferred Viña Real, but that doesn't mean it was the better wine.
We then drank 1981 López de Heredia Viña Bosconia Gran Riserva. I've had this wine several times and this was the finest bottle yet. Beautifully perfumed, incredible balance and detail, a truly spectacular bottle of wine. This wine is objectively better than the 1970 Viña Real, and I absolutely loved it. But I preferred the former on this night. By this time I understood what was going on - the experience I had with the clarity of the terroir as expressed in the Viña Real simply made a bigger impression on me than the great things about the other wines.

We finished with two very special bottles, 1987 and 1964 Marqués de Murrieta Castillo de Ygay. Both were excellent. The 1987 was noticeably young, especially after drinking the other more mature wines. The 1964, however, that was a memorable bottle of wine. Perfect harmony and balance, everything so well integrated, a lushness to the composition but the feeling was nimble and bright. Fantastic wine, maybe the best of them all.

And yet, I preferred the 1970 Viña Real! You know by now that I am not trying to say it was better, because objectively speaking it might have been the least of the five wines. But on that night it spoke to me in a special way. That's worth something too, and I am happy to be learning how to appreciate both the subjective and objective.

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Rhode Island Wine Weekend, Part II

Date: Wed, Aug 21, 2013 Wine Tasting

We drank Bordeaux on the first night, and it was a first growth kind of evening. This is because the guys we were hanging out with have been collecting wine for a long while, and they are generous people who derive pleasure from sharing cellar gems with friends.

The lineup:

1994 Château Laville Haut-Brion.
1966 Château Haut-Brion.
1970 Château Haut-Brion.
1975 Château Mouton Rothschild.
1980 Château Margaux.

Are you kidding me? Fugedaboudit.

I have so little experience with wines like these - with every sniff and sip I am experiencing new thoughts. And on this night, we also drank a great California wine. A bit younger than the Bordeaux wines, but a great wine nonetheless. The 1991 Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. If California used such a system, this surely would be a first growth wine. We drank it last, and it was fascinating to compare it with the other wines.

First, there was this utterly stunning white wine. White Bordeaux is not something that I come across very often. This is as good as White Bordeaux gets, according to the Bordeaux cognoscenti. I've had Laville Haut-Brion one time before, the 1993 vintage, and it thrilled me. This one, the 1994, equally so. It really takes a while to open up and get going though. We saved a third of the bottle and 2 hours or so later on went back to it, and the wine was so much more energetic, pungent in its aromas, and vibrant on the palate. The particular combination of smells and tastes are unfamiliar to me - things like honeycomb and orange oil and lemon sherbert, all atop a subtle backbone of stone. Semillon is a strange grape. And this expression of Sauvignon Blanc, this is not something that you'll find elsewhere. The wine was fantastic, and a rare and true joy to drink.

We drank 1980 Château Margaux. It was ridiculously good. One of our party was absolutely smitten with this wine, and he smiled and said to everyone who walked by, including waitstaff and other random patrons of the restaurant, "Hey - want to taste the best wine in the world?" It was sweet, because when they inevitably said "well, that does indeed sound good," he would pour them a taste.

This wine was 33 years old, give or take, and it was fresh as a daisy. The fruit is still vibrant and sweet. The wine was knit together perfectly, with a rich bouquet of fruit and flowers, and although it felt exuberant, it was also entirely focused and perfectly harmonious in its balance.

We drank the 1970 Château Haut-Brion. The 1966 was flawed. Not corked, but green and weird and entirely unappealing. But let's focus on the good news though, shall we? The 1970 was as great a Bordeaux wine as any I've ever tasted (not that that's saying all that much). There was less fruit, which makes sense - the wine is 11 years older. But somehow the wine felt more complete to me, even more perfect, if possible. The nose was just a grand thing, pointless to try and describe it. Full of energy, great depth and complexity, and a minerality that was so intense it practically shimmered. I know why our pal at the table was calling the Margaux "the best wine in the world." And I cannot say that one was better than the other because I do not possess the experience necessary to make such a statement. But I did agree with one friend at the table who said "I might have an affair with the Margaux, but I would marry the Haut-Brion."

1975 Château Mouton Rothschild was a very fine wine, but it suffered for its company. Next to phenomenal wines like the Margaux and Haut-Brion, to me it simply was outclassed. Not that Mouton wasn't good, it's just that those other two were ridiculously great. I would be curious to drink it again on its own (or next to some less illustrious wines), as in this company it seemed to have less breadth, less overall impact.

By the way, the chef prepared Beef Wellington for us to enjoy with our fine old clarets. I'm still not sure how this happened, but I now speak with a British accent. Could you tell from reading this that I have an accent now?

And then, we drank 1991 Dunn Vineyards Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. It was my first taste, as far as I can recall, of Dunn. Everyone at the table - everyone, spoke very highly of the producer, saying that the wine maker Randy Dunn does everything the right way, and that this is one of the great wines of California. And the wine was great, it really was. And I loved it. Again, I cannot say anything worth listening to about relative quality, that Dunn was better or worse than Haut-Brion, for example. But I can tell you what I learned by drinking them together.

Haut-Brion's beauty, to me, comes from its complete and perfect harmony. The component parts are gorgeous - the fruit is pure and delicious, and musky in its age. The minerals shimmer, the finish has a life of its own. And the overall effect is of great intensity, showcasing all of the component parts, and also somehow this quiet sort of harmony. Dunn, and we are talking about a wine that is twenty-one (21) years younger here, does not feel to me as though it will ever have a quiet aspect to it, the way Haut-Brion, or even the more seductive and charismatic Margaux, are quiet.

Dunn's fruit was darker, more brambly, and the acidity was younger, more intense. The thing that stuck out for me, however, was the structure - Dunn was structured differently from the Bordeaux wines. It has bigger bones, literally. The wine is built on a larger frame and then the fruit that goes on that frame is bigger. It's like comparing an offensive lineman with a tight-end. They play the same game, and at times perform similar functions. They can both be great football players. But in the end, they are best at doing different things, and maybe this fascination with declaring one as better than the other is misguided. We are luckly to have both. Especially on a gorgeous summer night in Rhode Island, with friends.

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Rhode Island Wine Weekend, Part I

Date: Mon, Aug 19, 2013 Wine Tasting

You know how you have those weekends where you go out of town to a friend's house where a bunch of serious wine lovers gather over a few dinners to open and share truly great old wines?

Yeah, me neither. But this past weekend was exactly that for me. I spent time with old friends, met some excellent new friends, and drank some incredible things. On Sunday, on the way home in the car, I drowsily told Peter that there were three major things I learned about wine during the weekend. And so, dear reader, I will now present part 1 of what I think likely will become a syndicated sensation known as Rhode Island Wine Weekend...

Big House Champagne and Grower Champagne are very Different from one Anther, and Big House Champagne is Good Too.

We arrived after a long and traffic-filled drive, washed up, and joined forces with our friends at the Hourglass Brasserie in Bristol. We were visiting a friend from our Burgundy Wine Club. He and several of his wine pals set up a 5-course dinner at Hourglass so that we could enjoy good food and wine together.

These gentlemen are an organized bunch. The very first thing we drank was a bottle of recently released NV Pol Roger Brut Réserve Champagne. Smelling and drinking this wine, I had a mini-epiphany about Champagne. It's not so easy to explain why this felt like a deep thought, but it did: big house Champagne and grower Champagne are very different from one another, and big house Champagne is good too. They are trying to do different things, and both types of wine have value. Sure, I prefer one style over the other, in general, but there are great wines made in each style.

Pol Roger is a grand old Champagne house with a rich history, and a cuvée named after a British former head of state. I do not have a lot of experience with the wines - I've had maybe 4 or 5 bottles before this evening. But I drank this wine and I felt as though I finally understood something about the nature of big house Champagne. The wine is not trying to showcase purity of fruit, as do the wines of Cédric Bouchard, for example. The wines are not trying for a uniqueness in expression of character or terroir. When well made, a big house wine like Pol Roger's NV Brut achieves a striking balance, a focused harmony, a fine-ness of construction. The point of the wine is how well made it is, how fine it is, and that it is made in the Pol Roger house style.

Pol Roger NV Brut did not thrill me (and that is a subjective comment), but I understood immediately that this is a well made wine. It was entirely focused and fine in its texture and flow throughout the palate, well balanced, and chalky and long on the finish. The wine had no deficits, it was not lacking in anything, and it was pleasing. And in this way it is successful. It reminded me of the Henriot Blanc de Blancs I drank in San Francisco a few months ago at Hog Island Oyster Company. A delicious, focused, and classic Blanc de Blancs Champagne. It did not thrill me the way certain other Blanc de Blancs wines thrill me, but its quality was unmistakable. It is classic, and speaks the language of Champage in its focus, balance, finesse, and chalky minerality.

If I were at a wine store or restaurant and faced with a broad selection of non-vintage Champagnes, I would not choose Pol Roger's over Bereche's or Chartogne-Taillet's. But that is because I prefer those other wines, not because Pol Roger's is of lesser quality. This is the thing that became crystal clear for me this weekend at Hourglass. Pol Roger is also a very high quality wine. We've been conditioned in the past decade to think otherwise, as grower Champagnes fought for their place in the US market and as supporters of grower Champagne sought to define their niche. Appreciating these very different styles of wine need not be mutually exclusive.

After we drank Pol Roger, we moved onto a bottle of Lanson NV Black Label from the 1960's - we were not certain of the exact vintage of the base wines. Lanson is another big house with a rich (and rocky) history. These are not wines that I would buy today, but older wines from the 60's and 70's are supposed to be of very high quality. This bottle was a great example - the wine was legitimately great. So well put together, so complex, so long, such great poise and charm. To hear Peter talk about it, he wine is was made in an era when grapes were picked at lower levels of ripeness than they are today, and at higher levels of acidity. And they did not go through malolactic fermentation, so the acidity is untamed, if you will. A wine made like this should age well, and this one has, feeling fresh and vibrant, with a mature and potent character. And by the way, this wine paired beautifully with almost everything we ate, from oysters to duck. It's absurd to think that a modern grower NV Brut would show this same character after 40-plus years in the bottle. But it wouldn't be trying to - they are different, and both have value.
The following evening we began our dinner with a magnum of 1981 Lanson Brut Champagne. Initially I found the toasty notes to be distracting and I was not enjoying the wine so much. But an hour or so later, after letting it relax in the glass, the wine was delicious. It was deeply saline, focused and well balanced, and it felt completely harmonious.

There is one thing that I've not said about the 1981 or the NV from the 60's (or the Pol Roger). To my inexperienced palate, neither wine expressed much in the way of terroir, not the way some grower Champagnes can. Peter Liem could make a convincing case for how the Pol Roger and the Lanson wines express terroir, and he is correct. But to my palate, relative to today's grower Champagnes of similar quality, the wines are more about other things and less about terroir expression. They are about fineness of construction, and this is a valuable thing too.

During dinner Peter said "Understanding these wines is part of understanding Champagne. Drinking grower wines without drinking and understanding these wines is like looking at modern art without having seem the classics."

More soon - we drank loads of amazing wine and I learned several other scintillating things, which are sure to titillate you.

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A Night in Detroit - Slows BBQ and The Sugar House Bar

Date: Sun, Aug 11, 2013 Wine Tasting

I recently spent a day in Detroit. It was a work trip. But two old college friends live in the area and so after work there was an evening of Detroit fun. And we had a great evening, which I will tell you about in a moment. But first, you may have heard something about Detroit in the news recently, something about bankruptcy. It's true, the city filed for bankruptcy. The thing is, and I can say this with only a little bit of familiarity with the city, Detroit has been a mess for at least 15 years now, and probably longer.

Office buildings in the downtown area sit abandoned. Entire office buildings. Neighborhoods are depleted of people, home after home burned out or boarded up, huge weeds and other greenery rising up and reclaiming the space. The new urban jungle. Maybe 600,000 people live in Detroit now, down from 2 million at peak, maybe 50 years ago. There are almost no new jobs. There is no smart way for the city to provide basic services, like picking up garbage, when perhaps only ten families live in a 5 square block radius.

Detroiters like to tell you that their city is so big that San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan combined would fit within its borders. And yet many of its residents do not own a sea-worthy automobile. But there are new sports stadiums, casinos, and a convention center. I hear about how the South Bronx is the poorest urban congressional district in the US, but it cannot be - it must be Detroit (or New Orleans?). Driving though this city made me feel like I was in a forgotten place, a place that was devastated and then never rebuilt. There is a set of large housing project buildings you see when you arrive from the airport on the main highway, all completely abandoned. Graffiti on top of one reads, in huge white block letters, "Zombie Land."

And yet the people I met at work were people who believe in their city and are working to help rebuild. And my friend from college who now lives in Detroit with his wife and two sons - he loves it. He says that he has learned to appreciate the beauty of the barren cityscape, the bones of the old buildings. He showed me the new park/performance space in the city center, office buildings that are now occupied after sitting vacant for 20 years, and new hotels, cafes, and restaurants. He told me that there are people investing in Detroit, and that there are good things happening, that this place is full of potential. After 24 hours and a bit of a tour, I can feel it in my gut - I agree with my friend. It is an oddly beautiful place. And there is plenty of room for intrepid and creative people to make their dream a reality. Detroit is urban America at rock bottom, and so there is no where to go but up.

Slows Bar BQ is part of the upswing. We went for dinner on a Thursday night and there was a 90 minute wait for a table. In NYC that would be a big turn off, but here in Detroit we were happy to hang out at the bar and enjoy a few pints of locally brewed pilsner. In NYC, why wait for food - there are 6 gajillion places with interesting food here. In Detroit it felt great to be in this airy and beautiful space bustling with people of all ages and types, woodsmoke in the air, good music and good vibes too. And then the food came, and it was genuinely excellent. Slows is serious BBQ, without question. We ate baby back ribs, tasty sides, and my friend had a pit smoked ham sandwich that was ridiculous. My favorite part of our dinner was when our community table neighbors saw me staring longingly at their St. Louis style rack of ribs, and insisted on sharing with us. Yes, they ripped a hunk of ribs off their own plate and passed it on down. There was also the check, which came to something like 75 bucks for four pints, a big dinner, and a few glasses of good rye whiskey which we shared with our generous new St. Louis ribs friends. Slows. I'm in, hook line and sinker.

After dinner we went next door for a last drink to a bar called the Sugar House. Photo above courtesy of Hell Yeah Detroit. Now, if you've been reading my blog for a little while, you know that I like to poke fun at the whole cocktail craze thing, in all of its hipster insanity. I mean, I like a good cocktail because I enjoy the way it tastes and feels, and I like the act of drinking it with friends. The idea of going to a hipster joint to drink a foodster drink, merely for the purpose of being a foodster...that doesn't excite me. So in NYC I would poke fun at the guy in the picture above, the dude in the top hat. In NYC it would be trying too hard. Although it does have a certain vampirish quality to it that might make it okay.

This guy, Yani Frye is his name, made us our drinks at Sugar House. He was disarmingly friendly and he exuded this happy-as-a-clam aura. He is a guy who is genuinely happy to be making serious cocktails for Detroit. And without a trace of attitude, regardless of what the top hat might lead you to expect. His bar has no fewer than 6 big game busts on the wall including several bucks with complicated antlers. The lighting is mason jars, the vibe is unmistakably Brooklyn. But why shouldn't Detroit have a spot that uses this atmosphere (and top hat style costuming) to communicate its aspirations as a serious cocktail bar? It's all part of the Detroit upswing.The drinks were really good, by the way, by any standard.

And then we walked past the abandoned train station to our car and I slept in a hotel connected to a casino. Slows was my idea, by the way. My friend tells me there are other places that I would love. Next time I'm in Detroit, which I hope is soon, I will take him up on that.

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Wine Glasses and Champagne

Date: Fri, Aug 2, 2013 Wine Tasting

Warning: I am about to write about an expensive wine glass, and I will suggest to you that it is the best of its type, and worth the money. And furthermore, that if you pay good money for good wine, you should buy this glass if you have not already.

Why the warning? A lot of folks think that wine glasses don't matter, and that appreciating good glasses is snobbery or snake medicine. These people are wrong - there's no other way to say it. It's not entirely their fault, though. There is an unfortunate snobby culture that has been part of the modern history of wine appreciation and people might mistake the idea that some glasses are better than others with the false notion that you must use a certain glass to drink wine correctly. This is obviously not true. We have all had memorable experiences drinking wine out of bad wine glasses. It is not necessary to have the best glasses in order to enjoy a wine.

That said, some glasses really are better than others. A good Burgundy glass, for example, allows a good Burgundy wine to show more of what makes it a good Burgundy wine. If you drink a wine out of different glasses, the wine will show best in one of those glasses - there is a difference. And I'm not suggesting this in a snobby way - there is no "right" way to drink wine, and you should do whatever makes you happy. But there is something to this, this glassware thing. If you are someone who will spend $75 on a bottle of Champagne, for example, you might consider experimenting with different glasses. You might find that the wines you care about actually show better, given certain glasses.

There are few instances in which I feel that I know which glasses are best. Here is one instance: Champagne shows best out of Riedel Sommelier Series Vintage Champagne glasses. In the above photo the Riedel Champagne glass is on the left. It is a flute, basically, and this is not the fashionable way to drink Champagne these days. People like to drink Champagne from wider bottomed glasses like the Zalto (the middle glass in the above photo), or even from a Burgundy bowl. To me, the flute is the riskiest way to drink Champagne. Bad flutes (which to me are most flutes) restrict the aromas and flavors. But this is no ordinary flute. It is wider everywhere, and widens even more above the glass's halfway point. I cannot say that I understand the science here, but I appreciate the results.

This is not my discovery, by the way, Peter Liem first told me about this. The photo above was taken at his house in December as we drank 2002 René Geoffroy Cuveé Volupté out of three different glasses. I went in with an open mind and there was no mistaking it. The aromas were more focused in the Riedel glass and yet still expansive and complex, and it just moved onto the palate better, feeling more balanced. I had tried drinking Champagne out of this glass before, but after this experiment I literally refused to open a bottle until I bought a set of these glasses for myself. This, my friends, is an expensive proposition - they are about $75 a stem. But I own some decent Champagne, and the value this glass adds to the experience of drinking Champagne makes the glass worth more than its dollar value.

The first Champagne I drank from my new glasses was the 2008 Marie-Noëlle Ledru Rosé de Saignée. It's not a wine that emphasizes fruit, instead feeling very mineral and earthy. In the Riedel glass the wine's subtle fruit flavors mingled with the more intense minerality, and the wine showed perfect balance.

Since then I've used these glasses quite a few times and always with great results. It makes sense to me that wines based on Chardonnay would show beautifully from this glass. I've tried several times now and the pinnacle for me was this:


The 2002 Pierre Peters Blanc de Blancs Les Chétillons is a stunning wine, and in this glass the aromas were positively regal and flowing. Incisive chalk, green tea, and floral aromas, just beautiful and complex aromatically, and very finely detailed on the palate, which builds in complexity through the finish. Amazing wine, and although I did no empirical testing, it's hard to imagine a wine glass that would be a better medium through which to experience this Champagne.

What about Champagne made from red grapes - would a Pinot Noir based Champagne also show as well? From what I've seen, the answer is emphatically yes. It's not about displaying the fruitiness of one kind of grape. What makes this glass special is the way it amplifies detail of aroma and flavor while facilitating balance, and this is not grape-specific.

Not long ago a few friends and I cracked a bottle of 2008 Marie-Noëlle Ledru Blanc de Noirs Cuvée Goulté, you know, just to see where it is. Although young and tightly wound, in this glass the wine's bright and energetic fruit shows through brilliantly, as does the vibrantly chalky floor on which everything rests. The next day I poured a small bit into a Burgundy bowl and a Zalto universal and in both cases, the aromas were more diffuse and the overall experience less pleasing.

The other night, on Peter's birthday, (and because of his generosity - he gave us this gift, on his birthday) I had the opportunity to drink a very special wine.

This is one of Selosse's single vineyard Champages. It comes from the village of Aÿ, from a vineyard called La Côte Faron. Selosse began the mini-solera for this wine in 1994 - there are wines that are19 year old in the blend! Until recently this wine was called Contraste, but Selosse has been releasing a series of single vineyard wines in the past few years and this one is among them, its name now La Côte Faron. The wine is gorgeous and there are many fascinating things about it. One thing I was conscious of as we drank it (over 4 hours) was glassware. We drank it out of the Riedel glass. But this wine is made entirely of Pinot Noir, and is composed of wines from vintages 1994 - 2003 (the current release includes some 2004 I believe - this one was released a few years ago). Would the inherent complexity, the aromatic expansiveness be compromised in the flute-shaped glass?

No, as it turns out. I didn't try the wine from a Burgundy bowl, but drinking it out of the Riedel glass was enough. The wine, especially after a couple hours open, showed incredible breadth, complexity, and detail, but in this glass was also entirely chiseled in its focus.

Here is a wine that I love, but have yet to drink out of the Riedel glass.Éric Rodez Cuvée des Crayères is a wine that comes entirely from Ambonnay, but it is not a Blanc de Noirs. It is a blend of a little more than half Pinot Noir and the rest Chardonnay, and it is a blend of several vintages - in this case the base wine is 2008 and there are reserve wines from 2007 back to 2002 in there. In this way it is reminiscent of the Selosse wine - the wine has an intrinsic complexity due to the high proportion of reserve wines. Okay, it's not Selosse, but it's not trying to be. And it is $55 compared with the $400 you'd spend on La Côte Faron if you could locate a bottle in the US. I look forward to seeing what this wine is like in the Riedel glass - maybe some experimentation with other glasses is in order.

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Mid-Summer Laundry List

Date: Mon, Jul 22, 2013 Wine Tasting

I've been meaning to write more, I really have. It's not as though there's been a shortage of interesting food and wine to discuss - it's been an embarrassment of riches. But I am trying to write when I have a story to tell, not simply to blabber on when I eat or drink something interesting. That said, the other day I was in Washington DC and had dinner with my pal Keith Levenberg, and he gently chastised me for not writing so much. He said that I shouldn't worry about writing the occasional "here is what I ate or drank" post.

I still disagree - I want to write when I have a story to tell. But sometimes one needs to get the proverbial juices flowing, and a laundry list post is a fun (for the writer, anyway) way to do that. So, patient reader, here is a mid-summer laundry list for you. Here are some things that I've been doing:

It's been over two years now, but I finally got my grill up and running again. Wow, I love to grill. With hardwood charcoal. The slow way, but the dee-licious and lighter-fluid-free way.

My pizza dough is beginning to be more consistent now too. It turns out that the small details are crucial - punching down, but not kneading the dough after it rises, for example.

I spent some time (and way too much money) with my daughters planting on our deck. For a while, things really looked great. Then it rained everyday for over a week. Then the heatwave came. Plants that like super hot weather are doing okay, like the poppies above. Many other things have simply wilted. Next year I will choose plants more wisely - things that like intense sun and heat. Because NYC in the summer is now essentially the same as Dubai. But there is no climate change, people!

There's been a lot of great wine.

Some of it fabulous and now very expensive wine from iconic vineyards, wines that achieved great heights.

Some of it more humble in terroir and aspiration, but capable of giving a different and also very valuable type of pleasure.

I drank a few wines that are beloved by many wine folk, but that are completely new to me. This one was utterly compelling.

I drank wine by producers I know and love, but wine that is new to me. This one is intensely sweet - a style that is hard for me to appreciate. But the quality here is simply impossible to miss and the wine was delicious and entirely expressive of place, even as a dessert wine. This is not an easy trick.

I am lucky to have generous friends who take pleasure in sharing their treasures.

And I try to do the same. This was my last bottle, and let me tell you - with 3 years of bottle age this wine is a finely tuned symphony of Manzanilla greatness.

It's been a great summer and summer is only a month old. The outlook for the net two months is quite positive. More soon.

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Heat Damage - a Brief Addendum

Date: Sat, Jul 13, 2013 Wine Tasting

A friend who is visiting her family in Italy sent an email to me yesterday:

"Hey, look what I found in my grandpa's closet... kept for 40-50 years there like this. Standing, no temperature control, forget about humidity... What a pity!"

Yup, those wines are from the 1950's and 60's. I wonder if anything in there could be drinkable. The corks have to be dry and shriveled. The wines must be oxidized, right? Who knows though...

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Heat Damage

Date: Wed, Jul 10, 2013 Wine Tasting

Summer is in full swing here in NYC and we are having a hot one. For the past two weeks it's been in the high 80's to the upper 90's and quite humid. I enjoy this weather, actually. Not for all year round, but for a few high summer weeks I think it's nice. I'm not a fan of air conditioning - much prefer to open windows and use fans to keep air circulating. The kids are used to it, I'm fine with it, everyone is okay.

Except, maybe not everyone.

This is my wine fridge. I have another, larger one too. When I bought the smaller one I did not have enough wine to fill it. But as they say, "if you build it they will come." Now both fridges are jammed to the gills. Funny thing is I feel like my wine collection is woefully imbalanced and that I could double it and only begin to be well represented in the things I care about. It's pretty efficient though - there is very space devoted to wines that are no longer important to me.

And still, I suffer from an ailment that afflicts many wine lovers. It is commonly known as wine-under-the-bed syndrome. In some areas of the United States it manifests itself as wine-in-the-closet syndrome. The ill effects of this disease are typically felt in the hottest months, and last week I had a major flare-up.

I should tell you first that I try to contain this problem to the best of my ability. The wines under the bed are almost exclusively meant for near-term drinking. There are, however, some wines that really should be in a temperature controlled environment. I say this because my plan is to age them and drink them years from now, when they mature. Exposure to prolonged heat above 70 degrees is bad for wine. It compromises the sensory experience one can expect from that wine over time. In other words, it is highly likely that a heat-exposed wine will not smell or taste as good as an identical wine that is properly cellared. Here is an interesting piece of writing on this topic, for those of you who want to get academic with it.

The other evening I was rummaging through one of the boxes under the bed and I noticed that a bottle of Riesling I bought with the intention of cellaring had literally blown its top. The top portion of the capsule had been cleanly severed by the cork, which now protrudes from the bottle. It was a separate piece of capsule but the cork pushed it off. This poor wine is the 2011 Schloss Lieser Niederberg Helden Riesling Spätlese. I bought two bottles in the late spring after my umpteenth experience swooning over a mature Riesling and lamenting that I own almost none. Maybe not the most promising vintage for aging, with its plumpness and relatively low acidity, but I drank the basic 2011 Schloss Lieser and it was great, and I know the producer to be top notch. Why not give this well-priced Spätlese a try?

Why these particular bottles showed the effects of the heat and others did not is a mystery to me. I found that both bottles of Schloss Lieser Spätlese were obviously damaged. The one in the photo is the result of excess pressure generated inside the bottle by the heat, I'm guessing. The other one had sticky seepage coming from under the capsule (but I drank it and the wine was delicious). The same producer's 2011 Kabinett - no signs of damage. The bottles of Weiser-Künstler Spätlese and Kabinett in the very same wine box...no problems that I can detect.

So, I looked through the rest of the under-the-bed boxes and found that there are a few bottles whose corks look to be in the opposite state - they seem as though they've been pushed down into the bottle a little bit. Not all of the wines, only a few. But sadly, they include wines that I care about and had hoped to age.


This one is the 2010 Stony Hill Chardonnay. I bought two bottles at the winery and was very much looking forward to drinking them in 10 years or so. Both have corks that feel pushed down. I imagine it would be safer to drink them soon. The other hurt bottles are the 2010 Pépière Granite de Clisson, and again, it's all of them that have the weirdly depressed corks. There must be something about those particular wines (or those corks?). The only other under-the-bed wine that I meant to cellar is the 2011 Gonon Saint-Joseph and it seems completely fine, with free spinning capsules and a normal feel to the cork and the lip of the bottle. But it also seems rational to assume that those wines have been compromised by the same heat that hurt their under-the-bed neighbors. I'll probably keep them and try one in 10 years. If it's no good, I'll serve the others to Richard Nixon while my other guests drink my properly cellared 2010's.

There is a lesson in here somewhere, but not one that I'm willing to accept. Keep less wine in the house - I'd like to but doesn't seem possible. Or, keep the air conditioner on when the temperature rises above 70 degrees - simply not going to happen. Learn to love my great and age-worthy Syrah and Chardonnay while its really young - seems like a waste. Pay a hefty fee every year for offsite storage, and annoying inventory and delivery fees every time I put in or take out wine - already doing it with a pal, but maybe I should invest more in this, and get rid of one of the fridges too. Win the lottery so I can buy a house with a basement and build a real wine cellar - I will start buying tickets immediately.

This is why so many of us continue to suffer from this painful and destructive condition. There are treatments that can offer some momentary relief, but there is no real cure.

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Alzinger - a Dinner Featuring Wines from the 80's and 90's.

Date: Sat, Jun 29, 2013 Wine Tasting

I've been told that most Austrian wine is consumed at home in Austria, and that most of this is consumed while still young. Whether or not this is true I do not know. But I've noticed that there is never any old Austrian wine included in the offers that flood our in-boxes selling great wines from back vintages. I almost never see back vintages on the shelves at good wine stores, and the only people I know who have old Austrian wines are serious collectors who have been following these wines for some time.

So, it is a rare opportunity to drink a mature Austrian wine. To drink a large sample in one evening, with friends and a lovely dinner - this is something that I've done on only one prior occasion. But Jamie Wolff, a partner at Chambers Street Wines, saved a number of bottles from a cellar that the store purchased back in 2007. There are many great wine producers in Austria, but Leo (and now also his son Leo) Alzinger is unquestionably one of the very finest. It is Alzinger wines from the 1980's and 1990's that Jamie held onto. He decided to invite some local Austrian wine lovers, who of course also brought along some great bottles, and to share everything over dinner at Trestle on Tenth.

Austria's Wachau wine region is rather warm in general and the wines, particularly the Smaragds, the wines made from the ripest and highest quality grapes, can be big and rich with alcohol that regularly hits 14%. Some of Austria's greatest producers, Hirtzberger for example make wines in that style, and they are great. Alzinger is known as a producer whose wines show less muscle. The wines come from some of the very finest vineyards in the Wachau, and thrive on their clarity and precision. In my rather limited experience with Austrian wine Alzinger is already a favorite (if not the favorite) and so I was more than a little bit excited to have the opportunity to drink these old wines on this night.

We drank 19 Alzinger wines and a few others too, and I will not try to share tasting notes with you. I will, however, share some thoughts:

---People like to say that Burgundy is a crap-shoot. The more wine I drink, the more I understand that this notion is utter malarkey. Or at least, that Burgundy in particular produces wines that do not provide the pleasure that is to be expected. If you sit down with 10 tightly grouped vintages of most of the world's great wines, some will deliver and other will disappoint. I think that's just part of the game.

--We drank 4 wines from the 1980's. One, the 1987 Riesling Kabinett Trocken Loibenberg, was corked. The other three were fantastic.

One was the 1985 Riesling Loiben (not sure what that means actually - maybe a blend of different vineyards in that village?). This wine was so satisfying and delicious. I loved its full, honeyed and mineral nose - so complex and harmonious, just gorgeous. The palate was all rock. Lovely, but not with the same sensuality as the nose. Still, this was quite the advertisement for cellaring Austrian Riesling.

Another was the 1989 Riesling Smaragd Loibenberg. This was even better, I thought, a more complete wine. The nose again was glorious - rich, honeyed, and very complex, and showing more finesse, more lightness and lift relative to the 1985. The palate was bone dry and intensely mineral, very expressive and long. This was a profound wine, and something to hope for in cellaring current Alzinger vintages.

--I learned a little bit about the differences between the various Wachau vineyards. We drank wines from Loibenberg, Hollerin, and Steinertal (and one wine from Hohereck). Hollerin seems to give wines whose overall impression is bigger in body and richness than either of Loibenberg or Steinertal. There is a striking and unadorned beauty of fruit in some of the Hollerin wines. Loibernberg seemed to achieve the same degree of richness and power but also a certain precision that is not part of the Hollerin package. The best Loibernberg wines, for me 1989 and 1995, achieved a gorgeous harmony between richness and delicacy. I don't even know what to say about Steinertal. It gave the finest wines, I thought. As good as some of the others were, the best Steinertals were just better.

--Vintages...1994 seems not to have held up well for the Alzinger wines. 2001 also - I found those wines to be oxidized and problematic (others liked them). 1999 was uclear - we drank Liebenberg and Steinertal Gruner Veltliner and if the Liebenberg was representative then it was not terribly successful. Steinertal was good but felt a little heavy and showed a bit of heat. Perhaps the warmer vintages are not the best ones at Alzinger? 1995 seems to be a great vintage for these wines. Vintage charts should probably not be treated as gospel when thinking about Alzinger wines.
--We drank these wines with a variety of dishes, many were hearty and pungent, including a whole roast pig. The wines more than held their own.

--Although there were some disappointing wines, those that were good were so good! This evening renewed my commitment to buy and cellar some of the great Austrian Rieslings each year.

Okay, a few tasting notes on wines that I liked:

1993 Alzinger Riesling Smaragd Hollerin - Fuller and richer on the nose than the 1993 Loibenberg. The fruit feels riper, heavier. But the wine is balanced and ultimately lovely and quite complex. The fruit here is beautiful.

1995 Alzinger Riesling Smaragd Hollerin - The most balanced and compelling of the Hollerin wines. Still shows that bigness, but also a more perfect sense of harmony. Wonderful wine and if there weren't 23 other wines on the table this would have been the superstar of any evening.

1994 Alzinger Gruner Veltliner Smaragd Steinertal - the best of the 1994 wines, I thought, with an intriguing nose of lemongrass and fresh herbs like tarragon and anise. The nose had a delicate side and required some attention. The palate was not as interesting, however, and showed a bit bigger and with less detail than I expected based on the nose. Still, a win worthy of the name.

1995 Alzinger Riesling Smaragd Steinertal - Gorgeous nose, airy, fresh, and harmonious. Such complex and precise detail too. I was smelling tomato plants (I've been doing some gardening lately and I recognized the smell), pungent and almost stinky floral tones, and vivid minerals. The acidity in this wine was so beautifully integrated, present everywhere but never jutting out. Beautiful wine.

1995 Alzinger Riesling Smaragd Loibenberg - Clear as a bell, perfect harmony of smoky minerals, ripe and lovely fruit, and something like green peas. Subtle and graceful for all of its power. The palate is mouth-filling and intense but not overdone, and yet in contrast with the delicate aspects of the nose. Between this wine and the 1989 Loibenberg I learned that Loibenberg is something special (I thought it was all about the Steinertal).

There were many other wines and I could prattle on longer, I assure you. Suffice it to say though, that mature Alzinger...whoa!

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Domaine Huet - Recent Changes and a few Old Bottles.

Date: Thu, Jun 20, 2013 Wine Tasting

A little over a year ago Noel Pinguet resigned his position as the wine maker at Domaine Huet, the Loire Valley legend that is generally considered to be its finest producer of Vouvray wines. Noel took over from his father Gaston in 1976 and continued in his footsteps making the highest possible quality wines from the estates three vineyards (Le Haut-Lie, Le Mont, and Clos du Bourg) and in all styles (sec or dry, demi-sec or off-dry, and moelleux or sweet).

Why would this famous wine maker, this man whose father's and now his own life's work has been to make these great Vouvrays at Domaine Huet - why would he leave before reaching retirement age? In 2003 Huet was sold to the Hwang family and it was widely reported that Noel Pinguet resigned because of disagreements with the new ownership. Huet's wines are all well regarded, but it is my understanding that connoisseurs consider the off-dry wines to be the apex of their achievements. Supposedly the Hwang family wanted to reduce production of off-dry wines and focus on dry wines, and over the course of almost 10 years this created enough friction between Pinguet and the Hwangs to cause them to part ways.

I felt upset when I heard about this because Huet makes wines that offer us as wine lovers a rare opportunity - to drink the very finest wines of their type at an affordable price. Huet's dry wines sell for under $30 and the off-dry wines are in the mid $30's. And we are not talking about the world's finest Vidal Blanc here - this is Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, unquestionably one of the world's greatest white wines, when well made.

So with no more Noel Pinguet, does this mean that the wines will be different? I don't see how they could stay exactly the same. Although SF Joe, one of the biggest American collectors of Huet wines, told me not to worry because the assistant wine maker under Pinguet took over after he left, and made no changes. I hope this is true. Or at least, I hope that whatever changes this person makes are well-considered and come from years of apprenticeship and discussion with Pinguet.

I found off-dry wines to buy in 2008, 2009, and 2010, but I have not seen any in 2011. I hear 2012 is another year that might produce only dry wines. I would verify this by looking at the Wine Doctor's site, but whoops - you have to subscribe now for about $70 per year. I generally buy a few bottles each year, a mix of dry and off-dry wines. And I try to wait for them to mature. These wines, particularly the off-dry wines, improve with age for a very long time - many decades.

Recently I had the chance to drink a few bottles with just a bit of age on them. They were spectacular. One thing that happened for me after drinking these wines is that they reminded me of the story of Noel Pinguet leaving, and of how much I want today's wines, in time, to become like the ones I recently drank.

I drank the 1993 Huet Le Mont Demi-Sec last month with simply prepared swordfish during a weekend trip to a friend's house in Martha's Vineyard. 1993 was not a terribly good vintage and this wine doesn't get rave reviews. We loved it, though. It definitely showed maturity - this is not a vibrant and energetic wine. But it was all class, and pure pleasure. I bought the wine a few weeks before opening the bottle at Chambers Street Wines - according to their website there are still 2 bottles left!

Here are my notes from that night: Needs a little air to open up and then shows lovely toffee and gingery notes on the nose with a strong saline undertone. The aromas promise something rich and with discernible sweetness but the wine does not taste as sweet as I expected, not at all. There is plenty of acidity to balance it. The clean and clear flavors are pretty and expressive, but this is not as complex a wine as I've had from other, better vintages. That said, this is a very good old Huet and it was a pleasure to drink.

That same weekend my friend brought along a 2004 Huet Le Mont Sec, and we drank that too. Also, not considered to be a great vintage. We drank about half the bottle on day one and it was all wound up and hard to figure. Thankfully we waited to drink the rest until the next day. On day two it was glorious! So harmonious and fine, such finesse, such a rewarding thing to drink. The wine showed classic waxy and woolly aromas, apples, pears, honey...Complex, balanced, unmistakably Vouvray, absolutely delicious. Quite an advertisement for cellaring the Secs.

And then a few weeks later I drank the 1995 Huet Clos du Bourg Demi-Sec with a few friends. I bought this also at Chambers Street, this one a little over a year ago. Whoa, it was fantastic. Fresh and youthful, clean as a whistle, perfectly balanced, classic aromas and flavors, so complex and long, such intense material and without excess weight. And this also is not reputed to be a great vintage. Who knows how that works anyway. What are the great Huet vintages? Don't tell me 2005 (although I remember liking those wines). I hear 2002 is a great one...

Anyway, you already know the old vintages are great. But how about the recent vintages, anyone have thoughts they care to share on the wines? Have they changed, or is it still the same old great Huet?

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I Invented an Important New Word

Date: Mon, Jun 10, 2013 Wine Tasting

This is a big deal, honestly. And it happened by mistake. A few friends were over for dinner the other night and someone said that the term "foodie" is dated. That a person who uses the word "foodie" is a little bit charmingly clueless. For example, imagine that you are making brunch at your mom's house and your aunt sees you chopping chives and sprinkling them on scrambled eggs. "Oh, are you a foodie?" She asks. Does she think that chives are so outside of the realm of the typical home cook that your using them means you are a foodie? Or does she mean to say that you clearly enjoy preparing and eating good food?

We laughed and talked some more about words for food and people who love food. At one point I was trying to share an idea and I meant to say "hipster foodies," but that's not what came out. Instead, I said "hippie foodsters." And much as Alexander Fleming's mistake in the laboratory gave us penicillin, I give to you...foodster. Foodster!

I searched for the term on the internet and it seems that some one may have discovered this word at some point, but Urban Dictionary has defined it incorrectly, in my view. It defines foodster in the following way: "The unholy fusion of a foodie and a hipster." I agree with this part. But it goes on to say "Persons that need to be annoyingly cool about using non-mainstream ingredients or techniques while cooking." See, I think that a person can be a foodster without using non-mainstream ingredients or techniques.

A person can make whipped cream, for example, and be foodster about it. There is nothing esoteric about whipped cream. Canned whipped cream - we can certainly do better than that. But imagine a humorless 26 year old guy with a waxed mustache in a lumberjack plaid shirt tucked into a pair of dirty shorts standing behind the counter at the Great Googa Mooga who, after a 45 minute wait on line, treats you to a squirt of his locally sourced, antibiotic and hormone free whipped cream on a Hudson Valley grown buckwheat cracker. His whipped cream might taste great, and I'm glad that people will support locally sourced food products, especially from animals that are not crammed with antibiotics and the like. That's exactly what I want to eat. But this dude and his whipped cream, however, are still foodster.

Foodster is more about attitude than anything else. Same with hipsters, if you think about it. I watched a guy ride up to the food coop the other day. He dismounts, locks his fixed gear bike, removes his helmet. Red hair combed in a side part, red beard, glasses with wood frames, dirty v-neck tee-shirt tucked loosely into shorts, socks pulled high, canvas high top sneakers that were not Converse, something that preceded Converse maybe, and tattoos on arms and calves. He walks into the coop, and then another guy pulls up, this one with brown hair, in exactly the same outfit! Not similar - exactly the same outfit. I'm telling you, these hipsters arrived like planes timing their descent to LaGuardia. Before the second guy walked into the coop, he screwed up his face into a very serious expression, took a worn little moleskin pad out of one of his paniers, and used a knobby little pencil to write something down.

What I appreciate about these guys is that they are absolutely humorless about their whole presentation. It's as though they arrived on Earth this way - they were born in precisely the correct canvas high tops and with that gel in their hair. It's the attitude. They might be guys of true quality with a lot to offer the people in their lives and to their community, but the attitude makes them hipsters.

Same with foodster. Food can be of high quality, made with great ingredients, prepared skillfully. But if the attitude is precious, pretentious, or humorless about it's food culture aspirations, it is foodster. For example, Blanca, the second restaurant by the Roberta's team. It might be utterly brilliant food, but it is foodster. Atera - that place is foodster. Smorgasburg - that's foodster. The Red Hook ball fields food vendors, not foodster. Mayonnaise - normal. Hellman's mayonnaise - hipster. The Empire Mayonnaise store - foodster. A lobster roll is not inherently foodster - quite the opposite. But think of how little attitude you must garnish it with for it to become annoyingly foodster.

Foodster is a vaguely derogatory term. It is both a noun and an adjective. A foodster is a person who adopts a humorless and pretentious affect while jumping on the bandwagon and doing whatever all the other food hipsters are doing, like making their own headcheese from a pig who spent her life foraging in the backyard in east Williamsburg. Foodsters are the people and the attitude that the Portlandia folks are making fun of in "We Can Pickle That."


Here are some other things that are foodster (and there are gazillions - here are merely a few):

- food trucks, especially those selling Korean tacos.
- celebrity foragers.
- celebrity baristas, like Erin McCarthy (do yourself a favor and watch the video).
- restaurants that force you to experience a 4-hour tasting menu.
- $8 ice pops with flavors like plum-lavender or buttermilk-tarragon.

Okay, there you have it. Foodster. Feel free to fine-tune the definition in the comments if you like, label other popular foodstuffs and/or people as foodster, or to suggest other foodster/not foodster combos. I really think I'm onto something here...

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