Originally published in Food Republic

Hm, could it be . . . Syrah?

Hm, could it be . . . Syrah?

When someone hands you a glass of wine and says, “Here, try this Cali Chardonnay,” it’s hard to be objective. Without realizing it, you’re already judging the wine based on all the Cali Chard you’ve had in the past, or what people have told you about it.

That’s partly why, hands down, the best way to get to know wine is to blind taste on a regular basis. It’s easy. You don’t need a blindfold, though some ultra-literal types do, in fact, go for the bondage look. All you really need is some way to conceal the labels (wrapping bottles in foil is one method), so everyone can sip without any hints of what’s to come. This is how sommeliers train and educate their staff, and how wine retailers check their knowledge. Thomas Pastuszak, wine director of New York’s NoMad, uses blind tasting in two different ways with his staff. First, he conducts a weekly hour-long tasting with all the sommeliers on his team, where each of them brings a wine priced no higher than $200 on the menu. Then, he does a separate, “more approachable” tasting with the servers and kitchen staff. Ideally, your own tasting group has a fairly even level of knowledge.

Whether you’re a formally educated expert or just a normal guy or gal who likes grape juice, the results of tasting blind are usually pretty interesting. Even the most esteemed sommeliers get tripped up from time to time. And, that’s what makes it fun. “Sometimes you think it must be Chablis, definitely premier cru, super minerally — and then it’s Greek Assyrtiko,” Pastuszak says. “But it’s not like, ‘Oh, you suck, you didn’t get it right.’ It’s, ‘How cool! Now, we can tell our guests, if you didn’t know what it was, you might guess that it’s this.’”

Indeed, the general idea of a blind tasting is quite simple: mask the label, sniff and sip, then start guessing. But, as I’ve learned after several months of weekly blind tastings with a group of dedicated wine professionals, there are some “best practices” that will help ensure that the  experience is as educational as possible.


Keep those corks hidden!

Begin Broad
Start with very general categories of wine, picking a different one each week. Start with, say, Italian whites, then move on to Italian reds. Italy has many varieties, so it’s good to split them up. French and Spanish wines each deserve their own week. But, staying within national borders doesn’t always make a good grouping. Alsace is a great example. Though the region is geographically part of France, the wine arguably has more in common with stuff from Germany and Austria. Likewise, New Zealand and Australia generally make a good pair. If regionality isn’t your thing, you could also group by style. For instance, devote one week to sparking and the next to rosé. Continue Reading »

Over the past few days, I traveled around the Finger Lakes in the company of various wine directors and retail managers from across NYC. I had never been, though I’d enjoyed several wines from Eminence Road and Bloomer Creek, both small and artisanal producers working naturally. The trip was educational in surprising ways, and it affirmed what I’ve already begun to understand over the course of travels through the wine countries of Oregon, Napa, and Burgundy: that wine is a product of culture and political economy, and every bottle tells a story.

Around Keuka Lake

Around Keuka Lake

Up until the Farm Winery Act of 1976, grape growers in the Finger Lakes (FLX) and other parts of New York turned their crop over to large corporations like Taylor and Constellation. The ’76 Act allowed people to start small winery businesses, and as a result the region now has a robust and diverse wine production economy.

Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, spearheaded the '76 legislation

Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, spearheaded the ’76 legislation

Cornell University also played a huge role in the region’s development. Not only did Cornell (the East Coast version of UC Davis) create cold-hardy clones of various vinifera grapes, but students and researchers there relentlessly study every aspect of viticulture, from the soil to the vine health to new technologies, and disseminate that information. As one winemaker, Marti Masinski of Standing Stone, said to our group during the visit: “We don’t have hundreds of years of experience, so we have to read about [wine] all the time; it’s the fast track. We can’t talk about what our grandfathers did.”

Marti showing us how to prune the Gewurtzaminer vines

Marti showing us how to prune the Gewurtzaminer vines

That period of diversification is now, as we saw, opening up to a tide of experimentation. And it’s exciting. People are making orange wine, playing around with yeast strains (alas, wild yeast fermentation is considered “impossible” in the minds of many wine makers we met there, due, they said, to the cold, although Eminence Road and Bloomer Creek sure do wild yeast fermentation quite nicely). Winemakers are looking for ways to make something new and different. As Jeff, the 38-year-old winemaker of Johnson Estate, told me: “My generation and younger than us, we’re not traditional anymore, it’s, hey, that looks cool, let’s try it.”

One amazing thing we did: the sparkling wine maker at Dr. Frank, one of the oldest wineries in the FLX, gave us a disgorgement demo. It was really instructive to see the methode champenoise production up close, step by step. They dose their vintage wines with previous vintages, and make vintage Blanc de Blanc, vintage Blanc de Noir, and a sparkling Riesling.

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There were a lot of culinary highlights of the trip, and in particular I enjoyed the cooking of a young chef named Tony Banks, who normally works at a place called the Stone Cat, but prepared a special meal for us at the Red Newt Winery. While we tasted wines, we nibbled at a plate of amazing local pâté and cheeses, including some of the best blue cheese I’ve had in my life. Nearly every ingredient in Tony’s three course meal was local, save for the olive oil, a few spices, and black pepper. It was all creatively constructed, perfectly cooked, and artfully plated. With every bite, it was obvious that there was serious passion in this cooking.

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But I cannot forget to mention what, for me, was probably the highlight of the trip: a visit to NY Distilling Company, where McKenzie whiskey is made. We were greeted by the distiller, Thomas Earl McKenzie (coincidence that the last name is same as company name), a surly man from Alabama who told us, in the most endearing way possible, that he felt sorry for us city folk. Thomas has his own opinions about whiskey making and they are rather, er, strong. He’s a proponent of the old-school Kentucky method, which for him means no automation, no tasting, continuous distilling rather than a copper pot.

The one and only Thomas Early McKenzie

The one and only Thomas Earl McKenzie

He designed most if not all of the distillery at McKenzie. We had a great time letting him show us around and listening to him diss other whiskey styles as “buuuullsheeeet.”

Another culinary highlight: bratwursts with endless house-made toppings at the FLX Wienery. Go. And rummage around in that “secret wine fridge” for some gems.

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After visiting so many wineries rapid-fire, and tasting Riesling after Riesling (and some Pinot Noir and Cab Franc, plus a really great Saperavi at Standing Stone), I was ready for a break from Finger Lakes wines. But the people I met, the winemakers and chefs and artisans, were totally captivating, and I think the region tells an amazing story of economic renewal. If I could make a wishful prediction: perhaps, twenty years from now, more and more people will have found through experimentation that it’s it is actually possible to produce organically farmed, naturally fermented, terroir-driven wine in the Finger Lakes. Wouldn’t it be great to enjoy sustainably-farmed Upstate meats, vegetables, and cheeses, alongside complimentary natural wines? I have no doubt that it’s on the way.

These days, we tend to take it for granted that women are more or less welcomed at the top levels of all industries. But the truth? It’s still really difficult to get in, and get ahead, and two industries where that’s especially true–but increasingly less so–are food and wine. Why do food and wine pose so many barriers to women? It’s funny, in a way, given that women are traditionally supposed to be domestic goddesses, slaving away in the kitchen for hours to feed the family or host a dinner party. In the professional realm, however, men have ruled kitchens, where they often hold court through aggression and short tempers (though of course there are exceptions), and they have dominated wine cellars and professional wine accreditation organizations. As to the latter, I can’t say I totally understand why the wine industry has long been an old boys’ club, but I suspect it has something to do with normative ideas of masculinity that are wrapped up in competitiveness; after all, being a Master Somm is about being the most knowledgeable about everything. (Of the 140 Master Somms in the world, 21 are women.)

Food & Wine has just put out an issue focused on the women who have made names for themselves in these respective industries, and I have yet to get my hands on it but there’s some interesting buzz online. It seems that media and service industry people have been waiting for something like this to come along. And it’s unquestionably due because I can think, off the top of my head, of at least six well-known and influential female wine directors, somms, and chefs (in the U.S., that is; when I was in France I noticed an extreme dearth of well-known female chefs).

On Twitter, F&W is asking people to use the hashtag #FOODWOMENWINE alongside suggestions of females kicking-ass in wine and food who the magazine should profile. I gave a shoutout to Lee Campbell, the wine director at Reynard (and other Tarlow restaurants) who sparked my initial interest in natural and artisanal wine (although perhaps she’s already in the mag! I’d be surprised if not). I also thought of Gabrielle Hamilton, but then it occurred to me that she has been uneasy with being identified as a female chef, as a marker of professional identity. Which is totally fine, in my opinion–no one says you have to champion feminism just because you rock at your job and happen to be a woman. But I love how many women are going beyond the Martha Stewart kind of role and becoming industry rock-stars.

photo 2Last night, I checked out a special tour and tasting at the Kings County Distillery, in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, as part of an Art Lab series that looks at the intersection of art and science. Micro-distilling is, like making any other fermented beverage in small batches or without too much machinery, an art that requires a refined palate and a sense of adventure. Here’s what I learned about Kings County that made me like them even more than I already did:

1) Kings was the first legal commercial distillery in New York. It was only in 2009 that the micro-distillery laws were passed, leading to the proliferation of whiskey, vodka, and absinthe distilling we’re seeing everywhere. Kings was the avant-garde!

2) Whiskey love is a new thing. In fact, vodka used to be all the rage in the U.S. until recently, when suddenly a renewed interest in mixology seems to have propelled a whiskey frenzy, which actually led to a bourbon shortage, as well as ridiculously inflated prices on certain bourbons.

3) What’s the difference between whiskey and vodka? Both are grain distillates, but whiskey must be 160 proof or lower, whereas vodka has to be 190 proof or higher. Hence, vodka is what you drink at high school hotel parties to get blackout drink; whiskey is for sophisticated sipping. Continue Reading »

I feel like the restaurant Emily is kind of this secret that only hard-core Brooklyn foodies know about.

And they have some news: Chef Aaron Taber has come over to Emily from Red Hook’s Grindhaus (reviewed by the venerable Pete Wells), and he’s going to strut his stuff with a 5-course tasting menu on Wednesday, Dec. 10th. There will be three seatings: 6pm, 7:45pm, or 9:45pm. It’s $65 per person. Max party size of 6 people. Make your res by e-mailing: info@pizzalovesemily.com.

Rumor has it (a.k.a. the press release told me) that the menu will include, and I quote, “the likes of fluke, hake and squid, chicken consommé and smoked jowl.”

What is smoked jowl?? Will you go with me to try it???

I’m currently writing for Collectively.org, a Vice Media website devoted to covering sustainability and social change news, with a special focus on video content and social media.

Some recent work:

Send me tips – rachel at collectively dot org


photo 1-1It is difficult to get a dinner reservation in Paris. There is no OpenTable, and most Michelin-starred or simply hot restaurants are booked weeks in advance, as Parisians like to dine out and so do the city’s visitors. You have to call places, during specific hours in the afternoon, to find a table.

On my last night in Paris, where I was spending a few days after touring Burgundy and learning about French gastronomic and oenological history (a small and insignificant subject, of course), I was lucky enough to score a res on the same day, at Saturne, in the Bourse district. I’d heard it was very good and read online that chef-founder Sven Chartier had worked under renowned Parisian chef Alain Passard–and Chartier was a mere 24 when he opened the place in 2011, by the way–plus a New York Times reviewer wrote that the restaurant “is dedicated to elevating wild and rigorously sourced artisanal ingredients,” which is kind of like a restaurant making eyes at me and saying, “Come hither.”

Hither (thither?) I went.

I went early and dropped off a bottle of wine, knowing full well that it would be subject to a steep corkage fee. Did I think their wine list would be inferior? No, I did not; rather I wanted the pleasure of bringing a wine I had selected, having happened upon a wonderful cave in the Marais with a kick-ass Burgundy selection. I snagged a magnum of a 2007 white Burg, from Domaine de la Bongran in the Cote Maconnais; it was but a humble village wine, yet I had a feeling it would be a stunner. Continue Reading »


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