Poured with Pleasure

Bill Marsano’s blog on wine and spirits and cocktails: "If it’s good in a glass, I’m pouring it."

Month: March 2010

Kosher Today

Poor old Elijah. The 9th Century B.C. (of course) prophet of Israel could raise the dead, call down fire from the sky and ascend to heaven in a whirlwind, but he couldn’t get a decent glass of wine. His was kosher and, says Anat Levy Rushansky, CEO of Israel’s Golan Heights Winery, it was ‘awful.’

It still has that reputation, but these days it’s almost always undeserved. My neighbor Faye Izmir, a Jewish immigrant from Turkey, is at pains to explain: ‘In the ancient times,’ she says, ‘the big difference was Kosher Chardonnay that kosher wine was boiled.’ Oy! Yes, boiled. The reasons seem lost to history. Some people believe that boiling (somehow)  prevented non-Jews or ‘idolators’ from using Jewish wine in pagan ceremonies; others say that it discouraged interfaith socializing. Such speculations seem desperate or (Ms. Rushansky, again pulling no punches) calls such speculations‘crazy.’ In any event, today very few Israeli wines are boiled, and Ms. Rushansky’s Yarden and Galil Mountain wines are not among them. Flash-pasteurization (I’ll come back to this a little later on) is permitted—with religious sanction–as a substitute for boiling. It’s indicated by the word meshuval on the label, and the wine’s taste is not harmed by it. I don’t know anyone who can taste the difference between , say, a Bordeaux that has been flash-pasteurized and one that has not. I’ve never even heard anyone claim that he’s capable of telling the difference.

Although Israel ranks 52nd in world wine production (between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Tajikistan) there’s more good kosher wine around than ever before. It’s made from the same grape varieties, grown in the same vineyards, vinified in the same way in the same wineries. It comes from California, Italy, France, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Spain, Portugal, South Africa and elsewhere because once the boiling is dispensed with, there are but two koshering requirements:  1] no animal or dairy products may be used in processing, and 2] no one but Sabbath-observing Jews can touch the grapes, wine or equipment.

The former requirement is no big deal: merely eliminate the usual egg whites, isinglass (fish bladder), casein and gelatin commonly used to clarify and stabilize wine. (A lot of non-kosher producers already eliminate them to make their wine ‘animal-free.’) As for the latter, enter the Flying Kosher Winemakers. (Who knew?) New Jersey’s Royal Wine Corp., the 75-brand kosher goliath, parachutes teams of these specialists into estates all over the world. (The estates’ resident wine-makers remain on hand to supervise, but they keep their hands in their pockets.)

And so today we find that there are kosher value labels, such as Fortant de France, owned by Robert Skalli, who also owns Napa’s St. Supéry, and there are world-famous ones, including Laurent-Perrier, Pommery, Kosher Moscato  Giscours, Léoville Poyferré and Pontet-Canet. Kosher Italians include Bartenura, Batasiolo, Borgo Reale, Cantina Gabriele and more. Herzog, Baron Herzog, Hagafen and more are California-made from Cabernet and co. and are kosher, too. (FYI, kosher wine is also vegan.)

‘Really, you can drink kosher and never know it’ says Faye’s roommate, who calls herself Witch Mazel because she is the leader of a Judeo-Wiccan coven. ‘If you see the little symbol on the label, then you know it’s kosher.’ (The very strict Orthodox Union, for example, uses a capital U inside a capital O.) Kosher-certification symbols,  on front or back labels, are typically near one of the corners.

Another source of ill repute has been traditional sticky-sweet American kosher wine. In the late 19th Century, waves of Jewish immigrants settled on New York City’s Lower East Side, site, in Kosher Chateau Leov Poyferre 1899, of America’s first kosher winery: Schapiro’s. The Northeast’s ruling grape, the hardy and productive Concord, made terrific jelly, as Welch’s discovered, to its profit and delight, but its wine had an off-putting ‘foxy’ taste unless vinified sweet and even dosed with sugar. Sugar by the long ton, in fact. How sweet was it? Sweet enough that Schapiro’s proud boast was "wine so thick you can cut it with a knife."

Gum-drop sweetness has its fans even now amongst those who grew up with it, and they are many because supersweet kosher wine, like communion wine, escaped Prohibition as ‘sacramental’ wine. It became, in its way, traditional—enough so that today some younger American Jews insist on it for Passover. It’s easily identified. Most is made by Mogen David and Manischewitz (mere johnnies-come-lately compared to Schapiro’s) and labeled as ‘extra heavy,’ ‘specially sweetened,’ ‘traditional" or ‘Cream Concord.’ It’s an acquired taste.

Now let’s go back to the past for just a minute. Flash-pasteurization kills bacteria and stabilizes wine—and so does boiling. Now consider that some kosher laws grew out of health concerns. So I’m betting that the ancient Jews of thousands of years ago solved by intuition a problem that no one would understand until Agostino Bassi and Louis Pasteur in the 1800s. And they solved it with pre-Pasteur pasteurization.


Photos: Three kosher labels. Altoona Hills’ status isn’t visible except on the back label. The Bartenura label shows the Orthodox Union’s stamp at bottom right, Léoville Poyferré at lower left, beside the ABV level.


Heavens to Betsy

In an uncharacteristic move, the wine world unbuttoned itself a bit recently. Said world is normally populated by a surfeit of folk in $100 watered-silk Italian neckties who do not speak so much as intone celestial sentiments like ‘Great wine is made in theRandall_Grahm by_Alex_Krause2005 vineyard’ moments before treating their juice to industrial yeasts, multiple fermentations and 100% or even 200% new French oak. Nevertheless, the wine world relaxed long enough to induct Bonny Doon founder and President-for-Life Randall Grahm (that’s him at right, guffawing maniacally) into the Vintners Hall Of Fame.

The official excuse, per the Culinary Institute of America, was ‘significant contributions to the wine industry.’ Chiefest among them should be his relentless, highly literate wit and humor; his outrageous puns and eternal unstuffiness. Not one to settle for cheap wisecracks or desperate puns (e.g. Goats do Roam), Grahm in his nooseletter and elsewhere would produce chapter-length hilarities inspired by literature classic (e.g. The Vinferno) and contemporary (A Perfect Day for Barberafish).

Much of the nooseletter’s unruly genius is preserved in Grahm’s Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology (University of California Press, $35). It’s full of wit and wickedness (“The Heartbreak of Wine Geekdom; Ten Ways to Know You’ve Met a Real Wine Geek”is one of my favorites); it also has subtle notes of tobacco and Gravenstein apples, and an abundance of long-chain tannins. It ‘pairs well’ (ick!) with Le Cigare Volant or any other of Grahm’s Rhone-variety wines. Or his Ca’ del Solo Sangiovese or Dolcetto or, come DoonCoverto think of it, anything else he makes. Grahm was shall we say somewhat sobered by the event, saying ‘I am of course tremendously proud and gratified by this honor.  But in candor, this really does mean that I have to at last buckle down and get to work.’ The mood passed, though, as he quickly added ‘Work?  Work!! (to paraphrase Maynard G. Krebs).’

Fellow inductees included Andy Beckstoffer, Zelma Long and (posthumously) Al Brounstein and Leon D. Adams, wine historian and author of The Wines of America. Not inducted: Barrique Obama, the failed herald of “change,” fell two votes shy because his Chardonnays are still so woody they could be used to kill vampires. Fellow hopeful Puncheon Judy fared worse. The producer of Motley Cru (‘made from any grapes from anywhere’) had offended the Academy before, as did the wine’s alias (One-Buck Chuck) and the exclusive marketing deal with Interstate rest stops. Insiders hint, however, that her late-night cable-TV ads, complete with an 800 number an ‘act now and we’ll double the offer’ come-on, were at last too much for the judges, who responded with a lifetime ban.

 Photo: Alex Krause

Corkage, Meet Forkage

Despite being Queen B (as in baker), despite having published a new book, Rose’s Heavenly Cakes, Rose Levy Beranbaum remains a sweet-natured soul, so the Forkage Charge came as something of a shock. It spoiled a meal when she and three other food folk, Nancy, David and Woody, recently went to The Breslin for lunch and insults.

What’s Danny Meyer got to do with this? All in good time, Thirsty Reader, all in good time.

At meal’s end they asked their waiter for forks and plates so they could taste the cake they’d just baked at the TV studio. That, Rose says, had never been a problem at Lutèce back in the day nor had it been one recently at Daniel (“not only did Daniel Boulud voice no objections but the wait person graciously insisted on plating it”) or Scott Conant’s Alto. Unfortunately, Rose had blundered into the Gordon Ramsay-David Chang Hostility Zone.

At The Breslin, their waiter shocked, shocked, Rose says. ‘After several reproachful comments from the 20-something-year-old, along the lines of "this is a restaurant . . . “ I explained that we

DannyMeyer atMaialino were all pastry chefs. I gave him my card and asked if he would like to offer some cake to the pastry chef. She wasn’t there so I offered him a taste. "I don’t do that kind of thing" he replied and strode off with his nose in the air.’

When he came back ‘he pushed four forks onto the table (no plates) and said he’d had reported us to the chef, who said we’d have to pay a fee for the forks.’ When the check came, they were charged at $25.

As the group left, Rose says, ‘Nancy observed that “Danny Meyer would never do such a thing!” (Danny is known in the industry as the “king of hospitality" and is loved by all). And then, only hours later, David received the following amazingly coincidental e-mail:

Dear Friends,

For years we have received an increasing number of requests from friends asking to learn our recipe for creating the consistent feeling of hospitality patrons have come to expect from our restaurants. I am thrilled to announce the newest member of our USHG family: Hospitality Quotient, a learning business for individuals and organizations who want to understand and apply the transformational power of hospitality . . . .

The e-mail was signed Warm regards, Danny Meyer

Credits: Flighto Bandido, Atelier Rhamsie; Danny Meyer (at his new Roman trattoria, Maialino) by Ellen Silverman


Fleeced in Flight by Delta?

Or, Bandit at 12 O’Clock High!


  Last November, flying Delta home from Italy, the P.A. announced a robbery in coach.

U.S. carriers rob you whenever possible; still, Delta’s in-flight stick-up struck me as an innovation: when a stewardess announced “beverage service” and recited the bar menu, she said wine would cost $7 (which borders on theft) or €7 (a Madoffian rip-off). At $1.49US to the euro, European passengers would pay $10.43US for 187ml/6oz of wine (equivalent to $41.72 per standard 750ml/25oz bottle). Anyone handing over a €10 bill got $3US in change (worth only €2), and so paid $11.92 (bottle equivalent $47.68).

The wine, by the way, was Redwood Creek (Cab or Merlot, I forget which, and I refused to buy it). Made by Frei Bros. of Modesto, R.C. is a nice, well-made line of value wines that give the custRedwoodCreekLabelomer what he pays for and even a little more (at

thebarrelroom.com, R.C.’s 2008 Cabernet, Zin, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc are $7.99 bottle/$95.88 case). The wines have many loyal fans but I suspect neither they nor winemaker Cal Dennison would put them in the $48 class.

In Beverage Media, the undisputed bible of the trade, I found R.C. 187’s wholesaling for $1.33 each. Then I made two calls. First I called Max Nicht, the German nihilist and sometime "Wurst King" of Bavaria. Max, who is also the wine-buyer for another U.S. carrier (and one of Delta’s competitors), wasn’t fazed by what I’ve just told you,  and he added “actually, airlines pay less than wholesale.”

Then, because it’s possible mine ears had deceived me, I called Delta PR for the traditional price-check-at-register 6. A chirpy young thing there was delighted to hear of my interest in Delta’s wine program—even when I mentioned pricing—and promised that the person who knew all about it would call me back soon.

If anyone ever calls back I’ll also ask about the price they’re charging for Pringles: 2.6oz, $3. Or €3 ($4.50US).

Zin! Went the Strings of My Heart

Joel Peterson, founder-winemaker of Ravenswood since 1976, is as good for a quote as he is for a zin. I first met him at a tasting about a decade ago; a bunch of riffraff, layabouts and lowlifes (read: wine writers) had fallen to discussing Brettanomyces bruxellensis a.k.a. Brett.

It had just begun making news as the cause of the aroma, a.k.a. stench, the polite call "barnyard" and Voltaire called merde in some Burgundy and Rhone reds. Without skipping a beat Joel looked up to say "We used to call it gout de terroir. Now we known it’s just dirty wine-making."

Recently run to earth by the relentless Lisa Klinck-Shea, I joined Joel PetersonRavenswood1him and some of my blameless-hence-nameless posse to score a free lunch while tasting some 2007s and shyly mooning over Jessica Lange. (Of whom more anon.) The site: Gramercy Tavern, a long-time Zagat champion. GT’s staff is attentive, knows how to pour, doesn’t fuss about and never comes begging you to surrender glasses that are still half full because they’re running out id stems below stairs. In fact, you can ask for and be sure of getting extra stems as needed. As is shortly to be seen.

Poured with Pleasure were seven single-vineyard wines. Six were Zins: Dickerson and Big River (the former Napa, the latter Alexander Valley, both 100%), and the blended Belloni (Russian River), Barricia and Old Hill (both Sonoma Valley) and Teldeschi

(Dry Creek Valley). The seventh was Pickberry (Sonoma Mountain), a Cab- Merlot blend. All are $35 each save for Pickberry ($50) and Old Hill ($60), but if we are far from the bargain basement here, note that costs rise with the making of small lots (these average 1800 cases each), organic certification (Old Hill) and old, low-yielding vines. The best things in life ain’t free, but there is always Ravenswood Vintners Blend, which is about $10 and nothing to sneeze at. In fact, it’s a delight.

The above, by the way, are in wide distribution. Several single-vineyards are available only at the winery, including Cooke, Todd, Bedrock, Ravenswood Estate and Chauvet (all Sonoma Valley) and Distasio (Amador County) are all Zins, and there’s also Angeli, an PIC Ravenswood snake signAlexander Valley Carignane) Peterson calls "almost Zinfandel."

Peterson’s mantra, for which boldface is a necessity, has long been No Wimpy Wines! and this selection lived up to it. Still, the alcohol, always plentiful in Zin (it ran from 14.2% to 15% at our table) did not intrude, as in many other red Californians. Other Zin sins (none committed here) are too much residual sugar and enough oak to make a camp stool.

The blends come from vineyards of "mixed blacks"–Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet–which Peterson says made up the ‘California Claret’ of the 19th Century. For lagniappe he poured his version of that wine, which he calls Icon ($75). The surprise is that Carignane is, for 2007, its lead grape at 36%.

Ravenswood’s vineyards are full of old vines or rattle-snakes or stories or all of the above. To buy Ricardo Belloni’s vineyard Peterson had to placate Belloni by promising to save him enough grapes every year so he could make his own wine. Done and done! Then one year Belloni didn’t come to pick up his grapes. When Peterson called to ask why, "he admitted he liked my wine better than his own." Barricia, Peterson’s favorite vineyard, is named for its current owners Patricia and Barbara; it once belonged to Sonoma farmer and Civil War General Fighting Joe Hooker. Teldeschi has many vines planted pre-Prohibition, some dating to 1900. The younger ones are from the 1950s.

We’d begun at noon and were threatening 4 when we broke up, with Peterson feeling best pleased with the growth in American wine consumption. ‘When I started out,’ Joel says ‘you didn’t drink wine in this country without a vowel at the end of your name, and now we’re nip-and-tuck with beer.’

Oh, yeah–Jessica Lange. One of us spotted the Rose of Cloquet, Minn. and a companion at a corner table hard by. Her two Oscars and recently mended collarbone seemed worthy of celebration to me. The wine steward briskly provided two more stems and I took it upon myself to present them along with the hope that she’d enjoy a taste of Barricia. She accepted, without calling Security. My companions were horrified, of course, in full ‘Heavens to Betsy!’ mode, pretending they weren’t at the same table, until she stopped by our table on her way out and graciously thanked me. Very graciously.

Then they were all ga-ga.