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Lusting for Wine: A Dude’s (or Lady’s) Guide to Wine Smarts – Part 1

There are certain things you need to know in life to be a successful and functioning adult human: how to change a tire, how to play poker, how to do laundry, how to handle your finances, basic cooking skills (lustforcooking.com!), AND, basic knowledge of liquor and wine. This blog series is about wine. You don’t have to be a sommelier (sommeli-what?) to appreciate amazing wine. Unlike distilled liquors and beer which are designed to taste exactly the same with every single bottle you buy, every wine bottle is distinct. Not just every different wine label or different vintage; every single bottle tastes, smells, looks, and feels different. This is because wine is a living thing. Millennials drink more wine than any other generation. They are changing the wine industry and how wine is sold. If you want to keep up, keep reading. 

So if you love wine but still buy bottles based on the picture on the label, then this is the blog for you. I’m not going to make you an expert or a snob, but I will make you wine-intelligent. In the next few posts I will give you enough wine knowledge to understand how to read a label, how to order, what makes a bottle good (or awful), which grapes are which and how they behave, how to taste wine, how wine is made, and provide just enough lingo to make sure you never sound like a jackass while out at a nice restaurant with your lady (or dude or whatever).

So you’re like, “Hey Dude, that’s all fancy and stuff, but I just want to know how to pick out a bottle to impress my date tonight.” Not. A. Problem.

Part 1: How to read a wine label.

Buying wine based on the pretty picture or clever name on the label is like buying a beer because the beer can turns blue when it’s cold.  Wine label scribblings may seem random, but they actually contain key info that wine-intelligent people will examine to determine whether the wine is worth purchasing. And that is key. Wine is investment. Some investments go bad. Think of the label as the stock portfolio. Don’t be afraid to examine it and make a calculated risk. Here’s a basic label:

aardvark-wine-label-1Please don’t sue me if you work for Aardvark. This is just an example. In this example, the label is giving you five (5) pieces of information:

Winery: Aardvark. This is the company that produces the wine. To be clear, wineries don’t necessarily grow or pick grapes. Many wineries don’t grow grapes. Wineries take grapes, most often grown by someone else, and produce wine with them. The best wineries are small and family owned, many going back multiple generations. “Bad” wineries are large corporate models that buy up small producers and sell cheap bottles en masse. Look up the winery you are buying from. It doesn’t take 1,000 employees to produce wine. The best wine typically comes from one lady (or dude) with her/his hands stained purple from playing with grapes all day.

Vintage: 2000. This is the year the grapes were harvested, meaning picked off the vine, not the year the wine was bottled or the year the bottle was released. Grapes typically grow from May to August of each year and they are generally harvested in September (with variations based on grape and location). The vintage is important, because weather greatly affects the process of growing grapes. Some years have better weather for grapes than others, and this will affect the quality of the wine. That’s what they mean by a “good year” or a “bad year.” In order to state the vintage, 95% of the juice used must be from that year’s harvest. Like scotch, wine gets better with age, but unlike scotch, wine peaks and eventually decays in the bottle. A rule of thumb is 2 to 10 years. You don’t really want a wine with a vintage less than 2 years ago. At 5-10 years you are almost guaranteed an amazing experience (depending on the grape), for an amazingly high price. After 10 years you are pushing your luck. More on how wines are aged in later posts. A trend as of this writing is un-aged, “natural”  wines that are bottled and sold the same year they are harvested. Some producers probably do this extremely well, basically making Welch’s grape juice with alcohol (please don’t sue me Welch’s). But if you sense my sarcasm, it is because I believe the best wines mature in flavor with aging. Don’t be afraid of dust on the bottle.

Varietal: Pinot Noir. In wine lingo, “varietal” is a type of grape that has been made into wine. “Variety” is a type of grape still on the vine. This label is telling you that this bottle contains the varietal Pinot Noir that was harvested in the year 2000. In order for the winery to put a single varietal on the label, the bottle must contain at least 75% of that varietal. This is important, taken with the vintage, because some varieties do better in certain years. More on characteristics of varietals later. Different varietals age differently, and most importantly, taste different. Speaking of characteristics, American wines are categorized by varietal. In fact, this is a uniquely American concept. European wines are always based on region with multiple varietals from that region blended in each bottle. More on that later.

Appellation: Carneros. Napa Valley. This is the location the variety was grown. There are actual laws that govern which regions can call themselves an appellation. Different appellations typically specialize in different varieties based on their climate. This label is telling you that this bottle contains Pinot Noir grapes, harvested in the year 2000, from the Carneros Appellation in Napa Valley, California. In order to put an appellation on the bottle, the bottle must contain at least 85% of its juice from varieties in that appellation (if it just says the state, then 100% must be from that state). Certain labels may get even more specific and state that the bottle contains varietals not just from a single appellation, but from a single vineyard. This isn’t necessarily good or bad. After all that vineyard may contain horrible soil and grow crappy grapes. But what the winery is trying to tell you is that all the grapes come from the same soil, good or bad. Wine-intelligent people are obsessed with terroir, a word that means the differing characteristics of varieties that come from the specific soil in which they are grown. More on terroir later.

Alcohol Content: 13.8% by volume. Now the fun stuff. American wineries are required by law to put the alcohol content on the bottle. Wines range from 10% to 15%. This isn’t just a measurement of fun you’ll have after drinking the wine. It’s actually a clue as to the wine’s flavor. Wine is made by breaking down sugars in grape juice with yeast to make alcohol. The more alcohol a bottle contains, the less sugar. This means that dry (not sweet) wines will have a higher alcohol content than sweet wines. There are exceptions to this. More on how wine is made later.

Let’s briefly look at another label:

caymus-wine-label-1

Apart from displaying a Caymus label as a not so subtle advertisement for an incredibly great winery (seriously) take a look at this label applying your new knowledge. Notice anything? No vintage right? That probably means that this bottle contains grape juice from multiple vintages. Not a bad thing. The label is telling you this bottle is Cabernet Sauvignon from multiple vintages produced by Caymus. Notice anything else? What the hell does “Estate Bottled” mean? In wine parlance, this means the winery (Caymus…delicious) grows its own grapes, and the wine in this bottle comes from grapes grown on the Caymus Estate.

A note on price: I’m deviating a bit here because the price won’t be on the label, but the heart of this post is how to pick out a bottle, and the price is crucial. Price of the bottle depends on many factors, including where you buy it. Wine is always cheapest in the grocery store. You can buy perfectly fine wine in the grocery store for as little as $10, but if you want to get serious, a good beginning price point is in the $15 to $30 range. An individual’s price point depends on experience (and, yes, funds). It’s true that the more you taste, the more expensive your taste will become. Not because you become a snob (hopefully), but because wine is subtle. Without a lot of experience to go on, anything over $30 is probably going to taste the same. And that’s OK! There are great inexpensive bottles out there. At a certain point wines hit a price cap and often get more expensive just based on the label. Don’t fall for it. I’ve had $30 bottles that were SO MUCH BETTER than a comparable $80 bottle. If buying at a grocery store or liquor store, decide your own personal price range and stick to it. 

But the first time a more expensive bottle blows your skirt up, you’ll remember. And that’s when you’ll know that your own personal price point just went up. I recommend you save those glorious moments for wine-tasting at a winery (not arbitrarily buying from the grocery store). The only time you really want to shell out for a bottle is for an old wine, or for “limited reserve” or “small lot” wines, which are bottles the winery has set aside based on their belief that they have achieved top quality, and can’t be mass produced. These bottles are almost always sold only at the winery. So if you are buying bottles at the winery, take the winemaker’s recommendation and don’t be afraid to splurge. But really the most important reason to buy any expensive bottle is always because you LOVE IT.

More delicious wine knowledge is coming. Stay tuned to Lust For Cooking.

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The Grocery Challenge

So in your wanderings of the Internet, somewhere between work and life, you may have come across a post filled with pictures that looked something like this:

Hungry Planet
Norway: The Glad Ostensen family in Gjerdrum. Food expenditure for one week: $731.71.

This photograph is part of a large and fascinating project put together by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio, in which they traveled the globe to photograph a diverse cross-section of the world’s eaters. All of the photographs, along with some very interesting commentary, can be found in the book Hungry Planet, but more on that to come.

Here at Lust for Cooking, we decided to take this project to heart LFC logo 1 copy. Inspired by the work of Menzel and D’Aluisio, we thought, “What if we photographed our own grocery haul for the week?  What would we reveal? What would we learn?”

It is no small task to display the contents of one’s grocery bag to the world. We found it to be a rather personal display of our eating habits, our food budget, and our impulse buys. It also forced us to take a hard look at what we plan to put in our mouths over the course of the week. As bloggers for the joy, lust, and world-changing effects of cooking, photographing our weekly groceries really makes us put our money where our mouths are (works on so many levels).

But since intimacy is one of our M.O.’s here at Lust for Cooking, we rose to the challenge:

LFC Groceries

This food was purchased with a strict weekly budget of $150.00 and includes not only dinners but planned leftovers for lunch and our alcohol intake (now you see why this can get so personal). Some may find this number very low and some may find this high. As Hungry Planet points out, a family’s food budget is relative to many factors, particularly location.

Granted, you don’t see us in the picture. Just imagine two typical, slightly pudgy, but adorable Americans.  🙂

So the question is, who else is willing to take this challenge? What will you learn about yourself?

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Waste Not, Want Not. Really. Part Two.

New strides are being made to cut back on food waste!

We at Lust for Cooking rejoice!

As we mentioned in our previous installment on food waste (to catch up, mustard, click here), there are two major holes in the system where perfectly good food slips through our fingers and into the landfills: The Retail and The Consumer. In our last post, we focused a great deal on what you, as the consumer, can do to help close this gap. In this installment we will look at some new developments in the retail world.

Denmark

Denmark has opened a new, non-profit grocery store, WeFood, that exclusively sells food that would otherwise have been thrown out. How does that even make sense? Well, the thing is, there are a lot of reasons, as NPR point out, that a grocery store would toss perfectly good food:

“Those items might include treats for a holiday that happened last week, a ripped box of cornflakes, plain white rice mislabeled as basmati, or anything nearing its expiration date.”

Through the tireless efforts of a volunteer force, those food items are located and transported back to WeFood, and then sold at a heavily discounted rate. But the store is so popular, across economic borders, that the sheer logistics of keeping the shelves stocked has become daunting. But they are optimistic that these details will become easier as relationships are established with other retailers. Still, as the Danes are passionate about conserving food waste (They’ve managed to cut their country’s food waste by 25%. No small feat.), lines are forming out the door.

Boston

A similar store has opened up in the Boston area as well. Daily Table was established by the former president of Trader Joe’s, Doug Rauch. They receive food donated by wholesalers and markets alike, making the prices substantially lower than other stores in the Boston area.

In addition to selling groceries they also sell prepared meals. The menu changes each day, as it is dependent upon what food is donated, but that way they can be sure that all the food that comes in goes to use.

Unlike WeFood in Denmark, Daily Table does not entirely rely on volunteers, but it still struggles with the logistics of locating donors and transporting the food.  If the experiment is successful they home to expand to other areas.

New York

Logistics seem to be the key issue for those who are trying to make surplus food available to those who need it. That’s where Rescuing Leftover Cuisine comes in.  They are a non-profit based in New York but also operating in 11 additional cities. Their entire purpose is to solve these logistical issues through such services as “food waste consulting, excess food delivery, co-branding services, and tax credit assistance.” With their services, an organization like WeFood or Daily Table can operate smoothly and at low cost.

Keep up the good work. We at Lust for Cooking salute you!

For more facts on food waste, and how to prevent it, check out this Australian based (and similarly titled) infographic.

Featured image provided by Pixabay.

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Waste Not, Want Not. Really.

No one likes waste. Regardless of your political stance, waste just sucks. It doesn’t benefit anyone, and it’s so not sexy. And food waste is just a travesty. We’re not talking about food that has spoiled or gone bad. According to a report from the USDA that came out in February of 2014, “‘Food Loss’ represents the amount of edible food, postharvest, that is available for human consumption but is not consumed for any reason.” Perfectly good food. So, just how bad is it? That same report had this to say:

“In the United States, 31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten. The estimated value of this food loss was $161.6 billion using retail prices. For the first time, ERS estimated the calories associated with food loss: 141 trillion in 2010, or 1,249 calories per capita per day.

“1,249 calories per capita per day” = Enough to feed everyone everyday. That’s a whole lot of waste.

That’s the problem. But here at Lust for Cooking, we’re all about solutions.

Looking back at the above quote, there are two major holes in the bucket, so to speak, “the retail and the consumer levels,” and things can be done at both levels.

  • In Italy a law is set to pass that will make it easier for grocery stores to donate their older food to charity. They can receive a reduction in “rubbish tax” in correlation to amount of donated food.
  • France takes it one step further, and has introduced a law that would actually require supermarkets to donate their food and would fine them if they do not.
  • A non-profit in Denmark has opened a supermarket that sells the food cast-offs at a significantly lower price to those with limited incomes.

Is it possible that any one of these may work in the United States as well?

And how about the consumer level? That’s the level that we have the most control over. We are the consumers, so how do we manage waste in our homes? There are so many ways, and one thing that becoming a passionate home cook will allow you to do is take control of the food flow in the kitchen. Here are my top recommendations.

It starts in the grocery store –

The absolute best thing you can do is pre-plan your meals. Going to the grocery store with no plan, and often with a growling stomach, can lead to serious impulse shopping. “Oooo! Smoked Salmon!” Yeah, that will probably get thrown away. And it will probably still be edible. Plan your meals for the week, and then buy only what you will need for those meals. Limit the snacks to those that you absolutely have to have.

Don’t buy processed food, or limit it as much as you can. It sounds like it would be a good idea, in theory. All those preservatives, it will sit on my shelf forever! The problem is, they do. And then when you finally have that impulse to clean out the cupboard, it’s all those boxes of supposedly stale crackers and cereals that get thrown in the garbage.

Compost! If you garden, composting is the best. Most of your veggie scraps can be turned into awesome plant food. So can your coffee grinds (filter and all) and your eggshells. Just remember, nothing from the onion family. They don’t get along. For more on composting, check out this site.

If you, instead, have a no outdoor space, are particular repugnant to plants, or, like me, live at high altitudes where composting would be a critter dinner bell, you can still put those veggies to good use! Put a large Tupperware in the freezer and fill it with your veggie leftovers throughout the week and then when you’re at capacity make a stock. Chicken, veggie, beef, pork, whatever. The onion family is welcome here, but I would skip the coffee grinds and eggshells. Just sayin’.

If you know of some good household tips to prevent food waste, or know of any region or organization that is championing the cause (food rescuers in the US?), please share in the comments.