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Monday, 08 July 2013 12:21

The New Rules of Wine Hospitality

by Jim Laughren

Do you love entertaining and sharing great food, great wine, and witty repartee with friends, family, and co-workers?Wine bottle pour PicmonkeySan Francisco Travel Assn/Scott Chernis Are you planning those summer menus, loading them with scrumptious combinations of fresh fruits and vegetables? What’s better than a leisurely weekend brunch for half a dozen close friends, with an array of crisp, fresh-from-the-garden salads and beautifully cooked quiches; or a fun, easy backyard barbeque featuring grilled ribs, chicken or shrimp, with roasted corn-on-the-cob and homemade cole slaw? And who doesn’t love those wonderful dinner parties replete with delightful chilled soups, a stunning citrus-glazed pork loin or succulent, butter-poached lobster—all so perfect, so in the season.

Of course, selecting the right wine is... wait, wait. No. That’s the whole point: there is no “right” wine, no perfect pairing that will titillate the table and put everyone in vinous heaven. If those of us in the wine business have learned anything in the past few years, if we’ve been at all willing to pay attention to the evidence and confront our own false constructs, the idea of a perfect food and wine pairing for a group of diners is complete nonsense.

You’ve always been told that a mimosa is the perfect accompaniment to that array we call brunch—but you hate mimosas. Sharp, acidic, ruining both the orange juice and the champagne. Or, you love them. Well then, how about a nice Pinot Grigio and a summer salad. But so... flavorless, so unengaged with the shrimp and that sweet butter lettuce. Oh, I’m sorry, you say you adore Pinot Grigio?

In that case, let’s pour a glass of hearty Cabernet Sauvignon to enjoy with a magnificently marbled rib eye. Now that’s a match made in—what, you hate Cabernet with steak? You think it’s bitter and hard to drink?

Hey, what’s going on here? We all know a light-bodied, low alcohol wine like Pinot Grigio should pair ideally with a lovely salad dotted with sweet baby shrimp, and that rich, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon and steak were practically made for each other. Or so we thought. And preached. And proselytized.

But the evidence (yes, there’s science behind this) now tells us that individual palates are so different that what appeals to one person may be an abomination to another. It seems about a third of us are programmed to love sweet wines. Very sweet. In fact, these hypersensitive tasters find the hearty, high alcohol red wines that so many wine geeks think are the pinnacle of winedom to be absolutely horrid. They can’t help it. That’s how they’re wired. And snobby fools that we’ve been, we’ve laughed at their proclivity for White Zinfandel for so long that many of them have simply opted for cocktails, or a soda.

Other folks like their wines dry, i.e. without any sweetness, but prefer them light and crisp, even the reds. They may drink a big, overblown wine now and then, but that would never be their first choice. And then we have the defenders of the faith, the über drinkers hard-wired to think the only thing better than a bottle of big, broad-shouldered, heavily-extracted red wine is another one of the same. This group can’t stand sweet wine, aside from the occasional French or Portuguese dessert version, and they aren’t really enamored of those light, crispy numbers either. Truth be told, they’d just as soon have that big Cabernet with their shrimp salad as with their steak.

So it’s all been... hogwash? Well, kinda. Yes. Look around the world and we see Spaniards drinking heavily oaked reds with fish and octopus; Germans drinking sweet Rieslings with veal smothered in rich mushroom sauce; and was it from the French that we learned to drink Sauternes (as sweet and unctuous a wine as there is) with foie gras? Oh my. And should any particular wine that you like, taste poorly with any particular food, the just-coming-to-the-surface inside information tells us to merely add a bit of acid and salt to the food, and all will be well. Really. And it works. A splash of vinegar, a squeeze of lemon or a dab of mustard and a sprinkle of salt will bring just about any dish into balance with just about any wine. It’s true. Crazy but true.

So now you, and all your guests, are free to drink whatever wine you, and they, personally enjoy with whatever you’re serving. The new host or hostess with the mostess doesn’t even try to match the food and wine. Just be sure that sauce or that glaze or that juicy, marbled steak has a touch of acid and salt to balance its flavors and all will be fine. When you set the table put out a bottle of big, hearty red (maybe a Syrah or a Brunello or that lovely Cabernet), a bottle of something dry and light (try a Beaujolais or a Cabernet Franc from the Loire or a favorite unoaked Chardonnay or Soave from Italy) and a proud to be there sweet wine (why not a Moscato or a French Vouvray) and then encourage your guests to try them all, to drink and enjoy whichever works for them, be it Syrah with your melon soup, Beaujolais with the asparagus, or Moscato with those oh so gorgeous steaks.

That’s the new wine hospitality, and your guests will love you for it.laughren headshot Picmonkey


Jim Laughren has been distributing wine and educating consumers and businesses about the basic and finer aspects of wine selection and enjoyment for several decades. His second book, A Beer Drinker's Guide to Knowing and Enjoying Fine Wine, is reviewed in the Books section at www.tastecaliforniatravel.com.



Sutter Home Family Vineyards has announced that Erin Evenson of Brooklyn, N.Y. is the winner of their latest Build a Better Burger Contest. Though the finals in the competition were held the weekend of May 18 and 19, 2013, earlier rounds of the competition actually began last summer and the sponsor considers the most recent finals the conclusion of the 2012 contest..

Evenson took the $100,000 grand prize for her 7 Train Caramelized Green Curry Burger. She wowed the judges with her creative burger featuring sweet and spicy green-curry glaze, salty pancetta, creamy minted basil aioli, roasted cashews, and watercress salad during the cook-off in St. Helena, Calif. Erin Evanson and Judges Sutter Home Burger PicmonkeyErin in center, flanked by judging panel.

The panel of judges also named the Indian Lamb Burger from Mark Richardson of Snohomish, Wash. as the Best Alternative Burger and $15,000 prize winner. The Grilled Green Tomato Burger from three-time finalist Mark Pyne of Troy, Ala. and the Better than Breakfast in Bed Burger from Kim Jones of Bloomington, Ill. were named as the People’s Choice Award Burgers by cook-off attendees.

To have served a recipe inspired by the love of both my family and my adopted city, New York, is a dream come true and I can’t thank Sutter Home and the sponsors enough,” said Evenson.

The winning burgers were selected from 10 finalist recipes, and thousands of submissions.

Erin’s burger was really a mouthful in the best possible way,” said Katie Chin, Asian food expert and contest judge. “She captured the essence of southeast Asian cooking with the sweet, sour and salty flavor combination, and unique texture.”

I was bewitched by the hot mango chutney in Mark’s Indian lamb burger,” said Jennifer Beckman, 2011 Sutter Home Build a Better Burger Recipe Contest grand prize winner and contest judge. “It was absolutely wonderful.”

The 2012 Sutter Home Build a Better Burger Recipe Contest winners were selected by this year’s panel of judges, including:

James McNair is the bestselling author of more than 40 cookbooks and head judge for the Sutter Home Build a Better Burger Recipe Contest since the contest began in 1990, and now also serves as Honorary Chairman of the recipe contest.

Steven Raichlen is a multi-award-winning author, journalist, cooking teacher and TV host, and is often acknowledged as the man who reinvented barbecue.

Katie Chin is an Asian food expert, cookbook author, TV host, and food blogger of The Sweet and Sour Chronicles.

Kevin Kolman is the Weber Grill Master, from Weber Stephen Products LLC, the world’s leading manufacturer of outdoor gas, charcoal and electric grills, and grilling accessories. Weber is also a 2012 Sutter Home Build a Better Burger Recipe Contest sponsor.

Jennifer Beckman was the $100,000 grand prize winner of the 2011 Sutter Home Build a Better Burger Recipe Contest with her farm-inspired Screen Porch Burger.

Erin Evenson's winning recipe follows below. Other recipes from the finalists and Sutter Home wine pairings can be seen at www.sutterhome.com, along with recipes from previous years of the contest. The 2013 recipe contest is now open for submissions including those from California residents, who can once again enter the recipe contest after recent changes in state laws. Entry information can be found at that same site.

7 Train Caramelized Green Curry Burgers with Crispy Watercress Salad, Roasted Cashews, and Minted Basil Aioli

"The number 7 subway train to the neighborhood of Woodside in Queens is better known in my Brooklyn apartment as "The Crispy Watercress Express." The best salad I have ever had resides there, combining peppery battered and fried watercress, a hot tangy dressing, and roasted cashews. This is my tribute to this culinary wonder on a bun, with a sweet and spicy green-curry glaze, a little nugget of salty pancetta, creamy minted basil aioli, the crunch of roasted cashews, and a tangle of that beautiful, mythical watercress salad. Enjoy!"  – Erin Evenson

Erin Evenson Burger Solo Picmonkey Ingredients

Green Curry Glaze

1 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

2 jalapeño chiles, stemmed and coarsely chopped

2 fresh kaffir lime leaves

1 stalk lemongrass, outer layers discarded, bruised with the back of a chef’s knife and chopped

1/3 cup coconut milk

1/3 cup low-sodium soy sauce

3 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons Asian toasted sesame oil

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Minted Basil Aioli

1 cup homemade or good-quality mayonnaise

3 cloves garlic

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup fresh mint leaves

6 slices pancetta

Crispy Watercress Salad

3 1/2 cups canola oil

1 cup rice flour

1 cup chilled seltzer water

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 heads (bunches) young watercress, stem ends trimmed

3 shallots, thinly sliced

Zest and juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar

2 teaspoons low-sodium Thai fish sauce

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon Sriracha hot chile sauce


2 pounds ground chuck

Fat from cooking pancetta (above)

Vegetable oil, for brushing on the grill rack

6 French sandwich rolls, split

1 1/4 cups chopped roasted salted cashews


Heat a gas grill to medium-high.

To make the glaze, combine all of the ingredients in a blender and blend until completely pureed. Pass the mixture once through a sieve to remove any errant chunks, cover, and set aside.

To make the aioli, combine all of the ingredients in a food processor and process to a smooth paste. Transfer to a bowl, cover, and refrigerate until assembling the burgers.

Place a large, high-sided, cast-iron skillet on the grill rack. Add the pancetta and cook until crisp, 7 to 8 minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain and pour the fat from the skillet into a large bowl; reserve.

To make the salad, return the skillet to the grill, add the canola oil, and heat until shimmering, about 325 degrees F. Combine the flour, seltzer water, baking powder, salt, and pepper in a large bowl and whisk to blend well. Add the watercress and stir to coat.

Add the shallots to the hot oil and fry until golden brown and crisp, 30 to 45 seconds. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Working in small batches, remove the watercress from the batter, allowing excess batter to drip back into the bowl, and fry until golden brown and crisp, 45 to 50 seconds. Transfer to paper towels to drain.

In a small bowl, whisk together the lime zest and juice, vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, and hot sauce until combined. Set aside.

To make the patties, add the chuck to the bowl containing the reserved pancetta fat and combine using your hands. Form the meat into 6 equal patties that are slightly larger in circumference than the buns.

Brush the grill rack with vegetable oil. Place the patties on the rack and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, or until juices begin emerging from the top of the patties. Baste the patties liberally with the glaze, turn, and douse the other side with the remaining glaze. Grill for 4 to 5 minutes longer (for medium-rare) or until desired doneness. Transfer the patties to a plate to rest until assembling the burgers.

Grill the rolls, cut side down, until they are toasted lightly. Place the cashews on a plate. Spread the cut sides of the rolls with the aioli and dip each roll top, aioli side down, into the cashews, pressing gently to make sure that the nuts adhere.

To assemble the burgers, combine the fried shallots and watercress in a large bowl and toss to combine. Drizzle the lime dressing over the mixture and toss again. Place a pancetta slice on each bottom bun, followed by a patty. Place a mound of the watercress salad atop each patty. Finally, add the cashew-crusted bun tops. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 burgers

Saturday, 11 August 2012 19:24

Big Red for a Big Bear

By Dan Clarke

Though I didn’t get to Chicago until I was in my 40’s, I had looked forward to the visit for a long time.

My presumptions about the city came in part from grade school teachers. Most of these women in the bulky black habits were from the Chicago area. They did a fine job imparting the basics of our education, but they also told us about the Bears, the Cubs, Wrigley Field and El trains—all topics more interesting to most of us than the Beatitudes, Sorrowful Mysteries and diagramming of sentences.

I remember one spring day when Sister St. Arthur showed our catcher how to pick off a runner. From a crouch behind home plate she fired the ball out to our second baseman--flat, no arc. It made an audible pop when it hit his glove about a foot above the bag. She threw a football better than our quarterback, too. We assumed these nuns had God on their side, but we figured they didn’t need His help to deal with the likes of us. They were Chicago and they were tough.Bill George photoBears linebacker Bill George.

Growing up in Northern California, most of us were 49er fans, but we had to respect the Bears of the 1950’s when they were known as “The Monsters of the Midway.” Detroit and Cleveland may have been winning more games then, but Chicago’s irascible head coach and owner George Halas had guys like Ed Sprinkle, Rick Casares and Bill George. They were physically formidable and borderline scary. A few years later Chicago drafted an end from Pitt who also had that toughness. Mike Ditka played 12 years in the National Football League. Later he returned to coach the Bears. Along the way he got into the restaurant business and is now the proprietor of Mike Ditka’s Chicago on East Chestnut Street.

My first visit to the city was about 20 years ago. It was May, so catching a Bears game was out, of course. But I did see the Cubs beat the Dodgers at Wrigley Field and rode the El trains. Chicago seemed exciting then—vibrant. Several subsequent trips have only confirmed that first impression.

More than once I’ve heard people call Chicago “a great restaurant town.” I couldn’t disagree, as I’ve enjoyed many fine meals there. While I haven’t yet been in Ditka’s place, a visit to the restaurant’s website has led me to put it on my list for a future trip.

When I heard a few years ago that the Bear Hall-of-Famer had his name on a bottle of California wine I was mildly intrigued. Learning that it would be available in a limited national distribution and not just at his restaurant made the news more interesting. And discovering that the Mendocino County Zinfandel blend would retail for something approaching $50 really got our attention.

So we acquired a bottle of 2004 Kick Ass Red. But what to do with it? We assumed it would be on the brawny side and that it was intended to complement the robust cuisine at Ditka’s restaurant. These days so many “big” California wines—especially Zins—are way too alcoholic to enhance a meal. Would this be another of those misguided macho efforts? Tasting it with food seemed the only way to go. We thought it would be unfair--and unfun--just to try to copy entrees seen on the menu page of the restaurant’s website. Maybe barbecuing our own idea of Kick Ass food would be a better path.

Mike Petersen, who has written book reviews for this publication and for California Wine and Food, is a native Chicogoan. He’d have to be included in whatever analysis might ensue. A couple of days after Petersen bought into the idea, the two of us met for beers with our friend Mike Eady. Before we could announce our barbecue plans, Eady related a story about his driving a rental car out from Chicago to see a minor league baseball game somewhere in Northern Illinois just because he’d heard that the ballpark served great pork sandwiches. Clearly, he was the kind of guy who should be included in our project. It was agreed that we’d gather at my house to inaugurate the winter barbecue season, each of us preparing a dish he deemed a potential companion for a wine named Kick Ass Red.

Later, Brendan Cooke and Gary Young also volunteered to attend the tasting, though they opted to limit their participation to consuming, rather than preparing food.

Mike Ditka Kick Ass Red was primarily Zinfandel (56%), the balance comprised of Syrah (24%) and Petite Sirah (20%). The alcohol was 14.5%, which would have been high a decade or two ago, but is a point or point-and-a-half less than many of today’s offerings. As it is, the level was certainly sufficient and preferable to that of current “monsters” favored by the misguided.

Ditka as Coach PicmonkeyMike Ditka, "Da Coach"It turned out that the Kick Ass Red worked fine with all three of our dishes. Yes, it was a big wine but it was balanced. Predominant qualities were blackberry and a little black pepper. There were a couple of arched eyebrows when considering the 50 bucks we’d heard was to be the retail price, but all five on the evening’s tasting panel liked the wine. More to the point of the exercise, all agreed that the wine worked with each of the three dishes we’d cooked on the grill—the pork, the lamb and the beef.

Editor’s note: The Kick Ass Red was made by the Mendocino Wine Company in Ukiah, California (www.mendocinowineco.com). Readers who’d like to try it in it’s natural environment can find out more at www.mikeditkaschicago.com. Alternatively, they may check out three recipes we thought worked pretty well with this wine (and wouldn’t be bad with many other sturdy reds either).


IBVM Burgers

“I chose not to use the blue cheese or to do excessive spicing because I wanted to emphasize the flavor of the really good beef I was using (chopped sirloin, USDA Prime, about 12-15% fat content)” --Dan Clarke


1 ½ pounds ground beef

2-4 strips thick bacon

1 Tablespoon chopped fresh onion

1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 Tablespoon crumbled blue cheese (optional)

Chop one or two thin slices of onion.Mince two or three garlic cloves.Mix one Tablespoon of the onion and one teaspoon of the garlic with the ground meat—distribute as evenly as possible.(optional) Place a little of the crumbled blue cheese in the center of each portion of meat to be made into a patty.Make two 12-ounce patties approx. 1 ½ inches thick.Wrap the perimeter of each patty with bacon, affixing the strips with toothpicksSeason each patty with salt and pepper.

Grill over a medium-hot fire ‘til medium rare. Searing each side of the patties is the goal, but the bacon fat can lead to flare ups. Move patties to indirect heat after searing to minimize this possibility.

Serve as you would any steak and without a bun.


Chicago Lamb

“When one thinks of a Chicago meal you picture big meat. Big, red meat. Throw in some creamed spinach and a baked potato the size of a canoe and you’re talkin' Chicago. So does lamb count as big red meat? Of course it does. Lamb is a fine accompaniment to creamed spinach and canoe potatoes. So when I fired up the grill for Chicago Night I had a beautiful boneless leg of lamb seasoned with herbs and ready to pay homage to the hearty appetites of the heartland” -–Mike Eady

1 leg of lamb, boneless and tied, about 3 ½ to 4 lbs

Olive oil




Kosher salt

Mix together herbs and spread over the lamb after it has been given a coating of olive oil.

Cook over indirect heat in covered grill until internal temperature reaches 133 degrees for a perfect medium rare. Let rest for about 10 minutes before slicing.


Hog Butcher Pork Shoulder

“Although Chicago is no longer hog butcher to the world, the real Chicagoan still eats a lot of pork.” --Mike Petersen

Pork shoulder, approx. 4 pounds

Polish sausage meat, approx. ½ pound

Rub composed of equal parts:

Sweet paprika

Spicy paprika

Cayenne pepper


Garlic flakes to taste

Add preferred amount of garlic flakes to rub, stir.Sauté the sausage meat. Drain and allow to cool.Rinse pork shoulder and pat dry, then cut in half.Slice a pocket into each of the pieces of pork and insert ¼ pound of Polish sausage meat into each.Rub meat with paprika/pepper/salt/garlic mixture.

Cook on covered grill over indirect heat ‘til medium.

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