Cooking for Comfort, Cooking for Joy

Sometimes you just need things that feel comfortable. Comfort comes in many forms.  Comfort can be your favorite sweater or a warm blanket.  It can be a song that makes you think of something happy, or it can be a meal that evokes a memory.  From the beginning of the pandemic I’ve been wearing comfortable elastic waisted pants and polartec fleece; now that it’s warm I only shed the fleece. In fact with all the cooking I’ve been doing I’m not sure I actually fit into my jeans — ok yes I do and for those of you concerned I’m working out at home.  I found not only comfort but also joy in cooking during these trying times.  Cooking became an outlet for me, a way to get my energy out, and do something creative.  I looked forward to the end of the day when I would peek inside my fridge, freezer and pantry and see what yummy meal I could whip up.  And since I can’t paint, I can’t draw, don’t have the patience to knit and with lots of animals around doing a puzzle just wasn’t an option, I decided that cooking would be my creative outlet.  It didn’t matter if I had fancy ingredients or the most basic, it was all about the creating. 

I would put my chef head on after a long day at the computer and look in the fridge and freezer and plan my next episode of Chopped, the Homecook edition. Now that I live in the burbs and not a tiny apartment in the sky, I am lucky enough to have a pantry!  And I think it’s in my DNA to keep it all well stocked.  My parents were always of the “You Never Know” philosophy so we always had a full fridge, freezer and pantry. And that way of thinking was most probably handed down from my dad’s mom, the grandmother I’m always referring to in my stories. Grandma was from that generation of immigrant Jews that believed that if you had food on your table all was good in the world, it was a sign for them that they “had,” even if they didn’t.  Grandma always had a full table no matter how little money she had or what the circumstances were in life. This type of thinking was handed down to my dad who lived by the same credo and he handed that down to me. My fridge and freezer are full and so is my pantry so I’ve been doing a lot of what I call #pantrycooking and #freezercooking.

When I lived in the city and had a job where I traveled a lot, I didn’t cook very much. I used to tell people that it was more expensive and wasteful to cook than buy ready-made or get delivery. Often I’d either be out for dinner for work or traveling, and most of the bought ingredients would go to waste. Now being home, I am very mindful about what’s in the fridge, freezer and pantry and am trying not to let things go to waste. This has been a good lesson, and has encouraged me to let my creative juices flow and turn these items into meals.  Both the cooking and planning brought me joy.  Each night, I think about what protein I might take out of the freezer and then think about what’s in the fridge and pantry and what I can then create. 

There is something very soothing about cooking, there’s a rhythm, a cadence that when you get into it can be very comforting. Yes of course there can be chaos too but I find the whole process very soothing even the chaos. When you find that right rhythm, have your timing down and all things flow, it’s kind of like a symphony.  When it all comes together and the meal is created, now that brings me joy. Sharing a meal, cooking it, creating the menu this all brings me joy. But what brings me the most joy is the look on my friends’ faces as they partake in what I’ve made for them — comfort and joy for me.

My inspiration today comes from all the fabulous foods I’ve seen or tasted from all the amazing places I’ve been. At times I felt like I was taking a trip through my meals — a Spanish inspired or Italian inspired dish made me feel like I was somewhere else.  If I felt a little exotic I’d make an Indian or Thai inspired meal; or if I felt like I needed something more “homey” maybe I’d make a stew or pot pie.  I love cookbooks, websites and cooking magazines and cooking shows and am constantly looking at them all for more inspiration. I have boxes of index cards from my parents along with memories of my grandmother’s cooking and I’ll take these ideas and transform them based on what’s in my fridge, pantry and freezer.  It’s hard to cook meals for yourself, most recipes are for at least 2 and usually more so you have to be very mindful about how to adapt to solo meals. Occasionally I’d make a large batch of something and I’d either freeze the extras or share with my neighbors. My former neighbor in the city used to be the recipient of extras, and she has told me on more than one occasion that she is envious of the fact that I am now sharing with others.

I’ve been drawn to making what might be considered comfort foods. Yes I know my pictures make them look fancy, I love photographing food; I think ingredients either raw or cooked are beautiful.  But in fact, most items are really non-fancy, pantry, fridge and freezer ingredients that can be put together fairly quickly, without too much fuss and with ingredients that are not too expensive. A key is to make sure that you have lots of different spices and dried herbs in your pantry.  Another key is to have lots of cans of beans, tomatoes as well as dried pastas and rices as well as stocks. 

One of my favorite comfort dishes that I recently made was my mom’s lasagna. I remember her making this rich Northern Italian recipe that would take hours to prepare. I used to love watching as she’d make each part of the lasagna, browning the sausage; cooking each noodle with care so that it wouldn’t break; making the bechamel and the red sauce; mixing and flavoring the ricotta and finally layering and assembling with loads of mozzarella. I basically followed her recipe but of course put my own twist on it to cut down on the cooking time — I used no cook lasagna noodles, and enhanced a fantastic jarred tomato sauce with some extra goodness. I had all the ingredients on hand so it was easy to make and the end result was an ooey gooey rich lasagna that I shared with my neighbors and also froze for later meals — pantry cooking and freezer cooking at its finest. Here’s the original index card from mom in her handwriting and original cooking splatters — along with a picture of my creation.

I’ve been posting my cooking to my instagram and facebook pages and who knows maybe one day I will put them all together along with the recipes into a book. Posting them and sharing them has been my way to connect with people and bring joy to those who liked seeing my creations. In these days of self isolation, we all needed ways to bring comfort and joy to ourselves.  My way was to share my creations; it was a way of reaching out with something that gave me joy and hope that it might put a smile on the face of others.  So I will leave you with a few of my favorites from our quarantine time.  All the ingredients came from either my fridge or freezer, peppered with what’s in the pantry and now my garden.  I hope they inspire you to look in your fridge, freezer and pantry and create meals that bring you comfort and joy.

Step with Both Feet Forward, Now Pivot!

The past year and a half has been interesting to say the least. At bit overwhelming at times to say the most! So here goes from the beginning the actual timeline of change: mom goes into hospital, new president joins my old company, mom passes away, new boss joins company, leave city after 20 some odd years, move back to childhood home, sell apartment in city. Then I decide I need more change so I leave my job of 29 years for the unknown. And that was only the first 6 months. Flashforward from there another 8 months. Change in life is inevitable, it’s how you embrace it and move forward that is the interesting part. You can chose to crawl under a rock, let it all overwhelm you or you can move forward and pivot – change direction and find a way out. I had only had one job in my career of working; I had never not worked as an adult. I was not in a position not to work, too young, not a trust fund baby, so I chose to find the way out — to strategically pivot and find a new path. After applying for similar positions to the one I had previously, I decided to pivot and set out on my own.

My high school friend, Allison Kluger lectures about Strategic Pivoting at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford. To quote her, “Pivoting is an intentional, methodical process for nimbly navigating career changes.” Check her out, from being a tv producer to being a professor, she too had pivoted her career. In fact Alex Rodriguez is a guest lecturer about career pivoting. Tyra Banks also teaches with Allison as a co-lecturer on Personal Branding, much of which involves pivoting your narrative, your interests, and message as you evolve in your career.  Being nimble and able to take your own personal assets and find a new way to use them is really what life is about. How do we adapt and find that path forward that’s the main question and task. Once you’ve defined what you have to offer and have evaluated your personal assets, then you need to figure out how to use them! Simple, not so simple, kind of like putting a puzzle together but once the pieces fall into place the answer becomes more clear.

Behind The Scenes Strategic Pivoting - YouTube
Allison Kluger’s Class

I looked inward, reached outward and came up with creating 2 opportunities for myself and the pivot began! Blogger and Sales & Marketing Consultant for the Wine & Spirits Industry were the 2 paths I chose. I knew that I had a lot of stories in me about food and wine. I grew up in the industry, went to culinary school, travelled around the world of wine from a young age, met many of the industry’s most iconic figures… all this led me to create my own blog called FKDecanted, My Life’s Journey in Food and Wine. I never thought I’d have the patience to write. I’m not inherently a patient person as those who know me can attest! But with change comes well, change and I’ve learned to be a bit more patient. Writing, I have found is not only cathartic, but is also enjoyable and comes fairly easily to me once I’ve developed the idea.

The second career path has been to create my own Sales & Marketing Consulting Firm for the Wine & Spirits Industry, called WineDistilled. I thought long and hard here; how do I use my experience and create something of my own that is of value to those in the industry. It wasn’t until after I had taken a trip to Argentina for fun that I had a revelation — I not only have the contacts but the valued experience in the Argentine wine world to become a consultant to wineries. But really it wasn’t until I spoke with a dear friend of mine who represents one of the iconic wine brands in Argentina that I realized this would be my new path. It was he that said to me, “take your own assets which are your passion, knowledge and contacts in the Argentine Wine Industry and set out on your own!” Thank you Ramiro, because once I got home I knew that this would be my path. So I pivoted, changed my way of looking for a career and set out to create my own company. Once I set my mind to this direction I did so with a vengeance and created WineDistilled LLC. I traveled, spoke to, met with and it all worked! Pretty soon once was all was in place I landed my first client.

I find it fascinating that so many of my friends, work friends and peers have also found themselves in the same position and all of us around the same age. In fact what strikes me is that so few of my friends have not had a major work life changes. Some have pivoted by choice, and others because they had to do so. Some have gone in totally different directions; and some have stayed closer to home. The common thread has been that once they decided upon a direction they were all in! They took a step forward and pivoted.

I look at what we are faced with today with Covid 19. Pivoting, being nimble, being able to adapt your business strategy, is more important than ever. I am watching my industry the wine & spirits as well as hospitality industry, do this and it’s fascinating to watch. How do such a huge industries with multiple facets change, pivot and find new ways to do business so quickly. Virtual tastings, virtual education, virtual sales calls, social distancing at point of purchase, ready to go cocktails, ready to go wine by the glass. Virtual ordering platforms, and e-commerce had just started to be implemented by our distributors prior to the pandemic, are even more important than ever, Direct to Consumer on-line sales, and so much more – our industry is Pivoting at a rapid pace. We are turning this ship around not slowly, but rapidly and at times into uncharted waters. There is a positive, can do energy and it will makes us even stronger once things have opened up completely. Our industry’s way of doing business will change and become different from what we have been used to all these years. The strong ones who are innovative and ready to not only embrace change but lead the change will come out of this stronger.

As has been my custom here’s a picture of one of my favorite culinary creations from during the lockdown. Cooking has been my joy while home and I’ve become very adept at using what’s in my pantry, freezer and refrigerator. I’ve turned pantry cooking and freezer cooking into mini homecook episodes of Chopped. I look in, assess what’s inside and then create! I had farm tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant, onions and a piece of arctic char and homemade pesto. So I whipped up a Provencal Tian and a pesto coated Arctic Char. Simple, good food that is easy to make and used what I had on hand!

I’m super excited about all the possibilities ahead of me. So many more things I’d like to do with career. So go ahead embrace the future. You have nothing to lose and potentially everything to gain!!! And with both feet, take a step forward and pivot!

I Say Doughnut, You Say Bombolini

Anyone who knows me well, knows I’m obsessed with doughnuts. I think they are the perfect food. A food group all unto themselves. Fried, baked, round, square, filled, frosted, powdered, I could go on and on! Ok I will. I would happily forego a designer dessert for the a crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, sweet, ooey gooey drip down the front of my chin and slight explosion of powdered sugar on my face jelly doughnut. Or give me a doughnut filled to the max with pastry cream and covered in chocolate ganache and I’m in heaven. I felt like one of Pavlova’s experiments when the red light would come on at the Crispy Kreme that was at the bus stop near my old apartment in the city. It was impossible for me not to stop in and get one of those hot off the conveyor belt glazed delights that would melt in my mouth. And try to stop at just 1, impossible just impossible.

My Favorite Doughnut stall at Borough Market in London

So why doughnuts? Why would I want to have a blog about doughnuts? I’ll get to that in a minute. I told this little story to a friend of mine last week and she thought it would make a cute story and encouraged me to put it into my next blog. The theme of my blog is about my life’s journey in food and wine and yes folks doughnuts are food! This past week the food and wine industry mourned the passing of one of truly great restaurateurs, Sirio Maccioni, owner of Le Cirque. In a league of its own, Le Cirque was the epitome at its time of elegant dining. I am lucky to have dined there on a few occasions from the original location to the last, and was even luckier to have made the casual friendship with some of its greatest chefs. Through my work in the wine industry, I had the fortune of meeting both Daniel Boulud and Jacques Torres when they were both at Le Cirque. Jacques Torres, the now famed chocolatier was Executive Pastry Chef and Daniel was Executive Chef — and what a team they made!

Jacques who for some reason always called me Martine, was as funny as he is talented. He was always cracking jokes and for all his celebrity in the food world, just as chefs were becoming celebrities, he always had the time to chat if I called. So one day, I was walking past the restaurant and decided to pop in to say hi and ask him if he would be open to working on a project with one of my Port wines. Chocolate and port are a marriage made in heaven so I wanted to see if he would create chocolates filled with port. I went into the kitchen of Le Cirque where he held court and chatted and joked around, after which as was usual, he would say, what would you like to take and bring home. And it was there that I saw the most perfect round, fried pieces of goodness, filled to almost exploding with cream. And since it was Le Cirque it wasn’t just a doughnut but a bombolini. My eyes dilated and I said, ok I’d love one bombolini please. He said Martine of course, here have one it’s yours. So I did, and ate it right there! Heaven is a warm out of the fryer bombolini filled with pastry cream and coated in sugar. What I didn’t know was that he had taken a whole handful and wrapped them in a napkin and quietly put them in my pocket. So after we chatted I left and started my walk home up Madison Avenue and now I’m sure you can imagine what happened next. I shoved my hand into my pocket, not knowing that I had cream filled bombolini inside and well what happened next was an explosion all over my pocket. Sadness is an exploding bombolini in a pocket that can’t be eaten, a long walk to follow and no napkin. Oh well, at least I had that one in the kitchen! Thank you Mr. Chocolate aka Jacques Torres for one of my most favorite doughnut memories and am writing this as I sip a cup of a homemade cappuccino laced with your wicked hot chocolate powder (and a little Jameson’s) but sadly no doughnut to accompany.

Harvest in the Time of Covid 19

Up until now, most of my blogs have been personal, about my life’s journey in food and wine. I’ve been writing about my experiences and hoping you’d find them enlightening and at times entertaining. What I’d like to write about now is more serious than many of my other posts, more timely and more business oriented. We are all living through a very strange and serious time in our lives and it’s affecting us all very differently. For the past 15 years I’ve been working with the Argentine wine world and today I’d like to enlighten you on how Covid 19 has had a direct effect on the harvest.

When most of us think of harvest time we think fall; however it is fall in South American and harvest is well underway, if not almost done in Argentina. Again I’ll mention that I was there only a month ago and harvest was just gearing up. The Mendoza Harvest Festival took place and all seemed normal. The tanks were getting ready, the pickers were starting to pick, the trucks were being loaded with grapes ready to go into the crusher and all seemed well just fine, on track, if not even a bit early. Most wineries luckily finished picking by the end of March, but it was not before the country went into lockdown on March 13 just like we did.

On April 3rd, my colleague, friend and amazing winemaker, Karim Mussi Saffie of Altocedro in La Consulta, Mendoza wrote about how challenging things were. And in his words, ” These last days have been very stressful for us at the winery, dealing with many open fronts at the same time, but moving the fastest possible, keeping calm and managing everything by priorities. We are all healthy, both at home and at the company.” He immediately upon hearing what was going to happen, activated a crisis management committee and decided to manage the situation using the following strategy: Take care of the team in order to keep the operation active and ready for — “the day after.” Most Argentine business owners are pretty well versed in mitigating financial crisis, as you probably know it’s a country that has them often.

Karim Mussi Saffi

So what did he have to do and how did he do it with government mandated self isolation? Since wine is considered food, it was allowed to continue operating. Permission was needed for everything . Everyone who needed to go back and forth from the winery to home needed a permit. Without a permit you could not work outside of the home. They closed their offices and tasting room, however, they were able to keep the bottling line open and fill pending orders. In Karim’s words, “All of the staff at KMW are working under safe conditions in order to reduce the risk of infection and guarantee the quality of our wines. The preventative measures not only comply with the official protocols, but also reduce the risk of infection and have since been adopted as our official practices going forward.” Social distancing was mandatory, 1.5 meters apart for everyone. All of the necessary supplies or what we now call PPE’s are continuously being delivered to protect all staff and everyone receives daily instruction on how to use them. Masks, gloves and protective glasses are mandatory. Everybody was given alcohol based sanitizing sprays to clean the equipment, surfaces, tools, plugs, valves, pumps — basically anything touched. Additional measures include staggering the shifts so that a minimum amount of people are working at any given time again to mitigate the risk of infection.

As of April 3rd, they had harvested about 90% of their grapes from La Consulta. It was a very warm growing season, one of the warmest March months in a long time. Sugar ripeness came early which helped speed up the phenolic ripeness. Harvest was therefore about 2 weeks earlier than normal, for all varietals, including Cabernet, and this is a very good thing all things considered. In fact it is shaping up to be a great vintage, and the quality is amazing; a memorable one in more ways than one. All of Altocedro’s fruit is hand-harvest and getting cash was not easy to pay the workers so that posed another great challenge. Banks were not open, and they don’t “deliver cash” but as I said, Karim found the way to make sure all his workers got paid every Friday.

Harvest time is always a challenge even under perfect conditions, but this year as with everyone and everything, this has been a monumentally challenging time. This harvest will prove to be memorable and , according to Karim, “a beautiful and important activity, one that generates jobs, strong-minded people who persevere, and cannot be stopped no matter what crisis is in front of them.” Karim and his team took the task at hand and did what they do best, as a team, and as a family, so that at the end of the day we can enjoy his amazing wines. I’d like to end with two quotes from Karim, “Imagination is half the disease, tranquility is half of the remedy, and patience is the beginning of the cure” and “Wine is sacred and necessary for a human’s happiness and progress.” From me and Karim and his entire team, we wish you all well, stay home, stay safe and if you can enjoy a glass of wine with each other.

The New Norm?

As I sit in my kitchen while dinner cooks in the oven, I first want to wish all reading this, good health and if you are sick from Covid 19/Coronavirus, a speedy recovery. To our first responders, doctors, newscasters, folks keeping supermarkets open and stocked, truckers, wine/liquor shops, restaurants, (sorry if I have missed anyone) thank you for your commitment and sacrifice. Thank you to the military for helping my city – New York and for helping all of us in the trying time. For those of you in any industry who have lost your job, or business, but especially for my industry — Food and Wine, my heart goes out to you. I was grappling with the title of this blog, as I don’t really want to think that what we are experiencing is the new norm. I keep hearing this phrase over and over again each time I tune into the nightly news. But I don’t think anything about this situation is normal. Stay Home Stop the Spread, Social Distancing, Self Isolating, Flatten the Curve, shortages of food, no human contact, shortages of toilet paper, pandemic, and so many other descriptors; how is any of this normal? New Yes, Normal No.

In times like this I am grateful for what does make my life feel almost normal; my friends, my work, wine, cooking and the occasional Bourbon. I can’t believe that a month has past since I came home from an amazing trip to Argentina. Forgive me if I have mentioned this before but I really can’t believe it was a month ago. Now today I sit in my kitchen, or my office at home as so many of us are doing. I find that a good part of the day revolves around meal planning. In general I love meal planning for friends, entertaining is second nature to me, passed down from my paternal grandmother (about whom I’ve written in so many past blogs) and my mom and dad who were the ultimate entertainers. But now I plan lunch and dinner every day for me with the occasional delivery or curbside pick up — support your local restaurants folks! Previously I might have gone grocery shopping 3 or 4 times a week — leftover habits from city life and a small kitchen! But now I go once and load up so I don’t have to be out more than necessary. Some days I feel like a contestant in an episode of Chopped! I look in the fridge survey what’s in there and whip up a meal. Dad you’d be proud that I’m actually using my culinary education. Remember this is the man who said to me — “You Want to Do What; You Want to Go to the CIA and become a Chef?” Well glad I did because now that I live in the burbs, there are not that many delivery choices so cooking is the best option.

Now that I live in the burbs with lots of space I have a stocked pantry — this is something mom insisted on and I am so glad she did. I have a full freezer filled with soups and sauces — a carry over from dad. And I’ve inherited from both an obsession for keeping as many cans of tuna fish and beans in the pantry as possible because you never know! Cooking for me is soothing and has become a great distraction right now. I love the cadence, the rhythm the pace in the kitchen. When you find the perfect ingredients and marry them together and get the timing right, it’s like composing a symphony.

I love looking at my social media feed and seeing others making fantastic meals and thoroughly enjoying the process. We may have physically shared meals with our friend only a month ago, now we are doing it virtually. So here are a few of my favorite meals that I’ve recently made. I’m sharing them virtually with you all in this new norm that’s not really a new norm as I’ve been posting these recipes and images for the past year hoping to inspire people to cook, and enjoy food and wine.

The Curried Chicken Pot Pie was made with poached chicken, carrots and peas, onions sauteed in curry powder, thickened with flour and chicken broth and made richer with a splash of heavy cream. Brush with egg wash, put a vent in the center and bake at 350 until golden brown. This was my favorite! As for the Mexican Peppers, I sauteed some beef and onion, add a tablespoon each of cumin, chili powder and oregano, cook until done. Add in some chopped green olives, shredded pepper jack and about a half cup of black beans. Moisten with tomato puree then stuff the peppers. Add some more tomato puree to the pan and bake at 350 until the peppers are soft and easy to cut through. These are my “Chopped Kitchen” recipes. The Chocolate Olive Oil Cake I must confess comes from Nigella Lawson, the Raspberry White Chocolate Scone is from a book of Scones I got from England and the Banana Bread is from the NY Times.

Is this the New Normal, that’s up to you, but for me I hope not. I don’t want to think that I will get used to being isolated and that this is something normal. New Yes, Normal No. I long for the day when we can all be well and un-afraid. I long for the day when I don’t have to converse with my friends via FaceTime or Zoom. I long for the day when we don’t have to have virtual cocktail hours. New Yes, Normal No. Keep cooking, drinking wine and, keep doing things that make you happy, but most of all stay safe and healthy. And again thank you to all the heroes out there working to make our lives safe and well. I virtually toast you all, you are the true heroes out there and I say Thank You.

Let The Sunshine In

I’m a morning person, anyone who knows me knows that I am usually up at the crack of dawn, and even before. I enjoy the silence and solitude that comes with the pre-dawn hours. There is a peace and tranquility that sets my mood, sets the tone for the day. I rarely see the 11 PM news, but always wake to the morning news. I used to joke that thank goodness for the re-runs of Law and Order since I fall asleep before the Order part. The ritual of the morning is something precious to me; feed the cats, make an espresso cortado, get back in bed, watch the early morning news until 7 then start the day. What I love the most about this ritual is seeing the sunshine. The morning sun coming into my kitchen through the lace curtains and filling the room just makes me happy.

I make another cortado, then go over to the living room window and stare out at the sunshine streaming over my little garden, waking up my flowers and I say hi to all. This is my “sun salutation”. I say hi to my little flowers, and am usually accompanied by one or 2 of my cats — Mia and Sammy and together we greet the day.

I think that in this time of uncertainty and isolation, it’s important to embrace your rituals and feel comfort in small things that bring a smile to your face. I smile when I see my little furry creatures basking in the sunshine on the windowsill. I call them my little sunshine cats when they do this. This is not about seasonality, or the fact that it’s now spring; I do this all year. I love the seasons and how the light changes — warmer colors in the winter and fall and bright in spring and summer.

I think that letting the sunshine in can take many forms, some literal and some figurative. Think about what makes you smile. Another way the sun shines for me is through — you guessed it food and wine. Don’t you just smile when you think of a favorite meal your mom cooked? Or when you make a meal that your friends love? Is it the perfect food and wine combination? When something tastes so good you just can’t help but smile? I say yes to all of these things. Now that mom and dad are gone, I love flipping through their carefully catalogued index cards of recipes. I smile when I see one that brings me back in time. I sit in their kitchen as I write this and can almost smell her cooking and it fills me with sunshine. A dear friend of mine was gifted one of mom’s hand-written index cards with mom’s meatball recipe; and the smile that swept over her face was priceless. I can still smell those savory treats frying in the kitchen and remembering how I’d steal one or 2 or whatever, as she was cooking them. Now my friend makes this recipe. Before all this self imposed isolation and distancing my friend and I were going to make her mom’s Irish Soda Bread recipe, also lovingly written on a piece of paper. Maybe we can do this now virtually together, not the same as in person but we all have to find ways to do things, keep to rituals and keep together to let the sunshine in. Both of our moms have passed but through their recipes we have a little bit of their sunshine.

I smile when I think of the beautiful warm sunshine of my recent trip to Argentina. The was sun shining in the vineyards making the grapes perfectly ripe for the winemaking to come. In fact the wonderful company that I am working with is called Vino del Sol — Wine of the Sun. What a great name and so apropos to this story! I can’t believe that it was a little over 3 weeks ago that I was there, and how the world has changed for us since then. So remember it’s important that you find ways to let the sunshine in and make you smile. It’s good for the soul and the spirits, so let the sunshine and I wish you all good health and happiness and of course great food and wine to keep you smiling.

Vamos Argentina!

I’m always asked, “what do you think of Napa, or have you been to Napa?” and my response is usually — “Well I’ve been to Argentina probably around 35 times but Napa only twice.” “But you’re in the wine industry”, people will usually say, and I respond, “Yes but I’ve only been on the import side and my specialty is Argentina.” In fact the first time I went to Napa was with a bunch of my Argentine friends who happened to be in CA along with me for a Wines of Argentina Tasting many years ago. I’m still pretty close to most of the guys from that trip which was over 10 years ago; we are lifelong friends and I get to see them every time I go back to Argentina for work.

So speaking of going to Argentina and visiting, I just got back from a fantastic trip, and for the first time I didn’t have to be the organizer! In another blog I will recount the amazing trip I just took; however, I’d like to reminisce a bit first. Since 2006 I had led Educational Trips for my previous company and what a treat this time to be taken on a trip. Being in the wine and spirits industry, we are incredibly fortunate to be able to travel the world; we get to taste the finest wines, eat amazing food, stay in some of the most beautiful accomodations in the world, immerse ourselves in the culture and surround ourselves by fantastic people. Sounds like a dream come true right, well I can actually say this part of working in the “industry” is amazing, and I will never say otherwise.

As I got ready for this particular trip, I started thinking about the first time I took a group of people down to Argentina. It’s a lot of organizing that goes into making these trips seamless and sometimes the country doesn’t quite cooperate! And boy do I have stories! In future blogs I will tell you about some of the funny things that happened along the way to Argentine, what can and did go wrong and how to make it work when it seems like all the elements are against you. These trips are about the folks attending and how great an experience you can create for them. It’s the responsibility of the organizers to make sure of that so that afterwards the attendees have fallen in love with the wineries, the country and of course your company. It takes a combination of the right people, organizing their travel to and from, and working with the wineries to create the right experience.s It’s all a complex coordinated effort that when done right will yield a “trip of a lifetime.” Argentina is a long ways away but trust me, but it’s totally worth the hours to get there. The folks at the wineries truly are some of the most amazing people I’ve had the pleasure of working with and as I said in the beginning, many are lifelong friends, as are some of the folks I’ve hosted on these trips.

Now for the first trip I organized, I remember meeting the group at the airport and we all flew together to Buenos Aires. When we got there we stayed at a lovely hotel by Puerto Madero and were immediately taken to lunch for what would be the first of many steaks to come. We sat outside at Cabana las Lilas and ate like we had never had meat before and drank wine like it was the water of life! Hosted by Michel Torino (sorry folks it was called that then, today it’s referred to as El Esteco), we ate and enjoyed the city even though most of us had little sleep — which was a theme to come since Argentines eat late, play later and sleep little. The next day we were off to the north to Cafayate on what seemed like a journey of planes, trains and automobiles, but boy was it worth it once we got there. But first you had to get there. A plane to Salta (2 hours ish) followed by a 3 hour drive. We got our luggage and all piled into little red van with our luggage strapped to the roof. If you’ve ever seen Little Miss Sunshine the movie, then you will know why we referred to the van as the Sunshine Van. Our driver spoke no English and chewed coca leaves throughout the entire journey and well you can imagine our thoughts! We were all so happy we didn’t care if the luggage fell off the roof, or if our driver was happy on coca leaves, we were in Argentina on our way to Michel Torino. The first part of the journey was through the lush tobacco and soy fields of Salta province and then a stop at the last rest stop before we entered into the Quebrada de las Conchas. Our stop was at a place called Posta de las Cabras, which was a goat farm in the middle of nowhere but oh my, the food was amazing. We had homemade goat cheeses displayed on a simple platter but so beautifully displayed we all couldn’t stop taking pictures. And of course to quench our thirst were ample glasses of Cuma Organic wines. Sated, we left and started into the most magnificent desert canyon for the next hour and a half. A few stops for sightseeing, including one called the amphitheater which had perfect acoustics. Our host asked if anyone sang and then we were treated to some opera from one of our guests. Back into the Sunshine Van and off to the winery. Desert gave way to once again lush green valley and now we were in Cafayate home to the Michel Torino Winery with it’s own hotel called Patios de Cafayate, a spanish colonial structure surrounded by vineyards and mountains that was truly paradise. Food, wine, food wine, vineyards, karaoke in the middle of no where, Fernet and Coca Cola, more food, more wine, well you get the picture….

This was just part one of the trip, next we got back on the Sunshine Van and backtracked to the airport. It’s not easy traveling around Argentina, there are not a lot of direct flights to and from cities so you had to always go back to Buenos Aires and take another flight. 3 hours drive, 2 hours in a plane to Buenos Aires, hope for making the connection to Mendoza, back on a flight, 2 more hours in the air and finally you land in Mendoza ahhh….! Like when you land in Vegas, the first thing you see are slot machines at the airport, when you land in Mendoza, the first thing you see are vineyards at the airport. Our next stop was a magnificent hotel called the Park Hyatt, a stunning mansion in the Spanish colonial style with a modern hotel built up into it. Our hosts now was the Trapiche winery. Where as Michel Torino is in as remote a place as you can think of, Trapiche is in the heart of wine country, Mendoza, where almost 80% of Argentina’s wine is produced. More amazing wine, vineyards with the spectacular snow-capped Andes as the backdrop and more Argentine barbeque — asado.

The hospitality was as amazing as the wines, we ate, drank, and had fun together all the while falling more in love with Argentina and our hosts. We acclimated to the late nights and little sleep. We enjoyed our day at an estancia up in Tupungato at the foothills of the Andes, called Las Pircas where we rode horses, ate more empanadas and asado drank lots of Trapiche wines and absorbed more of the Argentine/Mendocino culture. We had a fantastic day in the vineyards and were educated by the winemakers including the amazingly talented chief winemaker Daniel Pi!

One of the most fun memories was our Karaoke night in Mendoza. Our host went out of his way to find us another karaoke bar so that one of our guests could sing again. He found us the one place he knew of and in we went. Full of locals, they seated us by the bathroom the only table they had. Our guest filled out the sign up sheet and of course she was last. You could see the eyes roll as the “gringo” got up to the microphone, but once she opened her mouth everyone went silent. She finished and there was a standing ovation and chants of “otra” one more. It was awesome, she sang, we drank, she sang more, we drank more and had a blast together.

It was time to have our last meal before we started our journey home. Lunch was one last steakhouse where we made sure we had enough steak and red wine to keep us full until we got on our flight. This would be the first of many more trips and memories for me in Argentina. I am so lucky, truly I know this and have never take it for granted. I have fallen in love with the country and its people. As I said at the start I am friends with many I made back in 2006 on that first trip. In fact with my new client and host of this most current trip, Vino del Sol, I saw how small the wine world in Mendoza really is. Many of my friends are friends with their winemakers so it’s all come full circle for me. More stories and memories to come in future blogs; Argentina wine country is a integral part of my life and who I am in the wine world so stay tuned for more to come!

For the Love of Wine — Italian Wine…

I recently attended a few tastings that really reminded me of why I love wine! I used to hate going to tastings, fighting people to get a small taste of wine. I admit it, I’m spoiled, used to early entry to tastings, sneaking behind tables because I was working. But now I’m a bit kinder and gentler and more patient — folks who know me are probably laughing and gasping. Yes it’s true, more patient. The 2015 Brunellos arrived and lived up to the expectation. First tasting was a pure consumer event at Zachy’s. Superbly run with an array of stunning wines, it was worth venturing out in the drenching rain. The vintage is being tauted as one of the finest ever and it’s really living up to it. Very fruit forward and rich with finesse and acidity is how I’d describe it in a nutshell. Next was an amazing event called Benevenuto Brunello — Welcome Brunello. An even bigger event more industry than consumer and wow what a stellar line up of wines!

When you work for a wine company, you can get caught up in the business of wine. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love that part of the industry. The business side is exciting and invigorating, but with that, you can get very caught up in just the business of it and lose site of the intricate beauty of what makes wine so special. Now I can see some of you rolling your eyes at what I am saying. Remember business is about making money and if you get too caught up in the etherial, passionate side of wine, one forgets that at the end of the day you need to move product and make money. Again don’t get me wrong, I loved the game of selling and marketing wine, that busines side, however, now that I am not tied to one company alone or promoting one particular product line, I can truly appreciate again all that’s out there. My love of wine and the business of wine came from my dad — and I will expand even more upon this in my next blog as a tribute to him as I mark an important milestone.

When I was a kid, dad used to schlep me (a very technical New York word meaning to make a kid go somewhere they don’t really want to go) with him as he’d visit every single wine store in the NY metropolitan area. Now remember this was in the late 70’s so there weren’t as many stores as there are today, but it seemed like there were thousands! So he’d pack me off in the car with him which, by the way he always bought based on the size of the trunk so that he could load it with as many cases of wine as possible. I think sometimes the car actually tipped upward it was so loaded with cases in the trunk. Two of his favorite stores at the time were Gold Star in Queens (no longer in existence) and Zachy’s in Scarsdale, NY. We’d spend hours and I mean hours at Zachy’s surveying the wines, while dad talked, and talked and talked with Don Zacharia and the crew. Dad’s zest for learing was amazing and he absorbed everything he heard. As I said in my next blog I will talk more about him and how I consider him to be one of the early pioneers in the industry. Next I mentioned Gold Star because in this blog I recently attended 2 Brunello tastings. So my memory takes me back to Gold Star which was the store back in the 70’s and early 80’s for Italian Wine. The owner was at the time considered the “founder” of the Italian Wine business here in NY. It was a time when most knew Italian wine as only coming in a jug, but Lou Iacucci introduced us all to what Italian wine could be. My dad fell in love with Italian wine when, as he said no one knew what it was. We’d spend hours at the store and then after he was done, we’d hope across the corner to an amazing Italian restaurant, owned by non other than Lidia Bastianich. Before she was known for her high end restaurant and books, Lidia has a restaurant in Forest Hills Queens. The food was as amazing then as it is now.

I’ve been pouing over pictures and memories from when my parents ran their LADV (Les Amis du Vin) chapter, and I found a group of pictures of a trip they conducted to Italy for their chapter. I also found the actual itinerary. Kismet, irony, not sure what to say here but the trip, which took place in 1980, included –Bertani, Lamberti, Melini, & Lungarotti amongst all the other stops they made. For those of you who know me, I worked at Frederick Wildman for some 29 years, much of which was spent working with Italian wines, and Lamberti, Melini and Lungarotti were all brands at Wildman. In fact I worked directly with Melini and Lamberti, and became friends with the owners of Lungarotti. Bertani which was not at Wildman is run by the former director general, Emlio Pedron of GIV (owners of Melini and Lamberti) and one of the former winemakers Andrea Lunardi who is now winemaker at Bertani. Small world this world of wine…!

So back to Brunello and tasting. As I eluded to above, my parents back in the late 70’s early 80’s ran a chapter of a wine tasting society called Les Amis du Vin. Les Amis du Vin, also the name of a magazine, had these tasting chapters all over the country and my parents ran the one for Westchester NY. It was really something, it introduce so many to wine, and my parents chapter was incredibly successful. And yes I was schelpped to the tastings to help set up, and sometimes sit in the back and watch — though occasionally a drop would come my way. Check out the below picture of a Brunello tasting they had can you believe the line up and it only cost a member $14 to taste through a line up of Fattoria dei Barbi Brunello’s from the 1970’s. Again another winery that I worked with (not directly) when I was at Wildman. And look the tasting was led by wine luminaries Mary Ewing Mulligan (today and MW) and Anna Maria Lepore.

I couldn’t imagine being in any other industry or doing anything else other than wine! I will continue to educate my palate, go to more tastings and try to be patient. Take advantage of in-store tastings like the one I attended at Zachy’s, it’s a great way to learn about wine. For the Love of Wine started with Les Amis du Vin, and will continue today through FKDecanted. Cheers to mom and dad for putting me on this journey, today I raise a glass of Brunello 2015 vintage to you, Salute!

Winter, Wine & Warmth

I don’t know about you but I like winter. I know there are haters out there, those who dislike the dark and cold days that come with winter. I see it differently! To me winter means red wine and “brown spirits” to keep me warm along with lots hearty food. I love this time of year!

So as I look out my window onto the newest blanket of white snow, my mind goes to what can I cook and what wine would I want to serve with it — and of course what cocktail I might have while I’m contemplating all of this ha!

It’s ironic that I’ve grown to love not only spirits especially Bourbon and Scotch. My dad being a wine guy, never had any spirits in the house except for high-end cognac, which is grape based so that would have qualified in his drinking repertoire. I had never even tasted Scotch or Bourbon until I was late into my 20’s and working. Now I’m hooked! Bourbon is my true love and with so many styles, I always find one that will match my mood or drinking occasion. My 2 favorite classic cocktails are a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned. I still think that there is no better Manhattan cocktail than one made with Makers — sorry Rye purists. I know I will get backlash here but I prefer Bourbon not Rye don’t argue with me that’s my taste! Makers is on the sweeter side so be careful when adding in the sweet vermouth it can make it too sweet if you add too much. And for an Old Fashioned I really prefer Knob Creek, its smooth and elegant texture with honeyed notes make it the perfect base for this classic cocktail. No comments please, I hear some of you groaning already; this is my blog and this is how I like my cocktails!

So as I looked out the window at the blanket of snow falling, I started to make one of my favorite one-pot meals the hearty Ukrainian Borscht. Now my grandmother would not have approved of this version of Borscht, her’s was a rich, sweet soup with flanken (beef). It was the traditional Jewish Polish/Eastern European hearty soup, that was often served with a potato in the center and adorned with lots of dill. As if the beets weren’t sweet enough, she’d add more sugar and a touch of lemon to balance it out. I discovered Ukrainian Borscht which is a meal in itself. The recipe is basically — 2-3 pounds of beets, 1 head of cabbage shredded, 1 large onion, 2 stalks of celery, 2 carrots (dice the vegetables) then 4-6 cups of beef stock made from 2 pounds of short ribs. Since I eyeball everything and have made this so many times, the recipe is not exact. While roasting the beets and making the beef stock, you wilt cabbage, saute onions, celery and carrots. Once the beets are soft, you carefully peel them — I highly recommend wearing gloves — and dice and julienne. Strain the broth and set aside the meat (dice it in large chunks) from the short ribs. Combine all the vegetables in a large pot, add the meat, beets and diced tomatoes (canned are perfect too), a bit of tomato paste maybe 2 tablespoons and the juice of 1 lemon and cover all with the stock — make sure it’s covered well with liquid so add more beef stock or some water if needed. I cooked this in a slow cooker for 6 hours on low — or you can do this in the oven or on the stove top, your choice, just make sure the meet is tender. The last hour I add a few tablespoons of chopped dill — adding it too early will make the borscht taste too much like dill. Also the last hour, you can add some diced potatoes — don’t add too early or they will be mushy.

Serve the borscht piping hot, with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of dill. Now for what wine to serve. A meal like this with a mostly savory notes and a touch of sweetness, as well as rich notes from the beef should have a wine that will stand up well to the complex flavors of the borscht. I calls for a wine that is bright and fruity with good acid and velvety tannins — a wine that is too fruit forward without good acid won’t stand up well to such a multi-flavored dish. I chose a wine from my cellar, a Barbera with just a bit of age on it. Barbera is a perfect foil. The Marchesi di Barolo, Barbera Marai 2014 from the famed Barolo producer, has bright, sour cherry notes and undertones of figs with a touch of earthiness and velvety soft tannins. Of course a village level burgundy or Oregon Pinot Noir would also be a great choice, and even a Garnacha from Spain.

Food and Wine have a commonality. It takes patience and love to make both. And when you have a great pairing — the right wine with the right food, you have magic. This combination was magic. It was the perfect pairing for a cold winter’s night. I used to make this for my mom and I know my dad would have loved it — grandma not so much.

Bubble, Bubble, Bubba and Bourbon!

It’s been a life long love affair with the bubbly! And on the eve of the historic vote on new trade tariffs which will wreak havoc on the Wine and Spirits Industry, I thought it was appropriate to write about this love affair, throw in a Bubba and finish with a glass of Bourbon.

My parents were huge Champagne lovers. Dad’s range varied from the super yeasty, bread toast, honeyed, complex wines like Krug and Bollinger RD to our house Champagne (sorry folks yes we had a house Champagne when I was growing up) which was Perrier Jouet Brut NV. Every Chinese New Year’s my dad with Les Amis du Vin, always did a special Champagne and Chinese Food New Year’s Dinner for the members and we always started any dinner party with hors d’oeuvres and Champagne as people arrived. My first real job was as a tour guide in Reims at Champagne Mumm! I spent a summer there when I was a senior in High School and had the most amazing time taking people around the Champagne Caves and of course going to see other Champagne houses as well.

So this weekend when my dear friend who is a prominent retailer from South Carolina, came in to NYC, we made it a Champagne tour! I can remember a few years ago when I visited Charleston with another industry friend — and this is where the Bubba portion comes in– Bubba, we had a Champagne tour of Charleston. Actually it was a Champagne tour of mutual friend’s cellar where between the 4 of us (there was one other) we polished off a Magnum and at least 2-3 more bottles while sitting on her terrace overlooking the Charleston Harbor. Pretty much a perfect day. Most of what I remember is a Magnum of Ruinart followed by some older vintages of I think Moet and of course Pol Roger.

Prior to this visit she came with Bubba and stayed with me — my first house guests in my new/old place and of course she gifted me a Magnum of Ruinart so that we could start things off right! This time around we sat in the living room of the son of the owner of the store she works for (not a Bubba but a Junior) and toasted our day with a lovely bottle of Billecart Salmon Rose. Pretty much a perfect way to slide into a day of bubbly — a light salmon-pink, colored bubbly with zesty notes of citrus, raspberries and lovely crisp finish. Bottle polished off, it was now time to move onto the next venue! So around the corner we went to the local wine bar where we ate French Fries and drank glasses of Lanson Brut NV. Folks if you’ve never had French Fries and Champagne then you are missing out on one of the most perfect food and wine combinations! The crispy, saltiness of the fry is a great match to the drier styles of bubbly.

Full and filled, we were off to the next eating and drinking stop. This time it was for some Franciacorta and for those of you who’ve never had this Italian Sparkling Wine you are missing out! Nothing like Prosecco, Franciacorta is made according to strict methods just like a Champagne would be made. This one, Solouva is made with 100% Chardonnay and is an elegant balanced, fresh and crisp bubbly that went great with the fried arancini (rice balls.) So a few glasses later and along with an Aperol Spritz (it was a weird 67 degree F. day in middle January) we were ready to move on.

We enjoyed a lovely walk along the Highline and wound our way over to the new Hudson Yards. By now I hate to say it, I was tired of the bubbly and it was time for the Bourbon. I think you all know me by now so it’s not surprising that Bourbon would be my choice at the end of the day! I tried a terrific local NY State Bourbon from the Taconic Distillery. This is my new favorite local Bourbon. Tired feet and feeling a bit parched, my friends went for the wine and I went for the amazing smelling Taconic Dutchess Private Reserve Bourbon. Poured over a glistening block of whisky ice, the dark caramel colored liquid beckoned to be savored and it was. Honey and vanilla are the most prominent aromas with subtle notes of spice and a smooth long finish.

I was now finished. Great day filled with great friends, fun food, great bubbly and bourbon!