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If a wine lover were ever looking for a tale to rival that of “Sour Grapes”…well this probably isn’t exactly it, but it is a tale of mystery, fake identities, mistaken vintages, and a lot of reverse image searches.  In my book, that’s just as good.

Recently I was trying to track down a wine I had at a local restaurant.  The wine shops on the North Shore of Massachusetts generally prove to be subpar for this sort of exercise so I quickly had to turn to the internet to track down the 2014 vintage of Yangarra Estate Vineyard‘s Old Vine Grenache.  Naturally, I started with Yangarra’s website because why not buy wines directly from the producers?  Unfortunately, they were only selling the 2018 vintage and while I’m sure that vintage also tastes pretty good, I wanted to recreate the experience I had with the one at the restaurant…and not in 4 years (and even then it will be somewhat different).  Now.  This is the nature of a relationship with wine and why they are like being in relationships with people: We are each experiencing our lives independently of each other and we can’t guarantee we will both be in the same mood the next time we entangle.  But then again, they make more than one bottle of a particular vintage and metaphors are imperfect so polyamory I guess? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

As with most online wine shoppers, if you just Google the wine, the first wine shop that comes up is Wine.com.  Lo and behold, they had the 2014 vintage!  But oh no, they don’t ship to MA.  The next one to come up was WineChateau.com which I believe was originally a brick and mortar wine shop in NJ that has a new owner and trying to expand.  When visiting their website, finding the exact wine and ordering 3 bottles at ~$24/bottle was simple enough, but then here’s where things start to get a little dicey.  Let’s go to the timeline!

Feb 19, 8:30PM – order placed with confirmation email received (Hurray!)

Feb 25, 4:20PM – I had received no updates on the order so I sent an email checking on the status.

Feb 26, 11:25PM – I receive an automated email letting me know that my order has shipped…which fine, they probably forgot about my order, I reminded them, and then they finally sent it out.  Cool.  I’ll get over it.

Feb 28, 5:15PM – I leave work early because one must be home to sign for wine deliveries or have them held at a UPS location and the nearest distribution center is nowhere near either where I work or live, but I get there before they close and finally pick up the wine.

Feb 28, 6-ishPM – The box containing the wine is opened only to discover that the secret dread I had been having that they would send the wrong vintage had come true.  They sent the 2016 vintage instead of the 2014.

Feb 28, 6:03PM – I send an email to WineChateau.com letting them know they sent the wrong vintage and asking them to either ship the correct vintage or just refund the order and I can send back the wine.

Feb 29 – Nothing.  I try calling their number and after battling with their automated messaging system, no one answers.

Mar 1 – Nothing.  Calling them again results in no one answering.

Mar 2 – I dispute the charge on my credit card.

Mar 3 – Nothing, I also file a complain with the BBB

Mar 4 – Nothing

Mar 5, 6:37PM – WineChateau.com sends me an email with the subject line: “We’d love feedback on your recent WineChateau.com purchase!”…and honestly, fuck you at this point.

Mar 6, 10:12AM – WineChateau.com sends me an email with the subject line: “Hey Aaron, how was your experience shopping with us?”  Pretty shitty, how’s your day going?  I try engaging their chat bot from their website and it doesn’t respond.

Mar 6, 10:51AM – I finally get an email from WineChateau.com about the order in question that appears to just be a readout of what the chat bot, now named “Rita” says.  They say the vintage I selected was sold out and if I want to keep what I got, they’ll just refund the shipping cost, but certainly nothing more.  I respond to this email, not with the expletives I am shouting, but with a simple “refund the order and send the shipping label” message.

Mar 7 – Nothing.  And quite frankly, I’m beyond pissed off, but in looking over the last email I notice that “Rita” has a profile picture and it looks spot on for being a stock photo (Benefits of having a side hobby as a photographer).  This causes me to look at their website again, because everything seems a little scammy now.

Clicking over to their “About Us” page, they have a little team overview. A who’s who at Wine Chateau.  Their CEO, Saurabh Abrol seems like an approachable guy even though his head shot has some weird posing and lighting issues, but scrolling down to the other “people” (and quotes are justified here), it seemed that everyone was just a little too good looking and their job titles just a bit too generic.  So I did what any sane person would do and began to reverse image search all of the head shots.

[Insert highly engaging montage of reverse image searching]

Turns out, every. single. picture. could be found dozens of times elsewhere on the internet for different “companies” listed as having various different roles.  Mostly in the About Us or Executive Leadership pages, but sometimes showing up as user reviews for businesses.

Let’s just take one as an example: the CMO Gabriella Thompson from WineChateau.com.

WineChateau2

Oh, you’re name is Crystal now?

incredibuds

And now you’re drinking tea as Linda?

borntea

Wait, it’s Cathy now and you’re in Pakistan?!?

PakistanbusinessNews

Or maybe just as featured speaker, Ashley.

magnificentyou

…and look, it goes on and on and on.

The breakthrough came when visiting http://www.treatyoakcapital.com/ from…you guessed it, a reverse image search.  Fortunately, the creator of the site was cheeky enough to just come right out and say that the profile pictures were all fake, but more importantly, he (I know his name now) was cheap enough to not upgrade the website creation service he was using so it still maintained a “Powered by Weebly” stamp across the site’s pages.  Weebly is a website creation service that is now owned by Square, the electronic payments and website creation service company.

Having used Square’s Squarespace service to create a website before, I can tell you that users generally select from a list of templates to base their website off of.  These templates usually have stock photos holding place where the user should be replacing them with their own.  It turns out, that a multitude of customers of these services just neglected to change the template besides adding their own name and head shot in like Saurabh Abrol and then went ahead and hit publish with their newly imagined employees/executive board/happy customers prominently displayed on their website…and it turns out that neither Weebly or Squarespace have any checks to prevent people from doing this despite the possible copyright infringement that may be happening not to mention how everything about these businesses seems a bit fraud-y now.  Square did not respond to inquiries regarding this matter.

Mar 10, 11:00AM – “Victoria” who also has a great stock photo as her avatar sent an email letting me know that a shipping label had been generated and that I would receive a refund once the wines were returned.   I’m thinking the credit card dispute and the BBB complaint might have had something to do with this.

Mar 10, 11:03AM – “Victoria” emails again apologizing for any inconvenience and thanking me for my patience.  Her title is listed as Customer Service Specialist and Order Coordinator…but is “she”?

So where DOES one go to buy wine?  There are still plenty of options.  I ended up finding the wine I wanted from internationalwineshop.com.  Wine Folly has a decent list, but maybe just start with an aggregated searcher instead.  There’s only one I will recommend you steer clear of and…well you know it by now.

 

Have you ever wondered why white wines and red wines seem to have completely different aromatic descriptions?  White wines are all about citrus and tropical fruits and maybe hints of butter and vanilla and red wines focus on red and black fruits with maybe earthy things like leather, tobacco, oak, and just straight up meat.  But what do they have in common?  I mean, regardless of whether it’s a red grape or a white grape, it’s still a grape, right?

If you rely on the aroma descriptors that you get from the back of the bottle, or a “wine expert” (like me!), or even the winemaker themselves, you will rarely find any that overlap in the Venn-Diagram-Of-Red-And-White-Wine-Aroma-Descriptors…pretty sure that’s a thing…it’s not a thing on the internet, so let’s make it:

WineAromaVenn

…so no overlapping there…NOT. A. SIN. GLE. ONE.

(all of these flavor descriptors were taken from Wine Enthusiast articles and a little Editor’s note here, I took out “Watermelon” as a descriptor for Merlot because only WE lists watermelon as a descriptor for Merlot). 

Why is this? Why do we not describe red wines and white wines as having any overlapping characteristics?…I’ll hold you in suspense a little longer.  Perhaps a more peculiar case first:

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What inspired this investigation was drinking the Blanc de Cabernet Franc from Leah Jorgensen Cellars.  This is a white wine made from the Cabernet Franc grape which is usually made into a red wine.  She also makes the red version and yes, they are both fantastic.  But what piqued my curiosity was how each wine was being marketed.  This is the same grape, from approximately the same location (She buys her grapes from a few different vineyards it looks like, so it’s tough to say the exact grapes used for the red version came from the same place that the white version grapes came from), made by the same winemaker; the only apparent difference is that in one version, the skins of the grapes were left on, and the other, they were left off*.  Yet, here are how the two wines are described:

White – The world’s original white Cabernet Franc – this medium-bodied wine typically has delicate nuances of “early blush” apricot, golden raspberries, Meyer lemon, blood orange, white tea leaf, tarragon, and hazelnut – making up a pretty, complex white wine from red grapes. This vintage, the wine also offers subtle botanical notes of elderflower, jasmine, lime blossom, sweet pea shoot, even a hint of ground cinnamon, with flavors of clementine, lemon meringue, light honey leading into a creamy and nutty mid-palate that finishes with refreshing salinity. Drink now for freshness, but this wine will age in the bottle for a minimum of five years, due to the phenolic content from the red skins. Pair with white fish or shellfish, especially oysters and scallops; pasta with simple cream sauce; pork chops with apple compote; roasted chicken; crab stuffed poblano peppers with cream sauce; polenta and beans; a young, creamy, nutty Gruyère.

Red – This wine expresses fresh, bright, vibrant aromatics lifting and floating above the glass, brimming with intense floral notes, perfume, and sweet fruit. This wine was like a bouquet of flowers saved from a precious occasion, hung carefully upside to dry and preserve the natural oils – rose petals, hibiscus, violets, carnations. It reminded me of a delicate floral fragrance I wore when I was a young woman – “Petite Cherie” by Annick Goutal – not for the individual scents of pear, peach, musky rose, freshly cut grass, and vanilla (those descriptors really sound more like a portrait of white wine, anyway), but, for the sum of its parts, the alchemy of these scents that, when coalesced, create something that smells nothing like the individual oils, but, something of a magical emanation created by some ethereal woodland fairy queen. Then, another swirl of the glass sparked cinnamon bark, cigar, sweet birch bark, the distinctive spicy-citrus aroma of black walnut leaves, brambles, and ripe cherries.

Notice in the description of the red wine it’s even mentioned that some characteristics seem like they should be describing a white wine…just not the white wine made from the same grapes by the same wine maker.  Since a good portion of wine aromatics are determined by the grapes themselves, it would stand to reason that these two wines should at least have something in common aromatically speaking, shouldn’t they?

Now let’s look at the reasons as to why there appear to be zero similarities between how red and white wines smell and taste.  I would contend that most of this disparity is a result of how we interpret the aromas coming out of the wine we are drinking and less to do with actual chemical differences between red and white wines.  In the world of research, this very much appears to be a undecided question, but here is my reasoning:

  1. Our sense of smell is influenced by a whole host of things that aren’t just aroma molecules hitting our smell receptors: memory/training, mood, and the remaining 4 senses, with emphasis on sight.  When we see a food of a certain color our brains, in an effort to be as efficient as possible put all of the memories of similarly colored foods in the fronts of our minds to compare the current item with.  You could call it laziness, but we seem to stop with whatever the brain serves up first instead of consciously digging deeper.
  2. Aromatic descriptions used in wine, beer, whiskey, tea, coffee, etc. are developed for the primary purpose of comparing and contrasting when having a live discussion.  However, we already have categorized a wine into whether it is red, white, or rose before we get to smelling it so if someone goes about comparing and contrasting wines in different color categories, there’s already an assumption that everything will be different.  Aromatic descriptions are actually not a great way to categorize wine from a global perspective.
  3. Aromas, chemically speaking, can either be fairly simple (butter = diacytel) or complex (coriander = pinene, 3,7-dimethylocta-2,6-dienal [citral], linalool, and camphor)…and even with the “simple” aromas, it really is a mix of chemicals that exist, but one just tends to dominate.  Then, to make this even more complicated, there is an incredibly wide range as to the potency of these aromatic compounds.  Just looking at the variants of methoxy-pyrazines, which are responsible for those vegetal aromas, our noses can detect them at 0.000002 ppm in water or white wines or 0.00001 ppm in red wine.  In normal speak, these are tiny, tiny amounts; fractions of a drop. For diacytel, the detection threshold can range from 0.2 ppm in white wines to 2.8 ppm in red wines.  This means that you need 100,000+ times the amount of diacytel to be present than a methoxy-pyrazine in order for us to smell it!  Not only does these threshold levels vary between white and red wines, but they can also vary between white wines and between red wines.  These variations are the best evidence to say that there actually could be distinct and disjointed aromatic differences between white and red wines, BUT (and I like big ‘buts’ (I cannot lie)) the thresholds appear to work on a spectrum, meaning there is bound to be some overlap somewhere.  The research on this topic is nowhere near where it needs to be to make any definitive statements.

 

Therefore, the next time you are sitting around intellectually comparing and contrasting a curated selection of wines (Pretty much a Tuesday, right?), try stretching your mind a little and asking yourself what a white wine and red wine could have in common.  For example, take a food like fennel or the spice anise and see which white wines it brings out those attributes in and which red wines it brings out those attributes in.  I don’t say this lightly, but you may just blow your own mind.

 

 

*Chances are different yeasts were used and some oak in the red, but the wines were most likely fermented in the same tanks, at similar times, with the same bacteria roaming around, by the same hands.  Additionally, it looks like the the white wine also underwent a bit of Malolactic Fermentation (which most reds go through), so the differences between how the two wines were made are slight.

 

WineFoodPairing

“What’s the best wine to pair with this dish?” is a question every wine expert gets asked a little too often.  I have some issues with this question (Of course Aaron has issues with something), but it’s not the fault of the curious wine drinker; the issue lies with how wine experts, so-called wine experts, and wine publications insist that this is an important question to ask.  The problem I have with the question is that it relies on a couple of false assumptions:

1.) That there is a “best/perfect/ideal” pairing for every plate of food and it will be nearly universally agreed upon despite people having that interesting human trait called Preference.  I have debunked this myth before.  In this respect, the curious wine drinker may be better served by asking a wine expert what an interesting or unexpected wine pairing to a dish may be as the result may be much more rewarding.

2.) That wine and food pairing can only go a single direction; as in a wine can only be paired to a food and a food cannot be paired to a wine.  If you are sitting at a table in a restaurant with a discreet list of food items and set wine list, it makes sense to ask the Sommelier or waiter (if you trust they’ve actually tried all the wines) which wine might be enjoyable with the dish you’ve ordered as you are somewhat limited in your options.  But what if you’re cooking at home and you can make whatever you want, how you want it?  Well, that’s when things get interesting.

In previous posts I have explored what wine and food pairing really is about instead of the romantic notions of “classic” pairings that aren’t really based on anything except tradition (Cab Sauv w/ Steak, Syrah w/ Lamb).  When people give recommendations outside of these traditional pairings they usually focus on flavor matching, meaning if you have a dish with red fruits in it, they’ll pick a wine that has red fruit flavors.  Most of these recommendations don’t get down to the molecular level where things really get interesting, but at least the wine drinker starts to connect why they are enjoying something and developing the skill to be able to find new pairings themselves.

The other aspect of wine and food pairing which is so very slowly being utilized by experts is flavor balancing, but an aspect of it has been the sole focus of wine and cheese pairing for decades.  If the wine is a bit bitter or astringent, balance it in the food with acid and/or salt.  And cheese pairings! If it’s a creamy, fatty cheese, pair it with a wine that has higher acidity.  But again, a person’s preference plays into this as well so it’s better to explain what happens when you mix and match as a pairing that tackles the harsh tannins of a particular wine may be thoroughly enjoyed by someone not fond of the cotton-mouth feel, but frowned upon by someone who does.  In this respect, “Balance” is somewhat subjective, but helping someone discover how salt and sour tastes fit on one side of the metaphorical scale and sweet, bitter, and umami are on the other will assist them in figuring out what sort of balance they are looking for.

Taking these things to account, it’s important to remember that wine and food pairing needn’t be a unidirectional exercise.  If you have a wine that has notes of lime in it, why not add some lime zest to the dish you are preparing?  If the wine is a bit flat and lacking some acid, why not add a bit more acid to the dish you are preparing to give the wine some life? Wine and food pairing is, to use a math/programming term, recursive which creates an infinite loop of enjoyability.  This is why gastronomes don’t necessarily care whether they take a bite or sip first, they just know that it needs to be followed by the other to find true satisfaction.

So if you are a curious wine drinker, the next time you feel compelled to ask a wine expert which wine you should pair with a dish, instead ask one of the following questions:

  1. What would be an interesting or unexpected wine pairing with this dish?
  2. I really like the [your favorite part of the dish] in this.  What wine would highlight that aspect of it?
  3. I have this wine [indicate in a grand gesture ala a magician revealing a trick] and this dish [twirl a fake mustachio or real one if you have it].  What could I do to the dish to really tie the wine to it?

And if you are a wine expert, do your best to keep your preferences in check and turn the “best wine pairing” question into one of the above.

ParodyWine

WIRED recently wrote an engaging article detailing the exploits of a company called Integrated Beverage Group which is doctoring up cheap bulk wine and making them taste like popular ones.  The general idea of what they are doing isn’t new and quite frankly, I don’t even think this is a break-through moment in the world of wine manipulation, but it does provide a good opportunity to talk about what wine is, philosophically speaking, how producers toe that line in the real world, and when does what’s being done cross into something that is…not wine.

What Is Wine?

Wine is an alcoholic beverage that has been fermented from fruit.  That’s it.  That’s the technical definition.  Sure, most of us tend to think of grape wines when we think of wine, but people will make wine out of any sugary fruit.  Philosophically speaking though, wine is a reductive creation like sculpting as opposed to beer, which is an additive creation like painting.

Wine can exist without human intervention.  In fact, some might say that wine was discovered and not invented which is why the more romantic of wine makers consider what they do to be guiding the wine to what it should be instead of creating it.  If fallen grapes are left in a pile, they may very well ferment when the grape skins burst and the yeast of the local environment gets to eating the sugar in the juice.  It may not taste like your favorite Bordeaux, but it is most certainly wine.

What it takes to make the wine is to simply take away all of the parts that you don’t want.  This is why debates on whether to force wine makers to label their bottles with an ingredients list is silly because if you get down to what exists in the final bottle, there should really only be one: grapes.  At each stage of making wine, you are removing something that you don’t want in the final product.  Even the “additives” that get inserted into the wine making process (yeast because natural yeast is finicky and doesn’t always ferment to the wine maker’s liking, fining/clarifying agents to reduce cloudiness or to improve the wine’s clarity, or stabilizing chemicals to make sure the yeast won’t die before finishing fermentation) don’t end up in the final product that you’re drinking.  If you ever go on a winery tour, you’ll hear the term “Racking”, which refers to removing the remaining juice from the solids that have settled to the bottom of the tank, just like a sculptor chips away the stone and brushes away the dust to reveal the form beneath.

How Producers Toe The Line In The Real World

As with anything in life, there are always exceptions.  Wine making is no different.  Depending on where the wine is being made determines the amount and degree to which those exceptions can be made.  For instance, some places allow for chapitalization which means adding a small amount of sugar to the juice prior to fermentation in order to have a higher alcohol content, some do not.  This is technically an addition to wine, however it is not done to produce wines with an alcohol content beyond what any “natural” wine could produce, it is done to bring the wine within the realm of what the wine consumer is expecting.  The same goes for liquid tannin, various acid additions, glycerol, etc., they are all added because the wine through error on the wine maker’s part or just the roll of the dice in this year’s harvest, didn’t meet expectations.  This would be akin to patching a chip on the sculpture.  There are laws preventing additions to wine that would change their very nature.

When Is A Wine No Longer A Wine?

In the WIRED article, the cheap base wines were being manipulated in order to mimic certain popular wines.  Sometimes it is simple blending of a bulk wine with a boutique wine, but other times it comes from severe manipulation in adding esters, acid, etc. where the result product is unrecognizable from the bulk wine it started from.  A point that many wine experts have pointed out is that the company doesn’t actually replicate the popular wines, but instead they are just able to recreate a few notable features of the wines.  Therefore, they probably should be called “Parody Wines” instead.

Are they any good? Can they be enjoyable? I’m sure they can be a tasty treat and I see nothing wrong with their existence in this world, but philosophically speaking, they aren’t wine.  Maybe you could call them fruit beers or wine cocktails, but when you get to a certain level of adding esters, acids, or even color, no longer are they the product of reduction.  They are now the products of addition.  They also will never stand out by themselves because they are dependent upon the original wine existing in the first place.

This is where labeling laws should step in.  Advertising these creations as wine is deceptive to the consumer.  They started as wine, but now they’ve become something else. Again, we currently allow this to some degree in the wine world and a good reason for that is to round out the differences between vintages and produce consistent wines year after year within limitations.  We would benefit from tightening these limitations just a little than what they already are and then labeling these new creations for what they are.  A good reason why this may be important is that there does seem to be mild evidence indicating a correlation between the more ill-effects from drinking wine and the consumption of wines that are generally at the cheapest end of the price spectrum.  The reasoning behind this could be that certain congeners (things other than the alcohol) are removed from quality wines that are not from these bulk-produced wines.  So these parody wines, while certainly not eliminating the existing “bad” congeners in the bulk wine, could in fact be adding more of them in as well.

 

Most consumers are somewhat aghast when they find out what passes through their wine before they get to drink it, but the same could probably said for any food product that has a modern production life cycle.  The mere fact that some additives are added isn’t so much an issue. However, when those additives change the very nature of the final product, we need to be alerted of this transformation.  Again, there’s certainly nothing wrong with enjoying what is produced, and the work that is going into identifying what exactly gives a wine its uniqueness is a worthy intellectual exercise that I personally find fascinating.  From a truth-in-advertising perspective though, there will come a point where someone tries to pass off one of these parody wines as the original thing and we should all have the right to know whether they are paying for an original sculpture, chiseled out of marble, or merely a faithful recreation made out of Papier-mâché.

 

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No New Year’s Eve party would be complete without a toast of bubbly after the ball drops.  In fact, making sure you have a glass of the bubbly seems to be an essential selling point for bars and event spaces when trying to seduce you into spending that precious moment that only happens once a year with them.  Of course, you’ll pay for it…exorbitantly.  But never fear, they’ll throw in a glass of Champagne for free…or will they?  I’m 99% confident they won’t.

The vast majority of wine drinkers are well aware that the term Champagne strictly applies to the sparkling beverage made in the traditional method that comes from grapes grown and fermented in the Champagne region of France.  The vast majority of wine drinkers also don’t care when someone calls any sparkling wine, “Champagne”, and honestly, could most people tell the difference?   In fact, anyone who corrects someone using the term “Champagne” inappropriately in casual conversation such as:

“Do you guys want some Champagne?”

or

“I just loooooove drinking Champagne!!”

…can rightly be referred to as ‘pedantic’ most politely or any other word of your choosing if you’re feeling more comfortable in that social setting.

However, there are specific times where choosing the correct wording matters.  In regards to NYE, let’s zero in on one particular facet that sets Champagne apart from other sparkling wines outside of where it is grown and produced:  On average, it’s much more expensive than any other kind of sparkling wine.  When someone is advertising something and then it turns out they’re really giving you a much cheaper product, we don’t call that a cute colloquialism mix-up (or a “generic trademark” to be technical).  We call it fraud.

The stupid thing is that if you put on your advertisements what you’ll actually be serving (Cava, Prosecco, the generic Sparkling White Wine, or even just good ol’ bubbly)…people will still be interested.  Plenty of people like other sparkling wines just as much if not more than Champagne.  Will it sound as classy as using the term Champagne?  Probably not. But quite frankly, if you need to lie about your event to make it sound better than it is it probably wasn’t going to be that classy anyway.  It’s not unfair to question whether if you ordered a gin martini at a place like that, would they actually give you a lower priced vodka martini but charge you the same price as they would for the gin martini?

giphy

I see no reason why consumers couldn’t ask for a refund if they were offered Champagne included in the price they paid and then they got something that was valued less.  In fact, I would encourage people to do so if they find they’ve been intentionally misled with regards to wine.  Alternatively, since it’s safe to assume most places advertising “Free Champagne” will not be giving you Champagne, let that color your decision a bit as to whether you want to plunk down the money for that particular establishment.  Assume it’s a half-glass pour of the cheapest Prosecco they could find and see if you still value their offer the same way.

DSC_0859-1

After spending 12 years in Minneapolis, I recently moved to Boston, a wonderful city in its own right, but I’m going to do some serious city bashing here.  The restaurant scene in Boston has historically been given a hard time by fervent New Yorkers because…Sports?  I don’t really know and I haven’t been to NYC in my adult life so I really can’t tell if anything a New Yorker says is justified or not, but I can tell you that so far I now have a lot more trepidation in venturing out to a new restaurant in Boston than I ever did in Minneapolis.

Where I used to live in Minneapolis, I was within a 1-10 minute walk from the Grand Cafe, Victor’s 1959 Cafe, Rincón 38, Blackbird, Nighthawks, Kyatchi, Pat’s Tap, and Hola Arepa.  Each of these restaurants are highly acclaimed in their own right and have not only local, but regional and national recognition for either the restaurant or the chef’s that work there.  Now, I’m not listing my favorite 9 restaurants out of the 100 in this walking distance here. Minneapolis isn’t a dense city. I just listed 9 out of the 10 restaurants within that radius.  Most entrees at these restaurants are between $12-$18.   One of these has a menu with both sushi and hotdogs on it and they made it work well.

Outside of this hot spot for superb dining, let’s not forget the places within a short drive like Heyday, Revival, Spoon and Stable, The Bachelor Farmer, Borough and Parlour (Which has the best damn cheeseburger in the world. I will cut you if you say otherwise!), not to mention those tasting menus from the simple, yet perfectly executed at Tenant to the mind-blowing extravaganza that is Travail (Technically in Robbinsdale, I know). Even now, I’m leaving out dozens of restaurants that I have wandered into and left, not just sated, but impressed.

There are two primary factors that go into me being impressed with a restaurant.  The first is Quality, the second is Value.  Quality is an assessment of how well the food is prepared: freshness of the ingredients, how tender the meat is, the crispiness of things that are supposed to be crispy, appropriate temperatures, etc.  All of these are objective measurements that most food critics seem to breeze over in order to get to extolling their preferences about how food should be.  The other factor of Value is admittedly a subjective measurement, but to put simply: was the meal worth the price I paid?  The Minneapolis restaurant scene shines on these factors by setting a high bar for average quality and simultaneously being an amazing value.  I can say with statistical probability that if you walked into a random restaurant in Minneapolis, the quality would most likely be well above average if compared to a magical national restaurant quality index (Sadly, this doesn’t exist) and you would most likely feel the meal was of good value assuming you are normal fine dining restaurant goer.  And on these two levels, other cities like Boston fail to compete.

This is not to say that all restaurants in Boston suck or that all restaurants in Minneapolis are better than they are in Boston.  I’ve had wonderful experiences at places like Ten Tables, Juliet (Technically Romeo’s at Juliet, their “weekly reinvention”), Legal Harborside (floor 2), Coppa, and Marliave, but there is no way I’m going to take a chance anymore at walking into a random restaurant and it’s difficult to trust rave reviews.  I need more trustworthy restaurant recommendation sources that are able to evaluate quality. It’s really about not being able to trust the restaurant to deliver what is promised.  Why is your slow-cooked lamb or pork tough? Why does what you label as a “smashed burger” not appear to actually be smashed? Why is the light and crispy breading on this veal piccata water logged and soft? On the whole, Boston restaurants are delivering lower quality food on average for a higher price.  There are more slightly elevated versions of Applebee’s here, if you will.  The shining exception to this is pizza.  I can walk into just about any hole in the wall, buy a slice for $2 and be in heaven.  Minneapolis can’t do cheap pizza by the slice like Boston.

The price factor can be attributed to higher rent.  While this is an assumption, it’s clear that real estate in Boston is quite a bit more costly than other parts of the nation and therefore, higher costs on most items can be expected simply because of this and honestly, this was my expectation going in.  However, there are quite a few more restaurants in the Boston area on average that list entrees in the $30+ category simply because they consider themselves to be a fancy restaurant (i.e. they put white table cloths on their tables).  I tend to shy away from $30+ entrees in general because A) I’m not super rich and B) I’d rather buy better ingredients and make that dish myself.  That’s not a boast about my cooking skills by the way, it’s just a reflection on restaurant economics.

The difference in the quality factor is what I can’t figure out though.  Perhaps the expectations of Boston restaurant goers and food critics is lower?  Perhaps there is less intermingling of chefs and restaurant staff in the Boston restaurant scene? Perhaps there is an oligopoly of food suppliers that give restaurants little choice. Or perhaps, it’s because they are focused on entirely different factors here than the base quality of food and how much they are charging for it.  I have noticed that restaurants in Boston tend to have items on their menus or entire menus that are a bit more complex than what they probably should be. They try to sell you on how unique their menu item is (even though, yes,  the restaurant down the street also has a wild boar tagliatelle too) instead of how good it is.  Instead of making a street taco with 8 different toppings on it, just make a high quality basic street taco.  Instead of having 20 hamburgers, just make 2 high quality hamburgers.  Instead of having a huge menu of disparate foods, pick a theme or a cohesive element to tie a shorter list of menu items together.  There needs to be more focus on making things well than focusing on how interesting the menu sounds. At this point I certainly haven’t gotten to a majority of the restaurants in Boston yet and this assessment may change at some point because there’s always a chance that I’ve just magically chosen all the wrong restaurants to base this assessment on.  Until then, I fear I’ll sound like a New Yorker when talking about the Boston food scene.

 

Side Dish Rants

Coffee:  I spend a lot of time in coffee shops because I work from home so it was a surprise when all of the Americanos I was ordering seemed to be…off when ordering them from Boston coffee shops close to home.  It turns out that for whatever reason, the local coffee shops in Minneapolis generally add the espresso or ristretto shots to the hot water and not the other way around.  After some serious internet research, I found that this is technically called a Long Black and I prefer it because the crema of the espresso sits on top making the first few sips extra special. I’ll probably be making myself a lot more Americanos in the future, but until then I have a few coffee shops in the Boston area identified as potentially favoring the Long Black method which I will be seeking out.  I tried asking my usual coffee shop this morning to do it, but they topped it off with more hot water before I could intervene to fill up the cup which defeated the purpose of me having them reverse their usual order.

Cocktails:  When the Bradstreet in Minneapolis first began serving up amazing cocktails at a then unheard of high price of $10, I was quickly on board.  They were beautifully and simply crafted with ingredients that well justified the new higher price point.  Then Marvel Bar came along and added a show of chopping ice in a dark basement with hipster wall paper and the price went up to $12.  Then everyone began delivering cocktails as a sideshow, many of course were much less interesting and with lower quality ingredients, but the price became a range of $12-$15 and at that point I somewhat stopped looking at the cocktail menus and stuck to wine.  I’d still go to the relocated Bradstreet if I was yearning for a cocktail.  I don’t know if Boston ever had a true cocktail renaissance, but they are very much in the $12-$15 range with cocktails of debatable value so I haven’t had much success here.  The last experience included a good rye and Fernet that had potential from the menu reading, but came out shaken instead of built or stirred which I was expecting since it didn’t contain any egg white or citrus.  I hesitate to call this the “wrong” way to make this cocktail, because the proportions of the ingredients, which is really the only hard and fast cocktail rule, were right, but it just seemed…off.

Local wine: Slight deviation from the restaurant scene, but since I spent a lot of time working with local grape growers and winemakers in Minnesota, I have been looking for ways to get involved in Massachusetts.  Oddly, in Massachusetts, you can import grapes from anywhere, ferment it within the state and still put Massachusetts on the label as the source of origin of the wine.  In Minnesota, laws dictate that 85% of the finished product must be from Minnesota grapes to call it Minnesota wine.  Out of state grapes seem to be favored by Massachusetts winemakers which to me seems like they have little interest in making parts of Massachusetts wine country or improving the quality of locally grown grapes.

A ragú based around Tony’s sausage from his market down the street comprised of onions, parsnips, green peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, a bit of beef broth, dash of pasta water, oregano, and bay leaf.  Served along with the house-made tagliolini that is obviously comprised of flour and eggs, and I add a dash of salt and olive oil.  Oregano and pecorino to top.

Wine: G.D. Vajra Langhe Nebbiolo 2015

IMG_8975Notes:  Now that I live in Boston, I’m taking advantage of the major cultural staple of being able to walk into some market owned by an elderly Italian person and wish that they were your grandparent.  For me, Tony’s Market, appropriately owned by a guy named Tony who is between 80 and 150 years old and is still making the sausages, is just down the street.  Anyway, I wanted nothing more than to cook and drink some wine after being up since 3:30am that morning for a major system update for work and this really hit the spot.  A comfort meal at it’s finest with a beautiful wine to boot.  I originally planned to add a little heat in the form of red pepper flakes and either some clove or nutmeg, but I was on a severe lack of sleep so those accidentally got left out.  Next time…

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More food porn.