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Posts Tagged ‘Minnesota’

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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.

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Fall at a Minnesota vineyard

 

Wine and climate are intricately linked. For anyone who has gone through any sort of wine training, you inevitably also get a lesson on macro, mezzo, and micro climates as well. Wine education doesn’t usually touch on genetics (although I feel it should), but climate is one of three factors that influence how a grape varietal expresses itself. The other two factors are soil, and how other living creatures (mainly humans) interact with it. These three factors combined are neatly summed up into the French word, Terroir. One of the fun things in wine is finding that grapes of the same genotype (what it’s born with) will produce wines with slightly different characteristics based on the terroir they exist in. One could also describe this as being a grape’s phenotype.

For a few thousand years the climate where wine grapes were developed and the soils they were developed in have remained relatively the same. The human factor though is what we consider to be the “Art” or “Science”, depending on your perspective of winemaking. The winemaking is a controllable factor. The soil, while not controllable, is a steady constant that only changes when you move the vines. The weather though (a sub-factor of climate), is the unpredictable element. This is why people lament certain vintages and praise others even though today’s winemakers have mostly figured out how to handle the ups and downs of a year’s weather variations. While the weather varies year to year, the winemaker knows the approximate parameters of what it’s going to be like because that’s what climate is.

Now, those climates are a-changing. I suppose you could choose not to believe in that sort of thing, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone in agriculture (Or, you know, Science) that isn’t at least considering how things will change for them in the future. Grape growers and wine makers are no exception. Minnesota Public Radio has recently been running a series on the effects of climate change locally and globally. One of their articles has wonderfully shown how Minnesota’s climate has been changing over the past 100+ years with some pretty specific details so I decided to use that as a jumping point into how Minnesota’s wine industry could see some changes in the future. Give the article a full read here and then come back for my grape-related thoughts below that loosely correspond with their headers.

It’s Warmer and Winters Are Warming Faster

In general, this could be good news for grape growing in Minnesota since our main antagonist is how cold it gets in the winter. Theoretically, if we could eliminate sub-zero temperatures, the number of varietals we could grow would exponentially increase. Currently, zero, that’s right, zero of the European varietals of vitis vinifera that are predominately used for wine making across the world are able to be grown in Minnesota successfully and in quantity to make commercial wine from. This is what has driven the interest and research on hybrid grapes that take the cold hardiness of native grapes (vitis riparia mostly) and the wine making qualities of the aforementioned European grapes. So, hurray if we eliminate those obscenely cold days that stay below zero during the winter.

But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. What grapes generally don’t appreciate are moody temperature swings. Yes, the idea is to stress the grapes as they grow, but the idea is to do this gradually. Vines (and really all plants in general), keep to a pretty set schedule throughout the year which is dictated by what the weather is doing. When it warms for spring, the buds begin to break and things start to grow. Summer the grapes start appearing and energy production switches to them. Fall, the grapes mature and ripen. Winter, the vine goes dormant to survive the winter. When the vine incorrectly thinks the seasons are changing due to random temperature swings, bad things can happen.

North Warms Faster

There’s really a big divide between the climate of southern Minnesota and northern Minnesota. Currently, although there is certainly debate about this, I would say wines from vineyards from Central Minnesota and south are more favorably received than those of the northern part of the state. One of the major technical hurdles that MN winemakers face is that of having more than the desired amount of acid in the grapes. In general, the colder the region, the more acid will be found in the harvested grapes. There are measures that a winemaker can take to counteract this to a degree, but the more ideal the grape is, the wine will be easier to make as well as potentially better.

It Rains More

This can only be bad. We get plenty of rain in Minnesota. So much, that irrigation of vineyards in the state is rare and if used restricted to preparing vines for winter in the late fall. More water, assuming the vines don’t drown, would mean more vigorous growth of the green parts of the vine (shoots, leaves, etc.). If the vine has to put all of its energy into supporting the green parts, it will put less energy into developing the grapes which means they won’t taste very good. Vine vigor already requires a lot of human power to control, meaning people are out there trimming of excess growth constantly throughout the year. More growth would mean more labor or limiting the expansion of a vineyard…or growing poor grapes.

Intense Storms Are More Frequent

Again, more bad stuff. Intense storms bring about damage to a vineyard. Hail, is an obvious culprit that would rip through grapes, but even intense rains can damage a crop. So short of someone inventing a weather force field, there’s nothing that can be done to counteract this.

Ice Melts Earlier/Snow Season Ends Earlier/Growing Season Grows Longer

You’d think this would be a positive, and in general it is. A longer growing season gives grapes time to spend developing anthocyannins, which turn into the things we associate with flavor in the wine. However, what’s been happening the past few years is that we have a warm spell in early to mid-spring which causes the vines to get started on their bud growth and then the next week the weather plays a cruel joke by snapping the temperature back down below freezing, killing off those buds. While the vines do have a backup second bud (and third), the first is going to be the best. It’s like killing off your kitten and then replacing it with a new one. Not the same, is it? The winter of 2013/2014 was particularly harsh in Minnesota. While the vines themselves survived, most of their buds unfortunately did not. This led to crop losses of up to 90% for the 2014 harvest season.

Hardiness Zones Move North/Species Migrate

I think this factor has the most potential for unknown effects on grape growing. On one hand, moving down hardiness zones into ones that are more common to grape growing is beneficial. However, this also means that the ecosystem that has developed in that hardiness zone is going to migrate north as well. Birds, trees, shrubs, insects: All of these can effect the nutrients in the soil, what pests are going to be found in the vineyard, and how the grapes will express themselves (genetically speaking). The sheer number of factors that go into this is mind-boggling and I don’t believe anyone has been able to come up with a computer model to mimic how this can play out.

In Conclusion…

Outside of climate change, the Minnesota grape growing and winemaking industry really had to conquer one hurdle: How to get grape growing vines that produce tasty wines to survive the winter. This is a really difficult problem to solve, but certainly not unsolvable. In fact, with the recent advances made by the University of Minnesota’s grape breeding project, a lot of progress has been made. With climate change, the hurdles faced by the industry become a moving target. The very problem being worked on today could no longer be a problem in 20 years, but a new one or more likely, multiple problems will have filled its place.

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Recently, NPR ran a story about the Danish concept of Hygge (“hue-gah”).  Admittedly, I didn’t actually hear the story, but was told about it be someone who only wishes to be described as “The best person in the world” and “Incredibly sexy”, but nonetheless, it sparked both of our interests and some thorough Google research and execution of the concept soon followed.  A quick definition of the word would be as difficult to do as defining Terroir for the wine world, but at its heart Hygge is a warm emotional connection to a moment.  “Cozy” seems to come up a lot when describing it.  However, the best found definition was found here.  The current theory is that Hygge is responsible, or at least a large part of why the Danes are so happy according to people who measure that sort of thing.  Naturally, those of us in Minnesota have been taken with the concept since Hygge is particularly an effective draw during our winter months.  In other words, we view it as a way to stave off the impending madness that comes from the winter doldrums.

Some examples of Hyggelig (“hue-gah-lee”) things:

  • Savoring a warm meal with someone while being basked in the candlelight.
  • Curling up on the couch with your cup of morning coffee and reading a book.
  • Enjoying the conversation of friends on a cold winter’s eve.
  • Hearing your soft footsteps running on a trail in the snow.

Basically, Hygge, is what this blog is all about for those of us who are imbued with the world of wine. Interestingly enough, the other dovetail of Hygge and this blog (which I assume is the American national past time) is that it’s all about mental framing and priming.  When an idea is framed, it is put in a certain context.  This is like setting the boundaries of a debate topic, or when the media presents a story in a certain light; in a way, how you think about something is restricted by the parameters set forth.  Priming on the other hand is presenting bits of information ahead of time that influence the direction your thought process goes down in the future.  If you’re paranoid, you’d probably call this being brainwashed.

You will like this wine.  Shhh, don't talk, just drink.

You will like this wine. Shhh, don’t talk, just drink.

Framing and priming are an integral part of the wine and food experience.  We have expectations [framing] as to what a wine will taste like and if it meets or exceeds that expectation we will have a positive experience.  If we just recently took a whiff of a particular herb and we notice an herbal smell in a wine, we are more likely to label that wine aroma with the herb we originally took a whiff of [priming].  This is why wine descriptors, although fun and sometimes poetic, are mostly bullshit, but I will have more to say about that in a future post.  I have often been asked how I create wonderful experiences revolving around wine and food and to take away some of the shroud of mystery, it’s mostly that I am able to frame and prime people’s mental state in the way that I want for the experience I give them.  Yes, I have a certain level of cooking ability and a knack for judging what wines various people will like with a meal, but if I just set a dish down with a glass of wine down and said “Here’s your dinner. Eat it alone.”  the Hyggelig-ness (I just created that) of the situation would drop dramatically.  So I put the lights down a little lower, set the music to match the mood (always have music), light some candles, point out aspects of the food and wine that I think go together well, and lo and behold; suddenly we’re having a good time.

Let’s take that clambake I did back in the summer as an example.  If you tried to recreate that yourself, you could have gotten the exact same food and the exact same wine, but it could have really sucked as an experience for you if you ate it in a hurry in between doing errands or with a dog constantly barking at you, or perhaps you were just in a bad mood.  You really have to linger in the experience to the point where it become intimate.  Notice I didn’t say grand, opulent, or even fancy. Just intimate.  Connected.

Anyway, tonight I will be creating some Hygge with a dish of pasta, chorizo, and chickpeas and most likely a darkly fruity red wine (Pro secret: you can generally enjoy any wine with any food as long as you like them both and make slight adjustments if necessary).  I will wear my most Hygge heavy shawl sweater.  The atmosphere will be set with a fire in the fireplace, some ambient candle light, the lights from the Christmas tree, and some music turned down low as the snow falls outside.  Conversation will be enjoyable, and most importantly, the experience will be lingered over.

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Hygge prep

As the Cranberries once asked: “Do you have to, do you have to, do you have to let in linger?” To that I say Yes, Cranberries, yes you have to let it linger.  Therefore, I hope all of you, especially those of us in the wintry north and the shortest days, find some Hygge this winter.

Mega-Hygge candle

Mega-Hygge candle

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A new events company has just burst on to the local scene here in Minnesota called GetKnit.  They are pulling together winery and brewery tours, cooking classes, and volunteering opportunities, which all ride on the back of the Local movement.  On Sunday, April 7 at 10:30am, the new company kicked off their maiden voyage with the St. Croix River Valley Winery Tour.

Even though the day started out cloudy, the staff were nothing but sunny.  Just shy of 40 people met at the Roseville Park N’ Ride to board a luxury charter bus to the sounds of Frank Sinatra playing over the air.  I personally would have gone with Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, but I’m not sure how many would have gotten the joke, so Old Blue Eyes was probably a better choice.  The GetKnit staff, called the GetKnit Gurus, which were nearly all in the first half of their 20s, expertly set the atmosphere establishing the suggestion that above all else, this day would be fun and social.  The company’s name itself hints at their broader goal of “Knitting the community together” and without silly games or icebreakers, they organically facilitate the co-mingling of fellow travelers.  Of course, the added suggestion that bottles of wine purchased at the wineries may be consumed on the bus certainly aided this process.  Later in the tour this set the groundwork for a sing-a-long of Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer, which was well participated.

GetKnit Gurus Justin and Sarah

GetKnit Gurus Justin and Sarah

Stop 1 was a quick ride over to St. Croix Vineyards for a tasting of 5 locally grown and made wines including a port-style dessert wine with a bit of chocolate to finish it off.  While the group certainly enjoyed the tasting housed in a beautifully restored rustic barn, the excitement for the vineyard came at the end when a large number of visitors lined up to make purchases.  Stop 2 was in the more urban styled Northern Vineyards, a co-op winery found in the heart of Stillwater.  This tasting followed the format of the first involving Minnesota grown and produced wines, finishing with the port-style dessert wine and chocolate, but in a more urban atmosphere.  The second floor patio of the winery overlooks the scenic St. Croix River and will no doubt only enhance the experience when the chill finally leaves the air.  Much discussion was had in comparing the first winery to the second, but regardless of which side people stood on, purchases were again made.

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Around 1pm a well-deserved lunch was had just down the street at Luna Rossa.  Wine was not included in the lunch, but was available for purchase.  However, only the most adventurous chose to partake; most appreciating the brief respite piling up on the pasta and salad.  Yet, before the coma-inducing powers of digestion could set in, the GetKnit Gurus corralled everyone back on the bus for the 45 minute drive over to the last stop across the border into Wisconsin at Chateau St. Croix Winery and Vineyard.

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This stop was perhaps the least Midwestern feeling of the wineries visited as it was inspired by various aspects of France showing off regal statues and a fountain out front, a French hunting lodge inspired tasting room, candelabras, chandeliers, and even full sets of armor standing at guard.  The wines themselves were mostly made from grapes imported from California, but to reassure people they were in fact still in the Midwest (Specifically Wisconsin), the winery does have two wines labeled Buckhunter Red and Cheesehead White.  For good measure, they also have produced a wine from the University of Minnesota hybrid Marquette grape as the previous two wineries had which appeared to be their grape of choice planted in their burgeoning vineyard mixed in with some Prairie Star.  After a quick tour of their facility, another port-style wine and chocolate pairing was had.  The women again swooned.  Purchases were again made and even bottles of beer were bought (When in Rome…) for the ride back across the state line to the tours completion.

Chateau St. Croix being guarded by a lion.

Chateau St. Croix being guarded by a lion.

Most surprisingly was how smoothly everything operated for GetKnit’s premier outing.  The GetKnit Gurus seemed particularly adept at herding cats and there was not a single blip in the schedule, or if there was, no one noticed.  At $65, the tour was an absolute value (15 wines, 3 wineries, lunch, transportation, wine glass memento) and not only the participants, but the wineries and the staff all appeared to be having a wonderful time.  The company has already lined up a number of events, including the wine tour through May with more events likely to follow.

Happy tourists.

Happy tourists.

For more information about GetKnit events follow the link.

Compensation disclosure: Tour fee comped for an event write-up for the Midwest Wine Press

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Hello all! The cold climate conference 2013 has just begun in downtown St. Paul. If you remember, exposure to the conference last year prompted me to take a another look at Minnesota wine and give it a second chance. This year I am rushing back from Georgia so I can work the event! Pre-conference activities are going on now and the main event begins tomorrow.

I hope to see some of you there!

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