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What I might end up being known for -- "le cérat"

Date: Wed, May 1, 2013

Again with the Pond's cold cream saga. Best to begin assembling your ingredients: apart from beeswax you will need olive oil, distilled water, and borax.

Ah hah. What is the point of cold cream, anyway, and where does it come from? I imagined it as somehow a product of nineteenth century Victorian leisure and chemistry, or as another brilliant invention of one of those hardscrabble ladies of the early twentieth century, who simply created whole cosmetics and fashion industries from scratch and sheer brainpower -- Estée Lauder was one, Chanel another. Not so, it seems. Cold cream, so named "because it leaves the skin feeling cool and refreshed" (a bit pat, no?) is credited to the classical Greek physician Galen. He stirred together the simple ingredients olive oil, beeswax, water, and rose petals, and arrived at what the French still call le cérat de Galien, Galen's wax. Modern formulas eschew olive oil, because it spoils too quickly. Its replacement is mineral oil.

Do we trust Wikipedia on this important little issue? My French dictionary includes no such word as "cérat"; the word for wax is la cire. That same dictionary also translates cold cream forthrightly as le cold-cream (masculine, oddly). However, my French dictionary is not the only source of information on skin care on the planet. A French website called Huiles & Sens Aromathérapie agrees that, with this invention Claude Galien, "un médecin grec de l'Antiquité," did indeed give us one of the oldest of all cosmetic recipes. And they call it cérat de Galien.

I was so charmed by Miss Chase's retro advice (in Letters of the Century) to cream your face each night, and so pleased by the rediscovery of Pond's at about the same time I was given that book, that I have been cleansing with "the cool classic" religiously every night since. Letters of the Century came out in 1999, so that makes a good ten years of the ritual. And now they've changed the formula, the fragrance is gone or almost gone, and I continue to use it though half the pleasure of it is also gone.

Above, Galen and his first customer? No, "a Druid sacrifice," from a 1940s-era textbook copy of Caesar in Gaul. Once upon a time schoolboys really did learn a bit of Latin.

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What I might end up being known for -- the letter, 1951

Date: Tue, Apr 30, 2013

We carry on the Pond's cold cream saga. There will be a recipe at the end of it, I promise. Don't forget to buy beeswax. If you can afford essential oil of roses, by all means splurge.

So now I, too, kept a jar on hand. Still, apart from Halloween, I had no particular use for it -- tried makeup, found it aging on me -- until I happened to receive a book for a present, called Letters of the Century: America 1900 to 1999. It's a collection heavy on left-wing canonic documents, everybody eyewitnessing civil rights, Vietnam, and so on, but in the middle of it (pp. 368-371) is the best letter in the book. It was written in 1951 by a lady named Myrna Chase to another lady simply named Mary. Miss Chase had no grand national agenda to discuss. She was a medical secretary who was leaving her doctor's practice in order to get married, and her letter was one of instruction to her replacement. Miss Chase obviously loved her job and was very good at it, but she was also a fine writer. Her style is simple, delicate, just verging on the waspish but so intensely ladylike that it remains great fun to read. "I'm sure," she warned Mary, "I don't need to caution you against the horror of a dark slip under a white uniform." "Remember that white in a doctor's office must always be just a little whiter than white." "I know you will not feel it beneath you to supplement the efforts of the overworked janitress with a good dust cloth of your own." "When the doctor is ready to leave, usher him out and tell him good night as if he were the guest of honor. Your respect and admiration can never be too great for a man who is following the finest profession in the world."

And this, at the beginning of the letter: "Your day really begins the night before, when you take a warm bath, brush your hair, cream your face, and relax in bed for at least eight hours' sound sleep."

Now doesn't that sound delicious? It takes us right back to 1951, when -- so we fancy -- women relaxed in the evening in fur-trimmed peignoirs and low-heeled mules, gave their hair a hundred strokes before bed, and laid out a soignee uniform of dress, hose, gloves, hat, stole, and who knows maybe a fresh orchid, for the next day. And "creamed" their faces above all. Fran Dodsworth (Ruth Chatterton), in the old movie Dodsworth, creams her face and wipes it all off savagely while having an argument with her husband Sam (Walter Huston) in a European hotel room. She's forty, and about to become a grandmother.

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What I might end up being known for, part 2

Date: Mon, Apr 29, 2013

We continue with our Pond's cold cream saga. And we include a picture from our most recent field trip. It's spring here on the south side.

I was actually disappointed enough to write to the Pond's company, outlining my complaints and asking why they had changed the formula. Some one from Quality Control wrote me back, apologizing for my experience and insisting that it did not reflect the standards that Pond's is determined to maintain. And wouldn't I please accept a coupon for a free jar, which I would soon find in my mail, while my letter was forwarded through proper channels, etc. I can imagine the person writing this thinking, "get a life, you no doubt ninety-year-old relic."

In a few weeks an entire package of coupons arrived, for all sorts of products. I had no idea that the Pond's people either own or are owned by all sorts of other people -- the people who make Suave shampoo, and Dove soap, too, if memory serves. I didn't use any of the coupons because I don't want two dollars off a soap or a shampoo. I want, at the least, Pond's to confide in me that they have changed the formula, and at best I want them to go back to the old one.

Let me tell you why I love Pond's. (Do I sound as if I am dunning for more coupons? I am not.) Of course every family with women in it is likely to keep a jar in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. It takes off makeup beautifully, and is safe to use even around the eyes. When I was growing up we always had a jar on hand, which seemed to sit half used for years, with the same black swipe plunged into it, from some already mascara-laden fingertip that some woman hadn't bothered to clean off before dipping in for her second helping you might say. Since I don't wear makeup, however, I thought no more about Pond's until it was time to buy a jar, in adulthood, to have on hand to remove my own children's Halloween makeup. And then I opened it and smelled again that scent.

And I was instantly transported back, in the powerful and ridiculous way that scents can do this, to the bathroom of my childhood home. Summertime, the open bathroom window, the heights of the green trees outside, and even the sound of bird calls returned to me in one split second sensation. Because of Pond's. Ridiculous.

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What I might end up being known for (oh gad)

Date: Sun, Apr 28, 2013

Do you remember wandering the stacks of your small local public library, say on a stifling summer day when you were twelve, looking at all the books -- and imagining your own Works one day being represented there? Maybe you especially wandered the biography section, and liked to picture your Life one day being there, too. A library, especially a small one, gives such a tidy impression of what is valuable. Here on these shelves, you think, is the result of what creative, vigorous and scholarly people have either created themselves, or dug up and summarized about creative and interesting people. (Why, that's us, of course!) Later on it seems not just the physical tidiness of this collected glory that is so bewitching, it's knowing the roots of it. It's knowing that all this has survived the examination of appropriate gatekeepers, editors and Ph.D program directors who know what is worthwhile or what will make money, or both. Chances are it also first survived the more important examination of a grateful humanity.

Even if you didn't think in precisely these words, I'll bet you floated along blissfully unaware of developing the first symptoms of Biography Syndrome. The syndrome presents, as doctors put it, like this: after simply imagining the fun of being alphabetized on the shelf somewhere after Austen and Bronte, you start to trustfully plan. Given time and plenty of hard work (surely), you too will amass Papers. Correspondence. Drafts. Diaries. Possibly even novels and magazine articles published during your lifetime, if you're lucky. You will do your part. And from these Papers, someone someday will pluck the best. They too will get past the gatekeepers with you under their arm as it were, and you will take your place in a library. Your Works, your Life will jut out from the shelves, to be fingered in passing one summer afternoon by another wondering twelve-year-old in the first soft grip of the Syndrome.

Now the Internet has arrived, we must rethink all this. (Or not -- "of the making of books there is no end," Ecclesiastes sighed many centuries ago.) The Internet and the blogosphere, crammed to overflowing with the thoughts and writings and photos of so many people anxious and able to try their hand at immortality now, makes us realize anew how unlikely it is that any of us will be noticed or remembered for anything artistic after we're gone. There is just much too much, and many too many, of everything. Sappho at least had a few centuries of immortality before her poems fell out of favor. Apparently her trouble was she wrote in a difficult dialect of Greek called Aeolic. Aeschylus, it is said, wrote ninety plays of which seven have survived. Such a tidy impression of what is valuable. Today they both would be bloggers, in whatever dialect, checking weekly stats and hoping for a comment.

Still. Seven out of ninety. Printing presses still run and libraries still operate. So it's still fun to wonder what some future editor of your Omnibus edition might choose as your best, or what might survive simply because it was popular. I can give my biographers a head start and tell them freely that I have a horrifying suspicion my literary reputation may one day rest on an article I wrote elsewhere, four years ago, about Pond's cold cream. Seriously. Nothing else I have ever written, certainly not in proper and dignified magazines, has garnered forty-two, forty-two comments. I think it was Flannery O'Connor who said that a writer can choose what to write, but not what he will make come alive. To think that in my case it was not Prometheus Bound or the Hymn to Aphrodite but cold cream. Gad.

I import the article here for its own sake -- why should you dear things be deprived? -- and because at the end, it includes a sort of recipe. There's beeswax involved, which is why I also import the photo of the bee. We'll have to break the original post into installments, since it is long. Here is part one: My Pond's Cold Cream Saga. In the week or so that we'll take to read it, we'll have time to go out and buy more beeswax.

James Boswell once fretted to Samuel Johnson about whether or not he should think of wasting his time reading or writing on some small topic he had in mind. Johnson said, "there can be nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we have as little misery and as much happiness as possible."

I hope that is true, because amid all the awful and serious news in the world, I do have a small subject that frets and interests me. Everyone must promise not to laugh, or be disgusted.

Wonderful Pond's cold cream has lost its wonderful old scent, and now smells like just nothing at all. Chemicals, perhaps, or some kind of locker-room hygienic cream.

Really. That's what is on my mind, as all the micro-blogging platforms ask. What have they done to it? It used to have a fragrance that, now, I'm afraid I can't remember well enough to describe. It was very fresh, flowery but not fussy, a little powdery, fruity but not in the typical melon-and-cucumber style that any cosmetics company can do well and then call pear or kiwi anyway. It was unique.

And now it's gone. I'm sure they have changed the formula, because ever since I noticed the loss well over a year ago, I have continued to buy the product in small sizes and large, in grocery stores and drugstores, reasoning that perhaps that store got a bad shipment, or this one's supply is old and faded. Alas, each jar is now the same. Even my family agree, when I thrust the jar under their noses and demand their opinion that I'm not crazy, that classic Pond's doesn't smell as strong as it once did. The problem has to lie in the factory, and in the decisions made by the nice chemists there. It's become scentless and dull, and even the creamy feel of the stuff is different. I used to be able to catch up a dollop of it on a fingertip, and it sat there white, cool, plump, and perfect, crowned with a little gay curl on top. Now it is thin, greasy, and tacky. I plunge my fingertip into the jar and I pull away nothing. I have to dig into it with some fierceness, and do my best with a clump instead of a dollop.
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Southern Living's Mexican chocolate cake (and -- jubilare)

Date: Mon, Apr 22, 2013

A cacao tree, snapped in a backyard in Peru. Look carefully for the cacao pods growing directly from the trunk.

This cake comes from the November 2010 issue of Southern Living, and wouldn't you know it? -- time flies so very fast that since baking it for the first and only time, I have misplaced the actual magazine which carried the recipe. The food styling and photography, I remember, were beautiful -- dark chocolate cake poised against a background of aqua-blue fabrics, rough plaster walls, and pottery.

For the present, "Buttermilk-Mexican Chocolate Pound Cake" at Southern Living's website seems to be approximately the same animal. The editors attribute this recipe to a hard copy issue from 2007. Recycle much? But they would have to, as surely must the editors of any food or drink magazine anywhere. There simply can't be that many new food ideas ....

You see how even the cake batter, the photo of which I did not misplace, looks so scrumptious. It tasted scrumptious, too. Of course it's the inclusion of cinnamon that renders the cake "Mexican." Given chocolate's chest-thumping past it's rather a timid nod to Mexican-ness, I think. According to the delightful and informative Chocolate and Coffee Bible (Anness House, 2002, 2008), when its original connoisseurs, the Aztecs, "took" chocolate, they took it as a cold, bitter, frothy drink heavily flavored with chili pepper and thickened with cornmeal, which was meant to sop up the floating grease from the cacao bean's naturally high fat content. Upon shipping cacao to Europe, the Spanish too drank it cold, frothy, and abundantly peppered, though also flavored with cinnamon, cloves, or aniseed. In time, as chocolate moved north, the French, Dutch, English, and Austrians learned to add sugar to the food of the gods, along with vanilla, milk, and eggs. Chocolate became less a weird pre-Columbian tonic and more the sweet luxurious indulgence that all sensible people adore. Europeans learned also to separate the fat from the solids of the cacao bean to begin with, thus creating plain chocolate for baking and candy making. Meanwhile, chili and black pepper both were banished from the kingdom. Wherever the sweet spices, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves, still hang on, a chocolate recipe perforce remembers it is Mexican.

We'll bake in just a minute. But first.

It may seem wrong to put it here, but I must ask. Am I the only one who thoroughly enjoyed the photographs posted this weekend, along with AP's story of the capture of the Boston Marathon bomber? Perhaps you saw them, too. You could click a link inviting you to look at "the day in pictures" upon accessing your email along with AP's headlines. I looked, and I liked all the pictures. I liked the faces of the Americans in Boston, cheering the bomber's capture; they were of many ethnicities and both sexes, and mostly young. I liked the faces of the cops. They were of many ethnicities, young and not so young, and armed to the teeth; they were tense during the chase, relieved and "jubilant," crinkly with huge grins, afterward. I liked the thumbs-up signs flashed between them, and the handshakes. I like that word, jubilant. From the Latin jubilare, to shout for joy. And I liked the video of the crowd singing the national anthem at the Boston Bruins' hockey game on the Wednesday night. Talking heads and pundits may tremble as they like, but those who brought out their flags and sang the song -- who says no one knows the words? -- knew also: this is jihad. And this was a small but much-needed victory. From the Latin vincere, to conquer.

Pardon the interpolation, and now we can bake.

Southern Living's Mexican chocolate cake
  • 1 (8-oz.) package semisweet chocolate baking squares, chopped
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup chocolate syrup
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk
    Microwave the 8 chocolate baking squares in a microwave-safe bowl at HIGH 1 minute and 15 seconds or until chocolate is melted and smooth, stirring every 15 seconds.
    Beat butter at medium speed with an electric mixer 2 minutes or until creamy. Gradually add sugar, beating 5 to 7 minutes or until light and fluffy. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating just until yellow disappears after each addition. Stir in melted chocolate, chocolate syrup, and vanilla until smooth.
    Combine flour and next 3 ingredients; add to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat at low speed just until blended after each addition.
    Pour batter into a greased and floured 10-inch tube pan or a 12-cup Bundt pan. Bake at 325° for 1 hour and 10 minutes or until a long wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack 10 to 15 minutes; remove from pan to a wire rack, and let cool 1 hour and 30 minutes or until completely cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired.
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Worst wine marketing in the history of history

Date: Wed, Apr 17, 2013

It's meant to be a question mark, splashed with champagne bubbles. It looks like something the cat threw up. And what is that at the bottom? A testicle?

The ad campaign is not for any specific Champagne, but to promote awareness of the legal integrity of the word. "Maine lobster from Kansas" is the text at the top of the page. "Of course not" is the answer at the bottom, followed by a brief line or two drawing parallels among Napa wine from Napa, Maine lobster from Maine, and champagne from Champagne. In the middle is the hairball. And the, um, -- .

No. No. No.

"Find out more at champagne.us" I'm afraid to look.
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Miss Pommery, and middle C

Date: Mon, Apr 15, 2013

"You see Mr. Kittredge, it really wasn't Tracy at all. It was another girl, a Miss Pommery, '26 ...."

The line comes towards the end of The Philadelphia Story, in a scene in which heroine Tracy Lord's friend tries to explain to Tracy's stuffed-shirt fiancé why the bride behaved rather extravagantly at the party the night before. "You'd had too much to drink," the stuffed shirt grudgingly allows. I like the line so much I made it the tagline to my blog (even though I can't fit it all in the header anymore, since changing to "Dynamic Views." But that's another story).

Here is Miss Pommery herself. She's a champagne.

Actually there are many of her -- you might call her a family of sisters, Brut Rosé, Brut Grand Cru Millésime, etc. -- this being Brut Royal. The modern equivalent of Tracy Lord's vintage Pommery '26, though a bit above our everyday price range, would be the house's prestige bottling, Cuvée Louise. That's a family of sisters, too.

How can I describe the way Pommery tastes? I sipped it at an Easter party a few weeks ago. The word that came to mind was "full." The appropriate French words on Pommery's website are more graceful, but they say almost the same thing. Finesse, rond (round), vif (life, lively). While sipping this flute of golden depth and richness, I found I didn't want to bother discerning much else, or making the usual mental notes about apricot or biscuit or whatever. I simply kept on sipping. It is delicious, its complexities beyond what I understand.

Beyond what I understand -- and there are many more like it, or better. The world of wine begins to remind me of the world of great music. You remember I went out on a limb recently and bought myself a clock radio. I have been enjoying it ever since, especially at night when I can set the timer and go to bed listening to the strains of whatever WFMT is playing. (Recently some friends and I agreed that bedtime has become a delicious ritual, what with a glass of wine beforehand and lots of pillows and a cat or two, and a clock radio with a timer. We agreed also that all this must amount to the most comical signs of galloping middle age.) I can savor my radio and bed routine every night except Saturday, when the station still broadcasts that hoary and insufferable old Midnight Special. If you have never had the pleasure, let me warn you off. It's lots of self-adoring folk singers twanging guitars and congratulating themselves on how they, marvelous creatures, "don't hate anybody." Shock, then brave loud cheers and applause from the audience, and then more twanging and strumming about injustice, and Our Voices "singing louder than the guns." Yes, do try that in Syria very soon, won't you?

Anyway, for most of the rest of each week WFMT regains its senses and does fine work teaching me about fine music. When I hear something I like, I go to YouTube to hear it again, and perhaps see old video clips of opera performances or piano recitals. Robert Schumann's "Andante and variations for two pianos, two cellos, and horn" made me feel I was in a nineteenth-century drawing room, complete with horsehair sofas, vases of pampas grass, and carriages rattling past outside the window. And look at that woman pianist's big, fat, hammy hands. That is strength. Richard Strauss' oboe concerto was hypnotizing and lovely -- I thought he only did loud crashing "Also Sprach Zarathustra" stuff (think 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Elvis' big Vegas introduction theme). And if there is music more beautiful than Barbara Bonney singing Mozart's Laudate Dominum, I don't know it yet. The text is a Latin translation of Psalm 117, whose short five lines begin "Praise the Lord, all the nations." I wonder if some musician could sometime "transcribe" it, is that the word? -- to be sung in Hebrew.

What with my clock radio and my Pommery and so on, it struck me. The difficulty in learning about great music is that, as with wine, one starts from nothing. I couldn't find middle C on a piano to save my life, I don't understand what great singers or players are doing with their trills and "arpeggios," and I certainly don't know what any long-dead composer wanted them to do with a key or scale or anything else. Earlier eras must have been wise to lay it down that music be a part of everyone's education, not only music appreciation but playing and singing too. Surely knowing how to pick out a simplified version of Laudate Dominum even on a hurdy-gurdy would help in understanding "what Mozart was trying to do." Certainly I can't tell who, in all the YouTube videos, is sublime and who is very very good.

As with wine: we start from nothing. Rieslings might be red or Pinot Noir a brand name. You can't tell what, in any bottle, is sublime and what is very very good. This matters because it's all very well for a more knowledgeable person in either field to say "how marvelous, isn't the homework fun, what a world of delight opens up before you," etc. etc., but that is not the same thing as knowing what on earth you are about now. Ever since starting my wine career in a little suburban shop, I have noticed how anxious novices are to be perceived as instinctively liking the best. They also want to be perceived as instinctively recoiling from flaws and humbug or even good yeoman product. As with wine, so, I suspect, with music. The middle-aged novice especially has so much ground to make up.

There is nothing for it, of course, but to carry on listening and learning, just as there is nothing for it but to carry on drinking. (You know what I mean.) Upon being introduced to both pleasures, one finds they speedily become necessities. So now if you have three minutes to spare, do go to YouTube and savor, for example, the English horn solo from Act III of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. This is what Lucia is talking about in E. F. Benson's The Worshipful Lucia when she says, "it's like the last act of Tristan, when the shepherd boy goes on playing the cor anglais forever and ever." Type in "Tristan cor anglais" on YouTube's search bar and you will find half a dozen performances to choose from.

That done, set aside a little cash for your Pommery brut royal. It will retail for about $35.

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Yes! Red wine and asparagus

Date: Wed, Apr 3, 2013

Perhaps it has something to do with asparagusic acid, which "the body metabolizes into a close chemical relative of the essence of skunk spray called methanethiol" (Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking -- it is this acid and its breakdown that cause the strange odor people notice in their urine after eating asparagus). Or perhaps it has something mysteriously to do with "sulfur volatiles" present in spring's favorite grassy green treat (McGee, again). After all sulfur is a friend of wine. Judicious doses of it, from the vineyard to the bottling line, help keep wine from spoiling.

We muse in this very unscientific fashion because our point today is that a helping of asparagus, skunky and strong, is surprisingly suited to a strong, smoky, lush red wine. If you have seen the vegetable placed at the top of "difficult-to-match" food and wine lists, and have obediently tried restricting it to the recommended company of grassy sauvignon blancs or bubbly-sweet moscatos, throw duty aside. Think anew. Pour a cabernet or a merlot with it. The thicker and more tannic the red, in my experience, the better.

Only alas, wouldn't you know it? -- I am not the first to realize pairing asparagus and red wine can be a good thing. Boo hoo for absolute originality. Brooklyn Wine Guy drank a red with his side-dish "sparrow grass" -- an old-fashioned term, not the Guy's -- a few years ago and found it interesting, Stevie Parle at the Telegraph devised a red wine and garlic sauce to drizzle over it, AllRecipes braised it in a sort of red wine, garlic, and raisin reduction. We will shortly learn that one must not braise asparagus, but AllRecipes had a glimmer. At least red wine in all its novelty was there. Perhaps future historians, when they have a free moment, will kindly note that we all came to these discoveries "working independently." Like Darwin and Wallace.

But here is part 2. Your pairing of red wine and A. officinalis (the asparagus "from the dispensary") will be of no moment unless you have prepared and cooked the vegetable properly to begin with. (There happen to be over three hundred types of the plant asparagus, the common houseplant "misleadingly called asparagus fern" being A. sprengeri or A. densiflorus. Don't eat that, please, but if you have ever grown it, you have noticed how remarkably its tiny new spring shoots look like, well, asparagus.) And how does one prepare and cook it properly? How does one become an asparagus snob? Not by any methods the proofs of which we can see in photographs on our fellow red-wine-and-A. discoverers' websites. One glance at those spears shows us that those cooks have not gotten their proper tutelage from the great Madeleine Kamman. Her instructions must be utterly obeyed. I obey them, and I have never tasted any asparagus in any kitchen, whether restaurant, friend's, or family's, better than my own. She speaks, in The New Making of a Cook, p. 374:
To prepare asparagus, bend the stalks head to stem; the stem will break at exactly the place where the fibers stop being edible. Peel -- this is a must or you will lose half the delicacy of the vegetable -- with a potato peeler or a parer from the blossom end down, starting just under the close crop of leaves. Assemble the stalks in bundles of small, medium, or large asparagus.
So the disappointing photographs betray the cooks' ignorance or disregard of Madeleine's rules by repeatedly showing us (1) long, long, unsnapped spears, all (2) fully green with not a peeled, fresh and delicate white surface in sight. Perhaps it's understandable considering A. officinalis' expense. Perhaps even people who might know her instructions balk at the seeming wastefulness they imply. But what of the wastefulness of tough, strong, often crisply undercooked, therefore uneaten or certainly not much enjoyed asparagus?

For you know you mustn't undercook them. You mustn't overcook them either, à la the horrid luncheon in Little Women when Jo "boiled the asparagus for an hour, and was grieved to find the heads cooked off and the stalks harder than ever." By the way, what on earth are we to think when, later in that chapter, we hear author Louisa May Alcott speak blithely of her heroine's also "forgetting to put the cream in the refrigerator"? The refrigerator -- in 1868? Even briefly consulting a history of the appliance leads us to think that the fictional Marches, for all their yowling about poverty, must have been technologically quite au courant as Amy would say.

Anyway what you must do re: correct asparagus cooking -- after correct prepping -- so that you too have results to be photographed with confidence and eaten with relish, is this: boil the snapped, peeled, and delicate spears, in a pot full of salted water kept at a rolling boil and left uncovered, for 4 to 6 minutes depending on their size. This 6-minute-maximum, rolling-boil rule holds for any young fresh vegetables whose "volatile acids," Madeleine says, must evaporate from the uncovered pot in order to preserve any vegetable's color, taste, and texture. Therefore no braising, in red wine and raisins or otherwise. Vitamin freaks will probably get huffy here, and scold about the evaporating of nutritive value as well. Madeleine knows this and offers a scant paragraph of her own vitamin-preserving cooking methods, but again -- what is the nutritive value of vegetables left uneaten because they are dark, dank, and still half raw?

But who knows? Perhaps there's lots. I am reminded of the ancillary character Isabel Poppit in E. F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia novels, who lives on the sand dunes outside Tilling, "eats raw vegetables out of a wooden bowl, like a dog," and enjoys the rudest of good health. I had forgotten to mention anyway that when shopping for asparagus, you must look for tightly closed, purplish-headed spears; if they are beginning to open out and show weird little knobbly bracts at the top, they are old. Unless maniacally devoted to pure, dog-like cold water, Isabel ("such a Yahoo") would probably pour a claret ....

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Deseado de Familia Schroeder sparkling torrontés

Date: Mon, Apr 1, 2013

The sweetness and the sparkling-ness are delightsome; the odd piney or rosemary-like flavors of the torrontés grape will not be to everyone's taste. Pair it with powerful cheeses or spicy party tidbits, no?

Retail, about $15.
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2010 William Cole Columbine Special Reserve cabernet

Date: Fri, Mar 29, 2013

Perhaps we all don't appreciate cabernet sauvignons enough. "ABC," I remember reading once, the acronym representing what wine professionals say to one another when they sit down to enjoy a glass of something other than what they have been tasting and talking about and writing about all week. "Anything But Cab."

Do they really say that? I hope not very often. A good cabernet sauvignon is so very good -- so solid, so masculine, so comforting, with its black color and firm chalky bite supporting solid ripe (but not overripe) fruit. Today's example (if you can find it), William Cole Vineyards' Columbine Special Reserve, retails for about $15.
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2010 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Hands of Time

Date: Thu, Mar 28, 2013

At first I only taste green pepper, and I suspect I have opened it tragically before its time.

Five days later, I taste green pepper and vanilla, and I muse -- well, it's no worse than Perfectly Fine. Ten days later, Hands of Time is a chewy mouthful of dark baked fruits preserved in a cedar chest. We recall vintage port, and the sensation of eating one's wine.

Still. It won't hurt to let this sit a few years.

Retail, about $28.
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A day at the circus

Date: Mon, Mar 25, 2013

There are women who are butterflies for a living.

Sure, they look alert now.

I once read about a local woman who ran a "cat circus." She trained domestic cats to jump on ladders, stand on platforms and do tricks, and so on. (Exactly what today's dog act -- not pictured -- did, as a matter of fact, and they were clearly having a smashing time.) But if you were interested in the cat circus you had to, um, call ahead to see if the cats were ready to put on their show for your grade school or Brownie troop that day. Even if they were ready, they had to perform behind a curtain or something. Now, the tigers above were very professional, and probably well paid. Only felines in general remain the same. You see how dubious one of them is about putting his paw on that thing.

Above, independent-minded camels. Not good, though the crowd loved it.

The elephant. Always to be relied upon.

Below, you see how huge the floor was -- that's what they call a three-ring circus. Gentleman friend says I need a better camera. I say, my camera is just fine. Every closeup you see is all its own work.

Below -- ah to be young, and riding BMX bikes in the circus.

"Hair-hanging artistry." It exists. And below, the mistress of ceremonies heads toward the cannon. There are women who do that for a living, too.

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I shall now create a new wine category: "Perfectly Fine"

Date: Sun, Mar 24, 2013

I have decided to create a new wine category, which I intend shall become immensely useful and popular, rivaling any potty little 100-point scale devised by anybody else. My category will be reserved for wines that are inexpensive, or obscure, or of no glorious provenance, or all of the above -- certainly they will be of no spectacular marketing or spectacular pretensions to any of the above. Often you'll know them by cost and by their plain, even dorky labels. And yet these are wines that will be, I can almost promise, Perfectly Fine. Explosive flavors of cassis and lychee, no, tannic grip and laser-sharp acidity, no. You needn't worry about vintage either. They will just be drinkable and sound, for the moment. If you take a half-open bottle home from a tasting, don't expect it not to turn muddy after a week.

Usually these are wholesaler's closeouts to be enjoyed once and probably never seen again, and not much regretted. Sometimes they are winery closeouts. (I do think it's a pity Renwood stopped making that charming barbera ... or have they?) "Four bucks, your cost. We'll blow through it -- in and out," the salesmen like to say.

If, after enjoying this Sottano malbec for example, you happen never to see it again, don't worry. In these days of good, sound winemaking my category of Perfectly Fine will be very large. It will repay a lifetime's recklessness with a ten dollar bill.

Retail, about $8.
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Civello -- the nicest little white wine nobody will try

Date: Wed, Mar 20, 2013

From Civello Winery, in Graton, California. In my little corner of retail, nobody will try it. What puts people off? I suspect it's the marketing. The label's tagline, "Sexier than a pinot grigio, Naughtier than a chardonnay," means exactly nothing, even less than nothing. Memo to the powers that be: please do not not tell the public, sort of, what the wine might or might not, possibly perhaps, be made of, and then try to be cute about it. What with that, and the $12 to $14 price tag, and the fact that no one knows what Civello means, you have a formula for customer frustration and increased sales -- for Robert Mondavi and Beringer.

Mind you, I wouldn't know what Civello means either, except that at leisure I can look up the website and learn that it's a brand of the Row Eleven wine company, along with Stratton-Lummis. (The first time someone knowledgeable asked me about Row Eleven, I thought she was saying "Rowy-Levin," and went home to google that. Dead end.) As a matter of fact Civello, online, is refreshingly informative. Would that they might fit half of that information on their label. For that matter once you trace Row Eleven, you find this parent company is informative, too. I like it when wine producers are honest about the business of wine. After all, you know -- after a while, Passion, Integrity, and Respect for the Land becomes self-parody; a love of pH levels and soil composition is really for the very few. Tell me instead, "we are a company and we own three brands" -- brands! and they admit it! -- and my respect for you soars.

The wine is what I would call Very Nice. Moderately sweet, moderately tart, moderately syrupy, moderately flowery and and refreshing, it is just all around what you ought to try if you are a chardonnay drinker and are in the mood for something moderately different.

Retail, call it $13. Do splurge.

And don't forget our theme for the year, which is the Baroque (and lemons, though the two themes don't always have to go together. Perhaps Civello's lemon-yellow label inspires me). I cannot tell you how much I am enjoying my new clock radio. Why in twenty-four-and-a-half years of marriage did I never think to buy myself a clock radio? Somehow I assumed that his beep-y alarm was enough for the two of us. Now I climb under the covers at a bedtime that is so grandma-ish I would be embarrassed to admit to it, and I set the radio's timer, and the (often-Baroque) strains of WFMT lull me to sleep. That is, unless the announcer announces something REALLY LOUD.

Surely there is no better Baroque to listen to, today, than Vivaldi's Spring. The temperature outside is 20 F and blustery, but we can dream.
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