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Untangled Vine

An attempt to sort through all things wine. Specifically of, and about, but not limited to: Food and Wine in Toledo, Ohio. Plus the day to day musings of a Wine Distributor...

"There's always someone cooler than you"

Saturday, March 25, 2006

I confess. As much as I am an elitist about media, and the utter disdain I hold for reality TV, I can not steer away from reality TV involving any sort of Food Premise. “Iron Chef America”, “Hell’s Kitchen”, “Cooking Under Fire”, I devour them all. On a personal note, I was edited the fool on “Faking It” several years ago as they took a beer champion and trained him to be a Sommelier- real heady stuff. Maybe that’s the bitter bile I taste. My latest interest is the Bravo series “Top Chef”. The show consists of a group of chefs of underwhelming talent, inspiration and tact. Hey everyone has a guilty pleasure.

The reason I bring this up, is one of the contestants, Stephen, is a sommelier from Nob Hill in Las Vegas. If I ever catch this SOB in a dark alley, it will be, to quote the great Ben Folds, “Stephen’s last night in town”. I’m not a violent person, but I can give a tongue lashing that can send a recipient into years of therapy. This guy represents everything that Americans hate about wine, and wine snobs. He is pretentious to the nth degree. His double wide double windsor, and his cockiness are as wrong as his attempt at working a Brut Champagne into a dessert. I lost count, but in the first episode alone, he identified himself as sommelier at least a half-dozen times. I will not criticize his, or anyone’s attempt at cooking, as creativity is a highly personal thing. This guy also has a very impressive resume. I can, however, address what this clown represents. Being a sommelier is not about being the most sophisticated person at a party, nor is it about being the most suave and snooty. It’s about being an educator, and a conduit by which to turn people on to wine, and as an extension, wine and food. The late, great Michael Bonaccorsi, M.S., one of my heroes, used to downplay his fame and education. It was clearly passion and love that drove him, not lifestyle. It's jerks like Stephen that make Americans afraid to ask a “stupid question”. This is the type of guy that would corner you until you rattled off the Grand Crus of Burgundy.

I also identify myself as a sommelier, and I feel like I’ve earned it as well. But I often struggle within myself about what this title means. I don’t ever want to give the impression that I know everything about wine, but I am proud of what I’ve learned. I always try to remember the etymology of the word sommelier, which is French for “Wine Mule”. When a sommelier makes themselves the most important part of the equation, the other parts: The Restaurant, The Wine, and especially The Guest are immediately marginalized. The great sommeliers watch each customer intently, and thrive upon the moment when know that they’ve guided them towards inexplicably beautiful and memorable evening. Stephen, go sell pretentious somewhere else, we’re all full here.

Letter to The Toledo Blade

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Your March 18th Headline “Trio of closings indicate area diners losing appetite for finer restaurants” was appalling and irresponsible. The restaurant business is one of the most difficult to succeed in. We all know that the failure rates are very high, even for established places. But to declare that Toledoans don’t enjoy Fine Dining may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know I can always trust Chicken Little, er, The Blade, to make a snap judgment over something slightly more nuanced than they care to report. The fact is, Fine Dining in America today looks different than it did 10-20 years ago. Restaurants can fail for a multitude of reasons, including: failure to update menus or décor for a long period of time, mediocrity at any level, better competition taking their business away, as well as the laundry list of operational headaches. Fine Dining is not limited to tuxedoed waiters anymore, and those type of establishments are going out of business is every city. What you failed to mention is the thriving successes of places such as Cohen & Cooke all the way down in Bowling Green, the re-emergence of Diva, and the explosive opening of Mancy’s Blue Water. All of whom have eclectic food beyond steaks (please take note Mr. Favorite). Toledoans spend too much money and time at generic chain restaurants. It’s actually criminal how much they support the rampant mediocrity of chains, but the smoking ban is an excuse. If your business is down, it’s because you are relying on your bar crowd too heavily, it’s time to adapt and utilize the skills that made you want to open a fine dining restaurant in the first place. Most cities are judged by their restaurant scene, why does the Blade feel the need to be the first to dismantle ours?

The indefensible corporate wines

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Jennifer Rosen has defended corporate wines with a tirade about how we need to make wine more inviting. I agree wholeheartedly, although, she oversimplifies the argument. I am afraid that the evil nameless, faceless lifestyle sellers have failed to ensure that the wine that they have produced will result in turning consumers onto wine. If the welcome gates of the wine world have Blackstone Merlot waiting for me, I’d probably go to the next house, where the bad cold beer goes pretty well with wings and mowing the lawn. I appreciate her idealism, but I feel as if the “corporate” wineries are selling out their own quality in favor of profit, not being inoffensive. As witnessed by a recent blind tasting of more than a dozen inexpensive California Cabernets, I was shocked at the median quality level of these wines. You could almost draw a perfect corollary between marketing dollars spent and size of the winery in direct contrast with quality. My complaint is not only the quality of the wine, but also they way they are marketed and sold. Everyone in this business, is well, in business, but these corporate producers have been undermined by p&l statements and marketing people (no offense marketing people). As a salesman, I know that these wines don’t compete favorably against their less famous rivals, but the corporate producers get the wine list placements and floor stacks, and the small, family-owned producers get the shaft in favor of recognition over quality. This of course, in endemic of the entire world of wine, where we get so burned out by consumer’s buying habits and tendency to recede into a safe place, that we cease to be educators, and we let the novice tell us what we will serve, and quality and expertise be damned. Until corporate wineries actually produce great cheap table wine, I will always consider them lifestyle brokers, and they will always be the Cosmopolitans in the World of Gin Martinis, they just share the same stemware. Oh and by the way, the wine Rosen lists as recommended do not fall in the category of Corporate Wines.

Thansk to Tam Wark for turning me on to this article, read his post and threads here.

Cohen & Cooke

Friday, March 10, 2006

All great chefs are artists in their own right. I am not speaking as to what the food looks like, although that too is important. I am referring to how a great chef can take ingredients of differing origins, textures, and flavors, and know how to assemble these in such a way that the experience is original, interesting and delicious all at once. Add to that the knack for finding the highest quality ingredients and freshest meats and produce, and you are beginning to scrape the surface of the genius behind Cohen & Cooke.

Located at 109 S. Main St in Bowling Green, Cohen & Cooke has quickly earned a reputation for its high-flying cuisine, but how many of you have actually tried it for yourself? Cohen & Cooke offers a highly personal and personalized dining experience for each patron. It is a place where a novice can all at once feel adventurous and safe. Culling from the best products available, the chefs at Cohen & Cooke understand the specific wishes of diners, and are happy to customize each experience.

Mike Sader & Jeremy Skiles are the accomplished team behind Cohen and Cooke. With resumes to make some of the most experienced chefs weep, Sader & Skiles could have opened a restaurant in any town, but chose Northwest Ohio for their dream. Both hail from this area, but are humble about their impressive pedigrees. Instead they focus not on past accomplishments, but on how they are finding new inspiration each day.

Cohen & Cooke specializes in locally grown produce, and are proud of their selection organic fruits and vegetables. New York Strip steak is always available, and they dry age each cut in-house from 14-40 days. Skiles is a master baker, and produces fresh sourdough daily that you have to taste to believe. And then there’s the seafood. Sader & Skiles have gone to such extreme lengths to ensure the freshest seafood that in many cases the fish you eat today was just being caught half a world away less than 24 hours ago. Sader understands the hesitation of Northwest Ohio residents towards seafood, particularly from the ocean. “Historically, this area has not been privy to the best or freshest seafood available, and unfortunately, this has affected their overall attitudes towards seafood. I’m so confident in both the quality and preparation of my seafood, I can (and have) convert just about anybody.”

The menu changes every evening as ingredients come in and out of season. Each night, the chefs put pen to paper, and draw from their inspiration. Friday and Saturdays they offer 3 dining options: 5 course Prix Fixe ($50-$60) , 7 course Prix Fixe ($60-$70), or a la carte (entrees range from $15-$23). Sader believes that their 3 menu options give the diner a chance to go as casual or as extravagant as they please, and the menus are designed to offer something for everyone. Thursdays are more of a Bistro atmosphere, and everything is offered a la Carte. Coming soon will be true bistro fare on Tuesday and Wednesday early evenings, with entrée prices in the $10-$15 range.
In addition to their dinners, Cohen & Cooke is open for lunch from Tuesday-Friday. They offer sandwiches, salads, and pastas to order.

A unique approach to wine rounds out the dining experience. “You won’t find any grocery-store wine here!” Sader, having spent a fair amount of time cooking in Napa, has a unique understanding and appreciation for the intermingling qualities of great wine and great food. As a result, his wine prices are just a few dollars above retail to encourage exploration. This restaurant at it’s best when it pairs food and wine. A recent visit from world renowned winemaker, Craig Jaffurs from Jaffurs Wine Cellars yielded this comment “I have been to 50 winemaker dinners a year for the last 10 years, in all of my travels, I can honestly say that my Winemaker dinner at Cohen and Cooke ranks among the best I have ever been involved with, I was blown away!”

Cohen & Cooke is not meant to be grouped with other restaurants; they strive to be one of the leaders of the industry. To one day be mentioned in the same breath as a Charlie Trotter, or a French Laundry is the ultimate goal. We are blessed to have such a jewel here in Northwest Ohio, and we can be proud our Culinary Direction.

Follow-Up H.R. 710

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rep. Kaptur about The Farmer's Market Infrastructure act. She was gracious and candid. I was impressed by her passion and patience to grant me this interview considering the multitude of big issues she is dealing with right now, including: Our communities largest employer declaring bankruptcy 24 hours earlier, the temporary shutdown and reorganization of our own Erie Street Market, her re-election, and her first meeting with our newly elected mayor since he took office last month. That was all on Saturday!. We began the interview at 9am, and she had to cut it short due to scheduling constraints, she offered to call me back after 6pm. Sure, I thought, assuming that she wouldn't have time, but at 8pm last night, my phone rang, and she answered every question I asked. For me, that was a breath of fresh air from an elected official. By contrast, I asked Mayor-Elect Finkbeiner's (Photo-right) office if I could be of any assistance in regards to creating food or wine events downtown, or advising on any food community changes, and here is the form letter I received 6 weeks later:

Dear Adam:

Thanks for communicating.

Believe in Toledo. And stay in touch!

Yours from Toledo – an All-America City!

Carleton S. Finkbeiner

Yeah, I know! You are welcome! Glad I could help, kay, bu-bye...

I am writing an article for The Toledo Free Press, after I finish some more research on locally grown food throughout the country. I am most interested in whether or not large national grocery chains tend to at least offer local food products. Rep. Kaptur indicated that large contarcters, growers and distributors dominate selection in practically every mid-size city and smaller in this country.

To be continued...

Ode to Syrah-Toledo Free Press Article

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

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I know, generally speaking, people that are into wine tend to be masochistic, always championing the unlovable wines (see Gruner-Veltliner). This not only occurs in the world of wine, but other artistic expressions such as: Film (i.e. David Lynch) and Rock Music (Sonic Youth). I suspect that for 7% of you reading this, your blood is boiling, but you what they say about opinions. Anyhoo, I tend to drift more towards rampant enthusiasm when it comes to great wines, and my definition of great wines is probably broader than most. My enthusiasm about wine is akin to a 13-year old girl who “dots her eyes with a smiley face”. I love many wines, but perhaps my favorite grape is Syrah.

Syrah may be thought of as a novelty amongst the average wine drinkers. It’s historical significance is great, as is it’s sphere of influence. Bordeaux and Burgundy steal the spotlight in France. Bordeaux has it’s power and extremely long life, and Burgundy is an enigma, mysterious and magical all at once. Nothing captivates my attention and my muse more than the wines from The Northern Rhone Valley. The reds, being primarily, if not exclusively Syrah, show tremendous extraction and power, while constantly maintaining a beauty and otherworldly floral bouquet. The mouthfeel can be velvety and silky, or it can posses powerful tannins. The very best of Northen Rhône are from 2 Appellations: Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. While debate may rage about which is better, both are at the very top of quality for this fantastic grape. With a strong showing as well in Southern Rhône as well as Provence and Languedoc, this grape is one of the faces of the Southern third of France.

Syrah has also found a home in Australia under the label of Shiraz. The linguistic origin of the name change is unclear, but I write it off to Aussies being Aussies. Stylistically, Shiraz in Australia is nothing if not concentrated. Ranging in character from a fresh baked blueberry pie to a fresh baked raspberry pie, to well, a fresh baked blackberry pie. Shiraz is usually hedonistic and delicious. Elegance is not what one thinks of when describing the Aussie version of Syrah. The alcohol of these wines can be significant, as can their staining ability. While it’s trendy to bash these stylized wines as overly zealous and monochrome, I think that there is a place in the world for these types of wines, and I just like the way they taste.

There have been many interesting versions of Syrah in both Italy and Spain, not to mention the birthplace of the term Shiraz, South Africa. Although, no region has me quite as excited about the possibilities of this grape as the U.S.. I’m sure my love of this grape can be traced back to my time in Santa Barbara County, where Syrah is perhaps at it’s domestic best. It has strong palate memories for me just like your Mother’s Comfort food has for you. But with 3 distinct AVAs in Santa Barbara County, Syrah thrives in all of them. Then there’s Paso Robles, with near Aussie-style bombastic baddies. The real coup as of late has been Syrah’s success in the cool microclimates of both Napa and Sonoma. Cool Climate tends to make Syrah taste like their Northern Rhone brethren. And finally Washington State, which also shows extraordinary promise.

Look for wines that have lavender and violet on the nose, with an almost sweet black/ blue fruit quality to them with moderate to big tannins. These wines are the perfect foil to Lamb in most incarnations. But it will pair nicely with practically any meat, especially anything slow cooked or braised. Spend a little money (over $20) and you will be rewarded handily. The top Syrahs tend to cost just a fraction of the similar quality level of Napa Cab. Happy Hunting!

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