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Tuscany’s March onto the World Palate

While the Holy Roman Empire was created in a fairly hostile way, Tuscany is taking a more gentle approach in its attempts to conquer the world wine scene.  Producers are making more and more fruit forward wines from within its DOC and DOCG territories in attempts to make inroads on wine list territory regularly reserved for critic’s darlings.  This approach dolce seems to be working because according to Premire Beverage Italian and French Specialist Raffaele Benassi sales of Tuscan wines in the US are up 14%.  The nearest competitor is the entire country of New Zealand with a paltry 4% gain in the U.S. market.   Great news for Tuscan wine sellers.  But where does that leave the traditionalist wine drinker who prefers the old-world style of higher acid, lower alcohol, and generally more food friendly wines?  Well, we have not been forgotten.  There are many producers in Italy who are not changing their style in exchange for wider appeal and greater sales.  Whew!  This Monday at the Old Collier Golf Club I had the distinct opportunity to sit down with the area’s foremost wine decision-makers and sommeliers at a seminar held by Angie Cheatham of Augustan Wines.  This is the third and final installment of her “Summer Wine Series” at which she introduces a winemaking region and the group thoroughly explores the traditions, history, and winemaking styles of that area.  I am very sad this is the last seminar.  Boo. I am cheered by the fact that today’s event surpassed all expectations.  Having been to Tuscany and having tried many a Chianti I was not particularly jazzed about a flight of four Chianti Classicos for the first round of the day.  My toddler-like recalcitrance retired embarrassed after the first sip.  These Chiantis offer the world to wine consumers and at a very comfortable price.  The first two were more traditional in style, not overly fruity and definitely geared towards food.  The second two became progressively more round and fruit forward.  They were more likely candidates for sipping while watching a sunset rather than requiring a nosh.  I was in love with wine #1 called Volpaia, but the table evenly distributed among the wines when declaring faves.   It feel far less betrayed by the “modern” style when I see people whose palates I respect selecting them as their favorite of the group.  Relieved to find inner peace with the artisan v.s economy tug-of-war we moved to another level- Brunello di Montalcino.   Brunello is right up there with Barolo from Piedmont insofar as perceived greatness and price. It’s one of Italy’s big boys, andtherefore is beloved by Italian wine fans who consider themselves in the know.  The first to Achieve Italy’s DOCG designation, Brunello is required to be made from 100% Sangiovese, aged two years in oak and four months in bottle before release.  The gray area in which Brunello producers are able to almost completely change the style of the wine is in those two years of oak aging.  There is no stipulation that producers must use the huge neutral Slovenian oak “botte” which are traditional in the area.  These gargantuan barrels barely impart any flavor to the wine, making the traditional Brunello a more austere wine than one would sip without a plateful of Chianina beef.  Winemakers in Brunello are free to age their wine in new french barrique if they feel the need, and some do in order to achieve the more “modern” style of wine with more vanilla-like oak and fruit flavors.  We tried four Brunellos on this glorious day.  Two were more traditional, aged in the huge barrels.  The other two had seen a little more time in smaller barrique- but nothing obscene like two solid years steeping in tiny new french oak.  They were all amazing, yet very different from one another.  I loved # 2 pictured to the right, it was traditional in style and of course the most expensive of the day.  Just once, I would like to prefer the cheap one.  Just once.

The conversation turned briefly to the transgressions of a handful of Brunello producers back in 2008 when they were busted for adding Cabernet Sauvignon to their wines.  This seamlessly bridged into the IGT Super Tuscans and their use of all grapes Bordeaux with little or no traditional Tuscan varietal involvement.  IGT is a classification just above vina da tavola and beneath DOC and DOCG.  Yet they are fetching superior prices in spite of their lacking the revered classification.  Is there any value in DOC or DOCG then?  Raffaele says yes, because the end consumer likes the reassurance that there is a governing body supervising wine quality from a given area.  This is, after all, how Brunello-gate came to light.  An IGT needs only the approval of one local magistrate, while the DOC and DOCG wines need the approval of an entire panel.  “The DOC and DOCG labels are easy to understand, while the Italian on the bottle is difficult for anyone to understand,” says Raffaele.  The Super Tuscans at least have the advantage of listing grapes we all know; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc. so buyers can reference that and feel safe without the alphabet jumble reassurance.  The third flight of four Super-Tuscans were spectacular, as was the conversation, which was only quieted by the stellar food pairings prepared by Old Collier’s Chris Jones.

While the traditional vs. modern winemaking debate is tantamount to heresy to old-school devotes, it is one that is inevitable as curious consumers approach a new old world wine and want to enjoy themselves in the process.  Yes, I prefer the old-school style of Italian wine, but I will not begrudge a producer for trying to make his wine just a little more round and fruit forward in an effort to sell more and keep the lights on.  Let’s face it, there are hundreds of thousands of customers out there and my taste bud is but one in a sea of preferences looking for a place to spend some dough.  I just need to do my homework first and ask the question- how does this producer age his wine?  Big barrels=more traditional style.  Small barrique=modern style.  Lesson learned.  Thank you Angie for another great seminar.

The Wines

2010 Castello Montauto Vernaccia

2008 Monte Bernardi Retromarcia Chianti Classico

2008 Montesecondo Chianti Classico

2007 Volpaia Chianti Classico

2007 Castello D’Abola Ellere Chianti Classico

2006 Agostina Pieri Brunello di Montalcino

2005 Le Machioche Brunello di Montalcino

2005 Cercaiona Brunello di Montalcino

2005 Frescobaldi Castiglioni Brunello di Montalcino

2008 Montepeloso Eneo

2007 Moris Farms Avvoltore

2007 Biserno il Pino

2007 Brancaia il Blu

The Menu

by Chris Jones

Alaskan Roe Shrimp, Nectarine, Upland Cress, Raw Beet, Tomato Water Salad

Papardelle, Pork Shoulder Confit, Cavelo Nero

Niman Ranch Short Rib, Summer Truffle, Egg Yolk, Marble Potatoes, Spinach


The Day of the Dog

love in foil


There aren’t many occasions that absolutely call for a chili cheese dog.  In fact there are about two or three a year.  There are the wicked hangover days which require immediate grease and salt.  And then there is the day I had a couple of weeks ago.  My friend Aleea was moving away from this cauldron we call Southwest Florida and in conversation I asked if she’d ever had the pleasure of stumbling up to the counter of Beach Doggie Dog on Fort Myers Beach.  Her response of “no” set into motion a lightening fast response time of heading south for meet up at the hallowed ground across from the lovably seedy bar formerly known as the Surf Club.  (now I think it’s Mermaid something or other- but I digress)

She called from the target asking if it’s called “Chicago Dog House.”  As I responded in a panicked high pitch, “No, it’s Beach Doggie Dog…..It’s yellow, small.  Right next to the Beached Whale.” I was over-accelerating through Lover’s Key and lucky not to get a ticket- or worse yet, hit a sea turtle or something tragic.  “Are you there?”

With the calmness of one not so attached to the idea of emergency chili cheese dog eating, Aleea responded, “yeah, but the sign says Chicago Dog House.”

Well, that does it.  Someone bought it or something.  Defeated, I slowed to the painfully crawl-like speed limit of 40 or something ridiculous like that.  Only because she was already there I painted on a  happy face and went anyway.

To my delight, sometimes change is good.  Beach Dogie Dog is even better now that it’s got a new master.  The chili is still beanless and overly re-heated.  The dogs are still Vienna. The buns are now steamed, and the cheese is actual grated cheese, rather than the canned sauce stuff- which is shockingly better.    It has been bought by the people who operate a dog place in the Lani Kai (which I revisited about two years ago and was a little alarmed at how old I felt).  Lucky dog that she is, Aleea got to try the new and improved chili cheese dog from the Chicago Dog House and I believe she understood the urgency that she know the dog before moving away.  If nothing else I had a valid excuse for the dog run.


A Word on Food Profiling

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There has been a decades-long battle cry of the dieters urging us to say no to white foods.  No flour, no pasta, no white bread, no potatoes, nothing.  Well, I say the persecution needs to end.  Just because something’s white doesn’t mean it’s bad.  Just like people, all colors should be included in daily life.  Sure there are bad white people, especially when taken in excess (Donald Trump, Glen Beck) but there are good white people out there too (the uber-patient lady on Super Nanny, Jack Hanna, my grandma*).  I mean, what about egg-whites?  Dieters love those!  And cauliflower?  It’s white, and while in excess it will lose you many a friend for the odors you will surely emit, cauliflower and its cruciferous brethren have excellent anti-cancer properties.  Many fabulous cheeses are white or off-white.  In moderation they are good for the soul if not the bones.

And while on topic, can we stop trying to modify things that are traditionally white to become brown?  Whole wheat pasta will never get my backing; it tastes weird and the texture just isn’t right, no matter how hard people try to convince me otherwise. Hell no, I won’t go.  It’s like trying to make meat-like things out of vegetable products.  Those who desperately want to believe may persuade themselves into enjoying tofurkey, but the rest of us (those with taste buds) know that it is an experiment gone bad and something not to be ingested.

Anyway, back to the point…..stop bringing down the white foods.  They aren’t bad.  Gluttony is bad.


*it took me a full five minutes to come up with these examples of the good whities.  Any suggestions to round out the list are welcomed.


Champagne = Raison d’Etre

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After a week of rainy cloud cover it was a ray of sunshine to walk into the Ritz Carlton Naples Beach Resort for the second in Augustan Wine’s summer series on deconstruction.  This day’s focus is Champagne.  Arranged by the sun drop embodied as Angie Cheatham and moderated by the wealth of information that is Andrew McNamara, Master Sommelier, it’s a world away from the dreary weather outside.

As the champagnes are poured, the rich sound of the foamy wine has a sound like no other.  It sounds wistful and cheesey to say, but if the sensation of warm comforting cashmere had a sound, it would sound like champagne being poured into a glass.  There is a thickness to it and a frothiness that no other sparkler has.  All the wines we are trying today are considered “grower champagnes,” or as hipsters like to refer to it “farmer fizz” (although I wouldn’t suggest using that phrase to try to sound cool because it’s a little past its prime).  Grower champagnes are those made by people who have actually grown the grapes, made the wine, and bottled it for the world’s enjoyment.  Or, at least a bit of the world because they can’t make that much since most are not huge land owners.  On the other side of the market and the flavor spectrum you will find the big producers who make thousands and thousands of cases out of wine grapes they buy from growers throughout the Champagne region.  These enormous champagne makers tend to make wine that tastes the same year after year and by virtue of grape-buying practices are not reflective of any particular terroir.

Andrew McNamara, M.S. is fresh off a trip to Champagne and presents to us two pieces of chalk he picked up from two different villages.  I’d heard the soil there was chalky, but these are really large hunks of chalk; one from the steep slopes of Cramant and the other from Valle de la Marne.  He shows us these to demonstrate how different the chalkiness of the soil is from one village to the next, one is brilliant white and leaves dust everywhere, the other is musty smelling, more grey in color and more porous.  Then we taste the difference in the individual champagnes.  It is remarkable…the Larmandier-Bernier  Cramant (with Chardonnay grapes from their vineyards in Cramant) is indescribably different from the Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus (made with Chardonnay grapes from their vineyards in Vertus).   The key to enjoying and tasting through grower champagnes is the exploration of the varying terroirs.  If you were not a believer in the effect of place and growing conditions on a wine, this exercise would make a convert of anyone with a taste bud.

Still there were other things to consider and discuss and in this group the discussion is always informative.  Dosage swished around the table for about twenty minutes.

This is the practice of adding a little sugar mixture just prior to corking champagne, which many growers try to avoid or keep at a bare minimum.  For them the need is dictated by the growing season- if it’s cold and the grapes have a tough time maturing their own sugar sometimes a little help is needed to take the edge off the acidity and keep the balance.  According to Mr. McNamara, most growers stay in the neighborhood of 8 grams per liter of residual sugar.  The maximum allowed in Champagne by French law is 12 g/ltr with a 3 gram swing in either direction.  “You can pretty much assume that most large production houses are at 15 grams per liter residual sugar,” says McNamara.  “Sugar covers up flaws in champagne just as oak covers up flaws in Chardonnay.”

The Chardonnay discussion gets interesting when McNamara says, “I like to think of Champagne as Chablis with bubbles, and Chablis as Champagne without bubbles.”  I can only speak for myself when I say I blinked in slight disbelief.  Huh?  Obviously, Chardonnay is the white queen bee of both regions and the star of blanc de blancs. But…..really?  McNamara takes us back to the geological formation period of France, and similar to the days when I was in any science class in college, my eyes sort of glossed over.  I think he said something about similar mineral deposits and something about a basin (?).  This is not out of disrespect for the speaker, it is a psychological block on science for which I have paid dearly on test scores throughout life.  I wake up around the time he suggests, “Take a little of the blanc de blancs in your mouth and leave it there for a while, until it goes flat, then think of Chablis and tell me if you sense the similarities.”  I obeyed, hoping no one noticed my catatonic response to science, and he was totally correct.  There is a reason this man is a Master Sommelier.

Other nuggets of learning:

Cramant is a village in the Champagne region not to be confused with “cremant,” the French word for sparkling wines made outside of Champagne.  i.e. Cremant de Bourgogne, or (one of my faves) Cremant d’Alsace.

There are more grapes than I thought allowed (and grown) in Champagne.  I always knew about Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  But there are also Pinot Blanc (white), Petit Arbane (white), Petit Meslier (white), and Fromenteau (pinkish grey relative of pinot gris- also known as Beurot) grapes allowed.  Seven in all.

Rose Champagne gets along very well with lamb chops.

Wines tried (savored):

Vazart-Coquart 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs

Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs

Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus

Voirin-Jumel 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs

Paul Berthelot 1er Cru Brut Reserve

Jacques Picard Brut Selection

Camille Saves 1er Cru Carte Blanche Brut

Larmandier-Bernier Cramant

Paul Berthelot Cuvee Centenaire

Larmandier-Bernier Rose

Voirin-Jumel Rose

Thank you to Angie Cheatham for hosting this event, Andrew McNamara for sharing his brilliance, and to the Ritz and its staff for putting on an incredibly well-thought out pairing menu which was executed with the charm and great taste for which the Ritz is known.

The man who made the cheese starring as Foodaloo’s new background

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So, there we were, a class of 23 students from 11 countries on a field trip to Germany to study food, culture, etc.  One of our “stage” experiences had to be to a non-latin based country (i.e. not Spain, France, Italy, or any of the European countries with famously good food)  so we ended up going to Germany.  No one was more peeved about the selection than the German in our class, but there we were, in a bus chugging over the countryside learning all we could about sauerkraut, sausages, Riesling, and beer.  It helped that our tour guide was named Peter Peter and he had a pervy way about him that made him hilarious (we found out he was not in fact a pumpkin-eater after a few beers at the Erdinger factory).  One of our learning experiences took us up a ski lift to a small cheese producer’s place on a mountain.  The German version of a remote cheese-maker hermit shack of, of course neat as a pin with meticulously stacked firewood and not a speck of dust.  The cheese was good, but not exceptional.  I likes his fresh soft-rinded cheese better than the more photogenic aged cheese gracing the backdrop of Foodaloo this week.  Yet, the most memorable part of this trip up a mountain to visit the hermit cheese maker was not the cheese or the stunning surroundings. It was how the man dressed.

He is the cheese man in the Daisy Dukes.  No, not the guy in the lederhosen and backpack, that would make sense.  No, our cheese man paired his daisy dukes with the pony-hide birkenstocks.




I remember the cheese, the trip, and the breathtaking view.  And I might have forgotten this fabulous ensemble had I not borrowed my friend Lisa’s camera for the whole year.  Stumbling over these photos today I thought it high time we look back and laugh.  She could use a laugh right about now and since I don’t think cheese man has internet way up in them thar hills, I don’t feel too bad  giggling at his awe-inspiring fashion sense.





Will good wine go extinct?

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I am seriously concerned about wine.  Specifically about the disappearance of great wine.  I am fearful of losing access to fabulous discoveries from far-away places due to the American sport of saving a buck.  This year my area has lost two independent wine retailers known for hand-selecting wines.  Austin’s in Fort Myers closed at the beginning of the year, and now Haskell’s in Naples has closed. Both stores were run by thoughtful wine lovers who tasted every wine before putting it on the shelf.  There were not mountains of wine stacked to the ceiling because most of the producers whose wines made the cut were too small to sell a stack of wine to anyone.  The prices in these two stores were varied and great care was taken to keep things affordable- especially during this recession.  Customers were more like friends and everyone who entered was treated like a kindred spirit.  Even if someone came in asking for Barefoot or Yellow Tail, they were treated with respect and offered an alternative, or offered a special order to be delivered later in the week.  It is sad for any business to close but the disappearance of small wine retailers portends a greater loss in the world of wine:  the possible extinction of artisinal wine.

Last week I was in one of the few remaining local wine retailers in the area called the Wine Merchant.  I tried one of the most unique and delicious wines I’ve had in quite a long time called Rossese Riviera Ligure di Ponente from a producer named Punta Crena.  I would never pick this wine up on my own because I know nothing about it, but the store owner Charlene knows me and knows what I like and thought I’d enjoy it.  She could not have been more right.  Never before have I had a red wine (granted this one was pretty light) and thought, “this would be perfect with a bisque.”  It’s acidity and lightness was perfect for a heavy fat seafood situation.  A look at the importer’s website describing the winery’s product reinforced that thought and made me feel like I sorta know what I’m talking about- great for any insecure wine fan.  Turns out it’s 100% Rossese which is a local grape from Liguria in Italy and it is barely planted any more because it’s difficult to work with.  There is not a lot of this wine in general, and even less from this particular producer whose family has been making it true to tradition and local taste for 500 years.

So here is the issue:  If the Wine Merchant didn’t exist, where would I find this wine?  And how would I ever know to try it?  Supermarkets (ABC liquors, Total, Costco) would never carry it because 1. there isn’t enough of it to fill an order for even one case per store, 2. very few people would know what it is and therefore few would buy it, and 3.  there isn’t the manpower or wine enthusiasm to actually hand-sell a product like this.  So it would get lost.  A distributor wouldn’t order much (if any) because they wouldn’t have anywhere to sell it.  So the importer would scale back his order since distributors weren’t buying.  And eventually the winemaker would produce even less or eventually go out of business because a vineyard, no matter how rustic, cannot run on just centesimi.

I feel like the wine industry is careening towards a big vat of homogenized sameness as these small retailers are shuttered by giganti-corps with the buying power of bulk.  I am in an area where people profess a great love of wine and I overhear them display their wine knowledge like peacocks at wine tastings constantly, yet when it comes time to buy they don’t put their money where their palate is.  Instead, they scamper off to the nearest mountainous display of boring mass-produced wine and support “the man” and put us one step closer to having no options other than $9.99 crap from producers whose only concern is making barely passable wine with maximum margin.  It is this customer- the one saving a buck or two on sub-standard wine- that is putting small retailers and quite possibly small producers out of business.  And this will be a shame.

Who Moved My Fish?

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After years of getting my fish at Paradise Shrimp Company on US 41 in Bonita Springs, I was inconvenienced for merely a month as my beloved fish monger changed locations.  I didn’t go fishless though.  Instead I drove an extra fifteen minutes to Randy’s Fish Market in North Naples.  They own Paradise anyway, so I was contributing to the new store in a very very small way.  So, imagine my delight when I heard the new place not only opened in its new location on Old 41, but added seating for a small restaurant which will serve

not only lunch and dinner, but my favorite meal f the day: breakfast.  The name has changed to reflect its ownership and instead of Paradise Shrimp Company it’s called Randy’s.

For my first visit today I only needed some fish, so breakfast will be a later report. but the place looked great and I snagged a menu before I left.  Breakfast includes but is not limited to; crab benedict, shrimp n’ grits, and a foodaloo fave b’s &g’s (biscuits and gravy).  I am soooo looking forward to breakfast tomorrow.

The new address is 25010 Bernwood Avenue, Bonita Springs.  Basically you take 41 to Old 41 (the one north of Bonita Beach Road), turn East, the road will dip back south and on your right, behind Truly Nolen, you’ll see a big Randy’s banner.  You can call them if you need better directions at 239-597-2068.  They do to-go orders and encourage you to call ahead if you are in a hurry.  Of course there is the market with the awesome fresh fish and the on-site prepared salads and key lime pies.