The Hearts, Heads and Tails of Maine Spirits

In 2010, I wrote this piece for Maine Food & Lifestyle. But they delayed publication so long that after a year or two (yes, you read that right), I gave up on it going to print or being paid for it, apologized to my sources and moved on.  It was one of two writing casualties for me as that publication slowly stopped publishing, but as I mentioned before, it happens to all freelancers. 

The industry in Maine has exploded since 2010. I wanted the work of the many distillers who took time to speak with me and share their recipes for this piece to finally see some light. Thankfully all three of the distilleries I highlighted are thriving and I included links so you can see what they are focused on today.  

The Hearts, Heads and Tails of Maine Spirits (original intended date of publication, Fall 2010)

Like many small agriculture-based businesses in Maine, the state’s microdistilleries share a common thread of sourcing products close to home and engaging family work power. While at least one venture -- Penobscot Bay Distillery, which was intended to be part of Winterport Winery – folded before its still was licensed, others have received widespread industry recognition despite limited distribution. If the success of Sweetgrass Distillery, Spirits of Maine and Northern Maine Distilling are indicative of the future, the booming Maine micro-brew and burgeoning wine markets both have competition to keep an eye on.

Taste of Maine
Keith Bodine has the touch and his wife Connie has the taste. As a team, they have developed 18 products from light rum, brandy, port and award-winning gin to the vermouth and bitters that enhance them. Their Sweetgrass Farm Winery and Distillery in Union is open every day from mid- May to late December and offers tastings and education, as well as beautiful views of the surrounding Medomak River Valley.

If you're a gin drinker, you'll leave happy with a bottle of Back River gin. And if you're not a gin drinker, you will be after tasting it. Constance describes it as Maine in a glass, evoking the spirit of her hometown of Boothbay: the citrusy, ginger tang of the sea, juniper and pine aromas mellow into a warm (local) blueberry finish. Spirits distribution is limited to in-state and production levels are small. If you taste something and you like it, unfortunately can’t enjoy a full glass on site, so Connie encourages customers to buy new favorites before they become only a taste-memory.

Old hand, new tastes
People whisper about the giant, beautiful German-made alembic still that yields potent elixirs at Spirits of Maine distillery in Gouldsboro. How did it get there? An artist brought it, of course. Bob Bartlett, who moved to Maine in 1975 and whose glass work has been displayed in the Smithsonian, has already gained notoriety as one of the best fruit winemakers in the country. But the well- traveled Bartlett has always been fascinated by European eaux de vie, distilled fruit brandies, and in 2003 decided to try making some of his own.

Success found Bartlett again when only a few years later, his Spirits of Maine products were featured in the regarded text "The Art Of Distilling Whiskey And Other Spirits" by Bill Owens and Alan Dikty. Bartlett’s apple brandy received accolades from International Review of Spirits and his ghostly pear eaux de vie -- in its elegant bottle -- is a lush sipper that garnered gold 92 points from the Beverage Testing Institute, noting its “pear and cream” aromas. Bartlett has limited production of both to less than 500 cases total, compared with the 7,000 cases of fruit wine he produces each year, and distribution outside of the estate is limited. But the shiny, copper still remains busy: light and dark rums are now aging in oak barrels, peach and raspberry eau-de- vies will be available this coming summer and he’s “playing” with some other liqueurs too. The spirits world is excitedly waiting to see what comes next.

Gathering a following
When Scott Galbiati and his wife Jessica started Houlton's Northern Maine Distilling Company, they wanted to build around the Maine potato vodka "experience." After three years of planning and navigating red tape, in March 2009 the couple received their license to begin using the distillery's equipment, but soon shifted away from a potato-distilled product to grain. The spirit, which they named Twenty 2, is distilled in 50 gallon batches using kettles they build themselves and were built locally, blended with water from the region and then chill- filtered four times through charcoal, resulting in a very clean taste. The entire process is done by hand, from bottling to inscribing the batch numbers on each label.
The state’s newest distillery distributes its vodka statewide, and can also be found in major wholesalers and several restaurants in Aroostook County, Portland and Bangor. This year Northern Maine Distilling expanded its reach to New Jersey and Wyoming, the later by special order, and is eyeing a handful of mid-Atlantic states and New Hampshire next.

“It’s been a long journey and a lot of learning to get to this point, but Jess and I are incredibly proud of the final product,” Scott said. Twenty 2 won recognition from the World Spirits Competition during its first year of production and has also attracted more than 3,500 fans on Facebook – where every Friday afternoon a unique drink recipe is unveiled. Among the favorites, the Dude's Caucasian, was inspired by Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridge's character in “The Big Lebowski” and features Allen’s Coffee Brandy and Houlton Farm’s Dairy Heavy Cream to complete the local flavor triumvirate. Good Friday, or any day, after 3 p.m., of course.

The Dude’s Caucasian, made with Twenty 2 vodka 
Rocks glass with ice:
2 oz Twenty 2 vodka
1 oz. Allen’s Coffee Brandy
2 ½ oz Houlton Farm’s Daily Heavy Cream
Stir and serve.

The Spiced Apple Fritter Martini, made with Twenty 2 vodka

The Galbiatis served more than 500 samples of this cocktail at October’s Harvest on the Harbor Grand
Tasting in Portland.
1 ½ oz. Twenty 2 Vodka
2 oz. Maine apple cider
½ oz. Triple Sec
½ oz. Butterscotch Schnapps
1 tsp. Domaine De Canton (ginger liqueur)
Shake hard to mix and chill.
Strain into a glass with a cinnamon-and- powered-sugar- rim.

Jeff Smith Sidecar, made with Spirits of Maine brandy
2 oz of Spirits of Maine apple brandy
1 ½ oz. of sweet and sour mix – made with limes, lemon and agave nectar
¾ oz. of Cointreau (or another orange liqouer)
Lime/sugar rim

The Farm that Twitter Built

In 2011, I wrote a piece on a homestead farm in Maine. It was an assignment for a Maine magazine I had already done several pieces for and respected. I filed. And waited. And waited. And waited. Though I was given several reassurances of publication -- and payment -- the magazine just seemed to stop publishing. It sucks, but it happens. And this story continued to live only on my hard drive.

It's been three years, and I think the piece is worth sharing -- especially now as homestead farming in Maine is experiencing a huge resurgence. Neal is a fascinating guy, a social media early adopter and he works hard to make the best life for his family and to give back to his community. I was proud to tell his story -- and share some of his delicious recipes.

Neal Foley is building his agro-tourism dream at Montville’s Claddagh Farms

By Jessica Strelitz

There is Bach playing in the barn. Neal Foley tells me that the soothing music stimulates milk production, as his daughter Sola prepares her veal calf to go out to pasture. He is her cow. Neal refers to the pre- teen as the barn’s manager, and he means it. There are no employees at the Foley family’s Montville homestead Claddagh Farms -- halfway between Augusta and Belfast. Canning. Gardening. Animal husbandry. It’s all done in-house.

Neal and his wife Kathy were living in Washington’s remote San Juan Islands when the opportunity for a location change arose. Neal looked at 35 farms in 7 days, and in March 2010 his family of seven moved across the country into a 150-year-old farmhouse and got to work.

A view on the farm.There was plenty to do. The farm had been in the community for generations but hadn’t been maintained for years. There was a foundation to bolster, a new perimeter fence to stake and a 150- tree apple orchard to rehabilitate – just for starters.

“Ive been picking fruits and vegetables since before I could ride a bike,” Neal said as we toured the farm.

As a professionally trained chef and experienced farmer, he worked to connect the two linked-but-separate worlds during his time on the West Coast. He catered, taught nose-to-tail butchery and shared his experiences online via Twitter, Facebook and a weekly podcast. But while the restaurant-farmer movement is growing in Maine, the local market was already crowded with options for fresh eggs, milk and meat by the time the family arrived in Montville.

“One of the things which attracted us to Maine was the support and encouragement there is here for small farms. I am happy to see farmers markets proliferating and that farmers here tend to try to work together,” Foley said. He needed a way to stand out.

Turkeys, ducks, chickens and other birds at Claddagh Farms.Neal struggled to find quality meat for his clients when he was catering in Washington, so he began raising his own animals. People wanted to learn more about the process, so he began teaching butchery workshops. When they wanted to learn how to prepare the meat and other dishes, the farm-cooking school was born.

I have the most magic kitchen matter where I put them, they're never there....they seem to walk the house on their own & hide.

In Washington, Neal hosted a weekly podcast focused on farm life, food and politics that attracted a global following. It spawned a cookbook, which he self-published, and proved an effective way to teach from a geographically challenging location. But podcasts take a lot of time to produce, and with an unending task list at Claddagh Farms, Twitter soon became his preferred method of connecting with the food universe.

It must be autumn.....I'm braising rabbit in ale for dinner.

Photos are effective viral tools. By using the popular short messaging system, Neal can hold multiple conversations with his network of 3,000 followers while feeding the sheep, and include a picture of the field as they graze. He sold his last three workshops, and all of last year’s syrup, via social media channels.

RECIPES: Berry Cobbler + Braised Pork with Apples a la Bonne Femmes

Another bull calf... Christmas veal here we come!

Herding sheep at Claddagh Farms. The most successful homesteaders have voracious curiosity, Logging. Cheesemaking. Carpentry. Organic farming. If it interested him, Neal learned all he could about it. One of his first inroads to his new community was joining the volunteer fire department. He was the only one who showed up and already knew how to drive the truck and operate the pump.

“Neal is fascinated with the origin of things, how it is broken down and how it travels to the plate. He’s a chef, so he gets it and helps to connect the dots on the whole picture,” said food writer and chef Annie Mahle.

She has been cooking professionally for 25 years, but it was only after taking one of Neal’s workshops that she felt confident speaking with her guests about how her meat got to the plate.

“I really know what a tenderloin is now. I totally get why it’s a terrific piece of meat, I have seen and touched it.”

What a day.... truck broke down. Milking done late. Emergency tuna melts in oven, brownies instead of
cake...happy Birthday 2 Me!

Neal began raising ducks a few years ago: Rouen, Pekin and Muscovy. Pigs too, large black tomworts and Glouchester old spots. He hosts a multi-day duck workshop each winter and tweets duckling pictures to drum up interest. He convinced chef-author Kate Hill, whom he’d met via Twitter, to travel from her home in France and work with him on the duck workshops – first in Washington, then in Maine. This year he will have 30 ducks to break down, as well as 25 geese and 20 turkeys for the holidays.

“I suggested if he grew [the ducks], I’d come from France to teach him how to confit, and the rest is history in 140 characters,” Kate wrote in an e-mail exchange. “Neal keeps his learning curve on a very high arc by continually seeking out new and old ways.”
Moving the sheep at Claddagh Farms.
Finishing chores & heading out soon to pick up some more sheep....I must be insane.....

Foley loves duck, rabbit and pork, but says lamb is the future. He is slowly adding to his flock of Fresians, Leicester Longwools and North Country Cheviots. Not the most common breeds, but they fascinate him and their uniqueness is worth the extra effort to get them to the farm.

Rainy AM. Researching history of our farm. Feeling close ties to former farmers Stillman & Grace White of the 40's

“I am reminded by Neal that the energy we put into making our food is our most precious commodity,” Kate added. “Whether it’s milking cows on a blizzardy morning, or mixing up dough for homemade bagels the night before, putting time into our own food is essential and should come first.”

Coffee and blueberry cake after a farm tour and chat.Agrotourism is the next step for Claddagh Farms. The only way for a farm to be sustainable is for people to be interested enough to travel there, buy products, understand how to use them and return for more.

Neal wants to turn his cooking school in the red farmhouse into a destination, but there are challenges -- regulatory burdens that make it tough for farms to connect with restaurant kitchens, a lack of places to process meat for commercial use and encouraging more chefs to be flexible with their cooking and their menus. He’s ready. But first there is the matter of that new hay loft ...

10 NoVa wineries warming up wine this winter

At my holiday/birthday party each year the first thing I put on the stove is a warmer full of wine and spices.  It's always gone in the first two hours. So, this year I am going to try three new recipes with local wine.

Here are 10 Northern Vrginia wineries serving mulled wine during the chily months so you can take a few bottles for a test drive before they hit the crock pot:

The Barns at Hamilton Station Vineyards, Hamilton – Mulled wine available on Saturdays for $7/glass

Sunset Hills Vineyard, Purcellville -- Serving a blend of Cabernet Franc, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, orange, lemon and sugar to warm up your holiday spirit. Mulling spice packets are also available for purchase.

Quattro Goomba’s Winery, Aldie - Enjoy mulled wine in the tasting room, or purchase spices on site to make it at home.

The Vineyards & Winery at Lost Creek, Leesburg -  Grab a glass by the fireplace.

Loudoun Valley Vineyards, Waterford - Traditional-style gluhwein available starting in December.

North Gate Vineyards, Purcellville - Pair a glass with truffles from Maryland chocolate from Perfect Truffles

Corcoran Vineyards, Waterford– Mulled wine available every Saturday.

Hunter’s Run Wine Barn, Hamilton – Mulled wine made with Chambourcin or Merlot.

Hidden Brook Winery, Leesburg – Mulled wine make with apple cider and wine available on site, and mulling spice -- made in Gaithersburg, Md., -- are available to bring home.

Hiddencroft Vineyards, Lovettsville- "Grandma's Love Potion" (blueberry wine with 2% residual sugar and 12% alcohol) is mulled and spiced with cinnamon, cloves, allspice and lemon or orange peel. Northern VA Magazine has details from last winter's brew.

Report: More consumers follow chef pins, bring home (Nueske) bacon

It’s not just affluent retirees buying fresh pasta, specialty mustards and artisan honeys. Nearly 3/4 of all Americans buy specialty food prodCheeses -- like this selection from Iowa's Milton Creamery - lead the pack for specialty food purchasesucts, led by consumers aged 18-24, according to the 2013 Specialty Food Association report. No surprises here: chocolate, coffee, cheese and oils, as well as Italian, Mexican and Chinese food are the top selling categories – while items like quinoa and Greek food are gaining ground.

Good news: Consumers are increasingly bringing home specialty food items for everyday use versus special occasions such as dinner parties, and (thanks Food Network and PBS) they consider themselves better educated about those choices -- as well as what to do when they get their groceries home.

Savoring social: Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter were all noted by more than 50% of those polled as the top social media channels to engage with retailers and restaurants. I follow (and discuss) hundreds of chefs and restaurants on Twitter, but mainly use Pinterest for home menu inspirations and recipes. Are your favorite restaurants using Pinterest to entice you to come in on a Tuesday night?

Going mobile + local: More than 40% of percent of specialty food consumers are buying food on their mobile devices, and nearly half purchase foods with locally-grown ingredients.

Aerating: Every time, all of the time


If there is one wine tool you buy this year, consider a wine aerator. Many wine professionals encourage you to use them when drinking reds, and a growing number that I know also recommend aeration before drinking whites too.

There are many ways to aerate wine, or let it breathe. When wine is exposed to air, the processes of oxidation and evaporation begin, allowing less desirable compounds that are often found in wine – such as sulfites -- to start to dissipate and revealing more pleasant components.

The best known, and cheapest, way to aerate is simply swirling your wine in a glass, or the act of pouring it from a bottle into a glass itself. The hard part is letting it sit and not drinking it right away.

Another option is to use a decanter, a wide vessel that allows the wine to have have maximum surface contact with air. It doesn't have to be a fancy, blown glass showpiece – even a mixing bowl will do – but an actual decanter does make it easier to transfer the vino back to serving glasses.

Aerating tools, both ones you place in the bottle's neck and ones that you place over your wine glass, utilize the Bernoulli's Principle, which states that as the speed of a moving fluid increases, the pressure inside the fluid decreases. Can you tell I'm married to a mechanical engineer?

Products from companies like Vinturi claim that they mix the “right” amount of air into the wine with a single pour, allowing the wine to open up faster then simple decanting, which can take up to an hour or more. New products, such as the TWIST adjustable aerator, let users control how much air is incorporated to “bring out the best in any wine.”

Try it out at home. Serve glasses from the same bottle, decanted, aerated and straight from the bottle. Ask guests to give you feedback on taste. The results may surprise you.


4 holiday tips for food freak (new) parents

I am on maternity leave this holiday season so I have more free time than a typical parent. But I am also a new mom, so everything takes me 5x as long as more seasoned parents -- which probably balances things out. With weekly holiday events during the next 7 weeks, I need help to remain gracious (and engaged) with nearly-zero sleep and a newborn in tow. Four ideas that have helped me so far:

Exploring Union Market -- donuts from GBDLoad up locally: Instead of spreading gourmet gift purchases out over a number of stops, think ahead. If you include a food-focused retail destination on your errand list, grab several unique items. You'll be happy you had a few little things stocked up when Saturday (suddenly) rolls around and you have three parties to drop into and no time to grab wine or flowers. And support locations that are family-friendly -- I was amazed and excited by the amount of strollers and ErgoBaby carriers during my first trip to Union Market in D.C. I picked up a number of stocking stuffers and fun treats for around $10, including barrel-aged syrup, charcuterie and savory crackers laced with Old Bay. A stop at a neighborhood wine shop yielded (in about 5 minutes) pumpkin chevre and cranberry brie discoveries and a sparkling wine from Texas, and I was encouraged to set my car seat carrier on the bar and enjoy a glass of spicy cranberry sangria.

Cooking? Simplify: A few of my favorite appetizer contributions with five ingredients or less and ready in less than 30 minutes.

  • Baked brie (use refrigerated pie crusts and your favorite jam)

  • Hot mushroom-crab dip (stir in sherry for a kicky finish)

  • Crisp artichoke cakes (you can sub out a number of vegetables)

  • Baked coconut shrimp (shrimp is also an easy app on its own)

  • Goat-cheese stuffed fresh figs if you can find them, dates if you cant (balsamic drizzle either way)

Pop-up exploring: Plenty of places around DC that spotlight unique food and wine gifts also welcome children. There are a growing number of wineries within a 45-minute drive of DC, many of which offer holiday discounts and treats from local artisan purveyors. Organizations across the region hold holiday bazaars and festivals in November and December, including the Swedish Christmas Bazaar at the House of Sweden and the National Harbor Holiday Festival. Work downtown? The Downtown Holiday Market, F Street between 7th and 8th Streets, opens Nov. 30 and this year features food from Luke's Lobster, Shake Shack and Ris, as well as fair-trade coffee, mini donuts and empanadas.

Delicious gifts for each other: Dates exploring restaurants -- including sitter arrangements -- make a great gift for any food freak and gives each of you something to look forward to throughout the year. Couple a gift card to a new eatery you want to explore with scheduling suggestions (once a month?) and don't forget child card arrangements. The more you plan, the more likely you are to actually go -- and enjoy it. And take the time to pick up the gift certificate if the restaurant tries to charge you to "ship" it -- or better yet, contact another spot that doesn't charge extra for gift card orders. Can't get out? Use the cards for take out, or gather specialty groceries to cook at home together.

Specialty Food Report Card: What are you buying … and why?

Specialty Food Magazine released its annual consumer report, revealing a growing interest in the marketplace (66% of U.S. consumers report having purchased specialty foods, up from 59% in 2011) with chocolate (62%), olive oil (59%) and cheese (56%) products leading the way. Have you sipped luxurious hot chocolate from Jacques Torres in NYC, sampled sea salt caramels from Fran’s in Seattle or explored sweets from your local chocolatier? (One of my favorites in NoVa is Artisan Confections) Beautiful, unique treats like these are worth their (relatively) small cost. No one re-gifts chocolate.

NASFT research indicates specialty food consumers are more inclined to shop at farmer’s markets, experiment with new recipes and buy food with a dual purpose, such as a charitible tie-in. A key note for the socmedia set: Facebook leads the way for discussing specialty food items and influencing buying decisions (77%), followed by YouTube (27%) and Twitter (19%). As a Twitter user whose feed is mostly populated with news + insight from chefs, brewers, winemakers and other F&B pros, I think the industry will see significant growth on that platform as well as the visual-heavy Pinterest -- especially among younger buyers – during the coming year.

As we head into the holiday season, what are you buying? Are you devoted to gourmet tea, fresh pasta or 20-year balsamic? And what most influences your purchases – word of mouth, social media, grocery browsing, impulse buys or traditional advertising?

Tasting for two

Cashel Blue cheese course. Two of the best things about being pregnant during the hottest summer in 100 years are the look on people's faces when I order wine (usually folks who don't know I write about it) and how happy I make my dining companions (especially fellow writers) when I share/give my glass with/to them after a taste or two. 

No one should be deprived of luscious, beautiful wine when it's 104 degrees out. Or, ever, really. And I don't need more than a few sips these days, especially when there are nine outstanding wines on the table to try, as was the case at a media dinner in the tasting room at Restaurant Eve last week.

A few of the highlights:

  • Always happy to see Thibaut Jannisson Brut on a menu; the Armstrongs are big fans of the Virginia bubbly which was showcased along a quintet of appetizers including pork belly rillette with fried green tomatoes and a kicky harissa aioli, the restaurant's signature "OOO" dish -- puff pastry holding oyster, onions "OOO" at Eve. and osetra -- which has been on the menu since it opened 8 years ago, and tiny porcini agnolotti with fava bean pesto.
  • A delicate, grapefruit-inflected 2010 Stolpman Sauvignon Blanc, my favorite bottling of the varietal that I've tasted in a year, accompanied the pan-roasted char with watercress vinaigrette, cashew cream and chili threads that looked like $1,000 worth of saffron as it came across the table. I think my quote was "Is that a shitload of saffron?" Not a shitload of saffron.
  • 2006 Segla Bordeaux Blend, served with Shenandoah lamb, smoked bacon, jewel box tomoatoes and a pickle puree, cut the extreme gaminess of the meat with black currant and light tannins. Great for a summer night. Armano chocolate and pistachio gateau
  • 2005 Bodegas Gutiérrez de la Vega "Casta Diva" Monastrell. Those of you not into dessert wines, or not familiar with Spanish wines beyond Sherry, need to explore what is being done with other lovely reds like the Mourvèdre in this sweet stunner.  Chocolate is the way to go: it was poured alongside an Armano chocolate and pistachio gateau with homemade lemon verbena ice cream and pistachio streusel crafted by new pastry chef Joshua Jarvis.  I'd make an aria comment here, but it seems too obvious....



You too can eat all of this Korean food

If you live in the DMV area, you are a short drive away from the best Korean food in the country -- much of which is available around the clock in Annandale, VA. Many head to Honey Pig for BBQ, but we recently introduced my brother to the cuisine at Yechon. The banchan included seaweed salad, fresh, creamy tofu, bean sprouts with sesame oil, buseot bokkeum (mushroom deliciousness), lots of pickled things and of course, two types of fermented cabbage goodness -- which I have been regularly craving.

A cadre of traditionally-clad female servers made sure the bulgogi and glabi were expertly cooked on our grill, then rested on greens until we were ready for seconds. And my brother Michel tried to smuggle out his nearly-finished bottle of Soju but they stopped him at the door.  Apparently this is frowned upon. Who knew?

Korean bakeries are another delight. I'm partial to Shilla, but If you aren't stuffed beyond needing a quick nap in the car before driving home from yechon, stop at Breeze Bakery next door (open until 2) for some bingsoo (a classic warm-weather-pregnant-food-writer craving, apparently), cream puffs and pineapple pound cake. Skip the Oreo cake.

49 million bubbles per bottle

Last week I was invited to attend the Champagne & Everything Bubbly event, part of the Kennedy Center's Roof Terrace Restaurant's Wine and Cultural Series. Sommelier John Coco said he wanted the collection of sparkling wines, which ranged from the Champagne houses Laurent-Perrier and Charles Heidsieck to domestics such as Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer, to represent the major sparkling regions of the world to give guests an opportunity to taste the differences in bubbles by terrior, method, grape and dosage. 

My favorites of the bunch included selections from Bellavista, which has more than 500 acres of vines in Franciacorta and produces lovely small-barrel sparklers, including a Gran Cuvée Saten made of single-vintage Chardonnay. This is not Prosecco. It glows golden and is filled with honeyed, peachy notes and a creamy mousse. 

Schramsberg released the first American Blanc de Noirs and has clearly spent the last 45 years perfecting this toasty sipper. Pretty bubbles, a little acid and a super fruity nose (more peach! who knew I loved peach in my sparkling?!). Plus, it went great with the savory pepperoni and cheese straws -- while they lasted.

Tips on Hosting a Vertical Tasting

Last night we went through a flight of Cabernet Sauvignon from Joseph Phelps (known for the steakhouse sweetheart Insignia) with a mix of wine wonks and neophytes at my first-ever home vertical tasting. Everyone had a great time because we had useful information that sparked good discussion and the star of the night -- the wine -- was well curated and cared for by our generous hosts.

A few tips on how to make a home vertical tasting a success:

  • Keep it small: We had 6 people tasting four vintages. It was plenty of wine per person without requiring more than one bottle per growing year, and four wines spread out over 2+ hours of tasting and noshing allowed for tasters to differentiate between the vintages without muddying the flavors.
  • Decanting & Serving: If you don't have enough decanters, consider using an aerator. Red wines should be opened in advance of the start of the night to 1) give them some time to open and 2) check to see if they are still good. Try to find proper stemware for the wine; we didnt have balloon glasses for all of the vintages, but the ones we did have were smartly saved for the oldest bottle.
  • Order: We tasted an '01, '03, '04 & '05. Our hosts reached out to the vineyard in advance and their experts suggested we taste from youngest to oldest. My thoughts -- that way you don't get spoiled early, but it also allows tasters to see the progression of aging and its impact on the bottled product. 
  • Notes: The four stages of wine tasting are Look, Smell, Taste, Finish. I add a fifth: Talk. Discuss what you are drinking and have paper and pens nearby to take notes. Your memory will get foggy and you'll want to have something to giggle about later when you try to decipher your scribbles about the fourth glass.
  • Inform: Our hosts distributed tasting notes on each vintage a few days before the dinner. While tasting, we noted the flavor profiles and checked to see if our observations matched with the vintner's expertise.
  • Snacks: My favorite part! Everyone contributed food, including traditional pairings like grilled steak and fresh chimichurri, tagliatelle with truffles and goat/cow/sheep cheeses -- I am officially in love with truffle salt, olive oil and goat cheese, for the record. Food gives everyone a chance to contribute to the fun and experiment with pairings (bacon-deviled eggs and sparkling wine -- try it!) and a potluck format takes some of the planning weight off of the hosts.

Special Menu Planning For a M/F Non-Cook But Let's Be Honest, M

I have a friend who contacts me twice a year about helping him plan a special (but not super expensive) meal for his lovely wife, also known as asking "Please Tell Me Exactly How to Do This So I Get Laid & Don't Burn the House Down."

First up, Valentine's Day -- a made-up holiday for which restaurants often develop exotic menus and then (usually) charge twice the price.

It's also a night when I avoid going out to eat. There are so many tasties to make at home, often with the one you love by your side, or at least pouring you wine. And it's that much easier to get naked in your own kitchen. 

Note: Do not try to get naked in a restaurant on Valentine's Day to prove me wrong. But if you do, tell me what happens.

This is the VTD menu I developed this year and actual e-mail I sent today, using simple recipes (he specifically requested steak) that I found online and adding my own notes for the home cook who needs a little direction  ... or a lot:

If having an appetizer and a side are too much, drop the appetizer. I have tips for each recipe, but the recipes themselves are easy to follow. Let me know if you have any questions and leave yourself a few hours to cook. The bruschetta topping can be made ahead, as can the potatoes & dessert if you want more time with the steak.

Bruschetta. Minimal cooking needed. You get to use balsamic in 2 recipes, which ties it all together. Spring for the hot house tomatoes, it's winter and they will have better flavor. Fresh herbs should be available at the grocery.

Ribeye with arugula. A great combination because the greens cut the fat in the steak. Get good balsamic -- at least $10 bottle. It makes a huge difference. The only tweak I'd make to this recipe is you should get a bigger steak or 2 medium-sized steaks. Rib eyes have a decent amount of fat, so also ask that they be trimmed.

Potatoes with carmelized onion and goat cheese. Note: Be careful not to burn the onions. If you do, just throw them out and have potatoes with goat cheese. It's excellent and easy.

Chocolate-coffee cups.  This is basically a rich pudding. You will need small white baking cups called ramekins, and you should be able to find them in a cooking store, such as Crate and Barrel or Williams Sonoma, if you don't already have them. They are useful.  If you cannot find them, use the smallest bowls you have. This recipes makes enough for 4, so just double your pour! Get good chocolate such as Valrhona or Ghiradelhi, which you should be able to get at the grocery store with no problem.

I wish I was there to give you some of mine! Cab Sauvignon is the go-to wine for ribeye, but it can be so expensive. This is what you should consider picking up, all relatively inexpensive:
Côtes du Rhone -- you can find a good one for around $15. Look for a Clos du Mont Olivet Montueil la Levade, Delas Saint-Esprit or Michel Gassier Cercius.
Syrah/Shiraz -- Look for Stump Jump, Smoking Loon, J. Lohr or Jacob's Creek Reserve. You should be able to get a bottle for under $15.

Food Porn: Lobster

People often ask me about my favorite foods, and I have a lot of them. But one edible that I rarely cite is lobster. Now, you know that I adore the crustacean and its glorious insides. I am the first to tout its virtues as a protein, and encourage folks to wait in line for an hour in the summer sun to get a roll at Red's Eats in Wiscasset.

But kids who grow up along the Maine coast are spoiled. Half of our friends (or someone in their immediate family) haul traps for a living.  We learn how to determine their sex (that's male or female, you pervs) in high school bio class.  Our McDonalds locations are among the few in the nation that carry McLobster, and they aren't half bad. 

I am the person who asks what the market price for lobster is, just to grumble when the waitron is out of earshot --"$50? Are you kidding me?" Hell, my father has his own pot colors in Cundy's Harbor, and we can haul traps in our backyard. And very often -- if you are outside of New England, it likely isn't Maine lobster anyway, so what's the point?

My name is Jessica and I am a lobster snob.

Deep breaths. All of this makes me even more proud to announce that this fall I tried, and devoured, a food-orgasm worthy lobster dish that I can now proudly call one my favorite ever small plates: the truffled lobster "mac and cheese" from five fifty-five in Portland, Maine. Torchio pasta, butter-poached lobster and shaved black truffle. Seafood and cheesy  pasta? Not a sin! Nutty, creamy and unctuous. At a table of 14 women, who only two hours beforehand had eaten a three-course meal at my wedding shower, we had four orders and everyone was moaning for more. 

I feel better. Now, if only they delivered to Virginia.

80 whiskeys at the bar...

Went to a media-preview at Irish Whiskey Public House in Dupont last week -- aka the 3-story bar that took over the former Porter's spot.

This is not a shooter bar -- several whiskeys on the menu will set you back $20+ a glass. Makes me wonder how much they spent on that case full of Chris Cooley pottery on the third floor.

The menu, design by Sean McIntosh (Kinkeads, Dean and Deluca) is unlike any Irish pub in the region -- with dishes such as seared hailibut with roasted, woody Chanterelles and (amazing) gnocchi-like potato puffs, corned beef & cabbage spring rolls a $50+ lobster and filet 'surf and turf' option. The gougeres went so fast during the media preview that the chef had to yank them from the opening menu. They require a special tapioca flour that must be special ordered, but they should make it way back onto the menu by mid-January.

An off-menu whiskey worth considering on a VIP night: Tullamore Special Reserve (Private Stock. Bottled in the '40s): $300 per glass. The owners claim it may be one of the last bottles left in the world, from the original Tullamore Irish Whiskey Distillery in County Offaly. Try it while you can. And tell me how it tastes.

The beauty of Pinterest

I started using the design social networking site Pinterest when I was working on greeting card ideas with my partner Doreen Marts. Then, I started using it to get inspiration for my Fall 2011 wedding.  Now, I've happily discovered, it's not only a source of inspiration for food and drinks, but a great way to promote my most recent work. Someone posted a photo I took for my NPR story on healthy cocktails, and before it was brought to my attention, it had already been repinned 1,500 times -- it's now up to more than 2,000 repins, and more than 320 likes -- all from strangers.