World on a Plate

Exploring culture. One plate at a time.

Category: Wine

Stage 16 – Let them Eat Gateau!



Mourenx (Midi-Pyrénées)

to Pau  ((Aquitaine) Distance 180.5km/112.2mi

Today’s race finished in Pau in the region of Aquitaine. Aquitaine is home to nearly 5% of France’s population (2002) and stretches out over five counties: the Dordogne (also know as Périgord), is well-known for walnuts, walnut oil, truffles and foie gras; the Gironde and its prestigious wines, the Landes, and seemingly endless sandy beaches, the Lot-et-Garonne ; the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, (where we end up today) with majestic mountains and a culture heavily influenced by the Basques.

World-famous wines from the region’s capital Bordeaux include Graves, St Emilion and Médoc that mature into sought out names such as Margaux, Rothschild and Petrus. According to Nicks Nose Knows, “The Bordeaux AOC area is the largest in France…the average annual yield is…equivalent to 650 million bottles.”

Armagnac, a brandy, was the first distilled spirit in France. It’s similar to Cognac, in that it bars the name of the production region. The difference between the two is in the type of grape used, the soil, the climate, the method of distillation and the use of black oak wooden maturation casks. In addition Armagnac is distilled once (twice for Cognac) which yields a lower alcohol content. Armagnacs are also aged longer than Cognacs, typically 12-20 years, but can be aged up to 30 years.

As this is the land of geese and ducks, butter is considered a poor substitute in cooking preparations. Any cooking effort beginning with fat–a fried egg, sauteed peppers and onions or peppered duck breast in a creamy Armagnac sauce begins here. Autumn yields cepes and truffles. Another Basque regional specialty is ttoro, a peppery fish stew, which had it’s beginnings with the fishermens’ wives not wanting any of the unsold catch going to waste. This explains the long and varied fish called for in the recipe!

The following Gateau Basque is very simple. It is more of a coffee cake than a dessert-type cake. It is dense–scone like in fact. In my research I saw a few variations on this theme. One of them involving a involving an almond crème pâtissière.  A French website stated, "Il en existe presque autant de variétés que de villages, de pâtissiers ou de restaurateurs."  (i.e. there are a lot of variations!) The same website explained (if I have it right) that the reason that the former version has become more popular as the traditional Ixtassou black cherries are becoming hard to find. Sour cherry preserves are the filling for this cake.  However, since I had some challenges (my local gourmet pantry was closed for painting) I’ve substituted strawberry preserves from Four Star Provisions for a close to actual version.

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A Brick of Wine, Please

3cab_1 This isn’t a post about wine. It’s a marketing post about wine. Quite a few posts have been written about Three Thieves and wine that is cheap due to an after market purchase and the addition of a screw cap. This is only a small part of the story. 

Three Thieves wine is produced by three vintners who call themselves "liberators of fine wine."  The wine producers started selling wine virtually in 2003.  The upstart winery bottled, er, ah, is jugged into squat glass containers that hold 33% more than the standard  750-ml bottle.  Known as much for their innovative packaging as for what is in it, the Three Thieves may turn out to be branding geniuses. They have willingly chosen to ignore all the standard branding and packaging rules for selling wine.

And they are succeeding. According an article in Brand Packaging, "Three Thieves sold 100,000 cases of wine under its namesake brand in 2003, its inaugural year. The brand is one of the hottest-selling table wines in the United States, and projections are for sales of 600,000 cases in 2005."

The “thieves” are Roger Scommegna, Charles Bieler and Joel Gott. Scommegna handles the marketing responsibilities from the consumer packaged goods center  of Milwaukee, while Gott is a third-generation Napa Valley name as he operates Joel Gott Wines in Oakville, Calif. Bieler’s family operates Chateau Routas in France.  The Three Thieves purchase supplies of high quality and premium wines from around the world, package it and distribute the finished product to consumers at an affordable cost.

The initial marketing task was to create a perception that Three Thieves was to produce a great everyday wine for under $10.00.  A "steal" if you will. The packaging is distinct. Jugs and labels were designed to fit with their image of Americana. It also resembles a moonshine bottle. The personality of the brand is carried out at their website and in fashionable logo’d t-shirts and hats. Another conscious decision was to use a  screw cap which costs 2.5 cents per unit, compared with 30 to 50 cents per unit for cork.

Tetra Now the group is moving into carton-based aseptic package for Italian white wine, which it will market under the Bandit Bianco name.  The carton will carry a retail price of $5.99, a bit more than half of the jug’s $9.99 retail price.  They are able to hold the costs down due to this new packaging option which costs "14 cents per unit, compared with $1.50 for a standard glass bottle with a cork closure." according to Brand Packaging.  Most of us here in the States turn our noses up at boxes of wine.  But in Italy, over 50% of the wine is sold in this form in grocery stores. 

According to a press release from Tetra Pak, the manufacturers of the "brik" container" it has an "easy opening with tight re-closing to protect the product, and pouring control and accuracy. The package…will better differentiate Three Thieves’ premium wine brands on the shelf and make them extremely economical to distribute, store and stock."  This is another element to their formula–in-store merchandising.  They requested that they have stand-alone displays and provide "orange-and-black paperboard shippers, when stacked alternatively on their orange or black sides, create a checkerboard pattern that makes them eye-appealing as floor displays."

I love rule breakers, particularly when creativity, intuition and experience combine to prove winning. And this is at least, most of the tale.

Brand Packaging article on Three Theives

Review from Wine Gourmet (September 2004)

"The winemakers have turned high quality Zinfandel juice into a bright, fruity red wine that displays notes of blackberry, raspberry, vanilla, chocolate and sugar-dusted violets. There is just enough tanginess on the finish to be refreshing with non-serious foods such as burgers, B-L-T sandwiches, or grilled eggplant drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Don’t be afraid of the screw cap because this is the wave of the future."

Friday Time Kill

The Alcohol Knowledge Test

Congratulations! You’re 118 proof, with specific scores in beer (80) , wine (116), and liquor (78).
Screw all that namby-pamby chick stuff, you’re going straight for the bottle and a shot glass! It’ll take more than a few shots of Wild Turkey or 99 Bananas before you start seeing pink elephants. You know how to handle your alcohol, and yourself at parties.

My test tracked 4 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:

You scored higher than 60% on proof
You scored higher than 97% on beer index
You scored higher than 95% on wine index
You scored higher than 90% on liquor index

Link: The Alcohol Knowledge Test written by hoppersplit on Ok Cupid

Call Me Crazy

PazzowineA few friends on Friday night migrated from our places of work to Vino Venue before we all headed into our weekends. 

Located just South of Market (SOMA) and footsteps away from the SF Museum of Modern Art this wine tasting "bar" has received quite a buzz since its opening in September.  For those outside of San Francisco it works like so–you buy a smartcard ($10-$100), receive a wine glass and visit wine stations which are arranged by varietal, insert the smartcard and select the wine choice and a tasting pour is dispensed.  Yes, a bit of a novelty.

There’s over 100 wines to choose from in this combination wine bar and retail shop.  Unlike a winery tasting room there’s no pressure to buy a bottle.  So it’s a very inviting way to try something new.  Apparently, after tasting is complete you can have Vino Venue check your smartcard to generate a list.

My sense is that the owners didn’t nearly anticpate the popularity of the concept. I’m certain they are making a lot of money on the concept.  My friend C. and I tried to calculate the number of pours per bottle and carry the math out and do a analysis of mark up to margin.  We got lost in a cloud of Rhone.  Suffice it to say that there’s money being made. 

The establishment works on several levels but you certainly can’t linger too long here as, unfortunately, this place is limited in the nibbles.  It’s minimal and tasteless and more than overprices for what you get. Ideally I would visit this spot with an out of town wine lover or as  finish to a day at SFMOMA–post lunch at the Caffe Museo. 

Aside from all the above I did taste a new wine from the "Adventurous" station–Bacio Divino Pazzo 2002 ($26/$2.40 1 oz. taste). This particular blend is unique– 66% sangiovese, 20% cabernet sauvignon, 7% zinfandel, 5% petit sirah and 2% viognier.  The wine is full, fruity and has a taste of cherry and plum but overall the taste is not too assertive.  As a French-wine drinking friend once remarked to me–you do like a big wine.  Italian wines are a favorite of mine.

Photo:  Bacio Divino

Vino Venue – 683 Mission Street @ Third, check website for hours

Caffe Museo – 151 Third Street btween Mission & Howard

open late Thurday until 9pm

Sunday Dinner


   "Why waste an open bottle on a closed mind?"

                                —Sean Thackrey, Winemaker

I celebrated my birthday a few weeks ago with S & K by having lunch at the girl and the fig in Sonoma.  After a great lunch, a gift presentation of their cookbook, we strolled around the plaza poking into the original Williams-Sonoma, a bookstore and a few wine shops. 

And there at the Wine Exchange of Sonoma sitting demurely on the shelf were four bottles of non vintage Sean Thackrey Pleiades XIII {RP: 90 / 2004}($18).  What a find.  This exceptional wine is a blend of Syrah, Barbera, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Mourvedre, and Grenache. Southern Rhone in style with a taste of pepper,spice, and berry fruit contains this medium to full-bodied, complex red.

If you aren’t familiar with this renegade winemaker well that’s okay.  Those of us that are have a hard enough time tracking where to buy it. He’s not widely distributed in the States. He sells more overseas at a higher price point. I’ve been into shops where you need to ask if they have it and they go in to the back room and pull out one or two. 

His wines are named after stars and constellations–Pleiades, Orion, Sirius. The Pleiades, considered the entry wine of the constellation,  were the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione and is loosely translated as flock of doves. This is the more easily found–which keep in mind is a relative statement.

Sean Thackrey is a real artisan winemaker, someone who makes wine by "feel," not by recipe.  Wine critic Robert Parker, gave the 2001 Sirius Mendocino County Eaglepoint Ranch Petite Sirah 96 points and the 2002 Orion Rossi Ranch St. Helena California Native Red Wine 94-plus points.

About twice a month S, K and I gather and make Sunday dinner.  Sometimes there’s others and at other times there’s not.  The fare can be elaborate or comforting.  Last night I created a dinner menu around this wine.

Grilled Pork Chops with Apple Cider Sauce

Pumpkin Gnocchi with Walnut-Sage Pesto

Greens with Dressing 

Dessert: Vanilla Tea with Alfajores

Dinner was so good we were chewing on the bones!

SF Chronicle Thackrey Wine Section Profile

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