Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Am I allergic to sulfites?

I created a decision tree to answer this popular question.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and Instagram @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Trump Administration may not be wrong about restaurant tip sharing. But here's a more simple solution

Chef Wong has a great idea on tipping
Restaurant servers make more money than line cooks. This is because of tipping. Many chefs are trying to change this disparity, but it's difficult. 

The Trump Administration plunged into the problem last year with a proposal that's not a bad idea: that restaurants could redistribute tips among all workers. This is exactly what many conscientious chefs have been trying to do for several years, as this 2016 New York Times story points out. But labor organizations complain that the way the proposed new law is written might allow restaurant owners to simply pocket all the tips.

Tip pooling sounds like a good idea if you think the person who cooked your food should make as much money as the person who brought it to you. But it is hard to enforce legally. And as high-end restaurants have discovered, it's hard to keep servers if they're not getting all the tips because they can get jobs elsewhere where tips are not pooled, whereas the working stiffs in the kitchen can't easily jump for higher wages.

The Obama Administration waded in on the side of servers, against cooks and dishwashers, in 2011. Subsequently some restaurants that tried to pool tips lost lawsuits. These are not cases where the restaurant tried to keep the money; somebody just wanted to equalize pay. Ironically, northern California's own loopy-lefty vegan Café Gratitude, which named its food things like "I Am Magical" (a veggie burger) and "I Am Transformed" (sweet potato tacos), was forced out of business by a lawsuit from servers who didn't want to share tips with the kitchen ("I Am Rapacious.")

It's too early to tell what will happen with the proposed Trump Administration rule. Labor organizations don't trust it, and maybe they're right, despite the appeal of the concept. Public comment ended this week. But I can offer a very simple work-around that I discovered while eating too much breakfast last year in Honolulu.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Fight back against Vladimir Putin: drink wine from Moldova

Landlocked Moldova is especially vulnerable to the Russian boycott of its wine
Hey wine lover: have you wondered recently, is there any way I can irk Vladimir Putin and fight Russian aggression while spending less than $20?

Yes! You can drink a unique and delicious wine, support freedom in Eastern Europe and stick a metaphorical corkscrew in Putin's eye, all by buying Rara Neagra from Moldova -- the Sonoma County of the former Soviet Union.

Moldova needs the help, as it is far more vulnerable to Russian meddling than we are. It's amazing that Moldova had the temerity to sign a draft association treaty with the European Union in 2013 because Russia could -- and did -- quickly crush its economy by cutting off its main export: wine. Moldovan wineries were selling most of their wine in Russia; now they are scrambling for new markets.

Stuck between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. Its per capita income is half that of Albania. Agriculture is its main source of income and wine is its main product. Wine is so important that wine grapes appear on its currency and its citizens voted to rename its national airport "Wine of Moldova Airport."

In the Soviet era, Moldova was one of the USSR's main producers of wine, behind Georgia. It's simple geography, as Moldova is far enough south to ripen wine grapes. Its main growing regions are at the same latitude as Alto Adige in Italy, but it's not mountainous.

French varieties -- Chardonnay, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. -- have been planted there since the 1800s and they nearly pushed out the local varieties entirely. When a local businessman named Victor Bostan bought the Purcari winery and brand in 2002, he wanted to resurrect indigenous grapes, but there were none left in any of the country's commercial vineyards, says Purcari commercial director Artur Marin.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Cooking with wine: spare rib stew with miso and red wine

A bone in your stew can be a plus
One of my resolutions this year is to make a home-cooked meal at least one night per week. This might not sound like much, but it's a huge commitment considering that last year I probably cooked once per season. My wife has a day job at an office and I don't, plus I read and think about wine and food all day. So I should be able to handle this. (Ask me in May.)

Last week was cold for San Francisco so I wanted to make a hearty stew. This recipe came from the Japan Miso Promotion Board, but there's more red wine in it than miso. The combo intrigued me, plus it gives me a good forum to talk about using red wine in cooking.

The recipe calls for 3 cups of red wine. I measured them out and discovered that left about a glass of wine in the bottle. Presumably this means 3 cups for the stew and one for the chef.

The question is: which red wine? My apartment is awash in red wine: bottles that people send me as samples. I wouldn't feel guilty about opening any of them, even a $200 Cabernet, to cook with because people sent them to me to taste, not drink, and of course I would taste the wine before turning it into stew. But would a $200 Cabernet be the right choice?

No, it would not: not because of the price, but because a good Cabernet would be more tannic than I want for my stew.

Here's what I looked for in a red wine to make stew with:

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

New wine tax law is more tolerant of alcohol error, apparently

I have been jumping up and down wondering how the TTB is going to interpret alcohol label tolerance after the new tax law pushed the definition of table wine up to 16 percent.

Last week we got a little clarity. The alcohol label tolerances are not changing ... except they are.

Here's the background. For many years, wine was taxed at about 21 cents per 750 ml bottle if it contained less than 14% alcohol, and 31 cents a bottle if it contained more than 14%.

As part of the tax reform passed by Congress last month, that line of higher taxation moved up to 16%. All wines under 16% alcohol (except sparkling wine, sigh) will be taxed at the lower 21-cent rate. This is good. Winemakers shouldn't have to make decisions based on taxation rate.

However, the label tolerance -- the amount a winery can legally misstate the actual alcohol percentage -- was not addressed in the tax reform. And that was very important. Previously, wines under 14% ABV had a label tolerance of 1.5%, while wines over 14% had a tolerance of 1%. But, and this is key, the label had to be on the correct side of 14%, so that a wine labeled at 13.5% might have 12% alcohol or 14%, but not 14.1%.

Last Friday, the TTB sent out a mailer that answers some questions about the way the tax law will be enforced. One section specifically addresses label tolerance. It says:

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Bible's viticultural plan

Zory Arkin left some of his vineyards fallow for a year to follow the Torah -- and thinks he subsequently got better grapes
Many grape growers are going back to the systems of their grandfathers: forgoing chemical fertilizers and pesticides, using horses to plow, etc.

How about going back to the system of the Torah? You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy kosher hot dogs, so it stands to reason you don't have to be Jewish to follow "shmita."

The Torah mandates that in one of every seven years, agricultural land should be left fallow. Like a lot of Biblical rules, there was a sound scientific reason that people didn't understand at the time. Constantly growing crops depletes the soil, especially in warm regions like the Middle East where year-round crops are possible.

Even today, the Israeli government supports the concept of "shmita." In 2015, Israel had a program to pay people to not harvest crops. But it's not the law, and many wineries don't follow it.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Medals in wine competitions allow wineries to make more money

A gold medal means more gold for the winery that wins it
Americans in the wine trade like to say that nobody cares about wine competition medals. In fact, some people do care, according to a study by two researchers from the University of Paris.

Bordeaux wine producers can successfully raise their prices by 13 percent after winning a medal, according to the study published by the American Association of Wine Economists. Gold medals are worth the most -- about 19% more than a non-medaled wine, according to the study. (PDF link here.)

But the impact is not the same for all competitions. The authors, Emmanuel Paroissien and Michael Visser, write: