Hello! My Name Is Pinot Noir

If your New Year’s Resolution is to be a little bit less afraid of wine, this post is for you. You should also keep reading if you are stuck in a rut, afraid of leaving your cozy oenophilic comfort zone. Do you always find yourself asking for a glass of California Cab (or Zinfandel, or Pinot Grigio - insert your default choice here)? There is an amazing world out there waiting to be explored!

A big part of the fun is getting to know the grape personalities. Spicy, brooding, animalistic Syrah; juicy, fun Grenache; flowery, sensual Viognier… I am personally very fond of Pinot Noir, - the fickle, elegant grape with fantastic food affinity and beguiling aromatics, which comes to the pinnacle of its expression in Burgundy, France.

Old vinesJust like with learning a new language, there are some basics that you need to get out of the way first, such as the framework for explaining what you like or do not like about a certain wine. Even more importantly for foodies, you will need it to understand and describe the relationship between food and wine. Let’s take a look at a couple of those concepts.


Washington-20120116-00676I think of acidity as a flavor sparkplug. Ever thought about why you put lime and lemon juice on your food and even in your beer? It is the so-called “strategic” use of acidity: it makes food taste better, more focused. That is precisely why restauranteurs love crisp, clean, acidic wines. Acidity in wine helps to stimulate your appetite by setting your digestion into motion and it also helps to break down the fattiness in the food you eat (the same way we use the acidity in vinegar or citrus to marinate different foods). It creates a magic chain reaction of wanting a little more food, then a little more wine, then a little more food… you get the idea. It is useful to remember that higher acidity is typically found in wines that come from a cooler climate, as grapes do not get physiologically mature as quickly and do not get as ripe as in the warmer parts of the world.

New World vs. Old World

The term "New World" wine is used, quite literally, to describe wines from New World wine producing countries, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, etc. If we look at the statistics of what people are drinking in this country, we will see that sales of reds are dominated by bigger, fruit-forward wines that taste of sweet oak and ripe fruit. Whites include plush Chardonnays and other wines that tend to have a touch of sweetness to them. In general, the New World is dominated by international varietals (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.).

Old-World wine-making has a different philosophy: it is about subtle, earthy, mineral flavors that make one focus more on the place where the wine was made, and less on the grape. Terroir is a word that gets thrown around a lot (and also happens to be the name of my favorite wine bar in NYC :-)); it is used to describe the unmistakable sense of “placeness”, unique soil composition, climate, etc. of the wine’s birthplace.

There are definitely proponents of both styles out there as demonstrated by global wine sales. Neither one is necessarily more valid than the other; it is a matter of individual taste. I personally have a preference for European wines for several reasons. First, because I like my wines “lean and mean” (as opposed to the “friendly”, easy-to-quaff wines of the New World). Second, because I find a great deal more values in the $12-20 price range among European wines (which is what I typically spend on a bottle of wine, and I always look for more flavor bang for my buck). And last but not least, because oaky, alcoholic, and fruity New World wines are on average less food-friendly and versatile; it is hard for them to stand up to the more zingy, complex flavors I enjoy so much. On the other hand, I find that earthy, highly acidic Old-World wines set me up for a high pleasure payoff with a wider variety of foods.


Depending on your personality, feel free to dive in and enjoy the wild ride, or build a solid wine foundation step by step:

  • You should consider taking a class at the Capital Wine School.Too few people know that they have the expertise of Master of Wine Jay Youmans right here in DC (Master Sommelier and Master of Wine are the two highest and most recognized certifications in the world. The "Wine Basics" and the "Essential Wine Tasting Skills" classes are perfect if you are looking for "the big picture" perspective. Jay's classes are fun, informal, and unpretentious.
  • Most quality restaurants understand that the dining experience is incomplete without wine, and work hard to create food & wine pairing “magic moments”. Part of that process is putting together an exciting but reasonably priced wine list and training the staff to be able to pass the excitement on to the consumer. Cork, Grapeseed, and Dino are just a few of my local favorites that boast nice by-the-glass programs (and offer other formats such as flights, 3oz pours, wine madness) that make it easy for anyone to try something new without taking out a second mortgage.
  • For “do-it-yourselfers”, I recommend two of my favorite wine books written by women who are incredibly passionate about wine and equally passionate about sharing their wine knowledge. “Wine Bible” by Karen McNeal is a collection of compelling stories about grapes, winemakers, and terroirs. “Great Tastes Made Simple” by Andrea Immer contains practical advice on how to get started with food & wine tastings at home. Both were extremely inspirational for me, as I was getting started in the wine world, and I had the privilege of meeting both of them in person at Saveur Magazine events. (Actually, one of the biggest inspirations was Andrea Immer’s son Lucas who asked his Mom for smoked duck for his 8th birthday :-)).

My last piece of advice to you: whatever mode of exploration you end up choosing, remember not to take wine too seriously. Cheers!

WineP.S. Be sure to check out Magic Moments 101 for some food & wine tasting ideas!

Let's Meat on the Avenue: The New Butcher Shop That Has Del Ray Raving

Img_4205 By the time Cheesetique's new location was open for business, the sign for Let's Meat on the Avenue was up outside the old location, tantalizing those of us who loved the idea of a new honest-to-goodness butcher shop on Mount Vernon Avenue.

Stephen Gatward, the man behind the counter, may have kept foodies waiting for a month or so, but he opened Let's Meat on the Avenue to such a tremendous response that he actually sold out of everything he had to offer on his first day of business.  Though he previously worked in advertising in the area, Gatward has years of experience as a butcher in England and Australia, and his experience shows in the beautifully trimmed cuts of meat on display in the single refrigerated case that runs along the left side of the store.

Too_much_meat_046_2A word of warning - it's far too easy to be drawn in by the steaks, chops and sausages that fill the case (assuming you get there early enough in the day), and it's embarassing to leave smudgy noseprints on the glass.  They really are that good-looking, with the steaks ranging from thin and bright red to thick, deeply marbled, and bordering on purple in color.  Chops stand out more for their uniformity than any particularly unique appearance.  And the sausages, including both those made on-site by hand and those brought in from Amish vendors in Pennsylvania, have a rich meatiness to them that you just don't find in commercial preparations.

If you like your meat local and minimally processed, Let's Meat on the Avenue has your number.  They bring in cuts of beef and lamb from Fauquier's Finest, a country butcher shop and meat processing facility in Bealston, Virginia, and Gatward is proud to sell Bell and Evans chickens (a brand noted for its commitment to raising their birds naturally).

Stevegatward In addition to the meats on offer, Let's Meat on the Avenue sells a wide range of spices, rubs, marinades and other items that can enhance your carnivorous cuisine.  They also sell t-shirts bearing the logo of the shop (banking on the friendly image and foodies' eager embrace) and a table full of smoked bones still rich with marrow that are guaranteed to earn you the undying loyalty of just about any dog.  Gift certificates are also available (they charge tax on the purchase, ostensibly so that the recipient can spend it tax-free).

Although the prices are nothing like what you'll find at Safeway (no $0.89/lb specials here), you can't help but feel like you're getting quality for the money.  The meat is tender and tasty, with a flavor that is clear and strong.  Whether or not you agree with food writers like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver who talk about the "true costs" of food in terms of economic, environmental, social and health impacts, it's not hard to justify the added expense for Let's Meat on the Avenue's products.

If you find yourself in Del Ray (scratching an itch for frozen custard at the Dairy Godmother or hot chocolate at Artfully Chocolate Kingsbury Confections), do yourself a favor and stop in to see what Steve has available at Let's Meat on the Avenue.  And if there's something specific you're looking for, do yourself a favor and ask.  If they don't have it in stock, they can usually special-order.  But be prepared to find slim pickings if you stop by too late on a Saturday - the Farmers' Market crowd tends to do their shopping early, and they have embraced Let's Meat on the Avenue in a big way.

Let's Meat on the Avenue
2403 Mt Vernon Ave
Alexandria, VA 22336
(703) 836-6328
Closed Mondays
Tuesdays 11-6
Wednesdays through Fridays 11-7
Saturdays 8-5
Sundays 11-3

Atwater's Bakery

Small_atwater_bakery_line Standing in line isn’t one of my favorite activities, but when it’s for Atwater’s Bakery, I’m happy to do it. In fact, the waiting gives me a chance to crane my neck to peak between patrons, beyond the glass, to see what breads they are carrying that day. It’s hard to choose at times. From brownies, and granola to Raisin Walnut and Sunflower Flax Seed bread, they all look hearty and delicious.

Atwater’s Bakery is based in Baltimore MD, where they make their breads to sell at the Belvedere Square Market and a second location at Kenilworth Market in Towson, MD. Fortunately for DC area bread enthusiasts, Atwater’s Bakery sells their breads at the Falls Church Farmers Market, Arlington Farmers Market and the Dupont Farmers Market, all open year round. According to the Fresh Farm Markets website, Atwater's also sells at the H Street Market and Silver Spring Market, in season.

Atwater’s breads are made daily by hand using fresh, and mostly local ingredients. They are committed to farmers and use their products to make Atwater bread. Among the producers which Atwater’s uses are Springfield Farm in Sparks, MD, for fresh eggs, Black Rock Orchard in Carroll County, MD for tree fruit, Trickling Spring Creamery in Chambersburg, PA for milk and butter, and Lindley Mills in Graham, NC for certified organic flours. I truly think the quality shows and the proof is in the chewy bread.

Among my favorite breads of Atwater’s are the Sourdough which uses a slowly fermented whole wheatSmall_atwater_bread  sourdough starter. The Peasant Wheat is distinguished with it’s beautiful scrolled “A”- very apropos of Poilaine on the Potomac. Peasant Wheat is perfect for dipping in soups or sopping up braising juices. Rosemary Italian is not laden with rosemary leaves, rather, it is scented with rosemary and very simple. It really sings when topped with a soft cheese such as Brie, Epoise or Rossa di Langa. Cherry Chocolate bread makes for a great breakfast when used to make French toast, or a bread pudding for a dessert. I happen to like it toasted with a bit of jam and butter when I bring it home.

Small_atwaters_aztec_brownieAll of these breads are very fresh and best eaten within a day , or used as “next day bread” for croutons and bread crumbs as they are not made like Wonder bread and can not sit in the refrigerator or bread box for any extended period of time. However, all of the above breads which I mentioned freeze very well once sliced and placed in a sealed plastic baggie. When thawed, they make for great toast, crostini or bruschetta among other things.

Last, I have to mention Atwater’s Sweet Heat Aztec Brownie-a great combination of unsweetened chocolate, ancho chili powder and cinnamon. If you’re a fan of sweet and heat, grab one of these if you happen to see you’re waiting in line.

Atwater's Bakery
529 E. Belvedere Ave
Baltimore, MD 21212
(410) 323-2396

The Kielbasa Factory

With the hope of finding a market to rival those of my hometown Philadelphia,  I recently visited The Kielbasa Factory in search of Polish comfort food. Opened in November 2007 by Krakow native Krystina Ahrens, the Kielbasa Factory brings traditional Eastern European fare to the Washington D.C. area.

Located on the second story of a small strip mall on Rockville Pike, The Kielbasa Factory still has a large Grand Opening sign hanging at its' small storefront. Once inside, I realized that at the other end of the long narrow store, there is a back entrance with parking.

The Kielbasa Factory offers a wide range of products with nearly every label and sign in Polish. Polish was spoken by all of the employees and most of the customers when I visited. Despite my difficulty in pronouncing the different types of food, the staff was very helpful and understanding. Just knowing the basics will get you what you want here.

The basics are Polish sausage called kielbasa, meat and rice stuffed cabbage called golabki (pronounced ga-WOOM-key), dark breads,jarred herring, pastries, and sweet and savory stuffed dough called pierogies.

Kielbasa is a traditional Polish sausage which is usually smoked. There are about a dozen types of kielbasa at The Kielbasa Factory, all imported at this time. Kabanosa, or skinny kielbasa, is the Polish Slim Jim. Generally more smoky and intense in flavor, it makes for a terrific snack just eaten in hand. Fresh kielbasa is also available-it's paler in comparison to the smoked kielbasa and needs to be cooked before serving. Fresh kielbasa is generally served cool, along with with horseradish as hot as you like it.

Kishka, Polish blood sausage, also looked fresh. Next to the kishka was a pan of golabki without (tomato) sauce. I also noted several types of hot dog-like sausage links and cold cuts.

A large freezer stocks several types of pierogies which come in two sizes; small and really small. There are  meat, potato and cheese, cheese, sauerkraut and sauerkraut and mushroom pierogies from a company in New York City. Also from NYC are breads which tend to be darker varieties, like rye and pumpernickel.


Finally, The Kielbasa Factory has no shortage of sweets. Traditional poppy seed rolls were tempting. Cruschiki, confectioner sugar-coated fried Polish angel wing cookies, were available in traditional white windowed boxes.  At the check out counter, there were boxes of Polish filled donuts called paczki (pronounced POONCH-key) also imported from NYC, and a very rare sight. I suspect Ahrens will be selling paczki by the dozens in the next week or so, as they are traditionally eaten before the beginning of Lent, on Paczki Day-better known as Fat Tuesday or Fastnacht Day.

On my visit, I purchased fresh kielbasa and a smoked kielbasa called wiejska (pronouced vee-YAY-ska) which had a good smoke punctuated by garlic. The fresh kielbasa was prepared by simmering it for about 30  minutes and letting it cool overnight in the refrigerator. Fresh kielbasa should be assertive with garlic and unfortunately; this was not. Paczki were filled with raspberry jam and confectioners sugar which dotted my sweater with each bite, however, the dough was dry. Getting paczki at their best is like swerving your car into the Krispy Kreme store when the "hot donuts" sign turns on. You just have to get them fresh. Last, the potato cheese pierogie were fried up in butter and onions, served with a dollop of sour cream and satisfied in a way that Mrs.T's satisfies. Not bad, just not out of my Babci's' hands.

Overall, The Kielbasa Factory has a nice selection of Polish meats and sausage, breads, sweets and imported dry goods. The pierogi selection is numerous and I'm looking forward to trying different varieties, such as the meat pierogies in my freezer. The staff is friendly and helpful and hopefully one day,they will be making kiebasa themselves!

The Kielbasa Factory

1073 Rockville Pike
Rockville, MD 20852

Mon-Fri: 11am-7pm
Sat: 11am-6pm
Sun: 11:30am-3:30pm