Photo by Jeff Minton A while back I did an Abe Series. If you're curious where the rest of that research went, read it here in my WALL STREET JOURNAL ARTICLE ON ABE SCHOENER'S WILD WINE VISION
Alice Feiring, Special to The Chronicle Friday, May 16, 2008
I've long-suffered from the inevitable Wonderland reference. However, when it comes to the critical acclaim for New World-style winemaking, I really do wonder if I've stepped through the looking glass. I shun popular fruit-driven wines just as I do cardboard tomatoes. Others rush to them the way mice rush to sugar. Are we really tasting the same wines? Is my palate so peculiar? Or have others had their taste buds brainwashed? It occurs to me that larger forces might be at play, pushing these bold flavors, especially when a respected winemaker gets publicly paddled for making wine in a restrained style. And especially when it's a vintner whose wines were previously lauded, like Steve Edmunds of Berkeley's Edmunds St. John winery.
I first experienced Edmunds' wine in the form of his Port O'Call New World Red. This was back at a 1989 wedding in the Berkeley hills, and it was everything I used to like about what California could produce. The grapes in the wine were identifiable as a Rhone-style blend with the taste of those lovely soft, barely cooked mi-cuit prunes from Provence, and didn't skimp on tannic structure, but it also had that California brightness. Uber critic Robert M. Parker Jr. liked it as well. In his early criticism, he heaped on praise, calling Edmunds St. John perhaps the "finest practitioner" of Californians working with Rhone grapes. He remained an Edmunds supporter for nearly two decades, even stating in a 1994 write-up, "I love this guy's wines." But something started to turn. Parker's current notes might say more about where the critic is now, than Edmunds.
A couple of years back I traveled from New York to Paso Robles, on assignment researching the region's wines and attending Hospice du Rhone, an annual celebration of Rhone grapes. I'm a redhead who melts in the heat, and the sauna-like conditions on the day of the gala tasting - reminiscent of the real Rhone Valley - made me weak. I gulped some ice water and revived the old curmudgeon within as I grumbled, "OK, there must be something I can tolerate in this room." A few wineries impressed me - Pipestone, Adelaida and Tablas Creek. But California generally is out of my usual taste preference. Still, I was there to experience the scenery, so I sidestepped the exhibiting French vignerons and made rounds of the locals. Right next to where the hefty wines of Turley Wine Cellars were being poured was their polar opposite: Edmunds St. John. With graying blond hair and vintage pre-'90s spectacles, Steve Edmunds, a boyish 58, had a get-me-out-of-here-and-put-a-guitar-in-my-hand kind of demeanor. I took a sip of his Los Robles Red Viejos Rozet Vineyards Paso Robles from the 2000 vintage. I liked it and was so relieved to find Edmunds' mark of restraint still stamped on the wine. The 2001 Basseti Vineyard Syrah was next, all sunny and tasting of olive, with well-knit tannin. Good and healthy tannin. "There's hope," I thought. But not everyone shares my love of tannin, like the guy tasting next to me. He asked Edmunds: "Is this ever going to open up?"
Like Edmunds' way of dressing, or his eyeglasses, little has changed in his winemaking. He still doesn't have his own winery. He buys his fruit from trusted sources. He approaches the wines as he has for more than 20 years. The dirt the grapes grew in did not change; neither did Edmunds' approach to the grapes. He still interprets the parcels he uses, with vintage and maturity being the only variables. He picks earlier than most and has never bowed to the gods of new oak. His aim is to work with the power of California fruit and not, as is popular today, augment it. The wine was plenty open for me. I directed Mr. Closed Wine to Turley.
Parker on the attack
Though Edmunds enjoyed Parker's praise, his scores never made it to the cult status of 95 points or higher. Since his first vintage in 1987, Edmunds' restrained style has made him an unsung hero for those who believe California should lower the sugar and lift the personality in its wines. But in Parker's eyes, Edmunds seemingly started to falter in 2004 and cracked in the 2005 vintage, when Parker slammed him with damning scores ranging from 84 to 87. Where in years past, even middling scores for Edmunds were accompanied by glowing prose, this time the words stung. In the August 2007 Wine Advocate Parker wrote, "What Steve is doing appears to be a deliberate attempt to make French-styled wines. Of course California is not France and therein may suggest the problem. If you want to make French wine, do it in France."
"Wow," I thought, "wine critic on the attack."
Criticizing a wine for trying to be French?
As Edmunds has said, he does not want to augment the power that is natural to California. Was he punished for elegance or has America and its most favored critic forgotten the beauty of restraint? The personal attack seemed out of line, more like a spurned lover. There were also some choice words that would quickly lay me flat on a shrink's couch if they were used about a piece of my writing: "innocuous effort," "one-dimensional," "superfluous." Was Parker was playing the Wonderland Duchess, screaming, "Off with his head"? Parker's style has been quick to laud and hesitant to criticize. This show of displeasure was highly out of character. The words indicated offense, but what could be offensive? Did Edmunds disappoint by not succumbing to a preference for jam and oak? Was this to be a cautionary tale to those who take a stand against non-Parkerized wines?
I wanted to inquire what Edmunds' thought of it all. Before we met up for dinner this March, I retasted some 2005s. I found the 2005 Parmelee Hills compelling, with touches of mint, the deep smoked blueberry of Syrah and a definite touch of granite in the rain. The wine had opened more than the last time I had it and was far from superfluous or innocuous. In fact, over the next few days it opened up and showed even more complexity. The Red Neck 101 Eaglepoint Ranch, which Parker said had a "superficial personality," sang with cocoa, forest and plum. Both of these wines were quite closed when I last tasted them five months previous. Edmunds' wines need some time. Sometimes a few months. Parker is an experienced taster, shouldn't he have known this? (I would have contacted Parker, but I suspected he wouldn't take the call.) I kicked off the Edmunds evening with a brilliant skid on the slick floor of New York's Gramercy Tavern restaurant that landed me right on my butt. As I nursed my wounds over a bottle of Beaujolais, Edmunds told me he, too, was mystified by the Parker debacle. It occurred to him that somehow he offended the critic.
Perhaps it was a discussion of Syrah on Parker's Web site.
"I said that I hoped that Syrah didn't get turned into an SUV, and Parker popped in on the thread and called me a wimp."
Vintner sticks to his guns
But there is evidence of discontent in the wings. Despite Edmunds' spanking, I'm hopeful that others might have the spunk to lower the dial on the fruit and expose the complexity California wine can have. "Plenty of people offered me encouragement," Edmunds said, "for being willing to take such a beating for not making the style of wine that Parker seems to demand." What helped ease the pain was that far from worrying about hurting his sales, Edmunds' East Coast sales rep sent out a mailing that said: "Edmunds St. John scores mediocre points in the Wine Advocate!" And the wine sold like hotcakes. Maybe I'm not in Wonderland after all.
Alice Feiring is a wine journalist, blogger and author of the newly released book "The Battle for Wine and Love - Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization." E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared on page F - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Confident he was going to show me something spectacular, Aubrey Lindley grinned. Then, he carefully unwrapped a sample of very bittersweet chocolate and offered me the small pieces almost reverentially, as if they were sapphires.
By ALICE FEIRING
Published: June 17, 2007
New York Times Travel Section
Confident he was going to show me something spectacular, Aubrey Lindley grinned. Then, he carefully unwrapped a sample of very bittersweet chocolate and offered me the small pieces almost reverentially, as if they were sapphires.
The chocolate was made by a local artisan, Steven Lawrence. It was a little rustic a bit rougher in texture and more complex in flavor than traditional chocolate and sublime.
With about a dozen artisanal chocolate shops, you'd think Portland, Ore., needs a new one as much as it needs more rain. But Jesse Manis's and Mr. Lindley's shop, Cacao, where chocolate prt--porter meets chocolate haute couture just outside the Pearl District, is getting rave reviews. Recently, Hedi Slimane, a French fashion designer, stopped in. He praised the drinking chocolate. The next day he returned for more. Lovers of French chocolates, Jesse and Aubrey considered this high praise.
Mr. Manis spent 10 years immersed in chocolate working for Fran's, a Seattle chocolatier. The chocolate bug rubbed off on Mr. Lindley, and the two opened their shop last September. The walls of the spacious store (kept at 66 degrees to preserve the goods), are painted in soothing colors '50s-ish sea foam and milk chocolate. Cafe tables are scattered in front. There cocoa fiends, like Mr. Slimane, can sample one of the three kinds of drinking chocolate ($2 a shot). The chocolate with chili had a particularly fine kick.
One mission of the store is to bring respect to the chocolate bar. It offers a selection from up to 35 producers of the world's best. Eyes are drawn, for instance, to the Easter-egg-colored pyramidal packages of Pralus bars from France ($48 for a collection of 10).
Confections like truffles, caramels and pralines are displayed like pinned butterflies in a glass case. Try the chocolate-covered ginger discs from Fran's, or the fig and fennel truffles, from Theo's, also in Seattle, both from $2 a piece.
Cacao, 414 SW 13th Avenue, Portland, Ore., (503) 241-0656; www.cacaodrinkchocolate.com.
I CLIMBED the steps to my apartment that night, buzzed on old Italian wine and the kind of emotional spark I hadn't felt with a man in way too long. Musing over whether I had the nerve to jump back into the romantic world again, I stepped into the bathroom to discover, courtesy of my bare feet, that my hand-knotted Persian rug was soaked.
My toilet -- an antique pull-chain contraption with a water box perched five feet above -- had separated from the wall earlier in the evening, causing the pipes to leak with each flush. This was not the kind of situation I could deal with at 2:30 in the morning, so I sopped up the mess and resolved not to flush until the problem could be fixed.
Around 11 a.m., Mr. Plumber -- a good-looking man of Puerto Rican descent (as I would later discover), and probably a decade my junior -- trudged up the steps.
''My savior!'' I cried.
He was not impressed with his hero's reception.
He offered no eye contact.
He asked to see the bathroom.
I led him to it, where he examined the fragile copper pipes that, Vesuvius-like, spouted water all about when the toilet flushed. ''Oh, man!'' he exclaimed, slapping his palm against the wall. Clearly, working on a museum piece of a toilet was not his idea of a good time. ''Miss, this is an old toilet.''
''Yes, I know,'' I said. I didn't want to hear that he was going to get me a new one from Home Depot.
Looking up, he asked: ''Who built that water tank for you? It's beautiful.''
I gazed at the perfectly dovetailed Siberian-pine water box. ''My old boyfriend.''
I saw him register the ''old'' on boyfriend. ''Why did you let him go?'' he asked. ''Someone makes you something like that, you keep him.''
This was a guy used to having his heart broken instead of the other way around, I noted. I live in a railroad apartment, a string of open rooms, so my whole life is exposed to anyone who enters. About to head out to buy supplies, he saw my wall of wine and flinched. ''Miss, you drink a lot or what?''
''I'm a wine writer,'' I replied.
His eyes bulged, and he let out a snort of laughter. ''I know people drink wine,'' he said, ''but what's there to write about?''
''Their stories,'' I said.
He shook his head dismissively, but I could tell he was intrigued. He found it even funnier when I told him that my 170 bottles weren't nearly enough. I would feel comfortable with about 1,500.
He then scanned the disorder that marks my living room and study. ''You some sort of artist girl?'' he asked. ''I mean, you know, an artist does her own thing, and I'm looking around here and, you know, the lamps, the colors, that crazy desk you work at. You do your own thing.'' He walked over to a few watercolors on the wall, ''You do these?''
''See? I was right.'' He was so pleased with himself.
Over the next three hours, the inquisitive plumber soldered, anchored, cursed, talked to himself, patched, made a complete mess, ruined my best towels and traipsed plaster over my floorboards and rugs. Taking breaks from the toilet drama, he ventured out to check up on me to see if I was still pounding the computer keyboard, look over the wines again and find other evidence of the work the ''old'' boyfriend had done.
''Did he make your desk?''
Another rueful shake of his head. I knew exactly what he was thinking.
''Look at that,'' he said, noting the curvy shape of one of the desk flanks. ''You have to take him back.'' He toured the rooms, pointing. ''He do this?'' he asked, gesturing at the ornate iron welding on one window.
''He rebuild your floors? Did he build those shelves the wines are on?''
''And you let him go? Why did you let him go?''
What to tell him? Finally I said, ''I really didn't have a choice in the matter.''
He reacted as if he'd been told of a death. ''I am very sorry,'' he said.
He and I both saw the love, the attention and the thought that had gone into every piece of construction in my apartment. ''I'm sorry, too,'' I said.
''Sorry, miss. Sorry I asked.''
He went back to his work, taking a break from time to time to talk. This romance thing was bugging him. ''I don't have luck with girls,'' he complained. ''There was one, she was old, about 48, down in Puerto Rico.''
Gee, I thought, how old does he think I am?
''She made money,'' he said. ''She was a teacher. We were talking about 9/11. 'I was down there,' I told her. 'I could have been killed.' Do you know what she said? She said: 'It was a good thing the towers went down. America learned a lesson.' I couldn't look at her after she said that. I can't deal with crazy stuff like that.''
''My old girlfriend?'' he continued. ''A few months ago, she rang the doorbell and said: 'I haven't seen you in a long time. I want you.' We have sex. After, she walks around my apartment as if she owns the place and tells me what I can and can't do and the way it's going to be. Women just like to control you. That was it. I threw her out. Good riddance.'' Then he gave me advice: ''Don't control your man.''
Thanks, I thought, I'll remember that.
He replaced the sputtering, leaking copper pipe with gleaming new metal. The dusky smell of solder filled the apartment. He cemented the porcelain bowl back into place, saying, ''This was never put in right.''
''Yes, I know. Sewer gas always leaked out of it.''
''It sure did,'' he said. ''It stank in there.''
It's odd how few people ever noticed those fumes. It was the old boyfriend who first identified the occasional smell from the faulty installation -- one of the few things he didn't fix before he left.
''The toilet is in!'' my plumber said. ''It won't smell anymore or move when you sit on it. Go ahead. Push it. You can't budge it.''
When I first met the ex, he challenged me in a manner of flirting more appropriate of a 16-year-old than a man of 32. ''Punch my stomach,'' he said to me. ''It's like iron. Go ahead. Hard. It won't budge. You can't hurt me. Go ahead.''
He and I luxuriated in love for 11 years, yet the ending was quick. Returning home from visiting vineyards in Sicily, I spent hours on the plane crying. I was prepared to tell my own Mr. Fix-It that there was something terribly wrong between us and I wanted us right again. Our relationship needed the attention he gave to the apartment. As it turned out, he felt the same wrongness but had another solution.
He carried my bags up the five flights and then, once inside, led me to the plain pine bench he had made for me. There, as if I were already sitting shiva, he told me he had to leave.
Leave? But I just got home. What do you mean, leave?
Over the years during which he had turned my chicken coop into a palace, I had told him: ''You're like a cat marking property. If you leave, how can another man ever be in this apartment?''
Mr. Plumber sensed this. I wondered if by repairing my bathroom so thoroughly he was trying to show that my old love wasn't the only one who could fix what was broken. Maybe there was someone else who could fix things with me instead of for me. It was a lesson worth listening to. I thought I owed him for that and for fixing my leak. ''What kind of wine do you like?'' I asked, getting a big fat idea.
''I don't know, but I like them cold. Which ones do you drink cold?''
''White or pink.'' I was about to tell him that some light reds as well can take the chill, but it seemed superfluous.
He had so little sense of wine; would he really appreciate the quirkier wines I had to offer? At the same time, I would feel guilty if I were to hand off a few of the boring samples that wineries often send to me.
I had this crazy notion that if I offered him the right wines I could change his luck with women. Obviously, I had to give him some good stuff.
AFTER three hours of getting to know this man, of seeing how observant he was, of listening to his commentary on race, women, politics and what it meant to be Puerto Rican, of hearing about how he didn't really speak Spanish but spoke just enough to pick up girls, I knew enough to make my choices.
I started with a California chardonnay and told him to drink it with someone who liked the obvious, explaining that such a woman ultimately was not for him.
Next I chose a Spanish albari?''Open this one with someone who has potential for the long term,'' I said. ''If she likes it, it means she's a thinker who won't try to control you. You should consider her for a next date and maybe more.''
Finally I handed him a half-bottle of moscato d'Asti. ''This one is for when you want her to fall in love with you, O.K.?''
He was my new best friend. ''This one?'' he asked. ''The sweet one?''
''Yes! It's sweet without being too sweet.'' I was starting to believe my own spin.
''Miss, I can't believe you're doing this,'' he said, beaming. ''Man, these are lucky charms.''
As he left, I finally asked for his name.
''Juan,'' he said, pumping my hand.
''Alice,'' I said.
''And the sweet one, that's the one? Even the shape of the bottle is sexy.''
''Yes, that's the one.''
''What did your old boyfriend drink, the one who did all of the work?''
I told him that would have to wait for the next plumbing emergency, because it was a long story. But after he left, I went to my computer and e-mailed the man from the night before with whom I drank the piney and somewhat faded 1977 Monsanto Chianti.
No longer should my apartment have to serve as a museum piece of my old, broken love. It was time to let in someone new.
By ALICE FEIRING
Published: April 14, 2006
THE first time I hunted for ramps with dinner in mind, upstate New York was barely emerging from an Arctic-like winter. It was late April 1996, and the ground was still sprinkled with snow. It seemed as if Delaware County, where I inhabited a friend's house, would never see spring.
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Ramps that have been cleaned and are ready for sauteing.
The elongated leaves of the ramp, or wild leek, found in early spring on the forest floor.
I walked into the forest with little hope. But suddenly I saw a green carpet a multitude of ramps (or wild leeks, as they are also known), looking perkily optimistic with their wild, floppy leaves. I tore off a fat bouquet. I ran from the forest, waved them overhead and yelled: "Ramps! Ramps!"
Armed with a shovel, I returned to the forest and got to work. Gently, I lifted them by their complex roots, which knit and curl like a web of intestines. Back in the house, I set to cleaning their mud-encased membranes in cold water. They must be stripped of that protective sac it's like husking an ear of corn down to the milky white, purple-edged bulb. Every bit that is left of the ramp, from bulb to leaf, is edible.
This cleaning is almost as messy as gutting a fish, but it is sensual and oddly satisfying. (If you buy them in the Greenmarket, the cleaning has been done for you.) I arranged them in bouquets around the house until I was ready to cook them.
Ramps Allium tricoccum are prized for their white bulbs and their tender greens. They burst through the earth in early spring with majestic greenness. They can be foraged for about five weeks in April and May.
Years earlier, after watching Greek peasant women comb the hills of Crete picking wild greens, I returned to the States and, emboldened by their example, began looking down at the ground in search of supper. My efforts were fruitful. The hills surrounding my friend's house, in Walton, N.Y., had offered endless free food from June through November in addition to fruit, from strawberries to tiny plums, there was purslane, watercress and wild mint.
But until the year before that successful ramp hunt, I had never considered ramps. The day they first entered my consciousness I was on a spring walk in that munificent forest. That year, the spring was especially warm. Blue and yellow trout lilies bloomed. I entered a part of the woods resplendent with greens I'd never seen before shooting out from the bed of matted dead leaves. What on earth were they?
This was before ramps were fashionable. I knew that they were celebrated in West Virginia, and other parts of the Appalachian region, and that they were perhaps similar to the rampion picked by Rapunzel, but I was far from the mountains of West Virginia, and I was no Rapunzel.
The something I'd found looked suspiciously like the poisonous lily of the valley, whose leaves are aroma-free. I put a leaf close to my nose and breathed in an earthy, oniony smell, one topped off by a high note of white truffle. The oils clinging to my nose and fingers were muskily compelling.
MY hypervigilant boyfriend barred ramps from the dinner table until we could establish their safety. So I opened Steve Brill's trusty book "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places," and learned that nothing smelling like onion or garlic is poisonous. The next spring, I was ready for them.
Ramps, which are rich in vitamin C, were for many years the first potently nutritious edibles to rise up after the winter dearth. The Indians made tonics; Southerners cured scurvy with them, built festivals around them and foraged them so thoroughly they nearly disappeared. Meanwhile, in the Catskills, where they also grew in abundance, the locals forgot about them.
Rick Bishop of Mountain Sweet Berry Farms in Roscoe, N.Y., had passed them by for decades (as I had, and as had his neighbors), until a Southern-born employee grabbed him by the elbow and whispered, "Come here, I'll show you something that saved my life."
Mr. Bishop took the ramps to the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan in 1986, but it wasn't until the late 90's that ramps really took off, and even then it was with city folk rather than country folk. As chefs fell in love with them, a new star was born.
Ramps are transformative, even magical. Once, as I was carting pounds of them back to the city, their intense garlic smell turned floral, almost like the scent of lilacs.
In many ways, ramps present an exquisite balance between pain and pleasure. They are delicious and addictive but beware, they are also highly cathartic. I love to prepare them simply: sauted with extra-virgin olive oil and a teeny crush of sea salt. A potato gratin with the sauted ramps and a hefty shredding of aged strong Cheddar is another happy marriage of flavor.
My favorite wine pairing is one that would perplex a white-wine-with-ramp sommelier a beautiful northern Rhone red made from syrah grapes, like a St. Joseph.
My friend has reclaimed her house, but she has given me visitation rights at ramp time. So, with the early ramp season upon us, I and two friends, who have taken to the ritual like nymphs to woods, will soon sit on the damp earth. We'll go ramping until blisters swell on our palms. We'll clean and cook them. We'll eat and eat. And once again, we'll drink St. Joe.
Alice's Ramp and Potato Gratin
½ pound ramps
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces Gruyre or extra-sharp Cheddar, grated
Ό cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 pounds red-skinned potatoes (or potato of choice) of similar size
2 cups half-and-half
3 sprigs of thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Optional: red pepper flakes.
(Note: You can never use too many ramps or too much cheese in this dish. Adjust up or down depending on taste.)
1. Saut ramps in olive oil until wilted, with a dash of pepper flakes if you like a kick. Combine the cheeses and reserve a cup for the topping.
2. Wash the potatoes, peel if you like (I don't) and slice them into very thin rounds, using a mandoline or a sharp knife.
3. Oil a 9-by-12-inch heavy, shallow baking dish, preferably earthenware or cast enamel.
4. In a small saucepan, bring the half-and-half to a simmer with thyme and add, generously, salt and pepper. Remove the thyme and set the mixture aside.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
6. Arrange about one-fourth of the potatoes in a layer on the bottom of the dish. Season as you go. Evenly layer in about one-third of the ramps, sprinkling cheese and a few spoons of half-and-half; repeat twice, finishing with a layer of potatoes. Pour the rest of the half-and-half over the potato mixture, allowing the liquid to hit just below the top layer of potatoes. Top off with the remaining cheese. Cover with foil and bake until the potatoes feel tender, about one hour.
7. Raise the oven temperature to 425 degrees, remove the foil and bake until the top begins to brown, about 10 minutes.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Business; For Better or Worse, Winemakers Go High Tech
By ALICE FEIRING (NYT) 1835 words
Published: August 26, 2001
WINEMAKERS like to say wine is grown in the vineyard. But more and more of the wine produced in the United States is grown in the lab.
In the last five years, new treatments and additives ranging from smoky oak chips to tropical-flavored fermenting yeasts have spread through the 500-million-gallon-a-year American wine industry, whose epicenter is California. They have enabled winemakers to adjust the taste and texture of their products in response to consumer demand, obscuring the line between what is natural and what is not.
While these changes have helped minimize the wine industry's risks of a bad vintage and contributed to a 25 percent increase in annual domestic wine production over the last decade, they have also inflamed an emotional debate about whether winemakers are erasing the mystique of regional differences in wine.
''Anytime I taste a wine that has nothing distinctive about the place or the climate, I call that deception,'' said Roger B. Boulton, professor emeritus of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis, who opposes what he calls a creeping homogeneity in wine. ''When everything becomes the same because of winemaking practices, that's a pretty sad day.''
Nearly 90 percent of wine produced in the United States originates in California, and the state's wineries have good reasons to produce wines that they know will sell. The volume of imports has nearly doubled over the last decade and now accounts for more than 20 percent of all wine sold in the country, according to Impact, a trade publication of M. Shanken Communications. Many of those imports, particularly Australian wines, are also produced with the new techniques.
The Wine Institute, a trade group in San Francisco, estimated that the retail value of all wine sold in the United States was $19 billion last year, up 5 percent from 1999.
A trend toward homogeneity in wine may be driven in part by a perception that influential wine critics like Robert M. CENSORED Jr. and magazines like Wine Spectator prefer particular flavors and aromas. Winemakers seeking good reviews may be exploiting new technologies not only for damage control, but also to shape their wines from birth.
There is nothing illegal about human intervention in the natural fermentation of wine. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which regulates the industry, does impose some limits. It is not permissible, for example, to use food coloring to perfect a wine's color. And artificial flavoring cannot be added to replicate a particular taste, like that of blackberries.
What is allowed, however, is the use of oak, either raw or charred to varying degrees, which can impart flavors reminiscent of coconut, vanilla and coffee, for example. But while winemakers still use oak barrels, oak chips are increasingly used to save money on lesser wines -- the chips are sprinkled into stainless steel vats to flavor a wine and give it an ''oak flavor profile.''
Adjustments are also permitted in the level of carbon dioxide in fermenting wine, which affects a wine's acidity and fruitiness. Adding unfermented grape juice sweetens the wine. Enzymes lock in color. Yeasts control the level of fermentation. Tannins, naturally occurring chemical compounds in grape skins and wood, are used in powdered form to further enhance a wine's taste and feel in the mouth.
Advances in yeast cultivation have now made it an ingredient for taste as well. Chardonnay producers looking for a toasty, buttery taste use a special yeast that enhances those qualities. Another example is a yeast that gives a banana flavor and aroma, originally introduced 10 years ago in Beaujolais.
Marty Bannister, the founder of Vinquiry, a wine analysis and consulting firm in Sonoma, Calif., said yeast was ''the essential fermentation tool.'' But now, she added, ''people also look toward it for flavor.''
Diana Burnett, fermentation products manager at Scott Laboratories in Petaluma, Calif., a leading distributor of wine yeasts, said that in the past, winemakers relied on nature, soil and skill to make the best wine they could. Now, she said, they decide in advance what flavor they want, then choose the materials and tools they need.
CALIFORNIA's wine industry has embraced the technology of wine enhancement partly because ripened California grapes often have a higher sugar content than grapes grown elsewhere. Until recent years, the sugar was a chronic source of production problems for many winemakers -- it contributes to high levels of alcohol in fermentation, which can kill the yeast prematurely and produce acetic acid, turning wine to vinegar. Wines with more than 14 percent alcohol, the normal amount, can taste hot and harsh.
High alcohol levels also raise the price to the consumer. A federal excise tax of $1.07 a gallon is levied on wine sold in the United States that is no more than 14 percent alcohol. The tax is $1.57 a gallon when the alcohol content exceeds 14 percent.
But now a technique called reverse osmosis, in which high pressure is used to separate the alcohol and acid from the wine, has helped many winemakers salvage crops that nature might have ruined. Use of the technique, originally intended to make nonalcoholic wine, has spread in recent years.
''The only thing to do with a batch of wine with acetic acid is to use reverse osmosis,'' said Lisa Van de Water, the founder and owner of Wine Lab, a consulting company in Napa, Calif., that specializes in emergency rescues of wines. ''It's a godsend.''
Many winemakers will not acknowledge using reverse osmosis, fearing that they will be perceived as having tampered with the wine. But even the best of them acknowledge that the technique is an important advance that has helped avoid calamities.
Steve Doerner, the winemaker at the Cristom Winery in Salem, Ore., known in the industry for his dedication to natural wine making, said he once had to resort to reverse osmosis. But he said such technologies should be used for disaster control, not for fine-tuning taste and texture.
''Whenever you take something out of the wine, you're changing it,'' he said. ''And not necessarily for the best.''
Vinovation, a Sebastopol, Calif., consulting and production services company that introduced reverse osmosis, disagrees, saying the technique's application is much wider than just emergency use. Clark Smith, the president of the company, said it could produce ''a better wine than you would have in the first place.''
In 1997, Vinovation introduced micro-oxygenation, in which bubbles of oxygen are released into oak barrels used to store wine. This eliminates the need for a labor-intensive practice called racking, in which the wine is pumped out of one barrel into another to separate it from residue and yeasts.
Vinovation sold about 100 micro-oxygenation systems last year at $2,000 each and said it expects to double sales this year. Michael Havens, owner and winemaker of Havens Wine Cellars in the Napa Valley, who produces one of California's most sought-after merlots, said he started using micro-oxygenation in 1996 after hurting his back during racking.
Mr. Havens defended the use of micro-oxygenation as just another part of modern winemaking. He said it helped to minimize the weather uncertainties that can make the difference between a good year and a bad year. ''It is better to make conscious rather than random choices,'' he said.
Others, however, say the interventions have compromised the ethics of the industry, creating tastes and textures in wines that otherwise would not have them.
''People now think toasty oak is synonymous with a wine's taste,'' Professor Boulton said. ''That is wrong. Should you add grape tannins as an adjustment? Maybe. But wood tannins? I have trouble with that.'' Techniques like reverse osmosis and micro-oxygenation ''can make a good wine, but not a great wine,'' he said.
''If you have to resort to these methods,'' he added, ''what does that say about your winemaking and grape growing?''
Winemakers say privately that the industry's effort to manipulate the taste and texture in wine reflects the influence of leading critics like Mr. CENSORED, whose rating scores can mean the difference between success and failure. Mr. CENSORED said he advocates minimal intervention in winemaking and does not consider himself responsible for homogeneity in wine.
''My scores have led to higher quality at all price levels, as well as to more informed wine customers,'' he said.
Enologix, another Sonoma company that caters to the wine industry, has developed computer software that predicts how a wine will score in reviews even while it is still juice. Enologix's founder, Leo McCloskey, said the software offered a noninvasive way to let winemakers know early if they have a potential hit. Mr. McCloskey said 65 wineries had bought his software, including leading boutique wineries like Diamond Creek, Ridge and WillaKenzie.
THE ability of new technologies to create critically acclaimed wines is evident in the prosperity of E.& J. Gallo Winery. The privately owned company does not disclose financial information, but with an estimated $1.5 billion in annual sales, it is the nation's biggest winemaker.
After mastering the supermarket brand of wines, it has segued into the fine-wine category. Its highly rated 1996 and 1997 Estate Cabernets, for example, retail at $70 a bottle.
Terry Lee, vice president for research and development at Gallo, said a successful winemaker now creates a focus group and finds what flavors the public wants, then produces them. Wine critics, in Mr. Lee's view, ''are gatekeepers who have an influence on the buying public.''
''I've heard the complaints that all wine is tasting the same,'' he said, ''But that's because most people don't understand what wine is about and don't understand what a good winemaker is trying to do. People who make those comments are ignorant of the facts.''
That assertion angers those who believe that fine wine is about the land and not about the laboratory. Mary Ewing Mulligan, co-author of ''Wine for Dummies,'' said a result was a loss of distinctiveness.
''There should be a distinction between a beverage and fine wine,'' Ms. Mulligan said. ''From the beverage viewpoint, it is easy to buy a technologically sound wine, just as it is orange juice. That's great. However, with fine wine it's terribly misguided.''
Photos: Michael Havens, owner of Havens Wine Cellars, uses a system that percolates oxygen bubbles through his wine as it ages in barrels.; Devices called diffusers, inserted into each barrel, emit microscopic oxygen bubbles. Mr. Havens says the system reduces uncertainties caused by weather. (Photographs by Peter DaSilva for The New York Times)
Chart: ''Fruit of the Vine''
Nearly 90 percent of the wine produced in the United States orginates in California.
Graph shows figures for California and the remainder of the U.S. from 1989-1999. (Source: Wine Institute; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms)
A Poor Man's Porcini, in a Silly Hat
By ALICE FEIRING
I FIRST saw the paper-white mushrooms, the shape of small garden gnomes, at the upscale markets. But at $16 to $20 a pound, I passed. However, when I saw a mountain of them at $5.50 a pound at a couple of indoor Chinatown markets, I biked home with a basketful.
Called king oyster mushrooms, they are the big brothers of oyster mushrooms, about seven inches long with bulbous, springy stems, topped by a dwarfed cap. They smell like fresh cream and taste of sweet earthiness, a poor man's porcini at about a quarter of the price.
After slicing them into mushroom silhouettes, I sauted them with shallot, thyme and a touch of soy. As fatty as porcini, they seared like crispy bacon. Dinner guests fought me for the last morsels. But it nagged me; I'd had these before - where?
King oyster mushrooms, or Pleurotus eryngii, are the same cardoncellos I had gorged myself on in Puglia about five years ago, when I had them deep-fried. They can be found wild in the United States, but now they are mostly cultivated mushrooms.
American chefs have recently caught on to them. Order mushrooms in 5 Ninth, Cru or Aureole, and you're likely to find king oysters beefing up the dish.
Dante Boccuzzi, the chef at Aureole, sometimes uses them as crusts for tofu or treats them like sirloin. But his pickled version with rosemary, garlic and coriander, with a swirl of late spring ramps, surprised my palate. "They sponge up the brine," he said. Yet in the seared dish, the mushrooms stayed crunchy.
After being smitten I now think that whether they are $5 a pound or $20, king oysters are a versatile indulgence.
Adapted from Aureole
Time: 15 minutes, plus 2 hours for marinating
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
8 ounces king oyster mushrooms, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 ramp leaves (or substitute scallion greens)
1 cup olive oil
12 cloves garlic, sliced
1 cup red wine
1 cup red-wine vinegar
Dash soy sauce
3 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons salt, or as needed.
1. Toast coriander seeds in a dry skillet over low heat just until fragrant. Transfer to a plate and set aside. In a medium heatproof bowl, combine mushrooms and ramp leaves and set aside.
2. Place oil in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add garlic and saut until golden. Add toasted coriander seeds, wine, vinegar, soy sauce, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf and ½ cup water. Add 2 tablespoons salt, tasting and adding more as needed, taking care not to under salt.
3. Increase heat and bring mixture just to a boil. Pour hot liquid over mushrooms and ramp leaves. Allow to stand uncovered for 2 hours. Strain and serve, reserving liquid for salad dressing or pickling.
Yield: 4 servings.
Designer Shoes in Romans, France
By Alice Feiring
Published: May 1, 2005
he name Romans, a shoecentric town in France, should be branded into the gray matter of the shoe obsessed. Forty-five minutes southeast of Lyon in the Rhone Valley, it was the country's leather-tanning center during the 1800's. By the next century the town turned to manufacturing bespoke and high-end shoes.
Now, ever so slightly seedy, Romans is home to a nifty shoe museum, Muse International de la Chaussure. But more to the point are the factory outlets crammed with gorgeously made shoes. Some names to get the juices going are Stephane Klian, Paraboot, Charles Jourdan, Accessoire Diffusion and a relative newcomer, Laure Bassal, whose colorful flapper-era-inspired designs rarely make it to the United States.
But it is the Robert Clergerie store (also stocking J. Fenestrier shoes for men) just on the outskirts of town that spikes my adrenalin. While the fluorescent lights are reminiscent of to stateside outlet stores, the rich range of sizes and options (including some terrific bags) on the shelves do not. This is a true factory store and not where style mistakes go to die.
Sylvie Bret, store manager, has been with the company since 1981. When I stopped in, she was in a great mood, eagerly sharing the news: her old boss was back. Mr. Clergerie, 70, had just bought back the shoe business he sold seven years before.
Amused by my visit, she said few Americans know Romans. Her best customers are Parisians detouring to the store from their Alps or Provence destinations to shop for boots and shoes generally discounted from 40 to 70 percent. When France goes on sale in mid-January and July, subtract another 40 to 75 percent at the outlets. During these sales, she said, she is very likely to sell 200 pairs daily.
I was thrilled to find a particular pair of ankle-grazing, man-styled oxfords I'd coveted for years for only 95 euros, or $126, at $1.32 to the euro - about $530 off the usual price. A little snug? No problem. She had them stretched, gratis, resulting in a perfect fit. Five pairs later, with prices ranging up from $24, my splurge topped out at $292, far less than a single pair at the full cost.
Robert Clergerie, at Rue Pierre Curie, (33-4) 75.05.59.65, www.robertclergerie.com, is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 to 7 p.m. on Monday. Closed on Sunday.