Monday, November 09, 2009

Vinegar Is Coming For Your Children!

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An article in the San Francisco Chronicle says, "Eating just one tablespoon a day of some vinegars can raise a young child's lead level by more than 30 percent, modeling requested by the news service shows."

Which "some vinegars"? According to the article, red wine and balsamic vinegars. But not all of them. The article says, "Lead can vary widely from product to product and from batch to batch." I don't advocate feeding your children lead, of course. But this article sows so much confusion that it's hard to take it seriously.

First of all, where does the lead come from? The article suggests one possible source: higher lead content in the soil in Modena, the area famous for balsamic vinegar. But that wouldn't affect all red wine vinegars or even most commercial balsamic vinegars, which, at the cheap end of the scale, are wine vinegars trucked in from all over Italy and then "finished" in Modena (with caramel coloring and other tricks) so the producers can use the name. The author offers another clue: "Some toxicologists hypothesize that production and storage are the main sources of lead contamination rather than the soil." What parts of the production? What parts of the storage? The author doesn't say.

If the article had limited discussion to authentic balsamic vinegar, it could probably make a good case. That vinegar is produced by fermenting grape must and then letting the vinegar evaporate for 12 years or longer. You could imagine a slightly higher-than-normal lead concentration in the soil getting much stronger as the liquid reduces. You could probably make a similar case for high-end but unauthentic balsamic, which is often evaporated over a long time as well. But if you're talking authentic balsamic vinegar, which costs about $30 per fluid ounce, the number of people who could feed their children one tablespoon per day is probably limited to the upper end of the upper end of income brackets.

Let's recap. Some red wine vinegars from all over the world, balsamic vinegars, and "balsamic red wine vinegars" (a term for industrial balsamic vinegars?) have higher-than-they-should lead levels. The lead might come from the soil in Modena, which would not affect most of the red wine vinegar in the world. It might come from "production and storage." But the lead levels are higher than in white wine vinegar or fruit vinegars, which are produced the same way as red wine vinegar. It's all clear now, right?

The solution is clear, at least: Don't eat vinegar! Or, you know, assume that this article is so vague as to be unhelpful and eat as normal. Of course, my preferred solution is to just make your own.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Black Box Wines

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The carton is tall and black. A gold, Art Deco typeface spells out the wine's name: Black Box. Inside the box, a slick, clear plastic bladder squishes about as you push your finger down on the liquid inside. Is this the future of house wine?

I know boxed wine has a lot of good traits: lower cost, lower environmental impact, lower oxidation rate once the wine is opened. But it faces a tough slog against public perception. Most American wine lovers still expect boxes to contain dreck.

Black Box wants to turn that around: They market their wine, which has been available since 2002, as the first boxed wine in the U.S. to feature a vintage, the first to sport an AVA designation, and the first to be considered "premium."

You'll find my tasting notes about some of them below.

First, however, a word about context. Winemakers aren't putting their high-end wines into boxes. Nor should they: because of the permeability of cardboard and plastic, oxygen enters a boxed wine at a much higher rate than it does a sealed bottle. If a producer puts wine into a box, you should expect an everyday table wine. Not special: Just decent.

2008 Black Box Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand (~$25 for 3L, which is 4 bottles)
While this is a pleasant, balanced white wine, it lacks a lot of what you expect from Sauvignon Blanc — especially New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The typical lime zest and gooseberry aromas are present but overshadowed by tropical fruit scents such as mango. The gooseberry shows up more strongly in the mouth, and especially on the short finish, but the wine has only a moderate acidity instead of Sauvignon Blanc's more bracing form.

2007 Black Box Cabernet Sauvignon, California (~$25 for 3L, which is 4 bottles)
This wine has a thick aroma of boysenberries and blackberries — I wrote boysenberry syrup — with only a splash of green bell pepper. The dark fruit continues on the palate with a surprising layer of meatiness. It's the fruit, however, that continues through on the medium finish. Its deep purple-black color and thin pink-purple rim seem at odds with its soft tannins: I expected a grippier wine based on the look and the grape. It has just enough acidity to register. Despite a bit of heat on the finish, this is a well-balanced, if not very complex, wine.

These wines were sent to me as samples.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Cross Post: Well, Which Is It?

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Melissa suggested I re-post this after its arrival on OWEE, even though the post is less about Julia Child and more about odd discrepancies among her biographers.

The other day, I spent some time at the library, researching a particular aspect of Julia Child's career. I had an idea for a piece — which may or may not work out — and I needed to do some initial investigation.

Reading through a number of her biographies, side by side, I was struck by the inconsistencies among them. For instance, Laura Shapiro's slim book Julia Child says that Mastering the Art of French Cooking only sold 16,000 copies in its first year, not taking off until a year after its release. Noel Riley Fitch's detailed Appetite For Life says, "By August, less than a year since publication, Mastering had sold 100,000 copies … and was in its fifth printing."

When writing of Louisette Bertholle's royalty amounts, Fitch says that they were 18 percent (versus 41 percent each for Beck and Child) for conceiving the idea. (She did very little on the book itself.) Joan Reardon, in an article about Mastering for the Summer 2005 issue of Gastronomica, says that they were 10 percent.

These are not books about days of yore, with archivists and researchers piecing together scattered, weathered scraps of data. Some of the participants in the Julia Child story are still alive. Child herself was when Fitch's book came out in 1999. And I imagine Knopf, the publisher, still has records from that time. Shouldn't these biographies be more consistent?

My inclination is to trust Fitch's account, if only because of the extensive detail. (You could make the case that Reardon's 10 percent is a typo; the rest of the piece lines up with Fitch's account, at least for the parts I focused on.) But Shapiro says she used Fitch quite a bit. Does she have new information about initial sales? Or is this an editing issue: Did Shapiro mean that the book only sold 16,000 copies in 1961 (it came out in October of that year)? Or perhaps her note that sales didn't take off until fall of 1962, which might have been before October, actually lines up with Fitch's account, who merely lumps the entire first-year sales together without giving a breakdown.