On Wine and Price

Aubert Chardonnay

Aubert Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2014 $160

I have been thinking a lot in the past week about wine and price. Many people ask me, “What’s the most you’ll spend on a bottle of wine?” or, “How much do I need to spend to get a good bottle of wine?” and I find these to be really challenging questions to answer. I do think that there is an exponential increase in wine quality from $0-5 to $5-10, and from $5-10 to $10-20. This is a broad generalization but just based on the costs involved with wine production, the abilities of the winemaker go up substantially from one of these price brackets to another.

What are these costs? Well, first there is the cost of the grapes and the region where they’re grown. Grapes from the Central Valley of California are far less than grapes from Napa Valley, and grapes from Napa Valley are far less than, say, Howell Mountain. With each of these increases in price comes a substantial increase in quality due to the climate, soils, planting density, etc. There is the cost of labor to harvest the grapes and produce the wine. At the cheaper end of the scale all mechanical harvesting is used, meaning that what ends up in the vat is far more than just viable grapes- everything from branches to bugs, rotten grapes to rodents. With a higher price point, wineries are able to hand-harvest the grapes and ensure that what ends up in the vat is only what they want to end up in the vat, and only the highest quality grapes. When it comes time to age a wine, the cheaper end uses wood chips or even oak powder in a tank, while higher end wines are using the highest quality new oak barrels and aging the wines for years, rather than days. All these elements and many more go into creating a wine and determine its final cost to the producer. It is the superfluous costs- heavier bottles, more branding- that generally go into a wine that doesn’t feel like it’s worth its cost, so watch out for those.

When it comes to premium priced wines, ie. wines over $50 or even $100, that curve becomes less exponential and more logarithmic (think back to those math classes, folks). There is certainly an increase in quality, but does it add up to the increase in price? That is up to the drinker to decide.

I’ll give an example. If you ask me what I would rate a $30-$40 California Chardonnay like Frank Family or Ramey, I’d generally give them a 92-93; I’m very happy with them, I thoroughly enjoy them, and I’d certainly drink more. But last week I was invited to share in a $160 bottle of Aubert Chardonnay, and this wine, this was a 100. There is no doubt the quality was significantly better. I’ll still be happy with those other guys, but that wine will stay in my memory for years to come. It was perfectly balanced, somewhat buttery but still fresh and with some fruit- what I’d call a perfect Chardonnay. It was clear the greatest of care had gone into that bottle, and that’s what my most gracious hostess had paid for.

-Let me just get it out of the way right now that I am not a standard subscriber to big, oaky California Chardonnays; I much prefer a balanced, lighter version that has some roundness but isn’t like eating a tree trunk… I’m getting pickier and pickier with age and education. So if you feel like most of the CA Chardonnays out there are too heavy and woody for you, and you’ve got $160 lying around, try the Aubert!-

So this experience begs the question… would I rather have six bottles that I rate 93 points, or one that I rate 100? For me, right now, wine is about experiences rather than bulk (well, I’m not sure my husband would agree with that statement, but it is with the best intentions that I say that). I’m willing to pay a little more to have an experience I haven’t had before. And if I know that I’ve got to make that bottle last, I can sip slower than you can imagine. So, at least occasionally, I’m going to spring for the more expensive bottle. But if you want bulk, go bulk, and know that you’re not getting too much less of an experience. (For the record, the same can generally be said about a $12 bottle versus a $35 bottle, and this is generally where I’m hanging out, price-point wise; this was just the example I had at hand. And no, I’m not going out and buying a bottle of $160 Chardonnay for a Tuesday. But a girl can dream.)

Next week, I’ll go more into where I look for guaranteed, solidly-priced wine. What would you do if faced with the choice above?

Spring Farmers’ Market Haul, Part I

farmers market april 20

Summer and fall are filled with delicious fruits and vegetables to cook with but spring has to be my favorite cooking season of all. Everything is so bright, so colorful, so fresh tasting. I love seeing what strikes my fancy at the farmers’ market and then coming home and figuring out what to do with it all. The haul above yielded some fantastic meals, some simple, some elaborate. Here are a few ideas for what’s available at the market (at least in Southern California) these days: Continue reading

Ringing in Rosé Season, Part Two

Now that you know all about the various methods of production and styles of rosé, you probably want to drink it every night of summer- and who can blame you? Here are some of my favorite recipes for pairing with rosé (apart from just a warm summer Saturday afternoon, which ALWAYS works).

Greek Salad (my way- serves 2 as a side or one as a main)

greek salad and roseThis salad and a glass of rosé always transports me to the Mediterranean. If you’ve got extra crisp vegetables lying around such as asparagus, radish, or carrots, feel free to throw them in (try to make the pieces the same size as the tomatoes and cucumber). The more colorful the better. I think mint should be used way more in savory dishes- it adds a lovely brightness. 

1 cup halved cherry tomatoes or chopped heirloom tomatoes

1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives (optional- I live with an olive-hater so usually leave them out. If that is sacrilege to you I’m sorry. It was to me too, but somehow I’ve managed to survive.)

1/2 cup english cucumber, halved and sliced to make half moons

1/4 cup thinly sliced spring onion or green onion

1.5 oz (about 1/8 cup) good feta cheese (go for one that is a big block still in the salty brine), crumbled

1/8 cup thinly sliced fresh mint leaves

Juice from one lemon

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper

Combine lemon juice and red wine vinegar in a small bowl and whisk while adding olive oil to emulsify.

Combine tomatoes, olives, cucumber, onion, mint, and feta in a medium bowl and add salt and pepper.Drizzle with about half of the dressing, toss and taste. If it needs more dressing add more. I find that without the olives you’ll need another good sprinkling of salt. Serve with a mint leaf to garnish.


Pan Seared Salmon with Fresh Herbs and Lemon (Serves Three to Four)

salmonExcuse me while I go on a quick Pacific Northwesterner rant: I encourage you to buy wild-caught salmon for this recipe (and always) because while those farmed Atlantic salmon in the seafood case may look shinier and plumper, they’ve been fed on corn, while the wild caught stuff ate what salmon are supposed to eat- algae, plankton, smaller fish, etc- and worked their muscles swimming through the icy cold waters of the northern Pacific. This contributes to their beautiful red color and buttery, rich flavor with half the fat and more calcium, zinc, and iron. They’re worth every extra penny!

2 lb wild-caught salmon filet

3/4 cup roughly chopped light herbs such as dill, basil, parsley, mint, or chives

Extra-virgin olive oil

One lemon, sliced into 1/4 inch rings

Salt and pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 400ºF. Season the salmon filet with salt and pepper on both skin and meat side. In a large cast iron or oven proof skillet, heat a few glugs of olive oil over medium high heat and coat the bottom of the pan. When slightly smoking, put the salmon filet in skin side up. Cook the filet for 5 minutes or so until you are able to easily lift the filet off the pan when you stick a spatula underneath. Flip the filet so the skin side is down and cook for another five minutes. Lay the lemon slices over the whole of the filet and sprinkle the herbs over. Put the salmon filet in the oven and bake until it can be flaked with a fork, another 5-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the filet. Allow to rest for five minutes or so prior to serving, then slice crosswise into smaller filets and serve with the herbs and lemons on top.

Side note: The skin should be nice and crispy after having been prepared this way so eat that too! It’s delicious, sort of like a brinier bacon, and holds a lot of good omega-3s.

Prosciutto and White Bean Crostini- great, pretty quick appetizer. The acid in the rosé cuts the fattiness of the prosciutto nicely. 

1 15-oz can white (cannelini) beans, drained and rinsed

2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

1/2 cup olive oil, plus extra for the bread

salt and pepper

4 oz good quality sliced prosciutto, slices torn in approximately half pieces (no need to be super scientific here, you just want to get nice slivers)

1 French style baguette, thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Slice the baguette into 1/2 inch slices and lay across one or two baking sheets. Brush a little olive oil onto each slice and put into the oven when preheated. Bake until lightly browned, 8-10 minutes, remove from the oven, and allow to cool.

Meanwhile, combine white beans, garlic, olive oil, and some salt and pepper in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. Add salt and pepper, and a little more olive oil if needed, to taste.

Spread a couple tablespoons of white bean spread on each baguette slice and top with a sliver of prosciutto. Grind some black pepper directly on top of each piece and serve.

A few others I can’t claim…

Perfect Roast Chicken– Nobody can beat Ina, so why try?

Baked Fontina Dip– Ina just kills it every time, doesn’t she? 

Bouillabaisse– A classic pairing for Provençal Rosé from one of my favorite Seattle chefs.

The general rules here are:

-high acid wines cut the richness of creamy and fatty dishes nicely

-the slightly higher body of rosé versus white wines pairs nicely with what I’ll call medium rich meats and seafood, like the chicken, bouillabaisse, and salmon

-crisper rosés make a nice pairing for light sides and appetizers and the fruitiness balances salt and garlic

Cheers, and enjoy the rest of rosé season! 




Shopping at the Farmers’ Market


One of the best farmers’ markets in the country, where I am lucky enough to shop, the Downtown Santa Monica Wednesday/Saturday Market (picture credit downtownSM.com)

Shopping at the local farmers’ market is my favorite activity of my week. I love seeing the gorgeous produce on display, finding a new fruit or vegetable I’ve never tried before, chatting with the vendors about how they prepare various ingredients, and looking at the gorgeous seasonal flowers. I hope that when I have children I can have them join me at the farmers’ market every week; I think it’s such a great way to show them who and where their food comes from, and how in nature, food isn’t always perfectly shaped and shiny but that doesn’t mean it’s any less delicious.

Some tips for visiting your local farmers’ market:

  • Visit Local Harvest or do a simple google search to find your local farmers market and the days of the week it’s running.
  • Before you buy anything, do your best to walk the length of the market to see who’s selling what, and at what price. Also take notice of which farms are organic, sustainable, or conventional. You might think you’ve found a great deal on heirloom tomatoes only to find five minutes later another vendor is selling them for a dollar less. You might think the only flowers available are roses only to find seconds later that a farmer has their own apple blossoms for sale for half the price (if you find apple blossoms, don’t ask questions- just buy them! They’re usually only available for one to two weeks and are so fragrant and beautiful. The same goes for peonies, lilacs, baby artichokes, and squash blossoms).
  • If you have a fold-up cart for shopping, bring it to the farmers’ market. You’ll be much happier not carrying all your goodies and everyone else will be much happier they’re not getting whacked in the face by your huge bouquet of sunflowers (Sorry to everyone I’ve whacked in the face in Brentwood or Santa Monica).
  • Ask questions! The farmers love to talk about what they’re selling and how to prepare it. This is especially important for meats; sustainable, pasture raised meat sellers will often have unfamiliar cuts because they are selling the whole animal and not just the choice cuts like a rib eye or lamb loin chops- it’s good to know which cuts should be cooked low and slow, like a braise, and which should be cooked quick and over high heat, like a steak.
  • Taste! there’s a reason they have all those samples everywhere- they’re trying to prove theirs are the most delicious strawberries, or oranges, or snap peas available at the market. But just because one guy is selling three pints of strawberries for $22, doesn’t mean his are any more delicious or sweet than the guy who’s selling them for $15 (and often they’re not!). Taste a few, decide which is the best, and buy from them. Don’t feel bad about it.
  • Look at your farmers’ market shop as inspiration for your weekly meals. See what’s available, buy what you want, and use that to plan the meals ahead. You will likely have to go to a grocery store to pick up some extras (ie. this week I found beautiful tomatoes and basil but no mozzarella so had to go to the store for that), but try to visit the market first then the store, so that you’re not trying to find specific things at the market based on the recipes you wanted to make. It is Murphy’s law that whatever you’re trying really hard to find will not be there (trust me, I’m a Murphy, I know).

It is definitely more work, and usually a little more expensive, to shop at a farmers’ market. In my mind, however, the benefits far outweigh the cost. You’re getting exercise, you’re getting your food straight from the source, you’re eating the best produce on the market, and you learn something – every. time. About that more expensive thing though- when food is really delicious, I usually find that I need less of it to be satisfied. And you’re not going to find bland, flavorless produce or meat at the farmers’ market. It just doesn’t happen.

I am officially challenging you to go try out a farmers’ market this week- let me know how it goes!

Taste. Embrace. Savor. Appreciate.

Ringing in Rosé Season


A glass of rose in its spiritual home, Provence

The warmer weather and longer evenings of April and May are a sure sign to me that rosé season has arrived. For those who associate rosé wine with a box of Franzia, and think that all rosés must be sweet, there is a lot to learn. There is a huge range of styles of rosé and it is one of the best food pairing wines out there. Here’s what you need to know: Continue reading

Trying on Plant-Based


Hanging in my Kitchen. Me? Veganism?

If you know me at all well, you know that I am a die-hard carnivore. Nothing makes me happier than a big steak set before me. My favorite meal to cook is a roast chicken (Hello Julia, hello Ina, I love you both). I can take down a dozen oysters quicker than you can say, “Where’s the mignonette?”. And cheese, oh cheese, nothing can soothe a soul like cheese. But as articles like this one become more and more prevalent, and food becomes a larger and larger piece of our communal dialogue, it has become clear to me that perhaps there are some ways to improve my eating habits that wouldn’t hurt too much and may actually be, gasp, fun. Continue reading

How to Do: A Tasting Party

As a student of wine and spirits, I have to put in a fair amount of studying. Luckily the subject matter happens to be pretty popular. Unluckily, it happens to be pretty expensive, too. So in order to get some tasting practice in, have a little help paying for it, get the group together, and teach my friends a thing or two, we threw a little spirits tasting party. Sure, my friends and I could just get together and drink, but why not add a layer of education to it? Learning something can elevate a get-together and give people something to remember (though whether they remember this one, I’m not so sure).

Here’s how to do it:

Rule #1: Make it easy, whatever people are in the mood for.

spirits party tasting

Continue reading

Welcome to Pepper and Plum

I am thrilled to welcome you to Pepper and Plum, where I hope to bring a new perspective to everyone who finds themselves here. I believe in living a full and rich life, and appreciating the beauty of every day. I believe in giving yourself what makes you feel truly happy– whether that is an incredible plate of pasta, a glass of bubbly to celebrate the victory of another day, or a long walk around the neighborhood enjoying the sun on your shoulders and a breath of fresh air. I believe in sharing what is good with the people you love, in creating a community and making a celebration out of every day. There is no reason we should save the party invitations for birthdays that end in -0.

I originally created Pepper and Plum to share my experiences with and knowledge of wine, but I found I have so much more to say. That said, wine is a living and breathing thing, and I’ve been so inspired by all the many forms it can take. I’ll certainly talk about it plenty and I hope to teach you something in the process. Wine may be more or less complex, more or less elegant, more or less ageable, but I truly believe that there is no “good” or “bad” wine, only the wine that you like and that gives you a fresh perspective. The world is full of interesting wines in endless styles that can tell us a little something about where they came from and who made them.They are part of a culture and a lifestyle. Here I hope to inspire that lifestyle talking not only about wine, but the way it blends into life.

I hope you will learn something new and be encouraged to try new wines, recipes, adventures. I hope you will find what makes you happy, and feel confident asserting that.  I’m not trying to change the world through a big political agenda or mind-blowing style shift, but through life’s small and yet infinitely important daily experiences.

So…let’s start on this journey now then! There are many stories to be told, experiences to be had, vineyards to be seen, and wines to be tasted. Off we go!

Taste. Embrace. Savor. Appreciate.