No-Guilt Wine Grapes: Thank You, Cesar Chavez!

He’s a modern-day hero now, with schools, bridges, libraries, parks and roads named after him. But back in the ’60s and ’70s, California’s agricultural oligarchy was hardly enamored of human rights activist César Chávez. That was especially true of grape growers, targets of the 5-year boycott that made Chávez famous.

12097643034_c91433a628_z

[Photo of Chavez with a sign encouraging farm workers to “Huelga” – “Strike” – courtesy of Jay Galvin, Flickr/Creative Commons]

Ironically, although he spent his adult years trying to revolutionize the farming establishment, Chávez started life as one of them. Born in Yuma, Arizona this day in 1927, he spent his early years on the 100-acres-plus farm owned by his grandfather, Césario Chávez. But the family lost their farm in the Great Depression and went to California to labor in the fields as migrant workers.

After a wartime stint in the U.S. Navy, Chávez returned to the fields. He spent his spare hours reading and became a devotee of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of social change through non-violence. His world was ready to erupt: migrant workers often went unpaid, got no medical care or schooling in the barrios, worked all day without bathroom breaks and endured other conditions difficult to imagine in today’s first-world lifestyle.

So in his mid-30s, Chávez began the slow process of organizing farm workers for better living and working conditions, and several years later his National Farm Workers Association joined with the AFL-CIO in their strike against vineyards in Delano, California.

Chávez became the national poster boy for underserved Americans – especially those in rural communities, and especially Latinos. Public pressure and support for the boycott was so strong that most growers caved, signing agreements to upgrade conditions for field workers. Chávez became the first man ever to organize a farm workers’ union that resulted in signed contracts, and shortly after the grape boycott ended in 1970, he went after lettuce growers. It didn’t impact the industry as much as the grape protest, but that mattered little; American consumers had awakened.

2334731519_ed3b80811e_o

[Photo of Chávez, right, with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The woman to Kennedy’s right is Chavez’s wife, Helen. Courtesy of Korean Resource Center, Flickr/Creative Commons]

One feature of Chávez’s non-violent protest tactic was fasting. In 1968, to prevent violence during the grape strike, he went on a hunger strike for 25 days. His fast was broken at an outdoor Mass attended by 4,000 supporters, including Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Chávez conducted several more hunger strikes during his organizing career, and in the end it likely killed him. He died in his sleep in 1993 after fasting for several days – but while not all everything he accomplished was permanent, the most important changes – guaranteed pay for migrant workers, a 70 percent wage increase from 1964 to 1980, health care, schooling and a formal grievance policy – did endure. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom to Chávez’s wife, fellow activist Helen Chávez, and in 2008, Presidential candidate Barack Obama adopted Chávez’s mantra, “Si se puede”–“Yes, we can”–as his own campaign slogan.

And I still have my “Boycott Grapes” bumper sticker.

What should we pour, then, to honor César Chávez on his birthday? It has to be a California varietal, don’t you think? A nice Cab or Merlot is the obvious choice, but they do so well with Zinfandel, I think that’s what I’ll drink tonight. And if you feel like a splurge, try a Schramsberg bubbly. Finally, Chávez would approve.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Alto Adige = Italy’s northernmost wine region. Perched at the very top of the country, Alto Adige sits in the Italian Alps (known as the Dolomites) and borders Austria and Switzerland. When you visit, you’ll drink lively whites with plenty of minerality- Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon (as they call Sauvignon Blanc) – but you’ll find BigSexyReds here, too.

Cheers!

Mary

Advertisements

Aw, Nuts! Try These Wines for Pecan Day

In the final run up to a major holiday like Easter, it’s easy to overlook an obscure observance like Pecan Day – and we have an abundance of wine choices to accompany our pecan-encrusted trout, pecan pie or a few handfuls of roasted pecans.

IMG_0559

This is the day, back in 1775, when George Washington planted a pecan sapling at his Mount Vernon estate. The baby tree was a gift from Thomas Jefferson, who grew “America’s own nut” at Monticello.

Botanists tell us the pecan, named for an Algonquian word that means, “a nut requiring a stone to crack,” actually is a fruit related to hickory. This inch-long treat is my favorite nut and a nutritional powerhouse, packed with antioxidants, vitamin E, beta-carotene, vision-friendly lutein, and cancer-fighting ellagic acid. It’s a heart-healthy, brain-healthy snack – although, at just under 200 calories for 20 halves, it’s fairly fattening.

You always want to pair fatty foods with an acidic wine, so if you’re eating your pecans plain, without a sugary coating, they’ll go well with a chilled dry Rosé or Sauvignon Blanc. Pecans also are a slightly sweet nut and the wine’s brightness will bring out the pecans’ sweet notes.

If dinner is trout or chicken with a pecan crust, Champagne or Cava (sparkling wine from Spain) will pair nicely; and if you think you’d enjoy just the slightest sweetness to match the natural sweetness in the nut coating, try Prosecco, an Italian bubbly. But keep in mind, you can find sparkling wines at every sweetness level; if you’re eating candied pecans and want to drink a sparkler, look for one that’s a little sweeter.

Candied pecans, in fact, will pair with a lot of lively, acidic wines. Pinot Grigio, Riesling  and Albariño are all good choices. And if your pecans are super-spicy, flavored with Chipotle or other peppers, go for the gusto and open a bottle of Gewürztraminer.

Reds don’t generally pair will with pecans; the nuts are just too mild to make a good match. But if you insist on drinking red wine (and I usually do), reach for a lighter grape such as Pinot Noir, or, if you want a wine with a bit more attitude, a Garnacha.

And if you’re eating pecan pie – the real reason pecans were invented, I think – you’ll want a dessert wine because your wine should be as sweet as your dessert. Look for Tawny Porto or, maybe better, try some Vin Santo from Tuscany, Icewine from Canada, or Sauternes from France. For a more economical choice, look for a late-harvest Viognier (white) or Zinfandel (red).

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Fortified wine = this is a handy place to mention fortified wines, because some of the wines you’ll choose to accompany dessert will have been fortified. These are wines to which alcohol has been added to raise the alcohol level to 15 percent or higher. Fermentation ends, and the winemaker is left with a high-alcohol wine.

Cheers – and for those celebrating this weekend, have a wonderful Easter!

Mary

Like Water for…Wine?

So…how are you celebrating World Water Day today?

What’s that you say…you actually went to work??!?

I get it; it’s been a fairly obscure holiday. But back in 1994, the United Nations designated every March 22 henceforth as UN-Water Day. It makes sense, since 71 percent of our planet is covered with the stuff, and more than half of us (1.5 billion) work in some water-related job. It makes even more sense that this year’s theme is water and jobs, focusing on how enough quality water can change lives and even transform societies. Just ask Lady GagaPharrell Williams and Beyoncé, celebrities promoting the cause.

6965227185_a8da2510d0_z

And we know what water means to our favorite vines. Wine guru Jancis Robinson has written that in arid regions, grapevines reach as deep as 20 feet underground to quench their thirst. Water carries nutrients from the soil up into the plants, which need 20 to 30 inches of water (from rain or irrigation) every year. We’re talking about some 19 million acres of vines across the globe, giving us 70 million tons of fruit, about 70 percent of which end up in our wineglasses.

Is that wine-geeky enough for you? Here’s a little more: During photosynthesis, water molecules combine with carbon to make glucose, the main source of energy for the vine. It gets complicated, though. How well water performs its many tasks can be impacted by evaporation, climate, soil type, and a slew of other factors. Not enough water and the vines undergo “water stress” – essentially, the grapes stop ripening. Give them too much, especially at harvest time, and the grapes get waterlogged; they swell up, their sugar is diluted, and the outcome is a crop of bland, watery-tasting grapes (and wine). I saw this dynamic firsthand years ago, when I used to grow my grandma’s black raspberries – those vines loved a good downpour in the spring, but come June and early July, they needed bright, hot sunshine to give us the sweet berries we waited for every year.

7827438256_39206c5186_z

An over-abundance of water can bring other challenges, too – bacteria, mold, fungi. Good drainage is essential. And all of these water-related factors can vary between regions, vineyards, even individual vines.

The wine in your glass is 80 to 90 percent water, almost all of it from grapes themselves. So when we raise a glass to celebrate Easter this weekend, maybe we can pause to appreciate the delicate balance achieved by those smart, long-experienced winegrowers all over creation. They use their water well, don’t they?

But if you run out of vino, don’t try changing jugs of water into wine. That job is taken.

Cheers, everyone! And if you want to keep reading about wine and spirits every week, please click on the “Follow” button in the bottom righthand corner of your screen and BigSexyReds will appear in your mailbox.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Coulure = In English, it translates to “shatter.” Coulure happens when the tiny flowers on the vine fail to develop into healthy berries, and is often brought on by cold, rainy weather, especially in spring.

Happy sipping,

Mary

[Photos courtesy of cold bologna and whity at Flickr.com.]

 

Green Wine? Nope, Not Even for St. Patrick’s Day

We are, after all, BigSexyReds, not BigSexyGreens.

8558986320_de618978e7_z

Green beer is out of the question, too, because…well…it’s beer. So what else could we drink today? And why green, anyway?

Credit for our green mania goes to St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, born into nobility in about 387 A.D. (Most historians say he was born in “Roman England” or Scotland, but some sources claim he was born in Wales.) He was kidnapped by Irish pirates at 16 and lived as a slave in Gaelic Ireland, tending sheep until he escaped six years later.

St. Patrick later returned to Ireland as a missionary, and he’s said to have used the shamrock, a three-leafed plant, to illustrate the Holy Trinity to pagans interested in Christianity. The green symbolism never quite disappeared, and in the 1640s the Irish Confederation adopted a flag showing a golden harp on a green background. By the 1680s, people began wearing shamrocks and green ribbons to commemorate Irish independence.

The phrase, “the wearing of the green,” comes from a street ballad that honors supporters of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Since then, we’ve associated the color green with Irish nationalism.

Not surprisingly, Irish stout is the most popular drink of the day. Beer lovers worldwide will down about 13 million pints of Guinness today – about 3 million of those pints in the U.S., where we usually drink just 600,000 pints.

But it’s a party, and if you want an alternative to beer, my pick would be green Chartreuse, the only liqueur in the world with a natural green color.

8685390764_efab28c963_z

Now, recommending Chartreuse comes with a caveat. You see, my dad ran a neighborhood pub when I was just out of college, and I worked weekends behind the bar. When friends would stop in, we’d sip green Chartreuse while we talked. And sure, it’s made by monks, so you’d like to think it brings a blessed experience. And it’s made with 130 herbs and flowers, so anything this botanical must be a healthy indulgence, right?

Wrong. The devil is in this stuff. Chartreuse is 110 proof, my friends. There’s a lot of alcohol in that emerald-green nectar, so watch it. And you’re not doing tequila shots here; don’t throw down shot after shot. Sip it icy-cold, in a fine crystal cordial glass if you can, and see how many of those 130 herbs and flowers you can identify.

But you’ll never know how many of them you identify correctly. Only two people in the world know the ingredients in Chartreuse, and they’re not talking.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Pomace = the solids (skins, stems, pulp, seeds) left after grapes are pressed. Pomace often is distilled, transforming it into Grappa (Italy), Marc (France) or Eau-de-Vie (France and the U.S.).

Cheers!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of Dustin Gaffke and T Sea, via Flickr/Creative Commons]

 

Washington Wine Month is Walla-Walla-Wonderful!

Some say the shrubby, scrubby, almost desert-like terrain of eastern Washington is what gives character and backbone to wines from that state. There, in the rain shadow of the Cascades, you’ll find 99 percent of Washington’s vineyards.

Red Willow vineyard, Yakima AVA, Washington

Red Willow vineyard, Yakima AVA, Washington

March is Washington Wine Month and we can all raise our glasses: their wines are sold in all 50 states and about 40 countries.

Big Sexy Reds do well here. A slew of micro-climates are scattered across the state’s 13 AVAs, but typically the vines goes fully dormant in winter, with temps from 28°-45° to keep the roots cozy and growing, and hoarding their carbs until the vines are ready to sprint in the spring. Diurnal (overnight) temperature swings of 40° keep the acid levels up there, and summertime highs of 90° or more make great sugar for the fruit.

Some 25,000 acres are planted with reds – slightly more than half the state’s vines – with about 10,300 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon alone. But it’s all good for red-lovers of every stripe; Washington also produces Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Malbec and more. For white-wine drinkers they grow Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier – more than 40 wine grapes in all.

Harvest, Figgins Family Wines, Walla Walla, Washington

Harvest, Figgins Family Wines, Walla Walla, Washington

Washington wine has come a long way since the first wine grapes appeared in the Walla Walla Valley around 1860. The state’s oldest living vines are the Muskat of Alexandria vines on Snipes Mountain, reportedly producing fruit since 1917. (Next year, when those vines celebrate their 100th birthday, I think Washington wine lovers should make a pilgrimage to Snipes Mountain and dance naked in the vineyard. Just saying.)  The first commercial-scale plantings – predecessors of today’s Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery – came in the 1960s; today Washington wine is a $4.4-billion industry, with a new winery opening almost every 30 days.

Although the biggest tastings happen this month, you have plenty of time to plan a visit during sunny, walking-around weather: it generally stays warm (70°-80°) into the fall, with some wineries able to harvest as late as November.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  AVA = American Viticultural Area, an officially designated wine grape-growing region in the U.S. The gatekeeper for AVAs is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Currently there are 234 AVAs in the U.S. (138 of them in California), with 10 applications pending for the creation of new AVAs or expansion of existing ones. One day when I’m feeling especially nerdy I’ll write an entire post on AVAs, their regulation and how they differ from wine-region designations in other countries. Sound exciting? Yeah, I thought that’s what you’d say…

Don’t forget to click the “Follow” tab (lower right corner of your screen) to get BigSexyReds.com by email (pretty please!).

Cheers!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of WashingtonWine.org]

 

It’s International Women’s Day–Ladies, What’s In Your Glass?

It sounds like a fabricated holiday designed to sell more greeting cards, doesn’t it? But International Women’s Day (IWD) has been around longer than any of us: in 1909, women from 17 countries came together for the first International Conference of Working Women. After much more evolution and revolution, the United Nations finally, in 1975, established March 8 as International Women’s Day.

It does have a purpose, but first – do these history lessons make anyone else thirsty?

You’ll have to pardon me for setting aside my wineglass this evening. The sun’s shining here in Cleveland, and that means just one thing:

5478242644_637b940e2a_z

Oh yeah. As soon as I can walk outside without a heavy sweater, my gin and tonic craving sets in. Gin has been quenching thirsts since the 14th century, when the first recipe for “Genever” was recorded in a Dutch encyclopedia. In 1585 it was known as “Dutch courage,” and by the 1700s, “gin tonic” was a common cure.

By law, the dominant flavor in gin must be juniper, but you’ll find other botanicals in the mix: coriander, angelica, quinine (a bitter medicinal from the bark of the chinchona tree), cardamom, cassia bark (you know it as cinnamon) and orris root, the dried root of the iris.

This cocktail was started in India by the British army. Quinine had been used for years to help prevent and treat malaria – a big problem in the tropics. Soldiers were given a periodic gin allowance, so they added it to their quinine, along with sugar, water and lime. (Today’s commercially produced tonic water uses less of the nasty-tasting quinine.)

2053202974_0b8ef34c9f_m

So why limes? Presumably because they were cheap and plentiful. If you order a gin and tonic in the U.K., though, it’s likely to be garnished with a lemon wedge rather than lime, which I think tastes awful. A “g & t” made with Hendrick’s Gin usually is garnished with a slice of cucumber.

Popular culture loves a gin and tonic. James Bond’s recipe in the book Dr. No called for the juice of an entire lime for each drink. Billy Joel sings about “Piano Man,” “making love to his tonic and gin.”

The best bartenders use a “balloon glass,” shaped like a little bowl, because it concentrates the gin’s fragrant aromas at the opening of the glass – just like a good wineglass. I use rocks glasses, but I may invest in some balloons.

The recipe for my best g & t? Start with four ice cubes in the glass, and smoosh a thick wedge of lime around the rim (though I was told by my nephew last week that he doesn’t like pulp on his lips – picky, picky). Squeeze the juice from the wedge into the glass, then drop the wedge in. Add about an inch of gin (oh, don’t be such a prude – the glass has those big ice cubes in it!), then fill it to the top with tonic.

I like New Amsterdam gin – it has a great taste and it’s half the cost of the gins most people order. And I buy diet tonic (zero calories compared to about 90 for a serving of regular tonic). It has a bit more sodium than regular, but it’s a small tradeoff.

Before I forget, the purpose of International Women’s Day: to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and, these days, it’s also a call for gender parity.

I’ll drink to that.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Sloe Gin = not a real gin because it’s not made with juniper as the dominant flavor; sloe gin is made from “sloe berries,” a relative of the plum. But there is a liqueur called Pacharán made with sloe and juniper in the Basque region of Spain.

Cheers!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of Fred Wenzel and Spencer E. Holtaway, Creative Commons]

What Will Frank and Claire Drink This Weekend?

Stock the liquor cabinet, order some Freddy’s BBQ and put on your best Carolina drawl: it’s time to binge-watch House of Cards, our annual visit with Frank and Claire Underwood. They’re the coldest, most immoral, power-wielding, sexually-all-over-the-place President and First Lady in U.S. history, and I’ve missed them like crazy.

Cuddly they are not – but they do drink with class. Besides, what’s a dead body or two (or three) when the country’s future is at stake? It’s an election year for President Underwood and after a long day of campaigning, he reaches for his favorite 93-proof hooch: Blanton’s Single-Barrel Bourbon.

Whiskey neat

Produced by Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, Blanton’s is a star in the $2.7-billion U.S. wholesale market, thanks in part to President Underwood. (Bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the country, but in reality, 95 percent is produced in Kentucky – a state that boasts more barrels of aging bourbon than people.)

Underwood takes his bourbon neat – no mix, no ice to cool it down, not even a twist of lemon. By law, bourbon must be made with a minimum of 51 percent corn, and that’s the taste he likes, with the characteristic Blanton’s undertone of rye. Occasionally, we’ve also seen him sipping Bushmills Irish Whiskey, but bourbon is his first choice.

Put another drink in front of him, though, and of course he’ll accept. We watched him and Claire knocking back shots of $750,000 vodka, a gift from Russian President Viktor Petrov, in Season 3’s third episode. That gold-encased bottle was fake, but it was inspired by the very real Russo Baltique Vodka, which you can add to your cart for a mere 750,000 Euros – about $825,000 U.S.

Claire hasn’t made any drink famous yet. We’ve noticed her (and Frank) sipping Champagne, white wine, red wine – whatever she’s served. Since Viognier is Virginia’s signature grape, she may request it for political reasons, and because it makes a fine wine. This season, we’ll try to notice what’s in her glass when she gets cozy in her cashmere bathrobe.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Mash bill = actually liquor lingo, mash bill describes the grain mixture for a distilled beverage. For bourbon, the mash bill would be at least 51 percent corn; the remainder would be rye, wheat or malted barley in any combination.

Cheers!

Mary

[Photo courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]