Virtual Gourmet

February 15, 2009                                                                  NEWSLETTER


                                                    "Life Cafeteria" by Vincent La Gambina (1936)

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In This Issue


by John Mariani

NEW YORK CORNER Center Cut by John Mariani

NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR: Geyser Peak by Mort Hochstein




by John Mariani

            This is a very tough time in every sector of the travel and food business. And in the luxury category, entrepreneurs and CEOs are having to re-think their strategies as the once ever-expansive high-end market that seemed so limitless drops like a rock. Look up at night at a deluxe hotel and you'll see way too many rooms with their lights off.  Down-sizing rules corporate travel, and posh digs become suspect in view of tax payers' bail-outs.
     In November,
according to figures compiled by Smith Travel Research, deluxe level hotels experienced a bigger decline in occupancy--15%--than other types of hotels, And in January (a slow month in any case) occupancy  fell 24%, compared with last year. According to Ritz-Carlton, "We have not compromised service levels but definitely have taken a hard look at operations and staffing and are trying to salvage jobs wherever possible," while offering discount packages and lower room rates--at the Philadelphia Ritz-C, 10% to 15%. Vivian A. Deuschl, a spokeswoman for Ritz Carlton, told the New York Times, that cutbacks by companies on reward events  “have had a terrible effect on hotels, and luxury hotels have been very vulnerable,” and even companies that have not received federal money are canceling events “because it is a perception thing and that is very difficult to overcome,” citing cancellations from 32 groups in the last four months, a loss of $2.3 million in revenue, just at The Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay, CA.  Wells Fargo, which received $25 billion in federal bailout money, announced cancellation of every one of its “recognition events” this year, which included plans to party hearty with its top mortgage officers at Wynn Las Vegas and Encore Las Vegas. Goldman Sachs Group, which has accepted $10 billion in federal bailout funds, moved a 3-day conference from the Las Vegas to San Francisco.
       It's become the easiest thing in the world now to find a $99 room in a deluxe casino-hotel in Vegas; current posted rates even for Bellagio is $149, and anyone who takes the first room rate proffered is a downright fool.  Upgrades are common, along with free use of the exercise room, and no connection fees for the Internet.
     Meanwhile, the National Business Travel Association found that 96 of 147 corporate travel managers surveyed in October suggested their employees switch from luxury hotels to those with lower rates. The NBTA represents about 4,000 travel managers and suppliers. And that was back in October, before the full force of the current melt-down hit like a tsunami on corporations. Ironically, the only city in the U.S. whose hotels are often sold out is in Washington, DC, for obvious reasons.
   According to the OAG-Official Airline Guide, in March, there will be about 466,000 fewer seats  on scheduled non-stop flights from the Lower 48 states to foreign destinations, with some carriers cutting capacity to and from the USA by a third.
IATA chief economist Brian Pearce told USA Today that international passenger traffic in trans-Atlantic business and first class dropped 9% in November. Across the Pacific, premium-cabin passenger traffic plummeted 17%.
      It's harder and harder to justify spending $10,000 on a first-class flight for an executive who merely wants to be "fresh and bright" at the morning meeting in London, and the feds are going to want to know why a executive needed to fly first class for a hop from Chicago to Houston.  And forget about corporate jets!
         I have reports of restaurant business being down 45 percent in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and Las Vegas high-end restaurants are suffering terribly in an economy where the expenditure of $300 per person now seems like wanton indiscretion.  In New York, top restaurants like Fiamma and Fleur de Sel have closed, with more big name shutterings to follow. No one is planning to open any $5-$10 million restaurants in NYC this year. And in affluent Vail and Aspen you could throw a chair through most restaurants after 9 PM and not hit anyone.
      The good news is that just about every restaurateur with any sense is finding ways to attract customers, whether it's by specially priced dinners, free glasses of wine, or treating every customer as if they were a celebrity.  A friend of mine told me of a recent very poor service experience at Joël Robuchon's L'Atelier in the Four Seasons Hotel in NYC and how a fully documented letter to the g-m of the hotel elicited a sincere apology and an invitation top return as his guest.
      Yet there is still a luxury market out there and the corporations that feed that market are trying hard to make the rationale for using their services as economical and effective as possible. Here are the views of three execs of corporations that were flying high just a year ago and now face a future where they have to convince prospective users of their deluxe product to opt for it.



     I was recently invited to fly from New York to Paris on OpenSkies, which is associated with British Air but which undercuts BA's First and Business Class pricing by a significant percentage.  If that seems odd, it is because Open Skies has obtained slots from NYC to Paris to land at Orly, without a stopover in London. They have also added Amsterdam to their flight list, and they joined forces with L'Avion last July.  I found service excellent, food and wine selections very good, and the flight very relaxing, and, when I missed the return flight from Paris, officials were able to book me on a later L'Avion flight without further charges. Last week I interviewed Open Skies' managing director, Dale Moss (below), about the current situation in air travel.

JM: Has the merger with L'Avion gone through and what will it mean for the company and the consumer?
DM: We started Open Skies last June 19 with one airplane.
From the start, we felt L’Avion could add a lot to our new company’s DNA with their like-minded entrepreneurial style. We saw the purchase as a great opportunity to combine two tremendous products and build on L’Avion’s well-developed customer base. L’Avion also offered access to the Newark–Paris route, complementing our daily OpenSkies flight from JFK to Paris. Together, we offer three flights a day from the New York area to Paris–Orly.  We went to 3 airplanes then  added our 4 for Amsterdam. The company will be branded as OpenSkies, and all aircraft will have a two-cabin configuration.

JM: How does the relationship with British Airways work?
DM: It gives us  the wonderful advantage of being able to combine the proven expertise of one of the world’s biggest airlines with the passion and commitment of a start up.  We also have a code share agreement with BA which gives us even more exposure to their vast customer base, and we’re part of the BA Executive Club frequent flier program.  Overall the BA relationship gives us many advantages in distribution and sales that these startups did not have. By the same token, we really don’t compete with British Airways. BA flies from New York to London, then to Paris. If you want to fly direct, Open Skies is the way to go.

JM: How do OS’s fares compare with Business and 1st class on other airlines to the cities you fly to?
DM: We have two classes onboard: Roundtrip PREM+ fares between New York and Paris or Amsterdam start at about $1,215 while the starting round-trip fare for BIZ starts at $2,527 between New York-Amsterdam and $2,820 between New York-Paris, so PREM+ is about 45% of the BIZ fare.  What’s even more compelling is that these fares start at thousands of dollars less than comparable cabins from competing airlines in the same market. Traditional transatlantic business class flights can often cost in the neighborhood of $8,000 round trip.

JM: What more does OS give the consumers?
DM: We hope that OpenSkies sets itself apart in ways big and small;  we feel that the choice of two different cabins broadens our customer base and appeals to travelers with a wide variety of priorities. Both of our cabins offer fantastic personal service with bottle-poured wine, creative, delicious meals and great individual entertainment options.  And all of this is delivered aboard a Boeing 757 with a maximum of just 64 passengers total, giving it a comfortable, uncrowded, almost private jet-like feel.  All customers flying L’Avion now earn British Airways Executive Club miles. When flying on OpenSkies in PREM+ and on L’Avion, 125% of the actual flown mileage will be awarded. When flying on OpenSkies in BIZ customers will continue to receive 150% of the actual flown mileage. L’Avion customers will be able to enter their BA Executive number into bookings made via the L’Avion website or through their travel agent.Open Skies. So you can use tickets on both airlines--they are transferable.

JM: Why did so many other of the discounted business class airlines fail over the past year--even though the economy was much better than it is now?
DM: There are many big differences between OpenSkies and these other companies.  To start, they flew to London.  British Airways already has a great business in London and was a formidable competitor to these startups. These companies were also flying one class of service, whereas we offer two options – the business bed and business seat. Next, two of those other players used 767s, which are a very heavy and fuel-inefficient aircraft for the all-business class mission. Then, on top of it all, the oil price spike put huge pressure on companies that were flying 767s or had a very small number of seats on board.
EOS used a 757, like OpenSkies, but had significantly fewer seats on board.  This made their economics very challenging.

JM: Well, now that the economy is very bad, how is OS coping?
DM: If we talk about economy, it’s a troublesome environment.  Over time it will pass, but the question is how deep will it get? People still will travel. We don’t need a huge amount of market space because we are 54-84 seats. We just want the right numbers to differentiate an experience that feels exclusive and is priced so competitively well.  I also feel that what I call the "non-productive cost" is taken out of the formula for travel on OS.: The difference between the $20 lunch and a $100 lunch at The Four Seasons is an unnecessary expense. But the road warrior executive has to travel at some level of comfort, and you can’t do that three abreast. If the business trip is to put together a deal or manage a deal, that’s part of the expense of business. If you can send a junior executive to Paris for $1,500 you'll probably do it. If it's $8,000 you may not. Still, you can bet we are avidly interested to talk to business people about relationships to manage costs. We can propose some attractive programs.

JM: What are the plans for expansion?
DM: When the time is right and we have better visibility into the economic situation, we will consider continuing our expansion. Possible European destinations that we’ve mentioned previously include Brussels, Frankfurt and Milan.


Dorchester Collection

     The Dorchester Collection is  the successor to the Dorchester Group, originally established by the Brunei Investment Agency in 1996 to manage its collection of five-star luxury hotels in Europe and the USA. According to their statement, "The launch of the Dorchester Collection in 2006 signaled a change to the strategic goals of the company. By applying its unrivaled experience and capability in owning and operating some of the world’s great individual hotels, the company’s mission is to develop an impeccable portfolio of the world’s finest hotels, both traditional and contemporary, through acquisition as well as management of wholly-owned and part-owned hotels, and to enter into management contracts for luxury city and resort hotels.   Backing the strategy is a strong company branding that expresses the market’s universally high regard for the current portfolio and the distinctive common values held by all Dorchester Collection hotels."
     Currently the hotels managed by the Dorchester Collection include The Dorchester in London, The Beverly Hills Hotel in Beverly Hills, Le Meurice in Paris, Hotel Plaza-Athenée in Paris, Hotel Principe e Savoia in Milan, The New York Palace in New York, and the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles.
    I spoke with CEO Christopher Cowdray (left) about the challenges of the current downtown in travel business.

JM: Where have you seen the biggest downtown and can you expand in such a market?
CC: Corporations having board meetings and lavish parties have declined. But we see upturns at different times of the year, as with the London art shows. Wives and families come at different times of the year, too. This is certainly a difficult time but we see it as an opportunity to buy hotels, and there are a lot more available for a good price right now.  We are wanting to expand but not to build new hotels. We have very set criteria in existence in prominent cities which we can manage for the owners or acquire.  There are a lot of hotels  on the market right now but not many we would be interested in.

JM: Where do you see strong possibilities?
CC: We think there is growth to be had in resort hotels in secondary markets like San Francisco, San Diego, Rome, Barcelona, and Madrid.

JM:  Just how important is the American market for your company?
CC: American market worldwide is very important. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t understand the business.  We have of course seen an improvement in business from Russia, the Middle East and Far East, and Europeans coming to the USA.  But Americans now find Europe more attractive now because of the stronger US dollar.

JM: Are there any specific ways you are trying to cater to your clients?
We are financially a strong company and therefore our focus is to look after our customers  extremely well.  We are not cutting costs in any way, but we are containing our costs. We apply a strict yield-management program  If we have availability and demand is low, then our rates will be down. The days of rack rates are gone and have been for a long time.

JM: What is the best way to get the best rate at one of your hotels?
CC: Any of the usual routes will yield the same result--the Internet, our own website, a travel agent, or calling the hotel directly; you will get the same rate. We work very hard to guarantee the same rate. The manager will not negotiate if you call the hotel directly.                                                                     Hotel Bel-Air, BelAir, CA


       Last fall I had the opportunity to sail the Mediterranean  on one of the Yachts of Seabourn, a luxury cruise line headquartered in Miami, whose ships are considerably smaller than the grotesque leviathans that ply the world's waters these days with thousands of passengers  gorging each day and night on sub-standard food and mediocre wines. Seabourn was easily the best of the cruise ships I've ever traveled on--impeccable service, first-rate cuisine, very well-chosen wines, and passengers that reminded me of what it must have once been like to hobnob with those who sailed back in the 1950s.
     Seabourn's ships are much smaller, more intimate, with current fleets carrying only 208 passengers per ship, which include the Pride, Spirit, and Legend,  with three more ships on the way over the next two years. While the prices are higher than, say, traveling on Carnival (which owns Seabourn), the amenities are exceptional and the food and wine the best in the industry--and the price is all-inclusive, for rooms, all meals, beverages, wines, and service, with no tipping at journey's end.
        I interviewed Adam Snitzer, VP of Marketing (below) of Seabourn about the current state of the luxe life on water.

JM: What makes the difference in price worth sailing on Seabourn rather than booking top accommodations on other lines?

AS: The size of our ships differentiate us. Our current fleet carries  208 passengers, and our new ships, Odyssey (to sail in June 2009), Sojourn (2010) and a third (in 2011) will carry 450 guests, whereas big lines carry thousands. We think a small ship gives you certain advantages, a more sophisticated experience, better service,  and better food, which is served in more of a restaurant style than a banquet style.  Because of our size and because we often sail to smaller ports, or even when we go to a big port like St. Petersburg, Rusia, we can go in and dock right in town.  Our pricing is comparable to what you'd pay for the upper suites on the big ships, with perhaps a 20% premium in price  But when you walk out of your suite on a big ship you are mingling with thousands of people and take part in that mass experience. On Seabourn you are always enjoying a more intimate and more sophisticated atmosphere.

JM: How does the food and beverage service differ?
AS: All our food is prepared à la minute, not in huge quantities made in advance.  We buy certain foods and have it shipped to our ships; as much as possible we buy at the local ports of call. Our
"Shopping with the Chef "programs are immensely popular with a pretty sophisticated food crowd, in which no more than eight guests tour the local markets with the chef and help choose what they'll enjoy for dinner that evening.

JM: And your wine service?
ASA: Wines are part of the all inclusive experience, including the minibar in rooms and the Champagne served throughout the ship. We consult  master sommeliers and have sommeliers onboard. There is also a Vintage Seabourn premium wine package at $400 that allows access to some of the finest wines in the world.  People are stunned by the reasonable price of the better wines; for instance, a wine that might cost you $120 at a restaurant will cost you about $40 on Seabourn.

JM: How is Seabourn coping with the current economic downturn globally?
AS:  There's no question things are really uncertain, and people are feeling anxiety about future. Guests are looking for quality and value. When people felt their stocks were doing well, their jobs and house secure, house, they had a sense of well-being that price was important but not that important. But even affluent people don't want to be ripped off.  Now people have to be even more careful.
     We've seen people booking closer to the departure and staying on the sidelines.  Our ships are still full but we get full closer to the departure. Our pricing is lower in 2009 because we've been offering special promotions--bringing out Odyssey with a special inaugural seasons savings program at a  discount of $1,000 per couple. We have packages in Northern Europe discounted $1,500 per couple  Seabourn Pride. We're doing more retail promotions, including three one-week sales for one week sailing at 60% off.  We're sending a very strong message of saving and of what the price is.

JM: In the past booking cruises is usually done far in advance. How has that changed?
AS: Our booking pattern on average used to be 7-8 months in advance. Now 5-6 months.

JM: Are there going to be any other changes in the brand?
AS: We pioneered small ship cruising 20 years ago. We believe the current economic downtown is temporary--one, two or three years.  Our plan is to continue to offer the same quality always have offered. Pricing is going to be a bit softer and we will be squeezed. We're trying to get more efficient without taking anything out of the product itself. We're already seeing our pricing attracting a lot of first-time Seabourn guests. We are committed to sailing at 100% occupancy. It creates a "feel better" atmosphere for guests and the morale of the employees, and we're going to move heaven and earth to make that happen.



by John Mariani

Center Cut
The Empire Hotel
44 West 63rd Street (near Broadway)

      I suspect steakhouse fever is dying down all over the USA, a market seriously supersaturated with high-end restaurants all touting the finest beef money can buy and rarely actually serving it. For a while it seemed like steakhouses were a sure thing everywhere, which is why so many celebrity chefs put their names on them instead of opening restaurants that showed the kind of talent and creativity that got them celebrity in the first place.
    In the case of Center Cut, the owner is not an absentee celebrity chef but the redoubtable Jeffrey Chodorow, a seasoned restaurant  entrepreneur whose China Grill Management has restaurants here, several in Miami, Las Vegas and elsewhere.  His New York entries have not all fared very well, but his last one, Kobe Club, took off fast in the high-flying expense account rich days of, what? a year ago?  Kobe Club specializes in Kobe-style beef from Japan, Australia, and the U.S., and its dark décor and hanging samurai swords were a matter of taste to diners.  Still, as far as I know, the restaurant is doing well.
      Center Cut, which opened last fall, has a much more conservative atmosphere, even old-fashioned in the use of polished wood, swag curtains, very roomy tables, and pretty wall sconces, with a bar up front and an raw bar mid-way through.  Located just across from Lincoln Center, it's a very good choice for pre- or post-theater; although this is a menu heavy with steaks and chops, you could just go for the raw seafood and a glass of wine, then trip lightly over to the theaters and not risk falling immediately asleep.
      There is a long cocktail list with funny names like Persephone's Tea, Rhapsody in Blue, and the Candide Pear that echo Lincoln Center productions, along with a classics list, although a simple daiquiri (rum, lime, sugar) was beyond the bartender's talents one evening.  The winelist is highly commendable for the fact that the overwhelming majority of bottlings are well under $100 and scores are under $50. Eight beers are offered.
      The menu, under Chef Bradley Day, is not straying far from the standard New York steakhouse listings, but a few of his out-of-the-ordinary dishes are extremely well conceived and executed. His "Double Double lobster bisque" lives up to its billing, not by being heavy but by being rich with the essence of lobster flavor, along with a good dose of cream.  The "five alarm wagyu chili" wasn't quite as incendiary as I expected but it was very good, though I'm sure that using a less grade than wagyu would have provided almost as much beef flavor amidst all those savory seasonings. The lump crab cake came with a tangy blood orange marmalade,   and very fine duck foie gras was served as a terrine with Concord grape compote--a good hefty slice for $17. Something called "inverted onion soup" was all right if far from the best you'll find in NYC.
     The theater theme is followed on the menu with "Act II," which includes "Modern Classics" of six cuts or preparations of Brandt beef, a source for all-natural, organic, sustainably raised steers that eat corn year-round. It's a very good product and Chef Day knows how best to keep it charred and juicy.  The strip steak can be ordered at 12 ounces ($38) or, for two, at 24 ounces ($69), which prices out well among Center Cut's steakhouse competitors.  There is also roast prime rib, cooked very, very slowly for eight hours to keep all the juices in, although a little more crisping of the outer skin is preferable. They also serve Colorado lamb and a good rendering of filet mignon with real flavor, done Rossini-style with a topping of foie gras and a Port glaze. With your meats you have a choice of six sauces with which to lavish your meats, ranging from bordelaise to peppercorns.
     T here are poultry selections like roasted chicken with a Dijon mustard and thyme crust, and "Duck Ellington," the breast served with an orange sauce and wild rice.  Seared Chilean sea bass (above) was deliciously juicy beneath a cosseting toasted almond crust and drizzled in a pinot noir reduction, with apple currant slaw on top. I was disappointed that Center Cut doesn't serve gargantuan lobsters that are iconic requisites in most New York steakhouses; the critters here weigh out at a puny 1 /2 pounds.
      As long as you're eating carnivorously, might as well go with the terrific roasted corn and manchego cheese gratin and the creamed spinach. The eggplant fries are damn good too.
     And as long as you're splurging. don't neglect desserts like cookies hot from the oven with milk, or the "fountain" sweets like the black-and-white milk shake or the pistachio crunch parfait;  the hot butterscotch and cheesecake ice cream sundae is a whole lot of dessert you might want to share.  If you're feeling particularly festive you might consider the bananas Foster, crêpes Suzette, or the cherries Jubilee--two venerable desserts you would be hard put to find elsewhere in New York these days.
      So there's a lot on Center Cut's menu for which you might readily bring a non-meat eater or just a nosher.  It breaks the NY steakhouse mold but only enough to make things interesting, like a new variation on a classic Lincoln Center opera or ballet.  It deserves your applause.
Center Cut offers a
$39 pre- and post-theater dinner available for 2 courses and homemade cookies to go.  Otherwise, dinner appetizers run  $12-$19, entrees $25-$41, with selections from the raw bar individually priced.



A Wide and Notable Array of Geyser Peak Wines

by Mort Hochstein

   Geyser Peak has always been one of the more consistent California  wineries, dependable, steady and good value.  But it seems never to have had  a high profile despite wide acceptance in retail stores and restaurants, and consistently scoring well in competition.
    It is a   winery with a long  and bumpy history dating back to 1880.  It went bankrupt twice in the same century and has careened between frequently changed owners that have included  two  beer firms, the  giant spirits conglomerate Fortune Brands (best known for Jim Beam),  and Constellation Brands, the nation’s largest wine group. Last June, Constellation sold Geyser Peak and three other well-established California wineries, Gary Farrell, Buena Vista, and Atlas Peak to Ascentia Wine Estates, a newly formed company headed by Jim Debonis, CEO and former COO of Beam Wine States.
     Winemaker Mike Schroeter (below), who has been on staff at Geyser Peak since the 1990s, says the wines did not suffer in the transfers, despite all the ups and downs in the corporate suite.   “Fortunately,” the Australian-trained Schroeter says, “despite all the transitions at the top, management concentrated on marketing and knew enough to observe an admirable hands-off policy in the winery, allowing us to produce wines the way we saw fit.”
      Schroeter and his team produce wine at three price points,  starting with Geyser Peak California varietals running between $12 and $14. Although they might be considered Geyser Peak’s entry level wines, these are anything but basic, exhibiting a balance and flavor attributes that many more expensive wines would be proud to achieve. The star of the portfolio is their Sauvignon Blanc, which is sourced from cool, coastal areas, primarily Monterey and Lake  County, while all others  are made with grapes from nearby Alexander Valley   vineyards.   They include a rich, creamy Chardonnay and a velvety Cabernet Sauvignon, with moderating touches from doses of Shiraz, Petit Verdot and Merlot, producing  a very consumer friendly wine at a consumer friendly price of $18.
       “Oddly,” Schroeter comments, “Sauvignon Blanc was a small part of our line until about seven years ago when we actually made more Riesling than Sauvignon Blanc. Then the Sauvignon, made in an extremely consumer friendly style, took off  and  it’s now half of our overall production."
       The Geyser Peak Sauvignon is closest in format to New Zealand examples, slightly less herbaceous, but still with classic grassy tones, and hints of melon, lime and guava. It sets out a crisp acidity which pairs with a slight residual sweetness, and  ends with a long flavorful finish.
       At the top of the Geyser Peak pyramid  are two sumptuous reds, a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Reserve Alexandre Meritage, a wine blended from five classic Bordeaux varieties. They are a combination of several batches of selected grapes, fermented and blended in small lots, melding to form an expressive and seductive wine. They are world class wines, silky and aromatic, good values when compared with other top-tier Cabernets selling in much higher price brackets.
    What’s interesting here is the use of both American and French oak.  The American wood is used for barrel fermenting the Reserve Cab, adding a slightly sweet, more approachable character.  The Meritage, more Bordeaux in style, is aged in 100% French oak. Other Geyser Peak reds use varying ratios of domestic and imported barrels. The use of American oak reflects Schroeter’s training.  Australians seem to favor  American oak for the spicy  tones it throws off,  as well as its bottom line costs,  about  half the price of  French barrels . The Reserve carries a suggested retail price of $46 and the Meritage is $48.
       The big thrust at Geyser Peak is that middle tier of the pyramid, a newly launched program of block collection wines selling in the low- to mid-twenties. Unlike the more familiar practice of fielding single vineyards wines, the block program brings together juice from selected vineyard sites,. Featured wines are  River Ranches Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River Valley, Water Bend Chardonnay and Walking Tree Cabernet Sauvignon, both from Alexander Valley. Walking Tree takes its name from an ancient oak tree that slowly made its way down the steep grade of a vineyard near the winery, maintaining an upright position all the way down. Lush and smooth, with blackberry, cassis and sweet spice tones, the Cab mixes grapes from the hillside vineyard and other fields within Alexander Valley.
      Water Bend Chardonnay, named for a sandy-soiled vineyard block at the foot of a hill near the Russian River, is a well balanced white with good acidity and complex aromas and flavors of pear and melon, and vanilla coming off   its barrels. The wine is fermented in 20% French and 80% water-bent American oak aged between one and three years. Schroeter says the practice of soaking the staves of American oak barrels in hot water before they are bent and shaped is an alternative root for the odd name.  The hot water bath leaches away harsh components and yields a subtle oak character and a high degree of creaminess to the wine.
       Schroeter feels the Russian River Valley’s cool climate helps produce the intensity and high fruit qualities he aims for in Sauvignon Blanc. It is loaded with lime and grapefruit flavors, balanced by a bright but not overpowering acidity and a long flow of citrus on the finish.  Several Sauvignon clones and a variety of trellis applications, matching  the needs of specific sites, go into the making of this flagship white.  All three  represent good quality at an approachable price tag in this time of higher and higher priced wines.


Question #4: What kind of coffee do you
think Mother Teresa would drink?

According to an article in the NY Times, Angel O’Brien, owner of the Ladybug Organic Coffee Company  in Portland, Oregon, hands job applicants a five-page application form that includes 10 essay questions, including:

1.What is the most important thing that you have ever learned and how has it changed your life?

2. What is something you do on a regular basis to make the world a better place?

3. What is one thing you think would make Portland a better city?


"After listening to the waiter try to explain the concept at the new XIV in West Hollywood, we're thoroughly confused. It's social dining, he tells us. But isn't all eating in restaurants inherently social? The menu is all small plates, but he doesn't call it a small-plates restaurant either. `So -- it's a tasting menu,' someone prompts the waiter. `No, it's not,' he answers. OK, then, could it be considered a do-it-yourself multi-course menu? Something like that. Only problem: Because everyone at the table has to order the same thing, with my bunch of opinionated diners, we could be here all night negotiating. It happened on a first visit, and that was with like-minded guests. But with this group? I'm opting for the chef choosing. (Hey, but it's not a tasting menu.)"--S. Irene Virbila, in a review of XIV, Los Angeles Times (1/14/09).


 * NYC’s French Culinary Institute L’Ecole  restaurant, inspired by family recipes and favorite dishes of the master Deans and Chef-Instructors, is introducing a new Chef’s Classics Menu, incl. favorites such as choucroute and Cassoulet, available à la carte ($17) or as part of a prix lunch at $25 or dinner $35. Call

* From Feb. 18-27 the Tour de France Restaurant Group  is back with is celebratory tribute to the stinkiest cheeses of the world ay 9  NYC restaurants:  Marseille, Café d'Alsace, Nice Matin, Maison, L'Express, Le Monde, French Roast and Pigalle. Visit

* From now until Oct. 31, Amanyara resort on Turks & Caicos in the Caribbean  offers complimentary meals to guests who book 4 nights or more in one of the resort’s Pavilions or Villas in the Restaurant and at the Beach Club.  Visit

* Mandarin Oriental’s Elbow Beach, Bermuda, has put together a series of wine tasting classes conducted by the property’s Sommelier, David Gemmell and incl. culinary accompaniments and a special gift.  The tastings will take place on Saturdays priced at $110 pp. Call the Seahorse Grill at 441-239-9303 or email  Visit

* PARISH: Foods & Goods is bringing Mardi Gras to Atlanta.   Mixologist Steven Kowalczuk will show how to create authentic New Orleans cocktails on Feb. 17;  on  Feb. 18, Chef Tim Magee  will hold  a N’awlins Classic Sandwich Making Class; On Feb. 21 there will be an afternoon of Mardi Gras fun,  with live music by Charlie Wooten's Zydefunk, crawfish, oysters, whole roasted pig and more, Abita Beer, Hurricanes and oyster shooters. Donations benefit the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Tickets cost $35 pre-sale (call PARISH at 404.681.4434) or $40 at the door. Call 404-681-4434.

* Beginning Feb. 18 Master Sommelier Emily Wines hosts a series of “Three on Five” Beverage Battles at Fifth Floor Restaurant in San Francisco with two fellow experts in wine, spirits and beer to compete against her each month in choosing the most perfect pairings for a 5-course meal by Chef Jennie Lorenzo. The winning pairings and dishes will then be offered as a special package in addition to the regular à la carte menu the week, for $125 pp. Visit  or call 415-348-1555.

* On Feb. 21 Chicago's Vermilion will hold a "Slumdog PreOscar Party" with a troupe of Live Bollywood Dancers,  DJ & Dancing, after dinner ($15 cover after 9:30pm), "More Spice Cocktails" and  Street Bombay Cuisine. Call  312-527-4060;

* On Feb. 21 in West Point, NY, the historic Thayer Hotel will hold its Mardi Gras Murder Mystery Dinner Theater for $200 per couple, or $100 pp, with cocktail hour, dinner in the Thayer’s gothic-style dining room, and an interactive dinner theater performance.  Add an overnight stay for $339 per couple with breakfast buffet or $379 per couple with Sunday Champagne Brunch.  Call (800) 247-5047, locally at (845) 446-4731 or visit

* On  Feb. 21 in Miami Beach, Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau Hotel during the weekend of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, friends and colleagues of late restaurateur Steven Scher gather together to prepare a sit-down brunch benefiting the Steven Scher Memorial Scholarship for Aspiring Restaurateurs in association with The James Beard Foundation.  Host chef Scott Conant welcomes chefs Charlie Trotter and John Fraser and pastry chef Jean Marie Auboine, while guest sommelier Jean Luc Le Dû presides over the wine service. $200 ($180 for James Beard members.) Visit or call 212-627-2308.

* From Feb. 20-24 SUSHISAMBA brings Brazil’s 2009 Carnaval festival to the streets of NYC, with  live samba dancing, drummers and special menus, and live video feeds from the annual festival in Brazil. Visit

* On Feb. 22 in Berkeley, CA,  Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto has announced a 4-course Beer Dinner prepared by Chef Devon Boisen, paired with beer. $39.95 pp. Call (510) 845-7771;

* On Feb. 24 Ozumo Restaurant in Oakland, CA,  will  host an “East Meets West” Mardi Gras celebration incl. live drummers and samba dancers, the diverse sounds of New Orleans as present by DJ Gray, and “Fat Tuesday” Brazilian drink specials. No cover charge and no reservations are required. Visit <>  or call 510-286-9866.

* On Feb. 24 Piccolo in Venice, CA, presents its "Venetian Carnevale Fat Tuesday Edition" 9th Reversal Dinner, because instead of you choosing first the food and then pare it with the wine, you’ll only choose the wine first, and we will pare it with the food, picked by our sommelier Pietro Biondi and chef Roberto Ivan. $70  and  $110 pp. Call 310-314-3222; visit

* Starting Feb. 25 in Cambridge, MA, Bambara Executive Chef Jay Silva  hosts Boston Chefs Anthony Susi (Sage), Andy Husbands (Tremont 647 / Sister Sorel) and Dante de Magistris (dante, Il Casale) as a 3-part series called CHEFploitations. $50 pp.  Call 617-868-4444 or go to

* On Feb. 26 in Calabasas, CA, Saddle Peak Lodge will host a 4-course Chef Adam Horton benefit dinner by for the L.A. Fire Department—Station #67, next door to the restaurant.  $100 pp. Call 818-222-3888 or visit

* On Feb. 27 in NYC, il Buco's Umbrian Harvest dinner  will be held in the wine cellar.  Each table will have a one-on-one tasting with Donna Lennard, owner of il Buco of the new harvests (2008)  oil followed by a tasting of the 2007 oil. Sommelier Roberto Paris will also be on hand throughout the evening to discuss the Umbrian wine pairings.  4 course menu with wine pairings and a complimentary copy of Donna's award-winning film about the olive harvest for $100 pp.  Call 212-533-1932;

* On Feb. 27 the Back Bay Bistro at Newport Dunes Resort, will uncork its inaugural wine dinner series with the first event highlighting an array of premium varietals from Argentina and dishes created by Chef Daniel Jimenez. $40 p. Call 949-729-3863 or visit

*   On Feb. 28 in Covington, LA,  the grand opening of the first Bonefish Grill in the Greater Metropolitan New Orleans area will be celebrated with a charity fundraiser event for le Cocon du Papillion, a transition complex in St. Tammany Parish for women and children who have been victims of domestic violence. A $25 donation per person incl. complementary drinks, signature appetizers and a main course tasting. Call 985-351-7224. Visit

*  From  March 1-7, Atlantic City Restaurant Week has more than 70 participating restaurants with  lunches for $15.09 pp and dinners for $33.09. A full list of participating restaurants is available online at

* From March 2-6,  Chef Renato Piccolotto and his team from the Hotel Cipriani in Venice, will be at NYC's `21' Club, for the next installment of Table Travels at ‘21’. His classic Venetian cuisine will be available to guests throughout the week. The  Hotel Cipriani Wine Dinner is  $165 pp, with wine.  Cooking Class, March 6, at $195 pp for lesson/demo, lunch with Chef Piccolotto. Call  212- 582-1400.

* Beginning March 3, top Bay Area Chefs and Farmers will come together to host the 1st annual “A Moveable Feast: Twelve Chefs Celebrate Six Farmers in a Series of Seasonal Suppers.” Each month, 2 chefs will collaborate with a local farmer to create an extraordinary to benefit The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture mission of promoting a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its Education Programs. Chefs incl. Greg Dumore, Ame; Mark Sullivan, Spruce; Loretta Keller, Coco500 and The Moss Room and Dominique Crenn, Luce, among others.  $80 pp. Visit

* On March 5, a ZD Vineyards Wine Dinner & Fundraiser for the Leuze Family Endowment for a Cure for Lymphoma will be held at Austin's Driskill Grill with chef Jonathan Gelman.   $98 pp. Call 512-391-7041.

* On March 8 in NYC, Chef Daniel Boulud of Daniel hosts "Black truffles, Blue Jeans, Burgundy, & Blues," a Sunday supper  to support for Citymeals-on-Wheels. Chefs Michel Troisgos of  Roanne,France, and Daniel Humm of New York’s Eleven Madison Park will add their culinary mastery.  The  silent auction incl. wines in rare, large format bottles and numerous gourmet items; live auction featuring  experiences in travel, gourmet dining and fine wines.  Guest of honor, Le Cirque's Sirio Maccioni. $1,000 pp, with “GOURMAND” tables for 10 guests @ $25,000, hosted by noted Burgundy wine makers who will be serving prized vintages at these premium tables. Call 212-687-1290 or

* Dublin’s The Merrion Hotel offers 2 packages for St. Patrick’s Day.  The St. Patrick's Festival Special Offer incl. accommodations in a superior double or twin room in the hotel's Garden Wing, full Irish breakfast for two the next morning and 2 Black Velvets, on arrival from March 14-20, at $205 pp.  The St. Patrick's Shamrock Package incl. 2 grandstand tickets and picnic box lunch for the St. Patrick's Day Festival Parade on March 17, at $497 pp. from March 16-19.

* On March 15 in Las Vegas,  Chef Nico Chessa and the staff at Giorgio Ristorante at Mandalay Place celebrate Julius Caesars’ final day as the self-proclaimed “Ruler of the Romans,” also known as the “Ides of March,” with a 3-course wine dinner inspired from traditional and contemporary Roman cuisine.  $49 pp. Call 702-920-2700.   Visit

* On March 15 in Sacramento, CA, Family Winemakers of California, an Association of California Table Wine Producers, has selected Del Mar Fairgrounds to host its first tasting open to the public, at the Activity Center on the Del Mar Fairgrounds, with an opportunity to sample wines from 200 of California's small, family-owned wineries. Tix for consumers are $40 in advance and $50 at the door. Visit


NEW FEATURE: I am happy to  report that the Virtual Gourmet is  linking up with four excellent travel sites:

Everett Potter's Travel  Report

I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the  web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury  Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and  a frequent contributor to National  Geographic Traveler,  and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their  travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special  places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of  staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star  places as five-star experiences."  To go to his blog click on the logo below: THIS WEEK: LINCOLN, LONDON AND LOVING


Eating Las Vegas is the new on-line site for Virtual Gourmet contributor John A. Curtas., who since 1995 has been commenting on the Las Vegas food scene and reviewing restaurants for Nevada Public Radio.  He is also the restaurant critic for KLAS TV, Channel 8 in Las Vegas, and his past reviews can be accessed at Click on the logo below to go directly to his site.


Tennis Resorts OnlineA Critical Guide to the World's Best Tennis Resorts and Tennis Camps, published by ROGER COX, who has spent more than two decades writing about tennis travel, including a 17-year stretch for Tennis magazine. He has also written for Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, Money, USTA Magazine, Men's Journal, and The Robb Report. He has authored  two books-The World's Best Tennis Vacations (Stephen Greene Press/Viking Penguin, 1990) and The Best Places to  Stay in the Rockies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992 & 1994), and the Melbourne (Australia) chapter to the Wall Street Journal Business Guide to Cities of the Pacific Rim (Fodor's Travel Guides, 1991).  THIS WEEK: YOUR TENNIS VALENTINES

Family Travel Forum: The Family Travel Forum (FTF), whose motto is "Have Kids, Still Travel!", is dedicated to the ideals, promotion and support of travel with children. Founded by business professionals John Manton and Kyle McCarthy with first class travel industry credentials and global family travel experience, the independent, family-supported FTF will provide its members with honest, unbiased information, informed advice and practical tips; all designed to make traveling a rewarding, healthy, safe, better value and hassle-free experience for adults and children who journey together. Membership in FTF will lead you to new worlds of adventure, fun and learning. Join the movement.  THIS WEEK: Sex Lives and Romance with Kids in Tow.

Family Travel Forum

All You Need to Know Before You Go


MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly.  Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani,   John A. Curtas, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright, and Brian Freedman. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery,  Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.

 John Mariani is a columnist for Esquire, Wine Spectator, Bloomberg News and Radio, and Diversion.  He is author of The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink (Lebhar-Friedman), The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink (Broadway), and, with his wife Galina, the award-winning Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).

 Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from by clicking on the cover image.

My newest book, written with my brother Robert Mariani, is a memoir of our years growing up in the North Bronx. It's called Almost Golden because it re-visits an idyllic place and time in our lives when so many wonderful things seemed possible.
    For those of you who don't think of the Bronx as “idyllic,” this book will be a revelation. It’s about a place called the Country Club area, on the shores of Pelham Bay. It was a beautiful neighborhood filled with great friends and wonderful adventures that helped shape our lives. It's about a culture, still vibrant, and a place that is still almost the same as when we grew up there.
Robert and I think you'll enjoy this very personal look at our
Bronx childhood. It is not yet available in bookstores, so to purchase a copy, go to or click on  Almost Golden.
--John Mariani

© copyright John Mariani 2009