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The other day I was in one of those “Walmart” type wine shops. I’m referring to those large stores with numerous selections and lower prices who rely on high volume sales to grind out a profit. While all the main wine producing regions of the globe are represented, American wines tend to dominate. There may be a few European jewels but basically the shelves are overflowing with cheap, everyday, uninspired offerings good for cooking, quaffing indulgently, or serving to individuals with flexible standards.
I was searching the Italian section for Lacryma Christi, (tears of Christ), a delectable red from the Vesuvio zone of Italy’s Campania region, which lies east of Naples. It is medium bodied, deeply colored, fruity, and with appealing cherry and berry overtones. It is also inexpensive, (given the quality), at around $20 a bottle. Legend has it that when Lucifer received his pink slip in heaven, he descended into Vesuvius, the infamous volcano that destroyed Pompeii. There his nefarious activities caused Christ to weep. The soil upon which his tears fell gave birth to grapevines. Legends and spirituality aside, the eruption of Vesuvius did cause rich, organic lava to fertilize the land and facilitate the cultivation of grapes.
In any event, a store employee happened by and offered his assistance. When I told him what I was looking for he seemed befuddled and said he would ask his “wine guy.” He retuned momentarily and directed me to a bottle of Valpolicella. I stated: “That’s Valpolicella, not Lacryma Christi”, to which he replied: “It’s the same thing.” I retorted by explaining that they’re two entirely different wines, from different grapes, and from different regions of Italy. His final rebuttal was: “Well I asked my wine guy and he knows his stuff.” (Just for the record, Valpolicella hails from the Veneto region in northeast Italy. It is made primarily from Corvina grapes while Lacryma Christi is made from Piedirosso, Sciascinoso, and Aglianico grapes. Although a pleasant wine, Valpolicella is lighter in body and less complex than Lacryma Christi).
The point of my protracted introduction is that the general public is at the mercy of the “professionals” in the wine shop, behind the butcher case, or in the fish market to guide them in selecting their commodities. In essence, you must first trust that this individual knows what he’s talking about and second, gives a damn about your satisfaction.
That’s a tall order. Even a brief visit to planet Earth will teach you that not everyone can be trusted. Joe non-wine-expert Schmo, whose friend told him about this great wine called Lacryma Christi, would have went home with a bottle of Valpolicella. Meanwhile, the wine mega-mart avoided a “no-sale” by passing off one kind of wine as another. A clear breach of trust if you ask me. Sometimes people can’t be trusted because they’re conniving and self-serving. Other times, like in the following example, they’re just as ignorant as the average consumer.
This past weekend I was in a well known supermarket, one in a chain known for its gourmet products and of course, high prices. I was making tuna tartare and sushi and needed a piece of sushi-grade tuna. The clerk behind the counter instructed me to freeze the tuna first. Already knowing this was gross misinformation I asked him why. “To kill the bacteria” was his reply. Ok here we go. For starters, eating raw fish isn’t the biohazard that the American germaphobic culture would have you believe, but that’s another article. Let’s assume for the sake of argument with the food neurotics, that the tuna was permeated with all this “dangerous” bacteria. Freezing does not kill bacteria; it only slows down its growth. What freezing does do is reduce the fish’s flavor and impart a watery texture. Joe Schmo, (who just bought the Valpolicella), who wants to try making sushi at home, will now ruin his $20/lb. top quality tuna. All he needs now is some imbecile to tell him the Valpolicella goes well with the sushi and the cycle will be complete.
The first and foremost solution to the problem is erudition. Nothing can protect you from the perils of relying on strangers better than doing your homework. But of course that takes a lot of time and effort. The scholarly approach is only pragmatic for individuals who pursue food and wine as a profession or a hobby. There are plenty of people who wish to enjoy good food and wine without having to get a degree in it.
So when you can’t trust yourself, how do you begin to trust others? Same as in all walks of life: you build a relationship. Although certainly not an ironclad guarantee, a bond of trust is best forged in the context of a long term relationship. It starts with trial and error. If one store or clerk gives you bum advice you take your business elsewhere. Once you find someone who steers you right, then you stick with them. I not only have a favorite wine shop, but a favorite employee. Over time he has proven not only his knowledge but his loyalty. I strongly recommend you do the same with your butcher, your fish monger, and any other purveyor whose expertise you must depend on for making your selections. Being a repeat customer increases the chances that they will be motivated to maintain your satisfaction.
In another twist of the Lacryma Christi legend, as the devil was descending from heaven he took a piece of paradise with him and dropped it at the foot of Vesuvius on the Italian coast. This piece of heaven became the Bay of Naples. Who would think that behind this beautiful vista lurked unspeakable evil? In God we trust. Everyone else is suspect.