Barb Stuckey loves a glass of good Sauvignon Blanc, often at the end of a day in which she might be tasting everything but wine. She might be called upon to weigh in on the latest efforts at tortilla chips, cereals, processed garlic purees and inventive pizzas or, as required recently, analyze a few upscale chain restaurants, all in her job leading the marketing and consumer research functions at Mattson, a Bay-Area company that develops new foods.
When she started at Mattson, the business school graduate had no clue what the food experts were talking about as they dissected the food they tasted. But she learned, and soon what she knew about tasting made dining in her nonprofessional life a more satisfying experience. That was the impetus for her book, published this year: Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good (Free Press, 407 pages, $26).
When a foreign cuisine first wowed you in a restaurant, was it in a storefront run by a recent immigrant, or did it happen in a fancier place created by an American chef or restaurateur passionate about a cuisine that at one point was just as foreign to him or her as it was to you?
Some of the best-known practitioners in the U.S. of Thai, Mexican, Chinese and other “foreign” cuisines are Americans with no familial ties to the cultures in question. Andy Ricker recently opened branches in New York of Pok Pok, his hyper-successful Portland, Ore., Thai restaurant. Ed Schoenfeld of RedFarm, a stylized Chinese restaurant, and Alex Stupak of Empellón Cocina, a Mexican restaurant, have also wowed New York critics and customers. Rick Bayless of Chicago restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo is acknowledged to be America’s master of Mexican cooking. All of them were referenced recently in a New York Times story, which asked who should best represent ethnic cuisines in the public’s mind.
After a week in Willamette Valley tasting Oregon’s 2010 and 2011 Pinot Noirs, I am impressed. If delicacy is what you crave, these vintages provided the framework for it. If you love rich wines and think delicate Pinot Noirs can’t have ripe flavors, these vintages might persuade you otherwise.
My enthusiasm comes with a couple of caveats, however. One is the weather, which posed serious challenges in both vintages. Unlike 2008, when making exceptional wine was pretty much a no-brainer, negotiating the cool, rainy conditions of 2010 and 2011 required skills that only those who had experienced them before could muster. As a result, you can’t just pluck a bottle off the shelf. A significant percentage of producers missed. Some missed by a wide margin.
I had not seen Aldo Conterno, the legendary Barolo producer, in more than 20 years. I had made an appointment to visit him at the winery outside the town of Monforte d’Alba while on vacation with my wife. We drove up to the hilltop building on a showery Monday morning in April. Aldo’s son Giacamo met us and conveyed his father’s regrets that he could not be there. He was in a hospital recovering from pneumonia.
Late last week, when the sad news reached us that Aldo was dead at 81, I flashed back to a sunny day in the late 1980s when I first visited him at the winery. We sat in the warm courtyard after the obligatory tour of the cellar and a drive through the vineyard, and talked about the revolution that was under way in Piemonte.