It wasn't too long ago that traditional riojas and sherries were the only wines associated with Spain. And while the crazy popularity of Spanish cuisine has definitely bolstered appreciation for the country's wines in America, Katrin Naelapaa, executive director of Wines From Spain, makes it her business to ensure Spanish grapes get just as much love as their Italian and French counterparts. Naelapaa, who's been with the company since 1992, tells us how she helped build the once-fledgling industry into a $2 billion export business.
How has the perception of Spanish wines changed over the years?
It's night and day compared to what it was in the early 1990s. There were only a handful of wineries actively selling their wine in the United States then. Packaging design was generally poor and the overall quality and variety was nowhere close to where it is today.
What do you think needed to be done?
I felt strongly that Spain needed to elevate its image and align itself with the changing culinary landscape in major U.S. cities. Thankfully, at this time many tremendously positive changes were happening in the Spanish wine industry, so it became increasingly possible to capture the attention of the wine critics, sommeliers and the wine trade.
You work in a very male-dominated industry. What have you learned about making yourself stand out and succeed?
Over the course of my tenure with Wines From Spain, women have gained so much ground in the industry that I no longer think of it as a male-dominated industry. On the winemaking side in Spain, more women are enrolled in winemaking career programs today than men, and in certain regions such as Rias Baixas, there are more female winemakers than male. On the marketing side, many women are in the top positions of their companies as well. Certainly the same could be said about the wine industry in this country.
What advice would you give to winemakers in lesser-known markets today?
The U.S. wine consumer is generally curious, restless and always looking for something new. High quality wines combined with clear packaging design, a flavor profile that is approachable, and a compelling story (which so many wineries have), can go a long way in helping sell wine.
What do you think the "hot" new Spanish wine will be?
Americans are becoming familiar with the indigenous Spanish grape varietals—Tempranillo, Garnacha, Albariño and Verdejo—and the names of the top regions such as Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Rias Baixas. Seemingly every year, there is a new "hot" region or grape that critics and wine lovers embrace, like Priorat, Bierzo or Txakoli. Now, I think there is a lot of interest in individual parcels of land—wines produced from a single lot or vineyard that communicate the high quality and sense of place that Spanish wines offer.
It may seem like I've been harping on service lately, since my last post was about tipping inattentive waitstaff. But a recent incident between a powerful restaurant critic and a hot restaurant is just too interesting to ignore. (And, hey, it is called the service industry.) In the latest issue of GQ, critic Alan Richman wrote a piece about his experience with M.Wells, a perpetually packed critical darling (Bon Appetit just named it one of the Best New Restaurants in America) in Queens, New York.
After twice eating at the quirky establishment—which features unapologetically rich, super-tasty French-Canadian inflected fare served in a diner setting—Richman was charmed by the delicious food, if not the lackadaisical service. So he asked Sarah Obraitis, who owns the restaurant with husband and chef Hugue Dufour, if he could do a story about the restaurant. She agreed and a third visit was set.
During that visit Richman and his guests received extremely poor service—a 45 minute wait between courses, a huffy, eye-rolling server, dirty dishes and glassware. The next day he got an e-mail from Obraitis: "I am a bit distressed by the feedback I received after your visit last night. Either you had despicable service or you guys were in an awful mood. It seems we couldn’t make you happy, several servers heard you complain and ask for more attention. One of those servers, a female, received a hardy pat on the ass from you. Totally unacceptable in our world."
Richman vehemently denies the accusation and speculates that either the server fabricated the story to deflect attention from her behavior that night or Obraitis made it up to intimidate the critic so he wouldn’t write an unflattering review. Personally, I find it hard to believe that if Richman did sexually harass the waitress, he would call attention to it by writing about it in a national magazine. I do, however, find it much easier to believe that a hot restaurant sometimes has little reason to improve bad service when there are scores of people clamoring to get in.
Richman calls it the "hipster restaurant mentality"—and I am as tired of it as he is. For all the popular restaurants that have excellent service, there seem to be a few who act like they’re doing you a favor by allowing you into their temples of gastronomy—and equate indifferent service with being cool.
How do you feel about the M. Wells incident? Do you think Richman's reaction was justified?
Your food sucked, your server's attitude hovered somewhere between dismissive and hostile, and if there was an award for longest time elapsed between courses (delivered by the cockroach you saw skitter across the eatery's bathroom wall) this restaurant would win. Hopefully the grand trifecta of dining disasters does not happen to you. And if so, my condolences, and hopefully a trip to a nice Danny Meyer establishment to make it up is in order.
But what if one of the three happens? A more likely occurrence—and one you'd probably consider lowering your usual tip for when the check finally arrives. But do you? While some diners would have no problem leaving little or no tip when bad service is rendered, there are others who know that many restaurant workers rely on tips to make the rent (minimum wage for food service workers in New York is $5/hour; in other states it's close to $3). I almost always, as L.A. Weekly critic Jonathan Gold advises, tip 20 percent, doing the New Yorker shorthand of doubling the 8.5 percent tax amount and adding a bit on top of that because, as my loved ones know, the less math I'm required to do the better.
But at dinner at a sushi spot in Fort Lauderdale, I had a waitress who was flippant to begin with: When asked to return a piece of sea urchin that was clearly not fresh, she said, "Well, some people aren't used to eating sea urchin." That may be true, but I live for sea urchin. If I were on death row, it would be somewhere in my last meal. I've had it in many forms, from the uni and lardo crostini at New York City's Marea, to my favorite, unadorned and impeccably fresh at Azuma in Sydney. To imply that I'm unfamiliar with it isn't only untrue, it's dangerous—especially if I had consumed seafood that was off.
She then became rude when I politely asked that the uni be removed from the check, claiming that any items taken off the bill were docked from her salary. When the check appeared I called the manager, who not only said that the item wouldn't be taken out of the waitress' salary, but promptly removed it from the bill. I left a 10 percent tip, but was upset by the experience.
What would you have done? How much do you usually tip—and what makes you tip substantially lower (or higher) than that number?
Sisters Sabina and Lorraine Belkin get on sickeningly well: They live together, have the same friends, even go to the gym together. They also co-own Duo Restaurant & Lounge, New York City eatery. How do they keep their relationship healthy while working together in a notoriously stressful industry?
"We almost never argue in our personal or business relationships—we both rationalize the situation and come to a mutual agreement," says Sabina. Sounds simple—but how does that actually play out real life? I asked the Belkins, as well as brothers (and co-owners of New York City's Dos Toros Tacqueria) Leo and Oliver Kremer what they've learned about keeping it all in the family, while keeping the peace.
• Have things in writing. "We didn't initially have a formal contract because we didn't have a clear view of what the responsibilities would be," says Leo. "After we opened, we created an operating agreement that spelled out financial issues more specifically, and what would happen in the event of a sale or bankruptcy."
• Address problems immediately. "One of the biggest advantages of working with your brother is that we can hash out disagreements directly and don't have to be careful telling each other what we really think," says Leo. "There's a deep and implicit trust. Not that two non-brothers couldn't have that trust, but it’s almost automatic with family. Also, we crack each other up."
• Know each other's strengths. "Lorraine is the social butterfly and loves to chat with patrons and clientele," says Sabina, who adds that her sister's experience with corporate and special events makes her the go-to person for those bookings. "She also went to FIT and has a great fashion sense, so she was able to help a lot with the design aspect of the restaurant." Sabina, in contrast, handles day-to-day operations, meetings, and negotiations.
• Don't make it all business all the time. "We were hesitant to work together because there was a lot of concern that if things didn't work out it would damage our relationship," says Leo. "Our other worry was that we would talk less about our lives and relationship as brothers and would primarily relate in terms of our business. Luckily, none of this has come to pass!"
Caitlin Shetterly, 36, knows how to eat on the cheap: In 2009, her husband, Dan, lost his job and the couple and their newborn baby moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Maine, to live with Shetterly's mother until they could get back on their feet. Her new book Made For You and Me chronicles the family’s journey, including how they managed to eat well—and organic—on very little. (Their grocery bill, including feeding two adults, a baby and two pets, was about $88/week.) Here's how they did it.
What were some of your favorite low-cost recipes?
One of my all-time favorite low cost recipes (and was also the first meal I ever made for my husband, Dan) is my "Date Night Creamy Polenta with Crispy Kale." It's so easy, it's criminal! Just kale leaves with a little olive oil drizzled over them and a sprinkling of salt and pepper cooked in a hot oven until crispy and piled on top of some polenta that's got a generous amount of butter and Parmesan mixed in. You can gussy up this recipe with some beans (I like black eyed peas), fish or chicken piled in between the polenta and the kale, making a little delicious tower of food. But by itself, just the kale and polenta, it's very nourishing and satisfying...and a very cheap meal.
What's the one switch people can make to save money on groceries?
Be willing to make large pots of things for the whole week. To eat cheaply you should always have cooked beans and a cooked grain waiting in the fridge. I prefer to have black beans (I start with dried—because they are cheaper and I buy in bulk 25 pounds every few months), which I've soaked and cooked and piled into a big container for whenever I need them. I also make a big container of rice. I can then fry the rice and beans together and serve with salad, or mix them and add some chicken or ground meat for burritos.
Can you give me a sample day's menu?
When we were really broke and trying to make every dollar last, I made big pots of soup—usually lentil or turkey chili. My turkey chili used very little turkey and mostly was full of beans and vegetables. I considered the turkey "flavoring" rather than the main event. At any rate, I'd make all our bread and we'd eat these soups for lunch and for dinner every day. For breakfast we'd have fresh bread and eggs or fried rice and eggs.
What do Americans waste the most money on, food-wise, in your opinion?
Stuff that's packaged. Pre-made foods, especially snacks. Bread, for instance, is so expensive compared to if you make it at home!
What's your situation now?
A. I live in Portland, Maine, in a little rented apartment with my husband, son, dog and cat. I am about to start teaching creative writing for the year and I'm working on my next book. Dan graduated from grad school in May and is looking for a full-time professorship and he's doing odd jobs like catering and carpentry. We still keep it simple: We bake all our bread; we make our own granola (just oats, a little maple syrup, a dash of sea-salt, a drizzle of olive oil and a few crushed nuts—not a lot because they are pricey); we make big batches of beans and rice or quinoa; we buy local veggies and buy meat in bulk from local farmers. We eat well, but are willing to work a bit to eat well on a budget.
- What Farm-to-Table Really Means
- From Haute to Hot (Dogs)
- Feeding the Staff
- Courting a Certain Kind of Diner
- Female Chefs Dish it Out
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