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Flash in the Pan
Boxed, blended, and blissful

—Ari LeVaux

Food and wine have a storied history together. But as a food writer, I rarely cross the line. I can rarely detect the gooseberries, duck butter, Spanish leather, and other flavors that are so apparent to others. White wine only recently became interesting to me when I finally tried the good stuff and realized you really can taste flowers.

Luckily for my purposes, fussing about wine isn’t necessary. Most of what I know about wine I’ve learned with my mouth full. A sip, without a bite to chew it with, is a sip gone to waste. This understanding exists at the level of common sense and has little to do with expertise. If there’s a bite of steak in my mouth, I’ll grab the closest glass of red and be quite happy with it.

Despite being uneducated in wine, I’m more than capable of observing a key distinction in the wine world that usually flies under the radars of those who most need to know about it: the folks who don’t have the money to flush down the toilet in the crapshoot that is fine-wine selection. Like other crapshoots, the house usually wins.

Cheaper wines are often made from blends of grapes, and there is a good reason for this: A skilled blender can coax good wine from mediocre grapes. Most prestigious and expensive vintages of wine are varietals, which means they’re made from just one variety of grape. Those who can afford it will often keep track of which years were good for which types of grape from which areas and will pay good money for excellent wines. But if they aren’t careful—and lucky, they’ll also end up paying silly prices for mediocre wines.

In contests, blended wines don’t usually compete against varietals because that would be unfair. And some skilled mixers have put their skills to use in more profitable ways, infiltrating the wine market with counterfeit vintages, carefully packaged in old bottles with oxidized labels. A recent article in The New Yorker documented how easily a good mixer can fool a top-level wine expert into authenticating counterfeits priced in the five figures.

But don’t take my word for it. Go buy a box of Franzia Cabernet (not the Merlot or Chianti), which I consider a decent yardstick of value in a good cheap blend. The box costs $15 for five liters. A standard wine bottle has 750 ml, so the Franzia works out to about $2.25 a bottle—about what they pay in Europe for a bottle of good, cheap wine, usually blended.

Do a taste test comparing that Franzia to any comparably priced bottle on the shelf. Unless you choose well or get lucky, the Franzia easily wins at least half the time. And even when it loses, ask yourself: Was the bottle seven times better than the box? That’s a personal question, of course, one that’s directly linked to your wallet.

Boxed wine has a bad rap largely because once upon a time, notoriously bad wine was often sold that way. Sometimes it still is, but so what? That’s not a reflection on the packaging.

In fact, sealing wine inside a plastic bag inside a box is less expensive and more environmentally friendly than in a bottle, especially when it’s done with large quantities of wine. And unlike the contents of a bottle, which will go south soon after opening, boxed wine can easily last for weeks after opening because the valve doesn’t allow air in.

In a column last year, I briefly noted the superiority of bag-in-box packaging over bottles, and soon after the column was published, I received a Facebook friend request from a reader who said he wanted to send me some good boxes of wine. I friended him, of course, and gave him my mailing address. Soon a box arrived. A few weeks later, another. Then another.

Each time the FedEx guy drove up and handed me another octagon-shaped box, my surprise and glee boiled over. I would feel compelled to explain, “This guy I met on Facebook... sends me wine.”

I eventually figured out that my new Facebook friend is a wine merchant, and he’s particularly psyched about a line of boxed wines he’s marketing—the Octavian Home Wine Bar series.

The series includes both blends and varietals, packaged in pretty, three-liter boxes. My two favorites of the lot, not surprisingly, are blends. But what is surprising is that one of those blends is a white. The Big House White is a blend of Mediterranean varietals, some of which were harvested at night, supposedly to preserve floral and fruity aromas. The mixer, a Romanian named Georgetta Dane, reports “nose candy” of melon, pear, and lychee fruit and flavors of summer peach, dried apricot, and tropical fruit. I guess that’s why I’m not a wine expert, though I admit it’s as close to drinking flowers while wearing a summer dress in a breezy field as I’ll probably ever get.

My favorite red in the series, Seven, is a blend of seven Spanish red grapes. That box was a spicy, zesty ride, absolutely joyous with mouthfuls of meat, and I savored every drop. Interestingly, a close second in the red department was a varietal, Boho Vineyards 2008 California Old Vine zinfandel. At $24 for three liters, it was one of the most expensive boxes in the series, but still works out to only $6 a bottle. That makes it not only a steal, but a rare example of a varietal that beats the pants off of the Franzia blend, at only triple the price. Did I detect any of the plum jam and dried herbs advertised in the flier it came with? No, I did not. But it was really good, refreshingly smooth, and dangerously drinkable—and luckily, its low alcohol content allowed me to drink more without getting plastered, as usually happens when I cook meat.

Dear Ari,

I found this extra-virgin olive oil that I really like. It’s from Italy, has an amazing buttery, mild flavor, and it’s cheap. I assumed it was organic because I got it from my local co-op, but it isn’t.

Is olive oil one of those foods that really should be organic? —Certified Olive Oil Freak

Put it this way: If you aren’t using organic olive oil, then you really want to make sure it’s extra virgin.

Extra virgin, or xvoo in kitchen jargon, is made from a simple pressing of the olives. Subsequent pressings incorporate heat and chemicals to coax ever more oil from the macerated fruit.

There aren’t a lot of agricultural chemicals currently used in olive farming, and what there are have time to get broken down by sunlight and washed off by rain and presumably a good rinsing before being pressed. But the chemicals used in second and third pressings aren’t so simply removed.

So given that it’s extra-virgin, it sounds like your new oilfriend is decent enough. Just how much of a keeper it is depends partly on what you can learn from the label and maybe a little online research and how much you know about the co-op where you shop. Does their non-organic stuff seem of generally good quality? These questions might be worth considering, but if it tastes good, the price is right, and it’s extra-virgin, I say go for it.


Feeling the pinch? Try these belt-tightening tips

—Jason Alderman
Between holiday shopping bills now coming due, increased winter heating bills, and the upcoming income tax season, many people are feeling the pinch. Your best bet for getting back on track is probably to trim expenses.

Here are several ideas—big and small—that might do the trick:

  • Lower your thermostat. Each degree you lower it saves up to three percent on your heating bill. Turning down your thermostat 10 to 15 degrees for eight hours at night can save about five to 15 percent. For a $300 monthly heating bill, that’s up to $45 in savings.
  • Up to 30 percent of heated or cooled air can be lost through leaks, so add insulation, apply weather stripping around windows and doors, and caulk around ducts, plumbing bypasses, and other openings.
  • Water heating is the third-largest home energy expense, so try lowering your water heater temperature to 120° F or lower to see if it’s still comfortable.
  • Energy Star products consume up to 50 percent less energy and water than standard models (visit www.energystar.gov).
  • Compact fluorescent lamps use up to 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs and last three to 10 times longer. Although initially more expensive, they last six to 15 times longer.
  • A faucet leaking one drop per second wastes about 2,000 gallons a year.
  • If you have low-deductible home, renter’s, or auto insurance (say $250), ask your insurer how much your premiums would drop by raising the deductible to $500 or $1,000. Many save 15 to 30 percent or more.
  • Balance your checkbook to avoid fees for overdrawn accounts and returned checks. Ask your bank about phone or e-mail alerts when your balance drops below a certain level or payments are due.
  • Switch to free checking. You can shop rates for banks at www.bankrate.com and find credit unions for which you’re eligible at the Credit Union National Association (www.cuna.org).
  • Consider generic vs. brand-name drugs; copayments are usually much lower. Ask whether your insurance offers quantity discounts for mail-order prescriptions. Often, the copayment for a 60- or 90-day supply will equal a 30-day supply at a regular pharmacy. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about pharmaceutical companies’ drug assistance programs for uninsured or low-income people. There’s a lot of paperwork involved, but you could save thousands of dollars if you qualify.
  • Examine your phone bill for services you’re not using like call waiting, call forwarding, or caller ID. Dropping them could save $100 a year or more, depending on your plan.
  • Slow down. Fuel efficiency drops about five mpg for each 10-mile speed increase over 55 mph.
  • And finally, this may be my favorite off-the-wall tip: By switching from Ariel, the most common type font, to Century Gothic, someone printing 25 pages a week on their home printer could save $20 a year in ink costs.

Tasty Ways to Love Your Heart

(Family Features) Valentine’s Day naturally brings thoughts of hearts, flowers, sweetness and love. But did you know that it also falls during American Heart Month? A perfect time to start taking care of your heart and the hearts of the ones you love.

You might think that a heart-healthy diet is boring or flavorless. Actually, eating for your heart can add a lot of flavor, and some of it may come from surprising sources — such as watermelon.

Eating watermelon can help maintain cardiovascular health. That’s because the amino acid called citrulline in watermelon increases free arginine which helps maintain blood flow, the arteries, and overall cardiovascular function.

To get more scrumptious recipes like these, and to learn more about the heart benefits of watermelon, visit www.watermelon.org.

Watermelon Oat Crumble — Serves 6 to 8

2          cups rolled or quick cook oats
1/2       cup light brown sugar
1/8       cup honey
1          teaspoon cinnamon
1          cup chopped pecans
6          cups watermelon balls

Toss the oats, sugar, honey, cinnamon and pecans until mixed well. Spread into an even layer on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Bake in pre-heated 300°F oven until golden brown. Turn off oven leaving the tray in for an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Remove and cool. Break into crumbles. Arrange the watermelon balls in 6 to 8 small bowls or wide stemmed glasses and top with the oat crumble.

Heart-Healthy Eating Plan

The DASH eating plan (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is a highly recommended diet that has been proven to lower blood pressure. It’s been endorsed by:

  • The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (one of the National Institutes of Health, of the US Department of Health and Human Services)
  • The American Heart Association
  • The Dietary Guidelines for Americans
  • US guidelines for treatment of high blood pressure

And new research has shown that following the DASH diet over time will reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease, as well as kidney stones. The benefits of the DASH diet have also been seen in teens with hypertension. Learn more at www.dashdiet.org.

Watermelon season is roughly May through October. But you can enjoy delicious imported watermelon all year round.
     

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