Archive | August, 2013

Diving into the wine world at TEXSOM

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I had the pleasure of attending TEXSOM, a wine education conference hosted in Dallas, for the second year in a row and was once again awed by how much there is to learn in the wine and beverage world.  I feel like such a novice in that crowd, but everyone is  generous with their knowledge and patient with newbie questions.  Here are a few of my “aha” moments from the conference.

texsom

(These are listed in order learned, not necessarily importance.)

Wine on Tap

The first time I saw the wine one tap at Second Bar and Kitchen, I thought Chef David Bull and crew had lost their minds, but then I listened to their reasons and kind of got it. For a mid-range bottle, kegging the wine minimizes the amount of spoilage and makes service easier. And, the wine was good (this isn’t Franzia, folks). I wasn’t surprised when I started to see the new service option at other venues and was delighted to find it in retail outlets like Whole Foods where you can pick from a variety of sizes to take home with you, not stuck with the standard bottle size.

Free Flow Wine kegs - photo courtesy of Free Flow Wines

Free Flow Wine kegs – photo courtesy of Free Flow Wines

But, I didn’t really get how powerful this alternative for wine service could be until I talked to Free Flow Wines Co-founder and Chairman Dan Donahoe at the conference.  When he told me that a major hotel chain in Las Vegas was saving five tons of garbage a year by using kegged wines instead of bottles, the light bulb went off.  Granted, a restaurant isn’t going to save that volume, but it is still a significant consideration if you are thoughtful about how much waste you are creating.

No, you aren’t going to keg a fine reserve vintage, but that isn’t the majority of wine that is served on a daily basis.  Yay for wine on tap!

Etna and Austin’s fabulous Master Sommeliers

I learned all about Mount Etna in high school Latin and geography, but my teachers neglected to mention that the side of this active volcano is peppered with vineyards. You think Texas winemakers have it tough, these Sicilian wineries are battling an active volcano.  Now that’s extreme farming.

Austin’s Master Sommeliers, Craig Collins of Arro and Devon Broglie of Whole Foods, did an outstanding job guiding us through this region that is quickly growing in popularity. (Apparently, Etna is the new black among wine geeks.)  The wines were lovely with a slight taste of ashy volcanic rock and a bit of salinity from the Mediterranean Sea. Even more fun than discovering these new-t0-me wines, was the engaging presentation by Craig and Devon.  Our master somms are great educators and, if you have a chance to attend a talk by either, you should jump at the opportunity.

Intricacies of Bourbon

bourbon session_edited.jpg

Bourbon mash mixes and a piece from a charred bourbon barrel

I have been drinking bourbon since I was old enough to drink. (Ok, maybe a little bit before that, but let’s not get caught up in details.) My dad always had a bottle of Weller’s in the liquor cabinet and it was our family pour.  I’ve attended other sessions about this beloved libation, but nothing with the depth presented by Master Sommelliers Brett Davis of Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Scott Harper of Bristol Bar and Grille, two Kentucky gentlemen with a deep understanding of bourbon.

Taking us through a tasting that demonstrated how the combination of corn, rye and wheat impacts the flavor (hint: rye makes it spicier, wheat evens it out) and that the position in the rickhouse (where they age bourbon) changes the quality.  In fact, most of the bourbon on the shelves is made by twelve distilleries and the difference between the bottles is the mix of the ingredients and where the bourbon is aged.  It was a fascinating tour of my favorite spirit.

Texas takes on Tannat 

bending branch wines

Bending Branch wines

To be honest, I’d never heard of Tannat when I signed up for this session, which was all the more reason to learn about this hearty red grape that has been historically grown in the Basque region of France and Uruguay.  Because of it’s tenacity, the varietal has been used throughout South America and California as a blending grape and has now made it’s way to Texas.

We sampled a spicy award-winning Tannat from Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas that would have paired perfectly with a juicy steak or  barbecue.  The winery has been consulting with several other Texas vineyards on growing Tannat and you can expect to see more of this varietal popping up around the state.

Taste Texas Hospitality Suite

texas winemakers

Jeff Ogle (Duchman Family Winery), Pat Brennan (Brennan Vineyards), Kim McPherson (McPherson Cellars) and Fredrik Osterberg (Pedernales Cellars)

Texas wines aren’t new to TEXSOM, but in some ways this year was a bit of a coming out party for our wineries. Often looked down upon by their coastal cousins, Texas wineries have had to prove themselves to the naysayers.  And, with a proper amount of Texas pluck and hard work, the wineries are earning their due.

This year, four of our award-winning wineries who make Texas appellation wines (using grapes only grown in Texas) hosted a Taste Texas hospitality suite at the conference that was so crowded you had to go outside to hear yourself think.  It was fantastic.  You can read more about the event in my CultureMap article.

And, of course, the most important lesson learned at TEXSOM – do not try to keep up with the sommeliers. But that’s a story for a different day.

Want to know more about TEXSOM? Check out Jessica Dupuy’s piece about Austin Sommelier Scott Ota winning the insanely difficult best sommelier in Texas competition and Matt McGinnis’ What Are You Drinking blog for his take on the conference.

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Learning Local

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Growing up, Austin was my normal. My parents used canvas bags 15 years before they became mandatory. They always had a huge seasonal vegetable and herb garden. A fennel and beet salad was a normal side at dinner.  Local restaurants were the destination of choice. To me, that was normal, and the way I assumed the rest of the world lived.

LEARNING LOCAL

Yet as I grew into my formidable teenage years I could not understand why someone would want to spend their weekends tending to a garden. Who were these crazy people raising me? In their oversized straw hats, spending so much time in the dirt all for some vegetables. Taking the compost out was literally the worst chore in the world.

Yes, Austin is known for being progressive and “keeping it local” but striking up a conversation about your parents composting methods or summer tomatoes during high school English was never going to happen. And I wanted nothing to do with it.

During my college years I began to understand my parents were doing their part in living a local and sustainable life. They didn’t preach it, they lived it and they had rooted these practices in me. What can I say, it rubbed off.

After graduating and taking a job in Panama working for a sustainable development nonprofit, I got to see first hand another culture that valued living and working in harmony with the land. Upon moving back to the states and falling into the food world I gained a since of urgency to explore local living and healthy lifestyle. My upbringing and these experiences culminated into an “ah ha!” moment. I began to make manageable changes to gear me towards a healthier lifestyle. This realization was powerful yet overwhelming.

I was no expert. I lived in an apartment, where would I start a garden? Not to mention, although I watched my parent’s garden and picked up a few things along the way, since leaving for college I had little gardening experience of my own. My biggest question was where do I start? Kale and spinach juicing everyday?  Can I even afford to buy all local and organic? How can I best tap into the local food community? How can I incorporate local and sustainable practices into my lifestyle?

I believe a lot of people have a baseline understanding and interest in a local lifestyle but it can be hard to know how to make small changes to have great impact. I’ll be writing a series for this blog on how to do just that.

-Getting to know your local community
-Make it manageable & realistic
-Tweaking recipes

Let me know what other topics you are interested in an lets explore local living together.

 

 

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One crazy summer: Austin’s Urban Farm Code Update

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Phew! What a crazy summer. I didn’t mean to ignore the blog, but we have had a busy, busy couple of months in our corner of the local food world. In case you’ve missed it, I’ve been writing quite a bit for others, including the Beverage and Travel (releases 9/1) issues of Edible Austin and a new-ish gig writing a few times a month for CultureMap. But, the unexpected diversion in the schedule has centered around the City of Austin’s update to the Urban Farm Code.

If you haven’t been following this little soap opera, the City decided it needed to update the Urban Farm Code after a neighbor’s complaint resulted in HausBar Farms being shut down. The City Council tasked the Sustainable Food Policy Board with making recommendations and a working group held a number of public meetings through the spring ending with a list of adjustments that was more than a little confusing and not great for the farms.

I stood at the back of the meeting where the initial recommendations were unveiled and listened to the farmers speak up, in exasperation, about how the changes were going to negatively impact them. It was frustrating to say the least, and didn’t bode well for the farms.  A small, but vocal group is trying to prevent any new urban farms in the City of Austin – zero, zilch, nada. I don’t have to tell you how I feel about this and I’m not going to make their arguments for them. I will say that while I agree that we as a City need to solve problems like affordable housing, that trying to do so by limiting urban farms is misguided and fighting the wrong fight.

Since that meeting, a small group of volunteers (including Lillian and me) have helped the farms host several tours for the board, commission and council members who will vote on this issue, get the word out to the media about what is going on and round up a list of more than 1,000 people who signed up in support of having farms in the city. And, thanks to the tireless efforts of the farmers and a few diligent souls on the Sustainable Food Policy Board working group, they’ve made some progress.

The latest list of recommendations is better than first with less negative impact on the farms. They no longer limit things like school tours (um, duh), let the farm stands sell a limited number of outside items to have more diversity in the stand and allow a limited amount of slaughter for those with meat fowl.

Despite the long weeks of negotiating and revising, the process has really just started. The Sustainable Food Policy Board is the first of four votes that must take place to get the code through final approval. The second stop is the Code & Ordinance committee of the Planning Commission, followed by the entire Planning Commission and, finally, the City Council. At any time in this process, revisions can be made and road blocks can appear.

And that’s the problem. The small group who wants to end urban farming can try to sabotage the negotiations again and they have a tendency to be very loud and very public. That’s where you come in. The farmers need you to speak up in support of urban farms. If you have ever been to Boggy Creek, HausBar, Rain Lily or Springdale farms, bought anything from any of the farms or spent money in any of the countless restaurants that source from them, please, please, please show your support for the farms now.

You can help in one of several ways:

  • Sign up at AustinUrbanFarms.org as supporter of the farms and get everyone else you know to do so as well.
  • Write a nice note (emphasis on nice) to the Sustainable Food Policy Board, Planning Commission and City Council members who will be voting on this issue. You can find their e-mail addresses below and a sample letter here.
  • Show up at one of the meetings and sign up or speak on behalf of the urban farms. The tentative vote schedule (and this keeps changing so stay tuned for updates) is:

August 26th – Sustainable Food Policy Board meeting

September 17th – Code and Ordinance committee of the Planning Commission meeting

September 24th – Planning Commission meeting

October 3rd – City Council meeting

  • If you are really committed to urban farms, have oodles of free time and want to have an impact on the future of sustainable and local food in Austin, apply for one of the open seats on the Sustainable Food Policy Board. There are currently three open seats and a fourth will open up in November. You have to be approved by either the City Council or County Commission (depending on the seat you apply for) so this isn’t something to volunteer for lightly, but you will earn angel’s wings for doing it. If you are interested in serving on the board, contact one of the staff members who works with the board to learn more details.  Not sure what the board does? Review their bylaws for the purpose and rules for the board.

Austin’s local food scene has made amazing progress over the last decade. We not only have more farmers markets, but we have more fresh local food in our schools and at our food bank because of our local farms. It would be a damn shame for anything to slow that down. Please show your support and help us make sure that doesn’t happen.

In the meantime, here are a few photos from the last farm tour. What a treasure we have in these farms.

springdale_eggplant lineup

Springdale farm stand

HausBar Farms Donkey

HausBar Farms Donkey

Bunnies at HausBar Farms

Bunnies at HausBar Farms

Working gloves at Boggy Creek

Working gloves at Boggy Creek

Onions hanging at Boggy Creek

Onions hanging at Boggy Creek

 

Carol Ann Sayle of Boggy Creek

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