How To Not Die While Drinking Chinese Wine

By Jack Turley, Chinese Banquet Survivor

There are many spoken phrases that send shivers through my spine.  Perhaps the most frightening of all, uttered night after night during past business trips to China was “As our honored guest, we have a special surprise for you.  Tonight we are having a traditional Chinese banquet!”

Oh please God no.

how to not die while drinking Chinese wine
Author Jack Turley holding the honorific Chicken Head

I long ago fell in love with China, and it is still my favorite place in the world.  The people are amazing, the culture beyond compare, and the cities and countryside are mesmerizing.  The hospitality that a speaker from the West receives is remarkable. 

The food can be…uh…interesting.

I’m not one to talk trash about the textural subtleties of Duck Tongue, or think disparagingly about Chicken Claws (or even the more rare Chicken Beaks).  You won’t even see me cringe when given the traditional honored guest serving of Fish Eyeballs.  Unusual food aside, it is an incredible place, and I recommend that you put it at the top of your bucket list.

I spent most of my time in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.  There were regional differences in the food, both subtle and extreme, but the one thing that unifies the palates of this geographically huge and diverse country is their wine.

It is awful.  I mean really awful.

All Chinese banquets have many things in common.  For instance, the tables are big (the smallest ones seat 12), round, and have a lazy Susan in the middle.  Upon those lazy Susans will be placed tons of food, and they will keep bringing more no matter what you say.  If you are foolish enough to clean your plate, (which insults your hosts by showing they did not provide enough food for his guests), people will take food off their plate and put it on yours.

Another commonality to Chinese banquets is that there will be toasts.  Lots of toasts.  And Chinese custom is not to say a quick sentence, tip your glass to the crowd, and have a sip of your drink.  Oh no.  Chinese toasts are only complete when your glass is empty, and as the guest of honor, there is no doubt that your glass will be kept full at all times.

The meal will not be considered a success unless each person at the table has made a toast (NOTE:  always try and sit at the smallest table).  Twelve people at your table means at least twelve toasts.  If you’re lucky, you will be at a very upscale restaurant with Australian, Chilean, or Argentinian wine.  On very rare occasions, you will be served French or American wine.  But most likely, you will be served something from China’s burgeoning wine industry.

Chinese wine is not all that bad.  It has a proven history as an industrial solvent, a bathroom disinfectant, and a valve lubricant.  That the rich, fertile wine regions of China receive their grape-enhancing sunlight through thick, smelly smog-filtered skies can only be seen as a positive.

Hey, they’re trying.  They’re really trying.  And given the resources being applied, it’s only a matter of time before it approaches international quality standards.

But for now, while being served a bottle of “Xanxchao Vineyards ’08 Reddish Grape”, you may wonder if your host is indeed trying to kill you.  Do not worry.  It is simply not so, no matter how much the wine’s afterburn makes you suspicious.

And if you follow my advice, based on my hard-earned experience, there is a way out of this.  My many  trips (and several stomach pumpings) have taught me that your secret weapon is in anticipating the toast.  The best way to do this is to always keep your eyes moving to see if someone is looking at you, about to raise a glass.  If you can see it coming, you have three plays available to you:

  1. Go for your cell phone – right as you see your host go for his glass of grape sludge, pick up your cell phone, look at it, raise your finger toward your host in that silent “so sorry, I have to take this” gesture, and walk away from the table.  With a bit of practice, you’ll be able to time your “call” to last for as many as three more toasts.
  2. Prepare a dash to the bathroom – as in the example above, anticipate and stand, saying in the only really important Chinese word you bothered to memorize, “cèsuǒ” (toilet).  You should be able to stay away from the table for at least six toasts, seven if you come back with your hand over your stomach and a pained expression on your face.
  3. Play the jetlag card – halfway through dinner, confide in your host that the jetlag is overpowering you, and it would bring honor to your family and glory to your company if you could be excused from the festivities early.  Do this even if it is your third week in China.

Someday China will emerge as one of the great wine making countries.  We’ll all be dead by then, but your grandchildren (or perhaps their grandchildren) will in the future enjoy wonderful wine, expertly crafted, and at a cost of only 12 cents a glass.  Until then, cover for me…I think they are about to do another toast.

How to not die while drinking Chinese wine
Jack Turley: Experienced Chinese Banquet Survivor


Wine Q&A: “What is a ‘GSM’ wine?”

No, it doesn’t stand for “Good Stuff Maynard“, but it should!  That phrase, from a Malt-O-Meal commercial in the early 80’s, became part of the popular lexicon for anything that tasted really good.  Many swapped the word ‘stuff’ for a more common 4-letter term, but the sentiment remained the same.

But in the world of wine, the acronym “GSM” is a short-hand reference for a red wine blended from Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre.  Usually, such wines are from the Rhône valley in the South of France, where blended wines are the norm.  These GSM wines are known for their bright fruit, extroverted aromas of ripe fruit, dried sage and herbs, and a grippy, pepper-and-herb finish that echoes the wines’ aroma.

Sadly, most (but not all) of our domestic Rhône-style wines have been produced with a dominant (75%+)  variety – usually Grenache or Syrah – because we American wine drinkers are just now beginning to shed our age-old prejudice against blended wines.  Blends have long been thought to be inferior wines.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course (Grand Cru Bordeaux, anyone?) but this domestic prejudice grew from a very old and sound reason – post Repeal, blended wines really WERE horrid concoctions.  They often contained the fermented juice of fruits other than grape.  Not to mention colorants/flavorants best left out of such an august discourse on fine wine.

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way, Maynard.  So go enjoy a GSM.  And if you don’t have one on hand, just ask a trusted merchant in your local fine wine shop.  Or visit the Red Rhône wine aisle in my online wineshop here.


Dave “the Wine Merchant” Chambers 

Perfect Pairing: Cider-Poached Salmon with Pinot

The bane of the amateur gardener is that everything gets ripe all at once. And eating tons of the same produce, meal after meal, day after day, week after week… one’s tastebuds quickly tire.   So freezing, drying, canning, gifting and other forms of creative storage become highly valued.

And if a bunch of apple trees happen to grow on your property, you eventually ask for a cider press when your handy-man Father in-law asks for Christmas ideas.  You can see what he came up with in the photo here – looks as if it should be launched!  It’s just a happy coincidence that his name is Johnny, one long associated with apples and their seeds.

The first cider from our late-ripening tree was so delicious, I’ve spent some enjoyable hours conjuring up or searching for recipes that feature cider.  Like this one, which I came across in Wine Spectator, for a Cider-Poached salmon.  It’s been adapted slightly from its original version (as seen in “Maine Classics: More Than 150 Recipes From Down East,” by Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier. Running Press) to make it a bit more Pinot friendly.  But it already had a good start, and the bonus of featuring Morgan’s 2009 12-Clones Pinot Noir ($32), a wine I’d recently featured in one of our wine club shipments.

1 gallon apple cider
2 tsp each fresh rosemary and thyme (with extra for garnish)
¼ cup (plus 1/4 tsp) brown sugar or 3 Tbsp Maple Syrup
2 Tbsp fennel seed
1 Tbsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp freshly ground pepper
6 Salmon fillets, 4-6 oz. each
1/4 lb. (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 – 2 Generous pinches Cinnamon and Cumin
4-6 Tart cooking apples, peeled, cored and sliced

1. Heat cider in a fish poacher or (if you haven’t stocked up on Williams Sonoma’s entire storew-wide inventory yet!) a broad-based, saucepan, until liquid is reduced by half its height.

2. Add the rosemary, thyme, brown sugar (or syrup), fennel seed, salt and pepper. Bring to a
full boil and then reduce to just below a simmer – you want steam but no bubbles.

3. Gently place the salmon in the liquid and cook for 6 minutes.  Test for doneness (I suggest an instant-read thermometer, but you can pull one out and take a peek at its center.

4. Meanwhile, heat the butter in a sauté pan until melted but not smoking.  Add apples and sauté until golden, about 2 minutes. Add the aromatic spices (Cinnamon and Cumin) and the additional 1/4 teaspoon of brown sugar (not too sweet or it will fight with the wine!)

5. Using a slotted spatula, remove the salmon directly from the poaching liquid to individual serving plates, and garnish with the poached apples and a sprinkling of the fresh chopped herbs. 

Serve with steamed broccolini or asparagus and good rolls warmed in the oven.  

Wine Pairings – You can’t go wrong with any of the lighter style Pinots from cooler growing regions (Sonoma Coast, Monterey, Anderson Valley, New Zealand, Germany…) – you’ll find many options in our virtual Pinot Aisle – as well as a nice Pinot Gris or even a richer, off-dry Rosé.  

You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!

Champagne corks are a bigger threat to eyes than Red Ryder BB Guns!  Learn why...“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!  

That famous line from ‘A Christmas Story’ (one of our family’s favorite holiday movies!) haunted young Ralphie at every turn as he plotted and connived to get a Red Ryder BB Gun under his Christmas tree.

Well, far more eyes (~600 per year!) are lost to this most innocent-seeming item, the closure from a container of no interest to kids.   Of course I’m talking about… well,  just watch the video…



Dave “the Wine Merchant”

10 Activities for A Perfect Fall

The Fall season – some dread it, others love its slow transition from summer to winter.  However you feel, here are ten seasonal activities that assure you’ll enjoy the weeks ahead.

  1. Take a Fall Color Tour – Colorful eye-candy – what better reason to love Fall?  If you’re from the Northeast or Midwest, this is a well-known Fall activity, with the smell of decaying leaves (and in the day before burning bans, the smell of smoldering leaf piles after a day of raking) etched into our collective memories.  And though Fall doesn’t provide such displays of color in most of California – let alone the bracing chill of daytime air – our state’s thousands of square miles of grapevines provide a spectacular show as October progresses.  Visit one of our many wine regions during the coming weeks- whether for a day trip or a weekend.  (If you choose to visit Napa, here’s an iPhone touring app you’ll find useful) 
    Abbey-Harris vineyard, Anderson Valley
    Early Fall colors in Anderson Valley - Abbey-Harris Vineyard. 10-8-11
  2. Attend A Football Game – Though our nation shares few common traditions anymore, this seasonal sport is one of them.  You don’t need to be a huge sports fan to enjoy the fun and festivity of this great game.  But forget the wine, a tailgate calls for beer!  Sure wine would be fine, and I can recommend a good hot dog wine if you’re interested (Loire Valley Rose), but there’s nothing wrong with a little Sierra Nevada with your grilled dog of choice – sauerkraut or no. And if the NFL is a bit to commercial for you, re-discover the thrill of your local college team (assuming you can still tell the difference).fun fall activities - football
  3. Prepare This Hot Lunch  Here’s a fast and affordable hot lunch that’s perfect after a cold morning spent raking leaves – Sweet sausage and apples with Gewurztraminer.  Simply poach German sausage (or sweet Italian sausage, if you prefer) in enough Gewurztraminer to cover – bring to a boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes before grilling or sauteing until browned. Meanwhile, peel, core and slice two firm, crisp apples per person.  Bring a wide, covered sauté pan up to medium heat, add a cup of the Gewurztraminer and the apples and cook until soft – 5-10 minutes, adding a dash or three of cumin and cinnamon and other sweet pie spices of choice (these form a nice bridge to the wine).  Serve with spicy mustard and a premium dry Gewurztraminer such as this one from Phillips Hill.
  4. Forage for Mushrooms – Foraging for wild mushrooms is an unforgettable experience.  But whether you decide to join a foraging group or simply forage through your local farmer’s market, these edible fungi give up their flavor to some of my favorite seasonal dishes.  And what wine goes best with mushrooms?  Without hesitation I tell you it’s Pinot Noir!  And while I specialize in this varietal in my online wine shop, I feature here a Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot from Tudor Wines, as Dan Tudor is a well-known mushroom forager.Dan Tudor mushroom forager 
  5. Break Out A Favorite Sweater for Breakfast al Fresco! – A hot cup of coffee and a favorite sweater are the best way in the world to start a brisk Fall day.  Take both outdoors and enjoy the morning.
  6. Host a Halloween Party – Show me someone who doesn’t enjoy donning an alternate identity once in a while, and I’ll show you a stick in the mud.  Whether your party is family-themed or an adult-only re-creation of Burning Man in your living room, you’ll want to spend some time thinking about the food for your guests, as one cannot live by Butterfingers alone (believe me, I once tried).   Here’s a recipe for “Runaway Chicken Chowder” that always gets rave reviews.  It’s orange color lends itself to the season, so sprinkle some black sesame seeds on top, serve with a bit of toasted pumpernickel and you’re done.  Serves a crowd.   Recommended pairing – Chardonnay.
  7. Host An Elections Forum – Whatever your political leanings, the arrival of November marks the annual exercise of our right to vote.  And with the complex nature of contemporary ballot initiatives, it’s helpful to invite friends over to discuss the local ballot initiatives and candidates.  A meal isn’t necessary, but some cheese and crackers are wise, as well as favorite wines of course, though you may find it wise to avoid over-serving if the initiatives are controversial!
  8. Plan Your Thanksgiving Dinner – This meal can be intimidating, as much for its family dynamics as its multi-course meal preparation.  But it’s my favorite meal of the year, and we always begin it with the Macy’s parade, followed by a bit of college football and ending with the umpteenth viewing of “Miracle on 34th Street” (the original with Natalie Wood, not the dozen or so universally bad re-makes).  In our household, the Christmas holiday is dedicated to the family we’ve been given, but the Thanksgiving holiday is for the family we would choose if left to our own devices – both are equally important and worthy of honoring.  However you spend yours, here is some useful assistance with your Thanksgiving meal – some of my time-tested favorite recipes I’ve posted in my recipe section (enter “thanksgiving” in the upper right search box).  Happy Thanksgiving!
    NBC Telecast Thursday, 11-24-2011
  9. Shop on Cyber-Monday – Save gas.  Avoid crowds.  Save time.  Get all your holiday gifts while sitting in the comfort of your home, then go out and enjoy your  friends and family.  This single activity will make a huge difference in your enjoyment of the season.  I cannot recommend it highly enough as a way to eliminate stress from your holiday season!
  10. Whew!  Now Get Ready For Winter – OK, so this one isn’t such a fun seasonal activity.  But before it gets truly cold, now is the time to check boilers, storm windows, snow blowers, and other necessities of the season to come.  And in our house, this is the time the Christmas baking begins to fill our freezer!
Dave “the Wine Merchant” Chambers

Pinot is for Salmon. Right?

Ask any wine geek what to pair with a Pinot Noir, and you’ll soon hear the word “salmon”. It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction.  But unless your taste buds are completely dead, you’ve likely noticed that many new world Pinots fight mightily with the fishy oils that are part of the tasty goodness of salmon.

Not All Pinots Are Salmon Pinots!
Which Pinots are the biggest offenders?  Pinots high in alcohol, deep in color, big in fruit and resplendent with Volatile Acidity that borderlines on too much (but which helps the nose and initial flavor pop out of the glass!)… in other words, some of the wine world’s highest scoring wines.  These Pinots can be delicious wines, and I carry many such wines and sometimes recommend them heartily.  Just not with salmon.

But if you find just the RIGHT Pinot, and pair it with a wild caught salmon (when pairing with pinot, I prefer the salmon grilled rather than poached), it can be a little slice of heaven.  To find such a wine is easy – just peruse my tasting notes in my rather extensive portfolio of Pinots.  My favorite salmon wines from my current portfolio? Labyrinth, Four Graces, Phillips Hill and Staete Landt (New Zealand).

Cheap Salmon – Not Worth the Savings!
But as with any food topic these days, and particularly with the gourmet food and wine crowd, the conversation quickly turns to sustainability.  And any posting that involves salmon seems irresponsible if it doesn’t excoriate one against the consumption of farm-raised salmon.  Such farms, as you likely know, result in such toxic conditions that not only does it kill all life for the many square miles under the salmon confinements, but the salmon must also be fed huge doses of anti-biotics to avoid becoming ill.  And the genetically altered fish, when the inevitable lucky few escape, can breed with wild salmon and alter the genetic blood line, making the wild salmon less sustainable in their own right.  

Fortunately, there are some highly sustainable farms beginning to emerge in inland lakes, where the salmon farm is by definition, self-contained.  Such farms don’t use anti-biotics, as there is no need.  And the lake remains healthy and vibrant as an ecosystem.  But other than these pleasant exceptions, I urge you to “just say no to farm-raised salmon”.   Fortunately, more and more of us are voting with our pocket books, and the “Salmon Safe” movement is well afoot, as you can see in the following video I found on the E’Cole Winery website. 

Salmon Safe Video


September, 2011 is “California Wine Month”!

You may have missed the press release.  Nestlted right in there somewhere between the one about Sacramento declaring “Don’t step on a bee day” and “Skip and go Naked day” and “Cherry Pit Spitting Contest Day” I just received notice that our state legislature has finally dedicated 30 entire days ( let me see now, is that right?  ’30 days hath Sept… yep) to the contributions of our state’s wine industry.

You see, our industry deserves an entire 30 days of celebration.  And here’s why – our state’s debt would be considerably deeper were it not for wine industry contributions!  They include over $18 Billion (with a B) in revenue, 20 million tourists annually (many of which have discovered this great iPhone app for touring Napa!), 330,000+ jobs, and countless numbers of bewitched dreamers who fall in love with and over our state’s wines every night.

Yeah, yeah, what’s in it for us?  Lots, actually, if you have some free time this month.  There are dozens and dozens of events taking place in September to celebrate California Wine Month.  If you’re in the state of CA and have a few hours free, you’re likely just a short drive away from SOME sort of wine event – find the complete event listing here – and check back often, updates are being posted as the word gets out.  (BTW, I had to scroll down to find the listing – seems to be a formatting glitch, at least on Google Chrome)

Here’s hoping you can find time to get out there and enjoy one of California’s great wine producing areas.  And should you need help in planning your visit, here’s a highly affordable ($26) wall map of California wineries that is the best I’ve found – it’s published by the fine folks at DeLongs, who are painstaking in their detail.  I love these guys as well as their products.

Save 15% on CA Wines!
And if your schedule just doesn’t allow you to enjoy an event in California wine country, the least I can do is make it easier for you to enjoy some California wine.  Here’s a link to a 15% discount on most of the CA wines I have in stock (selected wines are not eligible)

Dave “the Wine Merchant” Chambers

Wine & Baseball – Budding partnership taken to new level

Many decades ago, shortly after prohibition, beer marketers got the jump on their wine brethren, successfully making beer the beverage of baseball.  Producers of wine, being far flung and fragmented, never had the marketing dollars of their far more consolidated beer brethren, whose dominant players succeeded for years in squashing smaller competitors.  Only recently has this begun to change.

And I still remember the derisive comments in the press (some of which you’ll still find today, in beer-centric cities) when California ball parks began selling wine.  These died down rather quickly once operators began to appreciate the extra revenue that wine sales was generating.  But wine and baseball have always had a flirtatious relationship, never the full-fledged love affair that beer has enjoyed.  But in light of this week’s article from the Onion Sports Network, that may all be about to change…

Click to read "Manager, Pitcher Go Through Entire Bottle Of Wine During Really Great Mound Visit"


Dave “the Wine Merchant” Chambers

O’Connor Vineyard, 2008 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley

One of the best parts of my job is the joy that I help make possible when my carefully selected wines become the center-piece of a most enjoyable party.  But the sad thing is, I rarely know when such things occur, taking on faith that they do so.  Unless, of course an out-of-state wine club member (let’s call her “Liesl”) is visited by her CA sister (let’s call her “Cindy”) and a bottle of my recently shipped “O’Connor Vineyard” Pinot Noir converge in the same living room for a rollicking good time…  See what you think, but it seems to me as if they might be enjoying the delights of this hand-crafted wine.

Yes, I too wondered why the lime-green glass I.D. tag was necessary when it appears as if there were just the two of them and maybe a photographer, especially since the glass was clearly from the Andrew Murray Vineyard, one of the Central Coast stalwarts that helped launch our efforts some 6 years ago!  So I say “Good on ya!” to Liesl and Cindy, or whatever your names are.

Dave “the Wine Merchant” Chambers

Hamburger Wine – What to drink?

The common mantra for choosing a wine for burgers is “just use the cheap red stuff!”  I have a couple dozen reasons you don’t want that rock-gut wine for a good burger at home.  But before we begin to consider which wine to serve with your burger, let’s first define your burger!  What is it, exactly?  (click image at left for some great recipes)

First, let’s wade into the debate over how to best cook a burger at home – grilled vs. griddled.  As you can see here at Chowhound, the debate is not without proponents on both sides.  The topic arose again in this month’s issue of Food & Wine magazine, proving that the final word has yet to be established or that it’s been established but is worth re-hashing every year as grilling season flares upon us (pun intended though weak).

In sorting through all the opinions on how to cook the best burger, grilling is ahead by a length, with a cast iron skillet a distant second, and your basic frying pan and George Foreman grill getting pooh-poohed by foodies.  Just a few tips I’ve picked up along the way for grilling the perfect burger:

  • Bring your burger up to room temperature before grilling.  This helps assure an even doneness without drying out the meat.
  • Coat your grill with a high-temperature cooking oil just before setting your burger down.  Peanut oil works well.  This helps keep your burger from sticking, obviously, but also allows you to begin with thinner burgers, which shorten cooking time and helps assure the meat doesn’t dry out before it’s done!
  • Cook over direct heat for a long minute, flip for one more long minute.  Then move your burger to indirect heat for a couple minutes per side.  That’s all you’ll need if your patties are no more than 3/4 inch thick.
  • Adding cheese?  If you want it melted, be sure to add it during the cooking time or the meat will dry out.  To help melt your cheese, cover your grill or top your burger with an inverted pot.


Whether you grill or griddle, how you top your burger makes a big difference in the wine you’ll want to drink.

What Meat? The first consideration, when pairing a wine with your burger, is the meat used to create the burger.  Beef is most common, of course, but I’m quite partial to the LAMBurger, and that link will take you to a wonderful recipe from Bistro Ralph that may just put you off cowburgers for life.  The gamier taste of lamb argues for earthy wines such as Pinot and Chianti.  Even grilled portobellos provide a tasty, low-fat alternative (which also begs for Pinot, in my book!)

Grilled onions? The caramelized sweetness of grilled onions (particularly red onions, or the naturally sweet ones such as Walla Walla) works well with many new world reds (Finally!  A meal you can have with some of those California Cabs!)  Other pairing suggestions include Zinfandel, Syrah and Bordeaux blends.  Afraid to  pull the cork on your high-scoring wines?  Get over it!  You just KNOW they’re going to sit there, waiting for the perfect moment until, years from now, you discover they’re over the hill.  Do it now, the world ends on the May 21st anyway.  ;-)

Mushrooms? I like to grill the mushrooms right on the grill, wrapped in foil with some vent holes, and a simple dash of soy sauce, a quick grind or two of fresh nutmeg (trust me), and a bit of pepper and thyme for seasoning.  Whether cooked on the grill or on the stove-top, mushrooms pull your burger’s wine pairing in the direction of earthy red wines like Pinot Noir or Chianti or Spanish reds.  Go for it!

Cheese? Man, this ads another layer of complexity as far as what wine to choose with your burger. From the vast sea of cheesy options, which do you choose?  Is your burger topped with melted Kraft Singles or Swiss?  Blue cheese or goat cheese?  Cheddar?  Limburger??  It’s impossible to recommend a single wine that will be a home run with each cheese option, but as a general rule of thumb the added complexity cheese brings to a simple burger argues for a more complex, earthy wine. There you go again, getting all spendy on me.

Sauce? The most common, of course, is ketchup.  And the sweet/acid nature of the beast makes me think of blush wines.  A dry Rosé works with so many foods, it should be one of your go-to utility players.  Get over the pink color, Mr. Macho!  These wines also offer a bit of cool refreshment for those used to chilled drinks with their meal (and who among us didn’t grow up drinking iced Cokes with our Burgers?)  Plus, they generally have good acidity, which helps refresh our palate for the next bite of fatty meat/cheese/onion…

For those opting to top their burger with a bit of BBQ sauce, compatible wine pairings move towards the sweeter or fruitier side – a high-alcohol Zin might be just the ticket, as the fruit extraction is a metaphor for sweetness, a taste experience enhanced by the alcohol.  Just remember my first rule of thumb for food and wine pairing?  Match sweet with sweet, acidic with acidic.

Wait, that was rule number two.  But who’s counting?  Just go enjoy your burger.


Dave “the Wine Merchant” Chambers