Founded in 1996
"Dinner at Eight" by Leslie Staalberg
IN THIS ISSUE
SEDONA AT THE CROSSROADS
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
CAMERON HUGHES AND
THE ALLOCATION SHUFFLE
By John Mariani
SEDONA AT THE
By John Mariani
Photo by John Mariani
Wordsworth wrote of London, “earth hath not anything to show more fair.” But then, he’d never been to Sedona, Arizona.
Arizona has been blessed with extraordinary natural wonders—the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Havasu Falls, the Petrified Forest, Sagauro National Park—along with unique man-made marvels like Hoover Dam and the Native American cliff dwellings of Canyon de Chelly. Sedona’s Red Rock country flanking the town, with its magnificent Castle Rock, Bell Rock and Butte Courthouse Rock, ranks among the finest, most iconic destinations in America, making it a top tourist and hiking site, with 300 miles of trails. For some it is considered a spiritual place full of energy vortexes; others arrive hoping to witness a UFO sighting. Others float above it all in a balloon.
Though small in size—only about 19 square miles—Sedona’s natural beauty and accessibility, as well as a Native American history that dates back 11,500 years, has brought not just a barrage of tourists, but also an influx of seniors and second-home buyers who have put the town’s traditional character in considerable flux. With a year-round population of only 11,000 people, whose median family income is only $56,000, Sedona has been swollen by tourism and development, with the median cost of a house now $562,000.
In January, City Manager Justin Clifton told The Arizona Republic there were more than 1,000 vacation rentals in the city, accounting for 20% of Sedona's total housing inventory. Sedona’s Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Jennifer Wesselhoff, told Wrangler News that she is “receiving complaints from business owners fearing that the lack of availability of affordable housing is driving away workers.”
Indeed, while I was in Sedona I heard nothing but high praise for the Mexican workers who make the town’s hospitality business possible. “They are the hardest working, finest people you’ll ever meet,” a local restaurateur told me. “Without them, we’d have to close all the resorts and restaurants.”
Rampant tourism and development is a double-edged sword everywhere in the world, whereby cities and regions grow rich while their essential character may be forever changed. It is always a battle over displacement, and long-time Sedonans have been fighting to keep their beloved town a place of unique enchantment.
While I did not indulge in the hunt for vortexes or UFOs, I certainly found the kind of wonder every visitor seeks in Sedona, which you begin to encounter in the mesas and red rocks about an hour’s drive out of the smoggy air of Phoenix, and they loom larger and larger as you approach Sedona, whose pretty but prosaic name derives from Sedona Arabella Miller Schnebly, wife of the city’s first postmaster. That name may lack the tough western twang of other Arizona towns like Rough Rock, Tombstone, Wolf Hole, Bitter Springs and Skull Valley, but Sedona is as yet a quiet, well maintained oasis of gentility in the state. The town itself lies along Route 89A, lined with antique stores, restaurants like Silver Saddle and Cowboy Club, and resort spas named Poco Diablo and Enchantment. (I’ll be writing about where to stay and to eat in an upcoming article.)
The town’s tourist map ads list numerous jeep tours, galleries, a Center for the New Age offering aura photos, UFO sighting tours, Creekside Healing and Past Life Regression. Twice a year The Sedona Solstice brings in musicians, astrologers and healers. Sedona also has an out-sized commitment to the arts. There’s the highly regarded annual International Film Festival and a Blue Grass festival; an extensive chamber music season; and the year-round Sedona Arts Center.
One of the more appealing sites for me was the Sedona Heritage Museum (right) in uptown, on the National Register of Historic Places. It is not a modern museum with a famous architect’s name on it—no Frank Gehry warped titanium, no Renzo Piano walls of glass. Indeed, the intent has been to preserve the Walter and Ruth Jordan family’s 1931 farmstead, which Ruth sold to the city in 1998 in order to save it from becoming a housing development.
It is quaintly delightful. The old rooms, kitchen, appliances and rock-faced attached garage cover 3,000 square feet, and inside it is packed with original artifacts that exhibit the hard work and simple pleasures of an Arizona farm family during and after the Depression. There is also a 40’ x 80’ fruit packing shed, built in 1946, that still houses the Jordans’ tractors and an apple grading machine. A tenthouse was added in 2007 as a replica of early pioneer housing whose ease of dismantling made it a kind of mobile home.
Original in its own way on the property is a telegraph office, relocated to the Museum grounds in 2014, that was built for the 1947 John Wayne movie “The Angel and the Badman,” and the inside is festooned with western movie memorabilia.
The old romantic road Route 66 never ran through Sedona, and Jack Kerouac seems not to have visited the town, but when twilight ends, standing under the endless umbrella of stars, I thought of what that restless traveler wrote about the vastness of the West in his book On the Road: “The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream.”
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
179 N 9th Street (between Bedford and Driggs)
Williamsburg, which borders the East River at the Willamsburg Bridge, has long been a quiet neighborhood for Hassidic Jews, but for a while now has been gentrifying, so that more than a couple of media articles have referred to it as a “hipster hood.” Yet these days it’s more of a place you’ll find million-dollar Millennials’ condos than hipster cafés. It’s also the home of Brooklyn Brewery and a slew of new restaurants that join the century-old Peter Luger Steakhouse.
One of the newest is Nora Thai, whose distinction is in its divergence from the entrenched Northern Thai menus elsewhere by offering the food of Southern Thailand, from which owner Kittigron Lertpanaruk (better known as Kim Oh) emigrated to live out his American Dream. It’s certainly worked out for him: He’s built a small empire of Spice restaurants around New York, and now owns the revered Arun's in Chicago.
Nora is short for “manora,” a traditional Thai dance originating in Southern Thailand, and the 80-seat premises, once a warehouse, are theatrical indeed, with walls of reclaimed wood, intricate carvings, a handsome bar up front and a stunning large bronze statue of a fairly slender Buddha. There are plans for a DJ and live music on weekends, but for now the background music is international and a bit loud.
Southern Thailand, whose principal city is Phuket, is a long finger of land edged in by the Bay of Thailand and the Indian Ocean, so seafood is stressed in the region’s kitchens. Nora’s menu is a wide and colorful palette of seafood and meat, and the distinctions between appetizers and main courses are hardly noticeable.
So you might start with plump chicken and shrimp dumplings with sweet and sour glaze ($8), or chor muang ($10), another form of blue, flower-shaped dumplings with peas, palm sugar and chicken (left). Or perhaps to begin, a summer roll in an egg wrap filled with tofu, mushrooms, bean sprouts, sweet pork sausage and cucumber with a tangy-sweet tamarind sauce ($8). There’s a papaya salad called som tum with poached shrimp, peanuts, garlic and fish sauce ($10), as well as a green mango salad ($9). Cua kreang is rich in flavors of minced pork or chicken with Thai chili, lemongrass and shrimp paste ($14), while gaeng som is more of a delightful spicy-sour curry with shrimp and bamboo or papaya ($14).
Pad Thai is ubiquitous in Thai restaurants and, contrary to ill-informed belief, very popular in Thailand. Nora’s version is complex, with the flavors of sautéed rice noodles in a lime-tamarind sauce with egg, scallion, crushed peanuts and meat or tofu, along with the unusual addition of zucchini ($18).
Of six noodle dishes, I loved most the kao-soy (right) with chicken in a beautifully yellow curry with mustard greens, red onion, snow peas, lime and boiled egg topped with crispy egg noodles ($15). There are seven fried rice dishes cooked to various degrees of spiciness ($12).
The savories go on and on: a juicy pork chop with garlic and Thai pepper marinade, sautéed vegetables and a barbecue sauce ($17.50) that shows just how overrated Sriracha is. Duck is always on a Thai menu, and the generous half-duck with basil and chili garlic is only $22 and feeds two. A mango whole fish, also meant for sharing, is a big crispy red snapper with mango salsa, cashews and cherry tomatoes ($28).
No matter how many dishes fill a table, there seems no end to invention, but palate fatigue simply did not occur during our long evening at Nora, because this is not a heavy cuisine. But do not miss the desserts, which are an amalgam of Thai and western flavors: Death by Chocolate Cake ($9); mango sticky rice ($9); and Thai tea panna cotta ($6).
The food is certainly the main attraction at Nora, but the place excels in its design by comparison to most Thai restaurants in the city, making it more than worth a trip over the bridge to this quiet, pleasantly gentrified neighborhood.
Open daily for lunch and dinner.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
By John Mariani
HOW TO BUY ALL THE HIGHLY ALLOCATED
WINES YOU WANT . . . AT A CHEAP PRICE
An Interview with Cameron Hughes
The last time I interviewed Cameron Hughes, CEO of the giant wine distributor under his name, he told me about how some of most illustrious cult wines of California, whose bottlings win 95-point ratings from the wine media and sell for hundreds of dollars, sell off their excess to negoçiants like him who in turn sell it everywhere from local wine shops to Costco for prices below $50.
Now, after several very bountiful vintages from 2012 to 2019, with a glut of California wines in the market, his deals are getting better than ever. Over dinner in New York, the 47 year-old Hughes told me, “The state is drowning in wine. For wineries that pride themselves on small production and selling only by allocation, it’s a little embarrassing to find their warehouses bulging with thousands of gallons of wine. Still, they don’t want to see their wines selling in Costco because of the perception of lower quality.”
He cited one well-known cult wine that was selling for $65 a gallon, now available in the market for just $20.
“Allocating wine is just a game,” he said, drinking a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc with a dish of foie gras. “People who buy at the high end do so for the experience of drinking a $300 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s not really about the wine itself, so the producer says tells this wine shop owner or restaurateur he can only get a case or a few bottles, when in fact, his wines are stacked up in a warehouse.”
Hughes, who lives in San Francisco and who bears a resemblance to actor Luke Wilson, gains tremendously from playing the game, though he does get frustrated when he sees a wine get a very high rating from Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate but a much lower one for the same exact wine that he sells under a different label for a quarter of the price. He hasn’t forgotten the time a wine was rated an “Editors Choice” with 93 points, selling for $125. “We bought the surplus of the same wine under our Napa Valley Lot 51 Coomsville label and sold it for $27.” In the industry this is called a “shiner,” a wine already bottled but without a label affixed. In the U.S. four companies distribute 80% of the wine sold.
The same practices go on in Europe, where wine laws delimit the amount of wine that may be bottled under the French denomination contrôlée, so that if a First Growth Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy estate enjoys an abundant harvest, some of its finished wine must be sold off, either under a second label or to a négoçiant like Hughes, who labels it himself or negotiates the sale and export of the excess wine. Born in the Modesto, CA, wine country, Hughes started selling his own label—he’s never owned a vineyard—called Sinergi Brand Kitchen Sink out of the trunk of his car. Over the last fifteen years he has built up an enormous range of growers, sellers, and winery owners. He is also now in the beef business, selling highest quality USDA Prime and Japanese wagyu.
While the huge harvests of the last
decade would seem a boon to winemakers, Hughes
notes that 2019 sales will be flat, and that,
in fact, the American wine industry is bracing
for a precarious future. “It’s not so much
overproduction,” said Hughes, “but it’s more
due to Americans’ drinking habits. The boomers
have cut back on their wine consumption, while
the Gen-Xers and Millennials are more into
brown goods and beer than wine.”
The Report also noted that the “cumulative impact of negative health messaging — absent offsetting promotion of the health benefits of moderate wine consumption — is negatively influencing consumption, particularly for the millennial consumer. . . . Due to many factors, including their limited financial capacity, a preference for premium spirits and craft beers, delayed careers, negative health messaging regarding alcohol, and the legalization of cannabis, the millennial consumer has temporarily stalled in growing their wine consumption.”
Hughes is also concerned by global warming and drought, although he notes that “grapes use less than half the water in Central Valley – and even less in Napa and Sonoma—but provide twice the economic impact (efficiency) of almonds. Grapes don’t really need a lot of water.”
He’s as concerned about what he calls “designer yeasts” in wine, which he says may cause warm weather wines’ alcohol levels to rise. (It should also be mentioned that some genetically modified yeasts have been developed to do the opposite, by diverting more of the grapes’ sugars to glycol rather than alcohol, but glycol also tends to make wines taste sweeter.)
Still, Hughes is very optimistic about Americans’ desire to drink high quality wines that he can supply cheaply because of the current wine glut. It’s kind of his Kumbaya moment: On his website, he has a video resembling an inexpensive Super Bowl ad, with Hughes and his dog bounding through vineyards and a living room, plucking wine bottles from the air and from the hands of “the privileged, the few,” then leading a pack of very young, smiling Millennials along what appears to be San Francisco, . He brandishes a bottle of his wine and exclaims, “This is what liberty smells like! This is what democracy tastes like!”
It’s not exactly Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but it’s folksy, it’s catchy, it’s brimming with youthful enthusiasm and it’s persuasive,
like the old Coke declaring, “It’s the Real Thing!”
KFC has announced it’s going “beyond” fried chicken with the introduction of a vegan imitation plant-based chicken to its menu in Smyrna, GA, one Atlanta-area restaurant on Tuesday.
COMPARISON WE WOULD COME
"Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli (the Franks) are French-trained chefs who cook Italian. They are not, however, pizzaioli. But they have a guy. . . Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, [who] is not only a pizzaiolo, but maybe the world’s greatest pizzaiolo. . . . to advise and support and generally share with the Franks all their naturally-leavened secrets. Which, if you know anything about bread and pizza, you know is like having John Coltrane and Charlie Parker agree to help you play the saxophone.—"F&F Pizzeria," New York Magazine.
Any of John Mariani's books below may be ordered from amazon.com.
The Hound in Heaven (21st Century Lion Books) is a novella, and for anyone who loves dogs, Christmas, romance, inspiration, even the supernatural, I hope you'll find this to be a treasured favorite. The story concerns how, after a New England teacher, his wife and their two daughters adopt a stray puppy found in their barn in northern Maine, their lives seem full of promise. But when tragedy strikes, their wonderful dog Lazarus and the spirit of Christmas are the only things that may bring his master back from the edge of despair.
WATCH THE VIDEO!
“What a huge surprise turn this story took! I was completely stunned! I truly enjoyed this book and its message.” – Actress Ali MacGraw
“He had me at Page One. The amount of heart, human insight, soul searching, and deft literary strength that John Mariani pours into this airtight novella is vertigo-inducing. Perhaps ‘wow’ would be the best comment.” – James Dalessandro, author of Bohemian Heart and 1906.
“John Mariani’s Hound in Heaven starts with a well-painted portrayal of an American family, along with the requisite dog. A surprise event flips the action of the novel and captures us for a voyage leading to a hopeful and heart-warming message. A page turning, one sitting read, it’s the perfect antidote for the winter and promotion of holiday celebration.” – Ann Pearlman, author of The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for my Sister.
“John Mariani’s concise, achingly beautiful novella pulls a literary rabbit out of a hat – a mash-up of the cosmic and the intimate, the tragic and the heart-warming – a Christmas tale for all ages, and all faiths. Read it to your children, read it to yourself… but read it. Early and often. Highly recommended.” – Jay Bonansinga, New York Times bestselling author of Pinkerton’s War, The Sinking of The Eastland, and The Walking Dead: The Road To Woodbury.
“Amazing things happen when you open your heart to an animal. The Hound in Heaven delivers a powerful story of healing that is forged in the spiritual relationship between a man and his best friend. The book brings a message of hope that can enrich our images of family, love, and loss.” – Dr. Barbara Royal, author of The Royal Treatment.
❖❖❖FEATURED LINKS: I am happy to report that the Virtual Gourmet is linked to four excellent travel sites:
Everett Potter's Travel Report:
I consider this the best and savviest blog of its kind on the web. Potter is a columnist for USA Weekend, Diversion, Laptop and Luxury Spa Finder, a contributing editor for Ski and a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, ForbesTraveler.com and Elle Decor. "I’ve designed this site is for people who take their travel seriously," says Potter. "For travelers who want to learn about special places but don’t necessarily want to pay through the nose for the privilege of staying there. Because at the end of the day, it’s not so much about five-star places as five-star experiences." THIS WEEK:
Eating Las Vegas
JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas
food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is
the co-author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50
Essential Restaurants (as well as
the author of the Eating Las Vegas web site: www.eatinglasvegas.
He can also be seen every Friday morning as
the “resident foodie” for Wake Up With the
Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3 in
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET
NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Publisher: John Mariani. Editor: Walter Bagley. Contributing Writers: Christopher Mariani,
Robert Mariani, Misha Mariani, John A. Curtas, Gerry Dawes, Geoff Kalish,
and Brian Freedman. Contributing
Photographer: Galina Dargery. Technical
If you wish to subscribe to this newsletter, please click here: http://www.johnmariani.com/subscribe/index.html
© copyright John Mariani 2019