Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Michael Ruhlman on Writing, his Career

Just two weeks ago noted food author and chef Michael Ruhlman visited the college where I work. He is known for his books on food and chefs. But he is also recognizable as a Food Network judge from shows like "Iron Chef" and "Next Iron Chef."

Ruhlman was a delightful guest. He's a very accomplished writer who breaks down the essence of cooking by techinque and ingredients - just not another recipe.

While he was on campus we sat down and I interviewed him for our campus YouTube channel. But we also covered a few food topics.

I wrote a column a couple of weeks ago with Ruhlman on cooking with wine.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Check Out the Photos From Chablis Wine Trip

A pretty little canal in the heart of the village of Chablis
One of the fun things about trips to wine country, besides the incredible wines, fabulous foods and the royal treatment, is a chance to shoot photos.

I did a little (not much) photography off and on in my newspaper career. But when I took my current position in 2004, I had to step up my photo game.

I'm still a photo novice of sorts but have gotten much better. I have carried heavy and expensive equipment on previous trips that's not much fun for travel. So when I was in Bordeaux and noticed a fellow journalist/photographer using a higher-end point-and-shoot camera, I asked a lot of questions.

The result is I went out and bought a 12 megapixel, 20 times zoom, image stabilization camera for under $300.

The album attached is the result and I'm pretty pleased. Check out my shots from Chablis.

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Monday, October 29, 2012

#Chablis: La Chablisienne Breaks the Mold for Coops

The fall colors of gold sweep the Chablis Valley

For the average consumer the idea of a negocient or wine cooperative just fogs over the moment the words are used.

And part of the haze is understandably for sub-par wines. There are exceptions around the world and perhaps one of the leading cooperatives is La Chablisienne, in business since 1923.

Tucki pours Chablis for us to taste
It all started back then during economic hardships. A group of winegrowers decided to partner as a way to sell their wines as a group wholesale to the wine trade. That model didn't change much until the 1950s when the La Chablisienne leaders decided to make the wine themselves for a consistent style.

La Chablisienne was the final stop of a brief trip to Chablis. Herve' Tucki is called an Ambassador and shared some of the organizations thoughts on winemaking and the history of the coop.

As with previous stops the discussion revolved around mineralilty and acid. And here comes a side note: One of the things that happens on these press trips is wine journalists have a certain story or angle they are pursuing. A couple of the journalists on this tour were interested in those two oft-discussed topics and it's highly appropriate in a region like teChablis. Though, the horse did seem to be tiring by the last stop.

But each time I have the opportunity to hear winemakers in any region talk about their craft I gain knowledge if not different perspective.

"La Chablisienne loves minerality. We love acidity," Tucki said. "We are not afraid to say that and we want to make wines that last a long time. The La Chablisienne approach to making Chablis is very classic."

Total production runs more than 150,000 cases a year. The discussion opened on oak even before the first pour. For the record, and there is no record on this topic, generally the Petit Chablis and Chablis see no oak and are produced using stainless steel. The Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines see varying percentages of oak barrel aging - and that's usually older oak which leaves less impression on the wine.

You understand 'minerality' if you look at vineyard floor
"Sometimes I don't understand my colleagues," Tucki said. "Oak is one way to make wine. I know some very good producers who only oak and sometimes that's becausee that producer doesn't have a good way with the oak."

Now, if that sounds confusing in type, that's because it probably is. The written word has no intonation particularly from someone who speaks English only as a second language. I interpreted that to clearly mean that some producers just know the old way. The current generation or younger generation of Chablis winemakers have had the benefit of college wine-making educations which have radically changed winemaking in the world world regions.

But what came through at La Chablisienne, as it did at every other stop, is that there are many styles of Chablis. Every slightly different terrior in this beautiful valley, covered in vineyard up and down steep slopes has slightly different terroir.

La Chablisenne, for example, makes two Petit Chablis, five Chablis, thirteen Premier Cru and five Grand Cru wines. Keep in mind what wine educator Erik Szablowski said about terrior. There is only one Grand Cru appelation but it has 7 distinct regions  - Bourgros, Blanchot, Les Clos, Les Preuses, and Vandesir.

French can make their terroir and wine regions confusing but when you are there, see the vineyards and taste the individual wines it all comes into focus.

These are elegant and sophisticated wines which just might be the best white wines in the world, You need to taste a Premier or Grand Cru and judge for yourself. It's a test worthy taking!

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Sunday, October 28, 2012

#Chablis: A Ceremony, Parade, and Wine Icon

The Sunday morning Fete des Vin parade!

PARIS – Sunday was really quite an exhilarating day to the end of a very brief trip to Chablis for the 64th Fete des Vins.

A ceremonial and fun honor, an afternoon with an icon of Chablis winemaking, and more great white wine.

Right after the Chablisien ceremony
I’m Now a Pilier Chablisien
The Les Piliers Chablisiens are a group of (mostly) elder Chablis statesmen who formed a brotherhood for those who bring honor to Chablis. Now, those are my words not there’s. They induct guests and those who contribute to Chablis into their organization with a fun and ceremonious ritual that was really an honor.

Now they do induct quite a few but considering size and scope, there aren’t many of we Piliers out there. At an incredible Saturday night banquet about  20 members of the Chablis community and supporters were inducted into the brotherhood. On Sunday morning following the Fete des Vin parade, a crowd gathered near the Chablis tourist office and one of the small village’s main gathering points.

It’s hard to describe and maybe I can find a video somewhere. But after political speeches by local mayors and a regional governor, my three fellow journalists and I joined the brotherhood. We were brought to the stage where one of the members read a prepared short bio about our wine writing.
Then we were given a rather large chalice of Chablis wine. The members break into a traditional French folk song and we had to chug the wine to be inducted. And, the group repeats the same “la, la, la’ until the last member of the group empty the vessel.

I’m hoping to at least get a few photos. We were presented a certificate showing our membership and a lanyard with a small cup attached (see photo) that is a sign of honor seen throughout Chablis as a member of the Chablisiens.

Having watched it Saturday night, I’ll just say it was great fun and way more cool than I anticipated going through the ceremony.

Visiting the Fete.
I hit up quite a few of the booths Saturday and made it to just a few on Sunday. The Fete pales in comparison to the Bordeaux Fete le Vin I attended in July but they are  totally different animals. The Bordeaux event had all the feel of an international tourist attraction while Chablis’ Fete des Vins felt more like a local celebration.

I listed several wineries yesterday worth looking for at your better wineshops. I visited three Sunday and could only recommend one.

Alain Geoffroy Chablis - This Chablis producer had very elegant wines but definitely in a lighter style than some. I found the wines very enjoyable. Some of the Chablis I tasted, including two other Sunday stops at the Fete', went too far to the lighter side for my palate.

An Afternoon with Chablis Icon Billaud
It’s fair to say almost every wine region in the world has its iconic producers. Few would argue or contest Bernard Billaud of Billaud-Simon is a Chablis household name.

Bernard Billaud with his young assistant, and translator, Nicolas
Bernard is everything a stereotype about a French winemaker should be. From his disheveled look, genuine smile and enthusiasm, to his almost angry definitions of what a Chablis wine should be – Billaud was extremely entertaining and educating.

I lost count but we tasted around 10 wines. I will write more about that in a future post or column. But his wines have been widely distributed in the U.S. for more than 20 years and were clearly the best of the Chablis I tasted over this long weekend.

As Bernard, and his young assistant Nicholas, weathered inane questions about oak and particularly acidity, Billaud’s passion erupted. “Chablis wines are acidic wines,” he said. "Chabis wine is a dry white wine from a single vineyard.”

But much more than acid, Chablis wines are about minerality and a sense of place, he insisted. It is really a cultural and unique wine experience to see these elder statesmen of such an iconic wine region as Chablis take to the pulpit and preach some fire and brimstone about their life’s work.

I’ll write more soon about his specific wines. But if you want to enjoy some of the, arguably to an extent, world’s best white wines just try the Billaud-Simon label from any of the four appellations.

Wine Cooperative Le Chabisiennes
Our final stop of the trip was at one of the world’s more successful cooperatives, Le Chabisienne. The cooperative has 300 members and makes a Petit Chablis, a few Chablis, and a Chablis Premier Cru from each of the different appellation regions, as well as the top-of-the-line Grand Cru.

Herve’ Tucki, Chablisienne “Ambassador” poured a Petit, two Chablis, a Premier and Grand Cru. These cooperatives don’t work in a lot of country's wine regions but this one has history on its side. Often in the wine world, cooperatives are considered second class wine or producers who can’t sell their grapes or juice any where else but not in Chablis.

Le Chablisienne makes wines which are honored along side the region’s best known names like Billaud-Simon and others.

Sunday at Chablis Fete des Vin
And other notes …
Our day ended with a long taxi ride back to Paris. I’m staying at a very nice Hilton at de Gaulle airport. Two of the four members of my group, scheduled to fly directly to the east coast have already had their flights canceled because of the approaching hurricane.. My return trip is Paris to Detroit via Air France. As of this writing, my northern path seems clear and my flight is still on as of Sunday night.

I often question myself before taking these press junkets, but again learned so much about a region that I would never have learned in any other way.

I’m not a Chardonnay fan by nature.. But in Billaud’s words, if Chablis doesn’t have great minerality and sense of place, then you’re just making Chardonnay. 

That was good enough for me.

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Educational Experience Learning Chablis' Differences

Very chilly but spectacular view of Chablis from the vineyards
Who stands atop a hill with strong winds and 36 degree weather talking about wine? I would be guilty as charged.

Szablowksi talking terroir atop the hill
But it's not a normal occasion to be standing on top of a hill overlooking Chablis, France, with one of the area's top educators. Our small press contingent had the opportunity this morning to spend time with Eric Szablowski, one of Burgundy's leading wine experts.

It was darn cold but fascinating to hear why Chablis is so special and different. At several times this morning the group discussion followed a similar pattern. The world knows Chablis as a fresh, clean wine with good minerality - but they can also be quite different.

Erik took us into the vineyards and showed us the incredible slopes on the hills around Chablis and nearby villages. He explained the effect of the clay and limestone soils which effect the vineyards and therefore the wines.

Chablis is not a large area with 350-400 wine growers and just more than 100 producers of any significant amounts of wine. Additionally, these produces export approximately 70-80 percent of all the wines they make.

Tasting at the Fete des Vins
But to understand how one wine with the standard characteristics can vary to the next Erik explained the terroir. Take the Grand Cru vineyard, for instance. There is just one Grand Cru but there are seven different sub climates within that vineyard area with its slopes, soils, and exposure to the sun. "Eighty percent of the quality of the wine is determined in the vineyard and the other 20 percent by the winemaker," he offered.

We followed up the chill walk around two sections of Chablis vineyards by tasting the 2012 ChablisWine Award winners. We tasted 10 different wines which won mostly gold, and a few silver, medals in the recent competition. The tasting showed the differences slight and significant the Chardonnay grape can produce in this diverse terroir. 

I hope to add notes on most of the 10 wines later. I did take notes to share because most are available in the U.S. My two favorites were Damien and Romain Bouchard's Premier Cru Montee' de Tonnerre and Domaine Drouhin's Vaudon Chablis Grand Cru.

The event we’re here to enjoy is the Chablis Fete des Vins, or festival of wine. There are more than 50 producers pouring their wines, food, and entertainment.

Our group translator Isabell Terrillon accompanied me to a number of booths she recommened for visits. Here are a few of my favorites. All of the ones listed here have at least some distribution in the U.S.

Domaine Fevre (Nathtalie and Giles) – I tasted through most of the Chablis with Nathalie who speaks great English. I loved the consistency of her wines with or without hints of old oak. Many of the labels had good bottles but some not quite at the same standard.  Her wines were age worthy but showed quite nice as young wines.

Domaine Chantemerle Boudin Pere & Fils – A limited selection of wines but also available in the U.S. I loved his two Premier Cru wines at very affordable prices. With a very old-world label they represent the second tier (Premier) well at prices in France of under 20E.

Vins Fins de Chablis (Isabelle et Denis Pommier) – Again very consistent across the four major appelations of Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier and Grand Cru. Isabelle took time to answer questions and talk about the wines. Another very affordable label even once you add the importing costs and distribution markups for top quality Chablis.

Jean-Marc Brocard – This was my first stop of the festival and one of the best. The Brocard name is well known not just in Chablis but around the world. Consistently in elegance and style, the wines were consistently well balanced with great minerality, finesse in winemaking, and reasonably priced. I bought a Premier Cru to bring home.

Domaine des Marronniers (Bernard Legland) – A producers of very stylish wines with understated fruit and that nice acidic finish you expect from Chablis. Bernard poured the wines at the booth and talked about the vinification (through Isabelle’s able translation.)

Pascal Bouchard – A great name producing great wines. I like the twist of his sons, who won one of the Chabis Commissions 2012 awards for their Premier Cru Montee de Tonnere  label. Romain Brocard poured three different Chablis which I found enjoyable across the board. The Montee de Tonnere was one of the best wines I tasted all day.

I did taste at a couple of other booths but found the lines inconsistent or not to my liking.
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#Chablis: First Taste Sets Bar Pretty High

Jean Francois Bordet talking about his Grand Cru Chabis

A great French tradition - the cheese course before dessert
AUXERRE, France -Dinner at a nice French restaurant, all four levels of Chablis wine, and an influential and charming host make all the woes of travel melt away.

The weekend in Chablis was kicked off with a welcome dinner for me and my three fellow U.S. wine writers. Jean Francois Bordet, Domaine Seguinot-Bordet, and President of the Chablis Commssion of Burgundy was our host.

Let's get the very basics out of the way for most. Chablis comes from four main classifications - Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru, and Grand Cru. Bordet was just 21 when he took over his grandfather's Domaine in the late 90s.

He shared the history of his family's wines, the changes he has made since taking over and of course poured his wines. Dinner started with a delightful warm carrot soup in a shot glass, nice salad with toasted sweet potato chips and fava beans, and I had the pork neck in Burgundian sauce. Dessert was a this great little chocolate mess.
Bordet's wines ranged with the light and mineral driven Petit Chablis to the elegant Grand Cru. Many of the Grand Cru wines do see some time in oak. Bordet uses large barrels and never new oak. The perception is usually most of Chablis is completely unoaked Chardonnay.

I probably should make a disclaimer as I start writing about this weekend. I have certainly had some Chablis through the years but it is one of those areas where I'm really trying to absorb a lot on this trip. My knowledge of the region and wines is minimal. That's why I found this trip so exicting.

Bordet also addressed the ongoing issue, particularly for French wine makers, of educating the consumer. Even with just seven Grand Cru vineyards, there are differences. I hope to grasp a better understand today (Saturday) when we being our day walking the vineyards near the village of Chablis.

We will be tasting Chablis award-winning wines this morning then spending our afternoon at the Fete des Vins wine festival with more than 50 wineries pouring their Chablis.

Tonight is a large and prestigious banquet of the Chablis wine growers association. The press contingent has been invited. These affairs come with quite a reputation that I'm anxious to witness first hand.

I'll be doing updates throughout the day on Facebook and Twitter.

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Transcontinental Travel & Press Trips

PARIS, France – When 2012 began it was hard to image Languedoc, Bordeaux, and Chablis would be added to my wine travel resume.

Yet, I just arrived at Auxerre, near Chablis, France. 

I attended the Millesime Bio in Montpellier, in Southern France, in January thanks largely to networking and wine friends. A New York marketing firm representing Bordeaux winemakers found me for the July trip to Bordeaux’s Fete le Vin. This trip is a similar story with a NY firm representing Chablis issuing the invitation.

I was actually invited on a late-September trip to Provence, which I would have loved, but had to turn it down for an important work conflict. The contact then shared plans for an early October presser into regions of the Languedoc I had not visited in January – and I declined that one because of the bill-paying job. But when they mentioned Chablis at the end of the month, I knew I could make the trip.

The trip was unnecessarily arduous - Indy to Atlanta with an unexpected stop in New York. We flew up the eastern coast off the shores of North American and out of the Atlantic only to divert back to JFK airport to check an “electrical problem. That took an hour and half-plus before we again headed to Paris. I arrived six hours after my scheduled arrival and 15 hours on a Delta 747. And no one cares about other people’s flight woes, but if you’re booking a flight anytime soon I will note that on four Delta flights to Europe this year I’ve had three substantial flight issues.

All you need on a plane, a laptop and glass of French Merlot
My savior today was Noemie of Sopexo’s Paris office. The young French woman, who spent part of a year interning in New York City, was assigned to get me on my way to Auxerre. Even that proved eventful. Finding one’s way through Charles DeGaulle Airport is a challenge. But I’ve made it, so let the wine geekiness begin. It kicks off tonight with a welcoming dinner hosted by Jean Francois Bordet, President of the Chablis Commission of the Burgundy Wine Board our host.

Press trips are an oddity that have become very popular in recent years. I believe in full disclosure and that’s really the topic of the post. The sponsoring organization pays all costs. Obviously, flying four journalists from the USA to Paris, taxi rides, dinners, overnight stays, etc, isn’t an inexpensive proposition.

And for the record, if not obvious, they take very good care of us and treat us well! (That might actually be an understatement.)

I didn’t know what to make of these wine press trips in 2010 when I was invited to participate on a trip to Paso Robles, California. As a longtime traditional print journalist, I was taken aback by accepting a trip and perks which would have been unthinkable in the newspaper business. So I consulted with a few wine-writing friends who gave me the lowdown..

Essentially the advice was to go. They cautioned me to avoid any quid pro quo – or, ‘Yes, I’ll write all about your region and your wines if you take me on this free trip.’ And most smart New York marketing companies know how that works. Some do push a little harder than others on what one ‘might write.’ Instead, I’ve learned the best answer is a simple truth. I make no promises. But with a widely distributed newspaper column, this blog, an every-other-week column in Indianapolis’ NUVO weekly, quarterly feature for Madison Magazine, based in Anderson, IN., and as a founding contributing editor for Palate Press – The National Online Wine Magazine, I have a lot of mouths to feed.

So what do the wine regions get out of it? Couldn’t they just go buy an ad in Wine Spectator or one of the major US wine publications? Well, they could but they wouldn’t be able to tell stories or match the cost efficiency.

I will post something this weekend about the other U.S. wine journalists on the trip – Roger Morris, Lisa Hall, and Michael Apstein. But we all represent different areas of the country with different audiences. I offer up to 300,000 homes because of my print work – and that doesn’t include the hits my column gets on the newspaper sites that post it after print publication. I have the national/international audience through Palate Press - if I find a “story” I like and one the editors of PP will accept.

So you do the math and a press trip is far less expensive for regional wine associations than traditional advertising venues.

Furthermore, I would argue, for the most part you are also winning over brand ambassadors. On the trips I’ve joined, most of the writers were making their first visit to the region. That first-ever trip to Paso Robles continues to show up in my wine writing more than two years after I visited the area. I know about Paso and its Rhone grapes, rich Cabernet and Syrah. 

As one might imagine I catch a lot of good natured teasing where I work. “Off on another free wine junket, huh?” Well, yes I am. Frankly, most wine writers – including yours truly– make nothing on our wine writing efforts. I have a full time job in marketing and communication that pays the bills. The few pieces I am paid for over the course of a year might cover a car payment but not the monthly mortgage.

Please follow along. I learn things each time around. I didn’t buy an AT&T data plan on the two previous visits to France this year but did for this trip. That means I’ll be able to Tweet and do Facebook posts throughout the weekend.

The most exciting thing though is learning about a wine region new to me – in this case one of the most prestigious and terroir-driven regions in the world. We have a great itinerary.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Back to France: Off to Chablis Thursday

If I'm not a full-fledged Francophile by Christmas it's not for a lack of opportunity. I'll be leaving Thursday for my third France wine press trip of 2012.

I'll join three other U.S. wine journalists as guests of the Burgundy Wine Board at the Chablis Fete des Vins, or wine festival. This is a quick trip. We arrive Friday morning, spend time at the festival and in the vineyards and wineries Saturday and Sunday and its then a quick return home Monday.

But hey, it's France; and, it's Chablis!

I'm going to try to blog each day and do more frequent updates on Facebook and Twitter. You can follow me through the links in the right column. On previous trips I didn't activate a data plan for my iPhone but it's only $30 so this time I'm going to give it a try.

Jean-Francois Bordet of Domaine Seguinot Bordet
We're going to be staying in the nearby city of Auxxere, a town of about 40,000 people not far from Chablis. After a get-acquainted dinner Friday night, we have a very full Saturday agenda. But it seems quite an honor that we will be dining with Jean-Francois Bordet, the President of the Chablis Commission of the Burgundy Wine Board.

We'll start in the vineyards and then taste the award winners of the 2012  Chablis Wine Awards.

Saturday afternoon will be an afternoon of tasting and discovery with more than 50 presenters of Chablis' four appelations. They are certainly treating the journalists well on this trip. On Saturday evening we will be guests of the Confrerie des Piliers Chablisiens - "a wine society that honors those who by activity, writing, or way of doing things have served the cause of Burgundy and more especially Chablis."

These societies are common in the great wine producing regions of France. It's a real honor to be able to attend.

The Piliers Chablisiens parade gets us started on Sunday with visits after lunch to Domaine Billaud-Simon with Bernard Billaud and then a tasting at La Chablisienne.

We'll be transported back to Paris Sunday evening to catch our Monday flights home.

This should be a really memorable trip. I'm not sure any region is best known for its expression of terrior through just one grape - Chardonnay - like Chablis. Follow along here and on my social media sites.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Michael Ruhlman: Wine Adds Flavor to Your Dishes

Ruhlman during a visit to Wabash College

So much fuss is made over pairing wine and food that the home cook may not think of wine as an asset in flavoring their dishes.

Michael Ruhlman, one of American’s most prolific and authoritative food authors, said wine can be used as a great marinade to enhance foods. Ruhlman, known for his 18 books and appearances on the Food Network and with Anthony Bourdain on the Travel Channel, made a recent brief visit to Indiana.

The Cleveland native said one of the most important rules is an old one. “Always use a wine that you would feel comfortable drinking,” he said. “But not a Chateau Margaux (very expensive French wine). You don’t want to throw that in a pot of stew; use a drinkable, affordable wine.”

“I like to add it in the beginning when the alcohol tends to burn off faster. You can add it at the end but it definitely flavors it different. I always add it first at the first de-glazing or adding of the liquid ingredients.”

Ruhlman has written books with some of the country’s top chefs. He also has learned from them while writing. His big career break came when he had the opportunity to help Thomas Keller, chef at The French Laundry in Napa, write The French Laundry Cookbook. The iconic wine country restaurant has long been considered one of the nation’s best.

“I learned this from Thomas Keller,” Ruhlman said. “People often like to put wines in marinades but the alcohol in marinades will actually de-nature the exterior of the protein and prevent any flavors from entering the meat. You’re not really helping the meat; in fact, you’re helping the outside become slightly mushy by marinating in wine.

"What I learned from Keller is that if you’re going to use wine, and it’s a great thing to marinate with, cook off the alcohol first then add the aromatics. Add the onions, carrots, and thyme or whatever you want. Throw in the pepper and some salt so that it steeps and cooks then flame it and make sure you can’t get any flame. Once the alcohol is cooked off then you have this really tasty fluid to marinate your meat.”

Ruhlman said he’d even eat boneless, skinless chicken breast if it was properly marinated. “And let’s face it, chicken breast is the skim milk of the protein world that America relies on. If home cooks would learn to marinate it properly they’d have something really tasty.”

As a celebrity chef often recognized for his appearances as a judge on Food Network’s "Iron Chef", Ruhlman also gets asked about wine and food pairing.

“I tell people to use their common sense and pay attention,” he said.  “Does it go well with the food? Does the red wine go with the fish or does it overpower the fish? How does a white wine contribute to the flavor? Does it have the right acidity for the dish?

“We educate ourselves by paying attention to what we eat and drink. There are no hard and fast rules. I try to tell people not to be intimated by wine. There’s so much to learn and there are experts out there to varying degrees. Don’t ever feel cowed by the experts and rely on your own taste.”

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