The Little Winery That Could

Originally published in ‘Zalea Magazine August 2007.

Oddly enough Paul Giamatti, a frumpy character actor, is responsible for our nation’s blossoming crush on wine. In the 2004 Oscar darling Sideways, Giamatti plays Miles Raymond, a middle-aged novelist racked with self-confidence issues. Raymond’s defeatist personality has a savant, an unbridled passion for wine. In one scene he describes his favorite varietal, Pinot Noir, saying, “Only someone who takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”

Of course Raymond’s discourse is actually a cathartic description of himself, but the unintended result of this scene is that Americans are now obsessed with Pinot Noir. Part of the movie’s domino effect on pop culture has been an upsurge in interest in the wine country. Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, and the North Coast are swarming with tourist.

But one does not have to leave the Gulf Coast to see a real working winery; there are seven of them right here in Alabama. The oldest, Perdido Vineyards (22100 County Road 47) is in Baldwin County. The South has a wine tradition of its own in Muscadine grapes. These native grapes are larger and heartier than their European cousins plus they have seven times more of the precious antioxidant, reservatrol.

Reservatrol is an amazing chemical that is believed to keep cells from turning cancerous. Other benefits stemming from reservatrol include controlling the inflammation of cells and it stops the spread of malignancies. It is also thought to be the source of the “French paradox” – despite enjoying a high cholesterol diet, the French have astonishing low rates of heart disease.

Mike Bailey, general manager of Solo Vino (West Rd.) in Mobile features wines from Perdido Vineyards and is leading the charge to stock them in every locally owned grocer and restaurant in the area. Bailey helps out Perdido proprietor Jim Eddins at the north Baldwin winery, but he is not the only one. According to Bailey, “lots of folks volunteer because they want to see this part of our heritage preserved.”

Todd Hicks, the brew master at Hurricane Brew Pub in downtown Mobile (Dauphin St.) also lends his time and expertise to help Mr. Jim. He provides the locally crafted beer that is used to make the Casa Perdido Malt Vinegar which took gold in 2006 at the Mostbarkeiten in Carnthia, Austria. In 2005 they also captured the gold with their Elberta Gurkenessig (a cucumber vinegar), and in 2004 scored bronze with their White Muscadine Wine Vinegar.

Like Bailey, Hicks feels that we need to support our local artisans, of which he is one. Businesses like the Brew Pub, Sweet Home Cheese Farm (Elberta), the many apiaries in the area, et al are the epitome of home grown. They are owned locally and use local ingredients to make products that reflect the bay area persona. At the forefront of this group is Jim Eddins and his little winery.

Perdido was the first winery in the state and as such has seen its share of adversity for that is the burden of being the first to do anything. Eddins’ battles with various governments have left him skittish about bureaucracies. Greed and inefficiency, the two strongest attributes of any bureaucracy, often combine to the detriment of the citizenry they were originally created to protect.

On more than one occasion armed agents have invaded Eddins’ vineyard because of something as asinine as a clerk misfiling paperwork, but the biggest obstacles have been natural. Flooding and high winds are hard on the grapes. As Bailey can attest grapes thrive on difficult circumstances saying, “They love stress.” But hurricanes Ivan and Katrina were far more than just “stress.” Ivan nearly destroyed the vineyards and the winery, Katrina stripped the newly recovering vines of every single grape at the peak of harvest.

Still, Perdido Vineyards presses on making high quality muscadine and scuppernong wines, amazing vinegars, and the refreshingly pleasant muscadine grape juice. The juice is higher in life extending antioxidants than that of regular grapes and lacks the thick, syrupy texture of commercial juices. It is a vastly superior fruit juice than what most of us are used to.

Fine vinegars and grape juice are just the beginning of the innovations at Alabama’s oldest winery. This winter they plan on clearing out the vines, transforming this little patch of South Alabama into a picturesque setting not unlike those one sees when touring the Tuscan countryside. A stately gazebo set on a hill overlooking the vines will become a wedding chapel of unmatched beauty and a gift shop is also in the planning. All, of course, after the necessary permits, licenses, and other sundry authorizations have been attained, after all Caesar must be sated.

Perdido Vineyards is open Monday through Saturday 10 – 5.

A Guide to Exceptional Table Settings

Valentine’s Day is just a few weeks away so I thought I would help you set the mood by helping you set the table.

It might surprise you to learn just how much of what we taste is influenced by the other senses. To prove the point, there is a fad currently emerging called “dark dining.” There are two different approaches to dark dining but both involve the customers being blind for the entirety of the meal. DD enthusiasts claim that food tastes differently when you eliminate one of the senses. For the record the two different approaches to dark are that some restaurants have servers donning commando-style night-vision goggles while the other employees only vision-impaired servers.

The importance of what we see towards what we taste is essential. This is why chefs are so maniacal about their plate presentations. One example that comes to mind is Chef Charles Mereday formerly of the Battle House Hotel in Mobile, AL and a classmate of Tyler Florence at Johnson & Wales University.  A few years ago I did a profile on Mereday for ‘Zalea Magazine. My editor told me that when they photographed one of Chef Charles’ entrees for the article that the photographer took the liberty of rearranging the items on the dish. The chef politely removed the plate and cooked the dish again asking that the picture reflect the way the dish is served.

For the home cook an easy way to set the stage visually is to set the table creatively. One great teacher of how to set a table is Food Network star Sandra Lee. Though many have been critical of the food on the show (Lee admits to using 70% pre-made foods), none can argue that the TV star sets a beautiful table, or what she calls tablescapes.

Lee’s talent for tablescapes has started a whole genre of DYI books devoted to setting the table. Ironically she is the only person who has not published a book on the subject:

Of course treating your dining room table like a Broadway set is not the only way to set the mood. A simple yet elegantly set table can pop by simply putting a little effort into folding your napkins. I have compiled some videos that will walk you through the process.

Diary of a Wannabe TV Chef Part 11

This is the latest installment in a continuing series that documents my personal quest to become the host of my own cooking show. Since this is a relatively new “career,” there are no vocational programs or community college courses to prepare me for it. From what I have seen, the two most important elements in securing such a position are passion for food and plain old dumb luck. Born with a passion for food, I set out to make my own luck.

It’s Always Darkest Right Before It Goes Pitch Black

Wow! Life is great. I am actually making money writing about food and travel. Notoriety? Yep, I’ve got some of that, too. I’ve just published an interview with Food Network star Bobby Flay and my series on tailgating (Saturdays in the South) has created a bit of a buzz here in college football obsessed Alabama.

After a night out on the town with a co-worker I pop into a 24-hour eatery to scarf down some horribly un-healthy food. Nachos at 2AM anyone? I pass a table of drunken foodies who are discussing the upcoming visit of Bobby Flay to the Port City. I’m not sure exactly how but I got pulled into the conversation but one point someone asks me if I have read the interview with Flay in ‘Zalea magazine?

I wake up one day to find a voice message from my editor that asks me to call the magazine when I get a chance. I’m pumped because the last time I had a message like that it was to tell me that I was interviewing an Iron Chef. We have been efforting the great Emeril Legasse who had just opened a restaurant in nearby Gulfport, Mississippi. Could it be? Or maybe Alton Brown perhaps? His show Feasting on Asphalt 2 was taped right here in the heart of Katrina Country.

The recession really hadn’t been recognized as such yet but it was about to hinder my goals for the second time in less than a year. The newspaper that was the parent company of the two periodicals I wrote for was shutting down production on the weekly rag and cutting out freelance on the remaining monthly magazine. Once again, I was out of a job.

To make matters worse, the part-time gig I had waiting tables at a cheesy Italian chain restaurant was now my lone source of income. Big national chains are the scourge of the restaurant industry. They are a menace to locally owned restaurants, shamelessly enslave their employees and quite literally poison their customers all in the pursuit of the almighty buck. And now, through no fault of my own I was forced to prostitute myself at one of these denizens of culinary corruption.

At least I have a potential cooking show in the works. . . right?

Diary of a Wannabe TV Chef – PT 10

This is the latest installment in a continuing series that documents my personal quest to become the host of my own cooking show. Since this is a relatively new “career,” there are no vocational programs or community college courses to prepare me for it. From what I have seen, the two most important elements in securing such a position are passion for food and plain old dumb luck. Born with a passion for food, I set out to make my own luck.

Big Timin’ It

Since I began actually writing about food for a living, my life has been going well. Not only am I making seven and a half times as much per article with Current than I made for that first one published by Lagniappe, but the food editor for the latter has begun to mimic my style. My work, it seems, has created a buzz as the cuisine articles are what’s driving the success of both ‘Zalea and Current.

One summer day I get a call from ‘Zalea’s editor. Two appearances have been booked for October featuring cooking demonstrations from Food Network Chef Bobby Flay. The magazine is a sponsor of the event and, therefore, has been granted an interview with the Iron Chef to help promote the event plus his latest publication, The Mesa Grill Cookbook. I have been picked to conduct the interview.

Meanwhile, the meeting with the production company went well. Over wings and beer I meet the other members of Wade’s team. We hash out our different ideas for a cooking show called Coastal Cuisine and we are all on the same page as far as concept. The only thing standing in our way is financing. We need advertisers.

Each of us sets out to make contact with potential advertisers, something that is easy for me since I am already traveling the area talking to winery owners, chefs and shopkeepers anyway. If I feel the potential for selling advertising for the show, I get the contact information to Wade; he’s the money man. The wheels may be moving slowly but they are moving.

Finally the day approaches for the interview with Chef Flay. Because of my history in the entertainment industry, I am never phased when I get around famous people from that world. I performed publicly for the first time when I was five. Had the lead role in a play when I was 10 and have done a smattering of TV over the years. I’ve shared the stage with some of New Orleans’ legends and gotten a standing ovation at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. I’m in my element around entertainers. World class chefs, on the other hand, are a different matter.

Bobby Flay is a very influential chef and I count myself among the influenced. His bold style when it comes to the spicy flavors of the Southwest speaks to my natural tendency towards foods with strong, accretive flavors. I have long admired his blend of simple proteins and complex sauces. I guess it can be said that he presents his New World creations with a French accent.

There is also the public image to contend with. Flay has long been labeled arrogant and intense, a typical cocky New Yorker. Not a New Yorker in the way that Rachael Ray or Mario Batali are New Yorkers, people who’ve moved to the city and adapted. No, Flay was born in Gotham and has lived virtually his entire life there. And I am a food writer from Mobile, Alabama who has learned the bulk of his food knowledge from watching TV chefs like Bobby Flay.

A wave of anticipation rushes over me as the world’s most famous area code appears on my cell phone. I answer and hear a woman‘s voice, “Chef Bobby Flay for Stuart Donald.”

“This is Stuart.” I reply.

“One moment.”

“This is Bobby.”

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

Stu’s Latest Kindle Single is Just $2.99

Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up


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