With Valentine’s Day around the corner, we’re pouring a big glass of love and desire with a side of chemistry. Looking to wow your date with the perfect wine order? We ask wine pros for their do’s and don’ts. We dish with famed sexologist Pepper Schwartz about edible aphrodisiacs. Plus, a crash course in the chemistry of cocktails.
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Read the full transcript of “Cupid’s Arrow”:
Susan Kostrzewa: From Wine Enthusiast Magazine, this is the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. I’m executive editor Susan Kostrzewa. Coming up, “Cupid’s Arrow.” With Valentine’s Day around the corner, we’re pouring a big glass of love and desire with a side of chemistry.
Taylor Nickles: It’s more, like, subversive chemistry than, like, sitting there with, like, a beaker and a test tube type of thing, you know?
SK: Plus … Looking to wow your date with the perfect wine order? We ask wine pros for their do’s and don’ts.
Joe Campanale: One of the exciting things about wine is the experience of discovery.
Nick Grenier: Be completely open to things you’ve never heard of.
Erin Kuhn: Definitely don’t feel like you are supposed to be a wine expert in order to enjoy wine. It’s supposed to be an adventure, a lifelong adventure.
SK: And, in the food for love, we dish with famed sexologist Pepper Schwartz about edible aphrodisiacs.
Pepper Schwartz: I would define an aphrodisiac as anything that makes you feel more aroused and have more desire.
SK: It’s coming up on the Wine Enthusiast Podcast.
Picture this: It’s Valentine’s Day. You’re sitting at a corner table in that classy new restaurant you’ve had your eye on. It’s cozy, intimate, with soft music playing and dim lights casting a warm glow. Sitting across from you is The One. Well, you hope it’s the one. You haven’t known each other for long, but you feel like there’s real potential here. On the table is a flickering candle, two dinner menus, and the wine list. You know you want to order the perfect bottle for this romantic occasion, but what? And how? We asked three experts to answer those very questions. Here’s what they had to say.
Erin Kuhn: I’m Erin Kuhn and I am a fine wine consultant for Winebow Boston.
Joe Campanale: My name is Joe Campanale. I am the owner and beverage director for Fausto Restaurant.
Nick Grenier: I’m Nicholas Grenier. I am the wine director for Happy Cooking, a restaurant group in the West Village in Manhattan.
EK: First of all, I think it’s really important to not feel like you need to know everything in order to enjoy wine. And I think a really attractive quality, especially if you’re on a date with someone, is to be willing to learn.
JC: Having that humility and saying, “I found a cool place to take you where they’re the experts.” Showing that, I think, would be really impressive to the date.
NG: Specifically for Valentine’s Day, if you’re trying to, like, go in with this confidence that … you haven’t quite earned that confidence, but you want to show that you have that, just start with glasses of bubbles.
JC: Something really fresh and crisp and low alcohol.
EK: I think it’s always fun to start with some bubbles. It’s celebratory, and if it’s Valentine’s Day, or a first date, it’s a great way to ease the mood a little and get everyone relaxed.
NG: Start there as you start to navigate the wine list.
EK: Look at the price points just to get an idea of what you’re comfortable spending and what you’re comfortable looking at. I think that’s a good place to start.
NG: Get a sense of how much you want to spend that night, and use that as another tool when you are talking to the som or server to be able to point to a couple of wines in that price range as, these are the things that kind of popped out to me, as a subtle way to let them know this is the range I’d like to stay in tonight.
JC: I say look out for very obscure grapes. I find that super obscure grapes tend to be a really good value because they don’t have the cache of cabernet or chardonnay.
NG: If something’s on there,
EK: They’re on there for a good reason.
NG: They’re probably there for a reason.
EK: Because someone in the restaurant tasted them and loved them.
JC: You’ve ordered a wine, you’re excited to drink it, and the sommelier will come over and pour you a little taste of that wine.
NG: Historically, that was to look for whether the wine was sound or not.
EK: I do love to double check the vintage, and if it, the producer has multiple wines on list. Just to make sure it’s the one that I ordered.
JC: So you check to see if it’s corked, which will smell like somewhere between a moldy basement and a wet newspaper.
EK: You don’t even actually have to taste the wine in order to accept it. You could just give it a smell and, as long as you don’t get that wet newspaper, basement smell, then you can say that’s great, thank you very much. Or you can taste it and just double check.
NG: And if it’s not what you were anticipating, be kind but don’t be shy about saying that, this is not quite what we were looking for. Let’s try again.
JC: Do not over think it, and just enjoy it. It’s just wine. It’s one of the perks of life.
EK: Definitely don’t be afraid to ask for help or venture into unknown territory. You’re on a date and you need something to talk about, so why not make it the wine?
Susan Kostrzewa: That was Erin Kuhn, Joe Campanale, and Nicholas Grenier. They spoke with podcast producer Eric Shimelonis.
We turn now from wine to food. William Shakespeare famously wrote, “If music be the food of love, play on.” But according to our next guest, the food of love can often be food itself. We’re talking about aphrodisiacs, named after the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. For centuries, people have turned to all sorts of edible aphrodisiacs to get themselves in the mood. Sociologist and sexologist Pepper Schwartz has written extensively about aphrodisiacs, what they are, and whether they really do add spice to our love lives. She recently spoke with digital managing editor Marina Vataj.
Marina Vataj: Your bio refers to you as a sociologist and a sexologist. For those who don’t know, tell us, what does a sexologist do?
Pepper Schwartz: As you might imagine, a sexologist studies sex, and perhaps more correctly, sexualities.
MV: Let’s start with the basics. How would you define aphrodisiac?
PS: I would define an aphrodisiac as anything that makes you feel more aroused and have more desire.
MV: And this idea of foods as aphrodisiacs, how far back does that actually go?
PS: I think the idea of food as aphrodisiacs goes way back, you know, ancient China, the karma sutra in India, there’s lots of imagery of peeled grapes and things like that. But often the aphrodisiac quality may be imagined rather than tested. So it’s ancient, really, and it has a wide swath of materials and items that have been thought to be erotic, introducers of heightened emotion and pleasure.
MV: Let’s take a look at some of the foods that are commonly said to be aphrodisiacs. A big one, and an especially apropos one around Valentine’s Day is chocolate. Where does this idea come from? Why do people believe chocolate has this ability to get us in the mood?
PS: Well, part of it’s cultural. It’s a special food that, you know, one eats usually in scare qualities because, well, the downside of course is fattening. But, you know, we love sugar, or our brain turns on with sugar, so chocolate is a very sensual in the mouth, depending on how it’s made, substance that is associated with pleasure because sugar is associated with pleasure. And then, of course, it gets culturally associated with romance, so as people have bought chocolates to give as a gift, and at one point and not increasingly so, it’s a very expensive gift, so there’s that added part to it. The idea that it is something you give for special occasions and, therefore, feel special when you get it, because it’s linked with that emotionally.
The other thing is it does have phenylethylene, and that is a chemical agent that helps with blood, you know, helps move blood around, a little bit like nitrous oxidant, things like that. I mean, if you have anything that brings blood to the places you want it to go, that is going to be cataloged as an aphrodisiac. Now the truth is, at least as I’ve read it, because I’m not a chemist, that you’d have to eat a truckload of chocolate to get that active agent, you know, really be definitive. But just knowing it’s there, I think, makes some people feel like, “Okay, I think it will work this way,” and therefore it does work that way. Because as we all know, the placebo effect is really powerful. What is the placebo effect? It is if we believe something to be true, it affects us as if it is true.
MV: Given your professional knowledge and expertise, how would you rate chocolate as an aphrodisiac?
PS: You know, there’s not too many things that I would say are aphrodisiacs period, and I think chocolate is a psychological aphrodisiac, not a chemical one. So if you’re asking me psychologically, does it have an impact? On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say psychologically 7. If you ask me chemically, I’d say maybe 1? 2, maybe?
MV: Another food you’ll often hear of referred to as an aphrodisiac, oysters. Why is that?
PS: Well, as I understand it, oysters have zinc. Zinc does push blood around. I mean, if you have a lot of it, you know, it will help blood move to the appropriate places but, again, you would have to eat a beach full of oysters to get a serious effect. Again, do I think it has a psychological effect that’s powerful? I might put it a 9 on the psychological effect, because it’s very sensual. I mean, either you think oysters are yucky, or when they go down your throat, you go like, “Oh my God, you know, this is fabulous.” And so, if you’re in the yucky team, it’s gonna be a 1. If you’re in the “this is very sensual” team, it’s gonna be a 9. So the different ways for things to be aphrodisiac, chemical compound, not so much. Psychological effect, quite a bit.
MV: You’ll often see certain condiments in an aphrodisiac category, especially spices like chili and ginger. Tell me more about which spices might be connected to increased arousal.
PS: Anything hot is gonna move blood, so it might definitely get you feeling flushed and warm. So chilies are gonna be high up there on the “Oh, I feel warm and toasty all over, you know, maybe it’s you and us, together.” Ginger is, you know, kind of a … also wakes up your senses. It’s a tingling feeling but it’s not gonna drive the blood anywhere near as much as some hot chilies were. You don’t need a lot of hot chilies to feel flushed and, sort of, body changes. You’d need quite a bit of ginger … I mean, and that’s true maybe that sometimes the smell of some of these things might even be enough to get you aroused. You haven’t mentioned cinnamon yet, but cinnamon and pumpkin have often been put in the list of aphrodisiacs, and they also have very discernible smells. And, again, I think it might be the smell that is evocative of culturally warm and intimate things like Thanksgiving or, you know, hot coffee, hot chocolate, stuff like that. So again, I think most of these things don’t have proven erotic outcomes by themselves, but they have cultural references that make us interested in being warm and intimate.
MV: Do you have a favorite aphrodisiac? One you’d give higher marks than the rest?
PS: Champagne. Champagne is the only true, immediate aphrodisiac, and then wine, beer, and other spirits can come right behind it. But bubbles get you drunker quicker, and so unfortunately that’s not true about sparkling water, but it is true about champagne. And there you get the double whammy, you get actually something that is an inhibition disaster. In other words, it says, “oh, for God’s sakes, you know I’ll just do this.” And you also get, you know, a change of reality in some cases, depending on how much you drink. It does have, and all spirits of course, and wine, do have the other side of the coin, which is they are vasoconstrictors, so if you drink too much, it’s gonna narrow the veins and the blood is not gonna get where it needs to go. But for a little bit, you know, a glass or two, it’s likely to get things on the way that nothing we’ve mentioned will do as well as a glass of champagne or a few glasses of wine or beer. I think it’s important that it’s the interaction of two people, it’s setting the stage, it’s not doing anything to disrupt it and you know, maybe a couple glasses of wine … But looking for answers in aphrodisiacs is kinda heading in the wrong direction.
Susan Kostrzewa: Do you have a favorite aphrodisiac we should be serving up this Valentine’s Day? Tell us about it. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send a tweet to @WineEnthusiast and use the hashtag #WEpodcast.
Time for a break. But when we get back, romance isn’t the only thing that requires good chemistry.
Taylor Nickles: I think this is, like, the biggest example of, like, basic chemistry being applied to cocktail making.
SK: We’ll hit the bar for some cocktail chemistry 101. Stick around.
Welcome back to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. I’m Susan Kostrzewa.
Classical mythology attributed romance to a hit from Cupid’s arrow. We’ve learned since then that it’s a little more complex than that. Having the right chemistry with another person can be the key to love. And chemistry can also be the key to great libations. Jane Burns and Taylor Nickles work mixology magic at Allium Restaurant and Bar in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. They gave podcast producer Rebecca Sheir a crash course in the chemistry of cocktails.
Rebecca Sheir: I think even the most avid of cocktail drinkers might be surprised to hear that chemistry, and even physics and biology, they all play such a big role in preparing cocktails. When you first got into bartending, did you realize what a strong connection there was?
TN: If I had known that when I started bartending, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to bartend. Definitely, like, at first, something that was, like, not on my radar. I don’t know how well I would have handled it if it was, but, like, the deeper you get into it, it’s like that’s when you kinda learn, like, the why of what you’re doing instead of just, like, how to do it.
Jane Burns: Kinda the same thing. I think if I had been told that, in order to bartend, you would have to be fluent in the principles of chemistry, then I probably also would have run for the hills, in a big way. What really happens is all of those, the way that chemistry sort of figures in, in all of those principles sort of, they sort of become second nature as you’re learning how to bartend the right way and properly.
TN: But for us, it’s really, like, flavor first. And I think, like, someone who’s interested in cocktail history, like, that’s sort of, like, where we build from. Like, that classic way that, like, speaks to me, and, like, the ethos of our restaurant, and we all … I think, like, synergy and, like, everything kind of blending together is, like, flavor first.
RS: You know, you talk about a chemical reaction and the average person might picture something, like, something at a science fair, you know, the volcano that erupts when you mix together baking soda and vinegar. But if we’re talking about chemical reactions in cocktails, what do we mean here, and can you give us an example?
TN: It’s more like subversive chemistry than, like, sitting there with, like a beaker and a test tube type of thing, you know? I think this is, like, the biggest example of, like, basic chemistry being applied to cocktail making. Shaking a cocktail is like a more violent reaction. A lot of the times, like, if you look at really professional bartenders, like, they all have, like, a very specific way of shaking. And the idea there is to have the cocktail get diluted without, like, damaging the ice … Well, damaging the ice as little as possible. So we’re looking at, like, different types of ice for shaking, because you get those ice shards and you get this, like, extended extra dilution that you’re not getting from stirring.
JB: You know, I really do think that every bartender kind of curses James Bond because of this, like, really famous thing that I think the misconception is because of this, that a martini is better if it’s shaken and not stirred. But it’s totally not true, and that’s not the way it should be at all. So the general rule is that any cocktail that is purely spirit-based should be stirred. Usually the rule with shaking is that citrus is really the main thing that calls for shaking a cocktail. Lemon juice, lime juice, egg whites, too are always shaken. But, so if you tried to stir, like, a margarita or something like that, the different components wouldn’t come together in quite the same way. So if you had stirred your margarita, then you know, one sip might be really sour and puckery, and then one sip might be really sweet, and it wouldn’t have that really yummy sort of almost foamy mouth-feel to it.
RS: I remember hearing about a company that claimed that they made ice. And this company claimed its ice was the absolute best for making cocktails. Can you really make a claim like that?
JB: Here at Allium, we have a cold draft ice machine, which makes perfectly square one inch by one inch cubes. And generally, the larger the piece of ice, the more slowly it will dilute the drink as you’re making it, so you have more precise control over how much you’re diluting it. Certainly there’s a whole industry of, you know, cold draft machines, or there’s Japanese machines that are, you know, really highly expensive and sought after in the best bars because they make a better cocktail. So I believe it.
Also, there’s this whole trend that’s happening right now where bars are hand-cutting their own ice. There’s, like, diamond-shaped cubes. This is a big thing that I’ve been seeing lately, and that seems kind of romantic for Valentine’s Day, right?
TN: Yeah, we should get a big block of ice in here. Quality ice really does affect the quality of the cocktail, in terms of shape. I don’t know if there’s, like, a best, a single best cube out there. That might be a little more subjective than objective. But there’s definitely a hierarchy of the ice cube world, for sure.
RS: Well, earlier you talked about molecular gastronomy, you know this idea of using science to create new and completely unique things with food, sometimes wacky things with food. SO you’ve got molecular gastronomy, and then you hear about molecular mixology, people doing things like putting gelatin through a siphon of nitrous oxide to create foam for cocktails, or people using rotary evaporators. Do you think of yourselves as applying any particular molecular mixology here at Allium?
JB: You know, again, I think that here we just really like to keep it simple and, just working with really good ingredients, and fresh juices, and making our own syrups in house. But, in terms of anything quite as experimental as that, I’m not sure it’s made it to our corner of the Berkshires just yet. Just yet.
TN: Particularly in the past, like, ten or maybe, like, ten years with, like, this resurgence of the cocktail movement, there’s, like, this idea of, like, these simple classic cocktails that have been around for hundreds of years and, like, really exploring what that means. And there’s also guys that are really, like, pushing the boundaries of cocktail making. And, certainly, like, if anything popped up that we saw, because we’re always, like, tuning into that stuff and, like, interested what those guys are doing that we think would, like, taste, like, really good in one of our cocktails, we bring it in. But also there’s something to be said for, like, the delicious taste of, like, a really classic cocktail. And for us, taste kind of comes first. So it’s, as exciting as it is to bring those things in, it’s … We’re also, like, a little metered into like, “Is this gonna taste good?” And that’s really, like, where we, like, begin and end on anything going on here.
JB: Yeah, it turns out that they really knew what they were doing 150 years ago. They really just … They were seeing the future, I guess.
Susan Kostrzewa: This month, Allium Restaurant and Bar is featuring a menu of rum cocktails. A nod to the fact summer is still a long way away. You can find Jane Burns’ recipe for the No-Shake Rum Old Fashioned on our website, winemag.com/podcast.
Before we say goodbye today, we’re excited to introduce a brand new segment on the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, one we hope you’ll become a part of. To be a collector of wine and spirits, you might think you have to get your hands on the rarest, fanciest bottles you can find. But the truth is, being a collector can simply be a way to preserve memories. Wine and spirits are like souvenirs we can savor to celebrate a person, place, or experience. SO the bottles aren’t always fancy, but they often have a darn good story. And it’s those stories we’ll be telling on our new segment, Collections Recollected. On today’s edition, managing editor and tasting director Lauren Buzzeo tells us about the most cherished bottle in her cellar.
Lauren Buzzeo: I have a few special bottles in my cellar, but there’s one in particular that really holds a special place in my heart. This one bottle, an Il Poggio 1998 Brunello de Montalcino, I just can’t bring myself to open it yet. It happens to be one of the last bottles from my father’s wine collection that I inherited upon his passing. And I know that he’s up there laughing and looking down on me saying, “Go for it, it’s ready, drink it. You’re gonna love it.” But I just can’t do it. Maybe one day I’ll find the strength and the gumption to finally pop it, but for now, I almost appreciate more than anything going into my cellar and looking at that bottle, and remembering all of the others that we enjoyed together.
SK: Do you have a bottle you cherish above all others? Write us an email about your most beloved bottle, and tell us the story behind it. Our address is email@example.com. We might feature you on an upcoming episode of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast.
That’s it for today’s Wine Enthusiast Podcast. Thanks to our contributors this week, Marina Vataj, Eric Shimelonis, Rebecca Sheir, and Lauren Buzzeo.
Don’t want to miss the latest about wine, food, beer, and spirits? Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And please, write us a review. We’d love to hear what you think. We’d also love to stay in touch. Follow Wine Enthusiast Magazine on Facebook and Twitter, and use the hashtag WEpodcast. Or, visit our website, winemag.com/podcast.
The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Sheir and Shim LLC. Our executive producer is Marina Vataj. I’m Susan Kostrzewa. See you next time.