September 2008 Archives

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MILAN, Italy--You come up the escalator at the subway station, into the vast piazza (bigger than three Qwest Fields), and dead ahead is the shimmering pink marble façade of the Duomo itself. Holy Something!

It can hold as many worshippers as descend on The Safe. It's the second highest church nave in Europe, as high as St. Peter's and only a couple of feet short of Beauvais (in France, never finished). Jaw-dropping, as you realize that it's getting the full brunt of the late afternoon sunlight.

You turn and face the sun, and there, across the piazza from the House of God, is the House of Mammon, or at least Eros: a giant, four-story billboard for Lovable bras & panties. The locals don't seem to notice, let alone care. Maybe they think the Saints have a sense of humor.

Cornichon is getting on a plane Sunday afternoon, bound for Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. The Enoteca Regionale has put together a weeklong program for us to inspect some new vineyard tours. Dispatches and photos as often as time and wi-fi permit.

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To get in the mood, a quick visit to this weekend's Italian Festival at Seattle Center.

These days, we live in a culturally diverse city, with 70 countries and 129 languages represented in the public school system alone. But in the early 1940s, Italians and Japanese made up the bulk of the region's immigrants. We know all-too-well the government-sanctioned hysteria that herded American citizens of Japanese ancestry into "relocation centers" after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

What's less documented is that Italian-Americans were also victims. Italians suspected of sympathizing with Mussolini's fascist government were interned; in San Francisco, the U.S. Coast Guard seized fishing boats owned by Italians. A silent, secret, shameful episode, chronicled in a sad exhibit titled "Una Storia Segreta."

It's not all gloomy history, however. Salumi, Seattle's world-class Italian sausage-maker, is sponsoring its second "Salami Challenge" to encourage both professional and amateur sausage-makers. (Read my article about last year's challenge here.) The rest of the doings are predictable: wine tastings ($5), grape stomping, Italian movies, meatballs on a stick, Italian sausage sandwiches smothered in peppers and tomato sauce ($5). Continues through Sunday.

The Path to Enlightenment

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Welcome%20NACAC%20banner.JPGKennedy's "best and brightest" got us into Vietnam; Bush's B & B can't get us out of Iraq. Paulson played tackle at Dartmouth and we're handing him $700 billion, while Obama's Harvard credentials just get him pilloried as an elitist. (Want to understand the financial meltdown? Think of derivatives as blogs that only post what other blogs are saying, and eventually they just start making stuff up and become worthless. Remember: you read it here.) Point is, the fundamentals of our educational system are sound. The American teacher, the American student, we honor their creativity and resilience. But there's tremendous turmoil in the rest of the education biz.

The bedrock of the system, for decades, has been the standardized test. We're a country of small towns, don't forget, with thousand upon thousands of local school boards that don't take dictation from some high-falutin Secretary of Education in Wash. DC, no sirree, ma'am. So the only way to find out what the kids have learned is to give 'em all a test, right? Seems sensible, but even on the state level, a concept as straightforward as the WASL becomes fraught with political risk.

Imagine, then, the 500-pound gorilla: College Board, which administers the gold standard SATs on behalf of Educational Testing Service. Scoring high on your SATs (once known as Scholastic Aptitude Tests) was a make-or-break deal for getting into a good college. An entire test-prep industry grew up around the SATs and alternative ACTs, to the profit of a few and the dismay of many.

College admissions consultants--at least the ones who don't also offer test prep--point out that 700 colleges don't require either test, just high grades and good recommendations. Last year, NACAC, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors, commissioned a study to find out if the tests actually have any value. This week, at NACAC's annual conference in Seattle, the answer: not really.

While it's still too early to say if this is the death knell for SATs, it's a safe bet that the college admissions game is going to change dramatically. The best advice (to kids) from the NACAC study: turn off the iPod, put down your cell, and just do your homework. The path to college is still tough, but there's light at the top of the stairs.

Matt's Overlooking the Market

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As a Seattle institution, the Pike Place Market evolves but doesn't really change. A coffee shop called Counter Intelligence has been gone for over a decade, though its sign still hangs over the bar at the remodeled and expanded Matt's In the Market, three times the size it used to be, but no less cozy. For that matter, Matt Janke himself moved on a couple of months ago, leaving the place to his business partner, Don Bugge. He's been careful not break the spell.

From his command post in the kitchen, chef Chet Gerl channels Matt's spirit: the signature grilled lamb burger (ground by Don & Joe's, literally across the street) with goat cheese, bacon and herbed aioli. Or the cornmeal-crusted catfish sandwich, the grilled octopus with romesco, the braised brisket or the pork belly.

Words like "icon" come to mind, but that suggests an image of a long-dead saint expecting veneration. No, Matt's is more like a legend that's been given a new life. You won't regret walking up those few steps to the top floor of the Corner Market Building; in fact, you'll wonder why you don't undertake the pilgrimage more often.

Matt's In The Market, 94 Pike Street, 206-467-7909 Matt's in the Market on Urbanspoon

Fore! Or Foreclosure?

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Golf, that great game! Wine, that great lifestyle! Combine the two and what do you get? A pastime for the rich and famous, an activity for the young and restless, better fitness for the old and feckless. And the combination is (supposed to be) coming to the Yakima Valley.

Technically, there are already about 20 courses between Ellensburg and Kennewick, but nothing like The Vineyards Resort, a 500-acre luxury development 20 miles east of Yakima. An 18-hole, 7,500-yard championship course surrounded by nearly 600 homesites. Some reports call it a $70 million project (for now, seems likely), others say $500 million (could be, by the time all the housing is built). Some of the valley's biggest names are involved, among them paving contractor and charity underwriter Al DeAtley, who spearheads the non-profit Washington Wine Country. DeAtley and the other founding investors ($250,000 apiece) clearly see the development as a classy adjunct to the valley's wine industry, the sort of thing that would make Yakima an upscale vacation destination.

Trouble is, it takes time to build a golf course and sell 600 lots. Customarily, developers borrow the upfront money. In this case, SBC Development (with projects in Colorado, Idaho and Mexico under their belts) tapped a Wisconsin hedge fund, Stark Investments, for a short-term loan of $12.9 million. Earlier this month, a groundbreaking with great fanfare and a ceremonial tee-shot by one of the founders into the rabbit brush and sageland. (Great photo in the Yakima Herald, which, alas, won't grant repro rights to bloggers.) And here's where things go from fairway to rough. Less than a week later, Stark went to court, claiming the loan was in default, and got a court order foreclosing on the land. Auction on the courthouse steps, just like in the movies, on October 17th, unless help arrives.

Gulp! Are there any scarier words (this week, at least) than "hedge fund"?

Fremont's Frugal Oktoberfest

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The steins on the left and right hold a full liter (34 ounces) of brew; that's the way they drink it at Oktoberfest and the Hofbrauhaus in Munich. (Price is 8 euros this year, about $12.) The one in the middle barely holds four ounces.

Fifty-plus beers on tap at the Oktoberfest in Fremont this weekend, and all you could get was four ounces at a time. At $1.75 a "taste," which comes to about $15 a liter. On the other hand, didn't see any drunks. Did see lots of well-behaved dogs. Biggest excitement came from the chainsaw-carving guy.


Snap, Crackle, Poppy!

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Jerry Traunfeld's long-awaited Poppy is just fine, thank you. He has transformed the nefarious Elite Tavern into a high-ceilinged, tall-windowed open space (seating for 120) in muted mustard and deep red tones, and infused the menu with similar elements of cauliflower, eggplant and roasted peppers.

Behind the bar, Amon Mende returns to prime time and ventures beyond the traditional, the road not shaken, if you will. The Papi Delicious ($10) starts with hornitos plata, adds red bell pepper and jalapenos for punch, mint and lime for aroma. The Poppy Martini ($15) owes its price (and character) to Old Raj gin, a straw-colored premium spirit enlivened with saffron.

The full menu is a ten-item tray called thali, one of the best ideas in a long time. No more does the adventurous diner have to suffer through an endless (and costly) tasting menu. With everything served at once, you navigate at your own pace. If the relatively modest $32 tab still seems excessive, you can even opt for a $22 "smali." To be sure, there are echoes of India in the flavors and presentation, but this is a far cry from some sloppy Bombay Buffet. Approachable, too, with hosts and servers quite informally dressed.

And if all you want is a drink and a bite, then the starer menu (most at $5) does the trick perfectly. Eggplant fries are drizzled with sea salt and blackberry honey, cauliflower mash is flavored with sesame, a leek and teleggio tart is showered with julienned apple, curried chickpea donuts called vadas are accompanied by a lush yogurt raita. The cauliflower's the standout, especially mopped up with chunks of terrific nigella-sprinkled naan.

Traunfeld, who made his reputation at the Herbfarm, named Poppy for his mother. What a good boy. Plays well with others. Bravo!

Poppy, 622 Broadway E. 206-324-1108 Poppy on Urbanspoon

The Green Faerie Alights at Polar Bar

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Absinthe%20fountain%20at%20Polar%20Bar-1.JPGThere's a bit of a disconnect at the Arctic Club Hotel, which has its ambitious gastronomic restaurant & bar, called JUNO, one level below the hotel's lobby & lounge, called Polar Bar. If you've come for the absinthe, you can't just wander into JUNO from 3rd Avenue and slide onto a stool; you've got to be aware that the Green Fairie awaits upstairs, past the hotel's reception desk.

We attended the hotel's grand opening last week and wound up our visit with the absinthe ritual conducted by barman Viktor Kustov. Slotted spoon placed over absinthe glass, sugar cube placed on slotted spoon, Lucid absinthe poured over sugar cube and into glass, sugar cube set afire, then extinguished by drips of icewater from absinthe fountain. Impressive ceremony, even if the result is nothing more than a cool, watery, licorice-flavored drink. Certainly doesn't taste like a dangerous poison. But wait! There's more!

We turn the next few paragraphs over to correspondent Robert Hess, who reviews local bars on, and is a recognized authority on all things cocktail.

With the lovely absinthe fountain sitting next to me, filled already with ice and water, and a couple empty glasses already set out just waiting for a customer, any customer, to place an order, I figured they might actually know what they were doing here. The bartender carefully poured, and in fact slightly overpoured, the absinthe in the glass... then, my worst fears were realized, as the bartender silently brought out a lighter, and was getting ready to place flame to cube... Noooooooooo !

What happens next is, as they say, "below the jump."

It's a Cold, Hard, Binary World

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800px-Bananas.jpgHey, this isn't a blog about politics, it's a blog about food. But maybe we can look at the world the way our Prez and his party's candidates for Next Prez do: a moralistic view of the universe, good versus evil.

Let's say it's the fruits versus the vegetables. Now, it's well known that fruits rule the world. They're creative and funny; they have a sense of style. You might not want one to share your foxhole, but you'd be hard-put to attend a non-fruity theatrical performance.

Vegetables, on the other hand, are dark and leafy, vaguely crunchy unless they're cooked to a state of limpness.

And what of the animals, you ask? A reasonable question with a quick answer: there is no "third way." Animals are for infidels, period. Eat an animal and you will surely die. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. Those Spanish "terrorists" McCain thought he was talking about, obviously bovine.

George Bush, he's clearly a fruit. Thinks he's a virile banana, even though he surrounds himself with bad apples. McCain, poor sap, got knocked off balance while unloading a six-foot, seven-foot, eight-foot bunch (he's not sure how big, but he's sure that the fundamentals of our banana-boat economy are sound). The moose-hunting Miss Sarah, on the other hand, clearly Yukon. Not genuine gold, though. Fool's gold. Dross. Let's call a spud a spud: she's an under-ripe tuber, best left underground in the cold, hard tundra.

The Dems, they're light-weight celery-snackers. Biden's a carrot smoothie, enriched with wheat grass. Obama's a leafy arugula salad, or a spinach soufflé. Something for sophisticates at the Elitist Café, like Bananas Foster flamed tableside with brandy imported from France.

Stock Market Tanks, Ivar Keeps Clam

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Financial solace at Ivar's: $7 grilled lingcod, scallops on 3-course, $19.38 dinner. Below: pork medallions.

On the flatscreen in the Acres of Clams bar on Pier 54, the CNBC ticker is showing Boeing's market flame-out, WaMu's inexorable descent. We are doomed. You want to scream at the TV: "It's not about the ("fundamentally sound") economy, stupid! Don't you get it? It's about the fundamentally corrupt financial system!" As if in response, up at the mic, a folksinger known as Captain Charlie strums his guitar and sings a ditty composed decades ago by Ivar Haglund, the troubador of the tidelands:

No longer a slave of ambition, I laugh at the world and its shams...
As I think of my happy condition...surrounded by acres of clams.
Yes, Ivar's is 70 years old and celebrating. The bedrock of Seattle's waterfront is a reminder to us all: some things never change (the clam chowder, the fish & chips) but many survive by adapting.

The clam chowder, normally $4.50 a cup, was just 70 cents on Black Wednesday. Even better, for the next six weeks, a variety of really quite delectable small plates are just $7 apiece. And to remind you how long Ivar's has been around, there are three-course dinners for $19.38.

Commemorative drinks, too, for each decade. Name your poison at the bar: Brandy Old Fashioned (1940s), Harvey Wallbanger (1970s) or vodka-cran with Red Bull? Change or tradition?

How'd this happen? Folksy Ivar was the antithesis of today's fussy, self-absorbed restaurateurs, though he could surely self-promote with the best of them. Still, changing an iconic image is risky.

And besides, aren't the folks who eat at Ivar's, you know, tourists? So? Why would we want to feed tourists our garbage? Why would we insult them by assuming they want garbage?

Here's what happened: a deliberate effort to modernize while keeping the traditional. Chris Garr, a 33-year-old Spokane native, runs the kitchen at Pier 54. He's not telling Oscar from Omaha that he can't have fish & chips for lunch, but for the same $13.95 he could order pink peppercorn and coriander-crusted yellowfin tuna salad. Deep-fried seafood, long the staple of the Ivar's kitchen, still accounts for maybe a third of its output. But in the safe and comfortable, nautically-themed 240-seat dining room on Pier 54, Oscar (or Mrs. Oscar) just might go for the organic baby arugula. Pork%20medallion.JPG

The Ivar's chain, founded to feed visitors to the aquarium, has grown to encompass 3 full-service restaurants, 3 fish bars, 24 "fast casual" outlets and 20 stadium concessions. A line of chowders from Ivar's Soup & Sauce Company is sold all over the world. But its soul is still at Pier 54.

So as the Dow lost 150 points in the last 15 minutes of trading, there arrived a fine filet of grilled Alaskan lingcod on a bed of couscous ringed with an orange cardamom beurre blanc, the most successful of the $7 small plates menu. Weathervane scallops make appearances as an appetizer (accompanied by chanterelles) and as a main course (topped with mustard greens and root vegetables). Sockeye salmon does double duty as well, though it's ill-served by an overly sweet pomegranate syrup. Don't like fish? No problem. There's a traditional northern European pork medallion with red cabbage and mashed Yukon potatoes, pears poached in chardonnay substituting for apple sauce. Something for everyone, in other words. Happy as a clam.

If you're really into it, you can even buy Clam Stamps (perfectly legal postage) or download an Ivar's ringtone. Keep clam.

Ivar's Acres of Clams, Pier 54, 1001 Alaskan Way,. 206-624-6852 Ivar's Acres of Clams on Urbanspoon

French%20wine%20bottle.jpg A new feature, occasionally blending dispatches from vineyards and kitchens around the globe.

Hard to read (the small print), even harder to fathom (the small-mindedness): Parler de cette bouteille peut vous faire condamner. Talking about this bottle could send you to jail. Seems you can't advertise wine on the web in France thanks to a weird loophole in the country's 1991, pre-internet temperance statutes. Even writing about wine could get you into trouble. All very puzzling.

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Want to know how to cook a moose, just like Sarah Palin? Kim Severson of the New York Times is your gal. It's on her blog "A Moose Bouche." That's a (bad) pun, I think. I hope. We are not a moosed.

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From a Q & A with Anthony Bourdain this week in the Kansas City Star.

Are there any food kicks that you get on?

I’m on a yakitori jag. There’s sort of an underground scene of casual Japanese restaurants for entirely Japanese clientele. It’s very specific to Japan; you almost never see Westerners. It’s very casual, usually with beer, maybe sake, and a lot of it is little bits of chicken parts cooked on skewers over charcoal. Absolutely delicious. And casual, which is really important to me. I think there’s a fine dining backlash. I think a lot of the nonsense is being bled out of the restaurant scene, and it’s really a joy to get really, really good ingredients and authentic food without the nonsense and the pretense.

He could be talking about Kushibar in Belltown. Japanese street food along with an assortment of ramen and yakitori.

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HHH-RibbonCutting.JPGIt's been known as the Horse Heaven Hills since the mid-19th century, this area roughly 50 miles long and 20 miles wide, but not until the legenday Dr. Walter Clore came along in the 1970s did anyone think to plant wine grapes alongside the wheat.. Now, with half a dozen wineries bonded (among them: Columbia Crest, Alexandria Nicole, McKinley Springs), 7,000 acres of grapes planted and an official designation as an American Viticultural Area, the Horse Heaven Hills Wine Growers decided to put up signs at the various points of entry. The hills--loam on fractured basalt--were formed when the Missoula floods receded; they look like crumpled blankets forming the ridge between the fertile Yakima Valley, traversed by Interstate 84 and the banks of the Columbia, skirted by Highway 14. First of four signs went up this week outside Prosser.

West Seattle Bohemians

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Travelers, take note. West Seattle, an isolated neighborhood separated from Seattle by the Duwamish River, is actually home to some 60,000 people--twice as many inhabitants as Walla Walla. You get there by crossing Harbor Island, and once you're there, not 15 minutes from downtown Seattle, you'll find it has just about everything: a scrappy neighborhood blog, a crappy official website, a midsummer festival, a community newspaper, a farmers market, a twin-screen movie theater, several attractive parks and popular beaches, and a growing number of restaurants (over 150, by one count, including three sushi parlors and a couple of wine bars).

The newest spot finally opened last night, some six months behind schedule. It's called Bohemian, a venture by two brothers, Jason (chef) and Eirk (bar) Rice (along with their mom, Teri). They'll open at 7 for coffee, switch to happy hour from 3:30 to 6, dinner until 10, late-night until 2 on weekends, plus brunch on Sunday.

First martinis ($6) include a "classic" with Plymouth gin with three olives. The lucid elixir ($10) is flavored with Canada's Lucid absinthe, 62 percent alcohol, tastes like licorice. Among the happy hour snacks: a garlicky black olive tapenade paired with a white bean purée ($8) and a sampler of cured meats and artisan cheeses ($16 for a large platter).

One of Bohemian's specialties will be raclette, an alpine mountain dish of melted and scraped cheese. Click here to read Cornichon's post about raclette, "Back when cows were cows and men were men....") Bohemian's raclette is an upside-down version. The cornichons, capers and potatoes are cut up, placed in the bottom of a cast-iron pan, covered with raclette (and gruyère) and broiled. A small portion is $10, a large, $18. A bit fussy, if you ask me.

Dinner choices are more traditional: beef tenderloin, lamb "lollie chops", meat balls, scallops or a vegetarian cassoulet. All available in single-serving or share-platter size, however, so mixing and matching should be easy. Bohemian's décor, in a small, free-standing building, is one part Black Bottle hand-crafted minimalism, one part Pink Door over-the-top artsy. The Rice brothers have planned a full schedule of live music as well. Their intention, as they wrote to the editors of the West Seattle blog:

In the evening we will be creating our own eclectic, globally influenced fare with ingredients, techniques, and flavors from many bohemian cultures around the world; as well, our own versions of Americana comfort foods with a twist.
And if you're in the mood for even more central European Gemütlichkeit, Chris Navarro (of Prost, Feierabend and BierStube) is opening a second Prost next door to Bohemian by the end of the year.

Add to the mix the French-Italian Beàto a few blocks north, east-facing Salty's and west-facing La Rustica down on the water, and you'll be able to fit in as many exotic meals in West Seattle as could in a weekend journey to Walla Walla, and you won't need to spend $100 on gas to get there, either.

Bohemian, 3405 California Ave. S.W., 206-938-2646 ("BOHO") Bohemian on Urbanspoon

The Salmon Come Home Again

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Here in the Puget Sound, we measure our well-being by the state of the salmon. No one knows this better than Native Americans, for whom stewardship of the salmon fishery is not just high-minded environmentalism; even more than an economic necessity, it's a theological imperative.

Waterfront Park, next to the Seattle Aquarium, is the focus of the 16th annual Salmon Homecoming this weekend, complete with salmon bake ("Salmonchanted Evening"), where $9 buys you a portion of wild salmon, an ear of corn, salad and Indian fry bread.

Further north along the waterfront, at Olympic Sculpture Park, the program is titled "The Salmon Return." On Saturday afternoon, half a dozen salmon-related exhibits and projects including a presentation titled "If Salmon Could Talk."

If all that's too serious for you, then wait until the weekend of October 4th and the high-budget hjinks of Issaquah Salmon Days.

Suck It: Wine Through a Straw

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Keren Brown, who writes the FranticFoodie blog at the Pee Eye, posted a link this week to an article about foods that cause bad breath and stain your teeth.

To counteract bad breath, Keri Glassman (a registered dietician who's paid to dispense her advice on CBS) recommends drinking green tea, eating yogurt and chewing sugar-free gum. To avoid staining your teeth with red wine or coffee, she suggests sipping them through a straw "to be on the safe side."

This mnd-boggling prescription comes one year after Cornichon reported on a new wine package from the Cordier wine folks: Bordeaux in a box, sipped through a straw. The idea of Tetra-Pak wine, they said, was to encourage young people to drink more wine. Because drinking wine through a straw isn't just safe, it's, you know, fun!

(Last month, though, we saw the results: a new campaign by the French government against over-consumption. Meantime, says the Seattle Times, Amazon is finally ready to start selling wine online, 9 years after investing $30 million in

Well, I can tell you what I'm going to do, whether from a box or a bottle: practice unsafe drinking.

Altria, parent company of Marlboro, is the new owner of Chateau Ste. Michelle and its sister wineries. It purchased UST, the holding company for a variety of smokeless tobacco products and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates for a cool $10.4 billion.

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What, you didn't know Ste. Michelle was owned by the makers of Copenhagen and Skoal? Indeed. The story goes back some 35 years when Wally Opdycke, a savvy local financier who'd run Safeco's investment portfolio, owned Hazeltime Labs, bought and sold K-2 skis, rounded up a few friends and bought the moribund American Wine Growers. Opdycke dropped its Nawico brand and launched Ste. Michelle (named by his daughter). In search of additional capital, he wound up in Stamford, Conn., in the offices of U.S. Tobacco, an outfit with $100 million in sales and ungodly profits. Opdycke's pitch: plant some of that cash in a long-term investment, the vineyards of Washington State.

So UST bought the fledgling winery, and over the years invested more than $100 million (vineyards, production facilities, a national sales force) on a scale far beyond the financial capacity or marketing acumen of any other company in the Northwest. Opdycke bowed out three decades ago, and UST has reaped the benefits of its hands-off approach. Ste. Michelle is the region's preeminent winery, the group sells a total of five million cases a year and took in $350 million in 2007. They've formed amazingly successful new brands (Columbia Crest, Domaine Ste. Michelle); they own well over 4,000 acres of vineyards, they've purchased iconic properties (Erath in Oregon, Stag's Leap in California) and formed partnerships with industry legends like Germany's Loosen and Italy's Antinori.

But Altria is a tobacco conglomerate, not a wine producer. They've bought a herd with a bum steer, and there's little doubt they'll cut it loose as quickly as possible. "Certainly every option is on the table for the new owners, from growing the wine segment to spinning it off," says wine maker Bob Betz, who spent over 20 years as Ste. Michelle chief of PR.

It's a valuable misfit, though, worth close to $1 billion, according to industry estimates. One scenario: a bidding war between Diageo (Sagelands, Canoe Ridge) and Constellation Brands (Hogue). What makes this likely, says Bob Stevens of Alaska Distributors: Constellation might be selling off its stake in Corona's beer distribution business, which would leave them with a pile of money.

Waiting it out, meanwhile, is the winery's staff. Says Keith Love, VP for Communications & Corporate Affairs, "It is business as usual at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates."

For now, the winery is focusing on the harvest, which begins this month, and on the release of its 2005 and 2006 vintages. As for the future, says Love, "We expect to be a stand-alone we have been."

Chocolate for Charity

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Who doesn't like chocolate? Some, of course, can take it or leave it. But for the "takers," Chocolate Box is surely heaven made manifest. Chocolate hot, chocolate frozen, chocolate wrapped, stamped, boxed. Chocolate bars, wafers, round, square, spherical. Chocolate cookbooks, chocolate mugs. This is not your neighborhood candy stand; it's one of several high-end chocolate boutiques to open in Seattle in recent months selling names like Theo's, Fiori, Vitale, Fran's, Oh!

Chocolate Box even runs its own $65 "Tour de Chocolat" to Madison Park (Oh!) U Village (Fran's) and Fremont (Theo's). Kids under 16 must be accompanied by a parent, yet it's clear from the hands-on portion of the tour that it's the kids who will have the most sticky-fingered fun.

Snark alert. Call me cynical, but if there's one institution in town that doesn't need more mawkish publicity or sappy fund-raising help, it's the well-endowed Children's Hospital. Caring for the youngest and most vulnerable among us shouldn't be up to private donations in the first place, but that doesn't stop people from trying to tug your heartstrings and your wallets. That said, it's hard to resist the latest project: mini-chocolates decorated with designs by real children who actually have ties to the hospital.

One of them, young Kelly Montana Hamerton, succumbed to a brain tumor. In her memory, her mom, Valerie Brotman, created the "Kelly's View" line of chocolates. This week, as the candies went on sale at Chocolate Box, five young artists (four ex-patients and a hospital volunteer) showed up for a Willy Wonka-style chocolate blow-out.

Six designs, six flavors: pumpkin, pomegranate, peppermint, gingerbread, maple, cranberry. All six for $18, with a portion of the proceeds going to Chidren's Hospital.

Chocolate Box, 108 Pine Street, 206-443-6188 Chocolate Box on Urbanspoon

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You've got to be carefully taught. Not how to hate (that comes naturally) but how to love.

The love of shopping, the love of getting & spending, this requires arduous training. Something few parents have time for these days because they're doing so much getting & spending themselves.

Enter the Children's Museum, a 30-year-old institution for the families of Seattle's youngest, with over 20,000 square feet of exhibits at Seattle Center. Hands-on learning, open-ended exploration, creative self-expression, parent-child cooperation, multi-cultural understanding ... all the feel-good buzzwords of our time. (Why can't Barack, and McJohn, Big Joe and Little Sarah just get along like the tots over there?)

Still, even the most idealistic nonprofits require a little corporate sponsorship these days. Metropolitan Market to the rescue this weekend, underwriting a child-size replica of an urban grocery, a "fun-size" supermarket the size of a one-bedroom apartment with grocery, dairy, produce, deli, bakery and floral departments. Fill up your tiny cart, Princess, and wheel it over to the checkout stand. Wasn't that fun? Can you say Kraft, Darigold, Organic Valley, Wilcox Farms?

The Children's Museum, 305 Harrison, 206-441-1788

Some six weeks ago, faithful Cornichon readers would have come across this post: "Recession? Not in Belltown." All about new restaurant openings (and one closing, Qube). Well, times change. Here's a back-to-school update.

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A fond farewell, first of all, to Marjorie, which went out with a grand party this weekend after a decade at the corner of Second & Battery. The folks from Buckley's Tavern on Lower Queen Anne bought the whole building, so Marjorie's Donna Moodie has to find a new spot. Farewell to pulled pork sliders and mac & cheese at happy hour. Farewell to the bar, which Cornichon named Belltown's best last year. Lead barkeep Ben Sherwood moves up the street to Tavolata; he won't even have to reset his GPS. Barman Mike McSorley heads to a Thai restaurant in Bellevue Square. And Donna herself? Telling faithful clients in the lovely patio that she's still looking for the perfect location.

Say farewell to another local institution: Patrick Haight, GM at Tini Bigs. He's moving to Issaquah when the new tribal Snoqualmie Casino opens. Stepping in (but only as a "consultant") is barman extraordinaire Jamie Boudreau, late of Vessel.

More buh-byes: Looks like David Selig's place didn't recover from his August hiatus: the Apartment is now empty. Other late-summer casualties: Bellino, the coffee shop on Second, is officially closed, and Rockin Burrito, Fourth & Wall, is officially "closed for remodeling."

If you're a music fan, using the term in its most generous sense, you might have shed a reptilean tear when Crocodile closed. We've heard lately that Mike McConnell was going to shoehorn a Via Tribunali pizza oven into the space; this week's rumor is that Marcus Charles, of Pioneer Square's Martini Heaven and Belltown's Juju Lounge will be taking over the vacant Crocodile. His barkeep says that she expects confirmation in a week or so.

Did we ever say a proper adios to Marazul? No? Well, amigo, you won't be missed. Coming soon to the Pan Pacific Hotel's circular driveway, if neighbors are to be believed: a western outpost of John Howie's Bellevue-based Seastar. From rhum bar to raw bar, why not?

Leaving but not leaving: Scott Carsberg at Lampreia. He's heading for new quarters in the Gallery, still abuilding at Second & Broad; little chance he'll move before the New Year. Meantime, the asking price for his space in Belltown Court is down from $750K to $475K.

Not farewell just yet: Cascadia. Yes, chef Kerry Sear has already moved to the new Four Seasons downtown (and taking most of his kitchen and service staff with him). But he's not going to close up entirely, not with the fall season of private parties coming up. He's turned the place over to Columbia Hospitality, a local outfit that manages boutique hotels and conference centers. Asking price for the Casacadia space: $1.25 million, or roughly half a million miniburgers.

Send In The Clowns?

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Brett%20at%20Txori.JPGBrett Paulson, barman at Txori, responds to recent violent incidents in Belltown by circulating a petition that asks Governor Gregoire to send in the Washington State Patrol "to help eradicate the open air drug trafficking." Txori is two doors from Wally's, a convenience store that's a magnet for low-lifes, and Paulson's beginning to think it's safer to walk through Belltown's alleys than its sidewalks.

Councilman Tim Burgess is on the case as well, surprised to find mid-morning, open-air drug dealing at 1st & Battery and asking the mayor for stepped up police patrols.

"But the city says they don't have the manpower," Paulson says, "so everybody's jazzed about the petition." There's a copy on the counter at Txori, others making their way around the nabe.

The folks who get shoved around (and even seriously injured) in sidewalk altercations have all been tourists unfamiliar with the neighborhood and uncomfortable around street people, addicts, crackheads, pushers and hookers. No doubt, some out-of-towners visit Belltown to score drugs. No doubt, drunk frat boys from Bellevue think it's macho to taunt some dark-skined dude in a hoodie. No doubt, it takes restraint to ignore taunts from a gaggle of meth-addled vagrants blocking the sidewalk, but ignore them one must, if one is to live in a vibrant downtown.

The notion of more jurisdictions patrolling the corner of 2nd and Bell is not reassuring. On the contrary, it assumes that law enforcement alone can make all our urban ills disappear. That's Disneyland.

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Local Vines Make Good

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Left to right: Gary McLean, Sarah Munson, Tom Hedges at The Local Vine

A Belltown wine bar that's been open for a year makes it into the national magazines, while across the lake in Kirkland, a wine-centered restaurant is making waves as well.

Hail, first, to The Local Vine, just named one of America's ten hot new wine bars in the upcoming issue of Bon Appetit. Co-owner Sarah Munson was celebrating this weekend with a couple of visiting winemakers: Tom Hedges (Hedges Family Estate) and Gary McLean (Barons).

"We knew this was coming," says Munson, "we just didn't know when." She and business partner Allison Nelson were classmates at the Harvard business school, crossed paths again in Seattle after successful careers in marketing, and opened TLV a little over a year ago.

The magazine article says it's a wine bar masquerading as a coffee shop (why? because it has wi-fi and comfortable seats? Didn't you notice the100-bottle Enomatic?). It also praises TLV's culinary consultant, Jason Wilson, who, truth be told, hasn't been on hand for almost a year. Still, Wilson was in the papers this week as the consultant for a new line of flavors from Dry Soda, which, their PR folks tell me, will be in the stores by November.

The Local Vine, 2520 Second Avenue, 206-441-6000 The Local Vine on Urbanspoon

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bin vivant chef Lisa Nakamura with bowl of Champagne grapes and barman Yashar Shayan; half-shell oysters with flight of sparkling wines

Across the lake, in Kirkland, Lisa Nakamura and Dawn Smith have done very well with their new wine-first bistro. (I still have trouble with the name, bin Vivant, with its bold, lowercase "bin" and Frenchified "vivant." Granted, a bon vivant is someone who lives the good life, but the bin part? Bin number? Bin ends? Dust bins? Binary files, perhaps? Red or White? (Which reminds me, completely off topic: that there are 10 kinds of people in this world, those who understand binary numbers and those who don't.) Maybe Buy It Now (as in, that Alaska state jet on eBay.) I digress. Sincere apologies.

bin vivant's wine selection is impressive, as one might expect. There's a bi-level Enomatic here, with three-button options (1, 2 or 4-ounce pours). Nine flights of three wines, aptly described, ranging from effervescent, verdant and "fruit & cream" to "smoke and spice" and "drop-dead gorgeous." Some two dozen dishes (small and large portions) are offered for pairing, ranging from the classic (oysters with sparkling wine, scallops or halibut with chardonnays) to less obvious (flat-bread pizza with rosé, asparagus & mushrooms with sauvignon blanc).

Nakamura's previous kitchen, Qube, turned out intricate, almost fussy plates as part of an ambitious concept of courses as "sets." Here, she can focus on one thing at a time, enhancing Moroccan-style lamb with cucumber yogurt and tomato salsa, or prawns with mushrooms and avocado. For her part, Smith's flights can reach the stratosphere ($33 for tastes of three "formidable reds") but, gee, what else would you drink with a kobe-beef burger topped with foie gras?

bin vivant, Woodmark Hotel, 1200 Carillon Point, Kirkland 425-803-5595 bin vivant on Urbanspoon

Eat Your F***ing Oatmeal

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Starbucks%20oatmeal.JPGShowstopper of Seattle's long-running cabaret Angry Housewives was, you may recall, a number titled "Eat Your F***ing Cornflakes!" (What, you don't remember? Brain cells degraded by poor nutrition, no doubt.) Anyway, Starbucks is now seeking to recapture the breakfast market by offering freshly zapped oatmeal with a choice of fruit, brown sugar or mixed nuts.

All this turmoil in one store, all these decisions before 8 AM! Pike Place Roast not sexy enough for you? How about a Vanilla latte "with protein"? That must be the proprietary whey powder they get from the mozzarella factory in California.

But Howard knows best. (At least he's not trotting out anything like Dunkin Donuts truly awful eggwhite flatbread.) Then again, if you want cardboard (er, sorry, fiber), there's apple bran muffins, a chewy fruit & nut bar; and a multigrain roll with (yet again, a choice) almond butter or strawberry preserves. But nothing that actually smells like breakfast, because, wouldn't you know, the focus groups didn't like the bouquet of bacon.

Well, turns out you can get all three toppings for your oatmeal; all you have to do is ask. It also turns out that, you know, those smelly breakfast sandwiches? They never left. Having ridden back into town on the horse of purity, pledging to banish the bacon, Schultz changed his mind. Egg sandwiches aren't on the blackboard, but you can get one if you ask. Very much featured, however, are Berry Stella, Chewy Fruit & Nut Bar and the Protein Power Plate.

But who's dreaming up all this stuff? Who's cooking it? And where? Howard's new fitness kick is turning Starbucks into a quick-serve, health-food mini-mart before our very eyes, with more choices than a Cheesecake Factory and all the sex appeal of a GNC Nutrition Center. Makes you long for simpler times, for the days when you could wolf down a 300-calorie Egg McMuffin and just be done with it.

Copacetic at Copacabana

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Copacabana, in the Pike Place Market, is touted as Seattle's only Bolivian restaurant. It's named for the town on Lake Titicaca, but that's beside the point. The llama on its menu, beside the point as well. The food here has become deracinated, its South American roots withered. What made the Copa distinctive 20 years ago, the assertive flavors of its sopa de camarones, for example, have gone wan: a pale tomato broth, tasteless bay shrimp fleshed out (as it were) with canned carrots and peas. (Legend has it that Omar Vizquel wanted to buy the recipe before he was traded to Cleveland 15 years ago; he wouldn't bother today.) The salteña (meat pie) lacks punch and vigor. The vaunted paella, at $16, contains precisely two each prawns, mussels and clams along with one chicken drumstick. But, surprise! There's some decent pork buried below the mound of saffron rice.

No, tourists don't flock to the Copa for its food but for the incomparable setting. For decades, it had the only deck with a view at the Market (now there are several), and it's still the most spectacular. Surrounded by colorful potted plants, you're one flight above Pike Place, with the Public Market sign, Elliott Bay and the Olympics in the background.

So do go for cocktails (pisco sours or caipirinhas) and sit on the patio at sunset. There's no better view in Seattle.

PS: You want to know more about the term copacetic? Creole? Italian? African? Native American? Not even David Mamet knows for sure Go here and read your fill.

Copacabana, 1520 Pike Place, 206-622-6359 Copacabana on Urbanspoon

Washington%20Wine%20Highway%20display.JPGAh yes, we say, full of ignorant bravado, our wines are the best there is. World class, to coin a phrase. Well, reality check, folks: not this year. Over 9,000 wines from around the world were entered in the most prestigious competition of them all, the Decanter World Wine Awards, and the judges (also from around the world) narrowed them down by region, by grape variety and by price. Of the top two dozen, not a one from the United States. The winners: 6 each from South Africa, and France, 5 from Australia, 3 from Spain, 2 each from Italy, Portugal and Argentina, and one for Germany: the world's best pinot noir. Seriously.

Now, before you go foaming off about this British magazine's anti-American prejudice, we'd like to point out that the chairman of the competition is none other than Steven Spurrier, the respected wine merchant who, some 30 years ago, put American wine on the map with a blind tasting of Napa versus French wine. (It's the "true story" behind the dreadful movie, Bottle Shock, still playing locally.) Under Spurrier's direction, some 200 professional wine tasters (many of them Masters of Wine) participated in regional 25 panels to evaluate the wines submitted.

The US panel, chaired by Stephen Brook, a wine writer with 25 years of experience, awarded its regional trophy to Chateau Ste. Michelle's Canoe Ridge 2006 Chardonnay, which had also been named the best "over £20 American chardonnay. (Joel Butler, MW, Ste. Michelle's director of wine education, served on two of the French panels.) Eight Washington wineries won gold medals, along with four from Oregon. Gordon Brothers of Pasco, whose syrah was named the best in the world two years ago, won only a commendation for its red blend this time around. The big Washington winner was Magnificent Wine Company with four medals; more about them in an upcoming post.

The other stunning news: South Africa's medal count. Best Rhone blend, best Bordeaux blend, best sauvignon blanc, best chardonnay and so on. We mentioned this news to a local wine rep, a lively and distinguished French lady. "Ils sont tombé sur la tête!" she exclaimed. "They're nuts!" No, seriously. That's what was in the bottle, that's what was in the glass. South Africa is the fastest-growing sector of UK wines, up 13 percent last year in a stagnant market, and the awards show why: it's good wine.

Says Spurrier: "The results provide complete validity for the producers and the consumers." In other words, take the list of winners along when you go shopping.

Ratatouille Omelet

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Wednesday market at Pike Place with wonderful selection from local farms made me realize I haven't made ratatouille this summer. Trick to keeping flavors and shapes distinct is to cook each vegetable separately.

Chop & saute a small eggplant in 1 or 2 TB olive oil, add a touch of sugar to caramelize. When done, remove from pan with slotted spoon, keeping oil in the pan.

Chop & sauté a green pepper until it wilts. (I added 1/4 tsp pepper flakes as well) Remove.

Chop & sauté 1 small onion & three or four cloves of garlic until caramelized. To the same pan, add 1 chopped yellow squash, cook (with the onion) until beginning to change color. Then add 1 chopped zucchini (chopped finer so it doesn't take as long to cook).

When onion-squash mix is ready, add back the eggplant & green peppers.

Fold in 1 coarsely chopped ripe tomato and 1/2 cup fresh (or 1 TB dried) herbs (oregano, thyme, tarragon, basil, etc).

Taste for seasoning. Add salt & freshly ground pepper to taste.

Cover, allow to "stew" for 5 minutes. Serve !

Or, in my case, make a quick omelet with 3 eggs in hot skillet, add a cup or more ratatouille, fold onto plate & serve. Voilà!

Jay%20Soloff%20at%20El%20Gaucho.JPGWhat if--just for one night--you could turn the clock back 30 years? Jay Soloff did it this weekend, once again uncorking mellow, well-aged bottles for the mellow, well-aged diners at Belltown's premier steak house.

Back in 1978, Soloff was the wine steward at El Gaucho, then located at 7th & Olive, then (as now) one of the city's swankiest joints, with waiters in tuxes, tableside service of Caesar salads, chateaubriand for two, and flaming desserts. A former hippie and would-be history professor, Jay had wandered up to Seattle from Tempe, Ariz. Having worked his way through college washing dishes at a health-food restaurant, he cut his hair and got a job waiting on tables at the original Boondock's on Broadway. (Jerry Kingen, who built the restaurant, also started the Red Robin chain and owns one of Seattle's top-grossing restaurants, Salty's.) Soloff showed a flair for wine, and his academic cred made him a good teacher, so he bounced his way into the wine cellar at El Gaucho at a time when sommeliers were a truly exotic breed. Breezy and glib, Jay was a big hit with the restaurant's clientèle of cigar-chomping power brokers.

He moved on to start his own wine brokerage, and, in the early 1990s, became a founding partner of DeLille Cellars, where he heads marketing. Then Paul Mackay, who had been El Gaucho's maitre d' when Soloff worked there and who had since reopened El Gaucho in Belltown, asked him to come back for one night.

So there he was, back in his tuxedo, working the floor. "I thought I might be a little rusty," Jay said, "but approaching the tables turned out to be easy. And there's none of the concerns that people had 30 years ago about price." Yes, now that steak houses cater to high-rollers and hoi-polloi alike, now that most guests don't even bother wearing jackets at dinner, now that they're dropping $24 on a glass of California cabernet and $125 on a prime rib, they're not flinching at prices in the high three-digits for brunello.

Was he selling any DeLille Cellars? "For sure. That's what they all want, the Grand Ciel." It goes for modest $300.

Jay Soloff poses with a bottle of DeLille Cellars 2004 Grand Ciel Cabernet Sauvignon in front of an oil painting of longtime dining room staff by Nina Mickhailenko.

El Gaucho, 2505 First Avenue, 206-728-1337 El Gaucho on Urbanspoon

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Arctic Building walrus; Juno executive chef Thomas Kollasch

The capital of Alaska is Juneau, thank you. Named for a prospector, Joe Juneau. Not a very nice guy, apparently. But Alaska, you know, Sarah Palin's state.

Juno, on the other hand, is, variously, the code name for the Normandy beachhead assigned to the Canadians, the title of a film about a pregnant teenager (predating Palin's daughter, Bristol), and the name of a new restaurant in downtown Seattle. The restaurant is on the street level of what was once the Arctic Building, housing the Arctic Club, an institution for Seattle businessmen who'd come home rich from the Alaska gold rush, now the Arctic Club Hotel.

As it turns out, JUNO isn't named for any of the above, but for the queen goddess in Roman mythology. So they say, anyway. (I wonder if they've got a speech or hearing impediment. Then again, maybe it's me. Have your cocktails at the Polar Bar where "Some Like It Cold." Seriously.) JUNO all caps, by the way.

I don't envy these folks the task of running a hotel restaurant that aspires to gourmet standards, starting with a traditional English breakfast: Marcona almond crumpet, kippered king salmon, honey-lemon hollandaise and hash browns. French toast? Cappuccino Swirl Decadence with raspberry preserves, white chocolate ganache, cognac chocolate and caramel drizzles. Amaretto biscuits with Isernio's chorizo gravy. Gets no easier at lunch: watercress & dandelion salad, duck breast croissant. Comes time for dinner, and things settle down. Scallop tartare, crab ravioli, Niman ranch steak.

Executive chef is Thomas Kollasch, late of Alderbrook Resort and Barking Frog; his chef de cuisine is Alex Nemeth, late of Purple. They're talented and ambitious, if anything a bit too talented and ambitious. Launching everything at once ain't easy. (The ricotta gnocchi one night were disapointingly gummy, but were followed by a sublime dish of Royal Red prawns.) Aaron Angelo, a veteran of Brennan's and Commander's Palace in his native New Orleans, and who dazzled us at Steelhead Diner, is on hand as wine director, pouring brunello in the dining room and absinthe in the bar. Yes, absinthe. More on this and other Polar Bar innovations in a future post.

For now, don't confuse the Arctic Building with the Alaska Building just down the street. City of Seattle ended up owning both, used both for office space, sold both to private developers in recent years. Arctic (3rd & Columbia) is ringed by 27 magnificent terra cotta walrus friezes, originally fitted with real tusks; upstairs, the spectacular "Northern Lights" Dome Room with seating for over 300. Alaska (2nd & Cherry) was supposed to be converted to downtown housing, but the investors changed gears and will turn it into a mid-market Courtyard by Marriott instead.

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Ricotta gnocchi with leek soubise, summer savory & truffle oil; Royal Red prawns with cherry tomatoes, basil & horseradish.

JUNO, 700 Third Avenue, 206-631-8080 Juno on Urbanspoon

Local Cupcake

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Cupcake.jpg Jessie%20with%20birthday%20party%20cupcake.JPG

She could have been a success by virtue of her design talents alone, but she took the whole thing a couple of steps further. She, by the way, is the amazingly talented, unbelievably cute Jessie Oleson. What she did, first, was to create a character: a cupcake called Cuppie fashioned from a piece of leftover cake batter. Her charming cartoons put Cuppie into familiar scenes, bizarre adventures and comic situations; she does 8 to 10 of these a day, usually in watercolor; the pictures have the charm and appeal of Babar books, the genius of artlessness. Oh yes, Jessie sells them online.

But she doesn't end it there. No, there's another website, a blog called Cakespy, that leverages Cuppie's cuteness with rather more serious stuff about baking, recipes and such. Jessie, who moved here from New York, has a nationwide network of spies keeping her updated. And when it was time to celebrate her 28th birthday last month, she picked Cupcake Royale's store in Ballard.

Cupcake Royale (and Cafe Verite) on Urbanspoon

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This page is an archive of entries from September 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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Real Absinthe -- Thujone Absinthe
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