December 2009


I woke up looking forward to doing some wine tasting. My plan was to go to Fetzer’s beautiful tasting room and gardens at their hospitality center in Hopland. Well coated against the cold, the day was beautiful, the mountains misty as ribbons of fog bedecked the mountain folds surrounding the Ukiah Valley.

I hadn’t visited the Fetzer tasting room in seven years, it isn’t really conveniently located, but I wanted to taste their dozen wines and find a jewel or two to recommend as a drinking wine, and perhaps a few more that would pair well with foods. I wanted to write about wines that were available in every store, and at prices that are affordable to anyone that can find their way to my blog.

Fifteen minutes south I turned off the 101 and drove down the empty Tuesday morning road to the Fetzer property. I drove over a bridge spanning the Russian River and came upon what had been the hospitality center for Fetzer.

Signs forbidding entry blocked the roads onto the property, previously maintained gardens gone wild, “for sale” signs. I began to suspect that I would not be tasting Fetzer’s wines.

I continued another few miles up the road to Fetzer’s winemaking facility. It is huge, and quiet in the post harvest, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, way that almost all wineries are quiet. I drove to the Administration building, and the receptionist confirmed my suspicion: I would indeed not be tasting Fetzer wines.

Note to Brown-Forman: How about putting a tasting room on 101 in Hopland, where Brutocao, McFadden, McDowell, Dogwood/Three Families, and Graziano all have tasting facilities? You could have one facility for your Fetzer, Bonterra, and Sanctuary brands. Not as grand as your previous Fetzer Hospitality Center, closed about three years, but accessible and economically sustainable. Just asking’.

I woke up prepared to taste wines, and I was not going to be deterred by a mere tasting room closure. I got back on the 101 and headed south another half hour to Healdsburg, where Mendocino County’s Topel Winery has located their tasting room at 125 Matheson across from the Oakville grocery.

Walking in the tasting room door at Topel, I was welcomed almost immediately by Kevin Roach. Kevin asked what types of wines I prefer as he welcomed me to taste. I let him know I prefer Reds, but enjoy whites as well, and asked him to pour me his four favorite wines out of the fourteen available, the ones most likely to knock my socks off.

Kevin first poured me a glass of the 2007 Pinot Noir, Serendipity, Monterey. While I swirled and sniffed the wine, I looked over the tasting room. Attractive, well laid out, lots of dark wood and copper. Wood cabinets for Topel branded clothing, and for literature display. A smaller (VIP?) private tasting room with table is available as well.

Kevin told me that the grapes for the 100% Pinot came from the Chalone Vineyard, which is located in the Gabilan Mountain range. The Topel website identifies the grapes as coming from Monterey County’s Serendipity Vineyard. Wherever the grapes came from in Monterey County, 2007 was kind to these grapes, and the wine was luscious, with cherry sweet tart and raisoned cranberry aromas and raspberry and cherry flavors. Round, smooth, and balanced. This wine was wonderful. $28/bottle.

Wine #2 was Topel’s 2005 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. 92% Cab, 4% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot. I was pleased to taste this wine. I am a Sonoma County boy, born and raised. the wines I grew up with, tasted, sold, were Sonoma County wines. I live in Ukiah now, in Mendocino County, and I wanted this wine to taste good, I wanted the grapes from my new home to be good ones.

The 2005 Cab had a really low tannin load, was very approachable, with light herb and dark red cherry and berry fruit on the nose and repeating in the mouth. Velvety, smooth, soft, and balanced, with nice subtle notes. This is not a typical brick bat Cab, but a nicely drinkable Cab. $36/bottle.

Wine # 3 was the one year newer, just released three weeks ago, 2006 Estate Reserve Cabernet. 96% Cab, 2% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot. Same wine, again smooth. A little more tannin evident, but soft. Similar nose and flavor profile to the 2005 Cab; with chocolate and black cherry. Definitely younger, a little edgy. I would let it lay down a while longer. $36/bottle.

The final wine I tasted was the 2006 Topel Estate Blend. 45% Cabernet. 45% Syrah Noir, 5% Merlot, and 5% Petit Verdot. I have never heard of Syrah Noir, Kevin explained that it was a clone of Syrah. The grapes for this unique blend come from Topel’s vineyards on Duncan Peak, west of Hopland in Mendocino County.

Kevin told me that this wine is owner Mark Topel’s favorite wine, I found it unusual. with notes of plum, prune, and fig newton. Again, virtually no tannin load, another incredibly soft wine. I want to retaste this wine the most. The unusual blend led to unusual flavors, and this might be the best, most versatile food pairing wine I tasted at Topel. $36/bottle.

All four wines were soft, supple, balanced, approachable, very drinkable. Tannin providing structure to hand fruit on, but staying out of the way of enjoying the wines. Well oaken, but not oaky. In a word: smooth.

I want the Pinot to drink, the Cabs to have with grilled tri tip, and the Estate blend to get to know better.

I set out to taste affordable wines, under $20, and ended up tasting wines in the $20-$40 range instead. My mission to taste and recommend inexpensive, available, good wines has not been forgotten; but I am really glad I stopped in to taste these four wines from Topel Winery.

My last blog entry, about how the wine industry could do a better job of marketing their product and how wine writers could try to reach beyond the small circle of people they write for and try to reach a larger audience through a serious decrease in snobbery, seems to have struck a chord.

I have seen links to my article receive tweets and retweets, diggs, and email forwardings. My blog numbers have exploded. I have gone from nowhere to the #4 top blog on Wine Blog Network Rankings.

Most importantly, I started a conversation; a real one with differing viewpoints. I am thrilled and amazed at the number of people that have found their way here to my blog, I am so incredibly grateful that some of you felt moved enough to share your thoughts here, on facebook, and by email.

This blog entry is about you, my readers, and what you have had to say in response to my last entry. Here is our conversation so far, please feel free to keep it going.

Shannon L., blog author’s friend, Dec 27 2009 8:46 PM

Walmart and Costco also sell Menage a Trois. Costco being the cheapest at $6.99 a bottle.

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Kelly Doyle Mitchell, owner of juicyplants.com, Dec 27 2009, 8:52 PM

Great read! Loved what he had to say about marketing and the (over)pricing in restaurants!

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John Cesano, blog author, Dec 27 2009, 8:59 PM

Again, better with food than by iteslf, but an absolutely GREAT food wine, and only $1.17 per glass from Costco. Wow. Beer prices for this wine’s superior food pairing qualities. That’s what the wine industry should be telling folks.

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Rob McLean, article inspiration, Dec 27 2009, 9:39 PM

Ok, so I am starting to see some of the light. My parents drank wine but mostly the famous box wines you’d find while at the grocery chain.
I being of the industrial worker type always enjoyed beer and shots as opposed to wine. I must admit a little wine does go a long way, at least to my head.
Appreciate the nod from this writer and friend, I will keep reading and eventually perhaps even change my beer drinking tunes. Admittedly Mr.Cesano already has me looking at the wine in my grocery outlet with more interest. Just haven’t committed as of yet.
Keep it up John, you are the future when it comes to a friendly voice in the wine writing community. I am sure of that.

Always
RK McLean

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Nancy Cameron Iannios, Oregon’s best tasting room and wine club manager, Dec 28 2009, 10:38 AM

Wonderful John! This is my favorite blog yet. I truly believe this would be a worthy submission for national publication with one of the big wine magazines…you should give it a try! I’m definitely going to pass it along to all of my So. Oregon wine associates. It is something that needs to be addressed! I cannot tell you how many guests have stepped right up to the tasting bar with an immediate disclaimer: “please don’t laugh at me if I don’t taste the wine correctly…I’ve never done ‘this’ before.”
First and foremost, wine should be fun and the stigmas associated with wine do need to loosen up. You don’t have to comment on the nose. It’s not necessary to recognize the nuances. You needn’t concern yourself with whether or not you are holding the glass correctly. Wine is meant to be enjoyed. You either like it or you don’t and you definitely do not have to agree with what you read or with what you hear. Reviews aren’t the final authorative word; they are merely one person’s perception and opinion. Each person’s taste buds allow for the final personal review.
The absolute beauty of wine is that it’s subjective. Each person’s experience is as unique as their own fingerprints. Tasting notes are more of an exercise in creative writing than they are a carved in stone description. I’ve seen many a concerned guest struggle to pick up on a flavor that is suggested in tasting notes. A gracious host/hostess can immediately address such concerns and save the whole experience.
I totally agree that you needn’t depend upon the price tag on a bottle of wine in order to enjoy an enhanced food experience. My daughter Rachel turned me onto Bogle Merlot about a year ago. You can purchase it at almost every supermarket for about $7.99. It has allowed me to have a dinner by candlelight experience in between paychecks on more than one occasion!

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John Cesano, blog author, Dec 28 2009, 3:57 PM

Robert Parker Jr. just gave a Napa wine you’ve never heard of (Dana Estates’ 2007 Lotus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon), that you’ll never see (only 250 cases made), that you wouldn’t buy ($275 for a bottle of last year’s release), a perfect 100 point s rating. seriously, who really cares? Way to go wine industry, just keep shoveling that news that no real person cares about.

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Shannon L., blog authors friend, Dec 28 2009, 4:49 PM

I love what Nancy has to say. I believe she should submit it so some publication!
I admit, I buy my wine purely by if I like the picture or the title of the vineyard on the label!
I either like it, or I don’t. That simple.

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Shannon E., Wine Goddess, Dec 28 2009, 6:53 PM

[Parker] has to sell his newsletter and books. Look at his audience. Those dudes (readers) need to think they have something up on everyone else. Don’t sweat it just use it in your comedy routine (who is Dana? Is she THAT hot?)

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John Cesano, blog author, Dec 28 2009, 7:06 PM

Today, I checked in with the twitterati of winedom, and the big news was that Robert Parker, THE wine critic, had deigned to grant a 100 point score to a Napa Cabernet you have never heard of (Dana Estates’ 2007 Lotus Vineyard Cab), will never see a bottle of in person (only 250 cases produced), and can’t afford ($275/bottle for last year’s release, this year’s will likely be more). Really, who cares, besides a bunch of wine geek, Frasier Crane wanna-be, Napa cult Cab, fan boys? This news will not effect one single person I know.

Let me say it again clearly to wine writers and the wine industry: give real people news that they can use. Tell real people about wines that are readily available, do not cost an arm and a leg, and pair well with the food people eat at dinner time. Give people a reason to try your product, instead of writing for each other about things real people will never care about.

Just sayin’.

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Josh, author of drinknectar.com, Dec 29 2009, 8:58 AM

This was a very good and well written piece. The wine industry is behind the curve when it comes to 1) vision and 2) marketing and 3) distribution (don’t get me started here)

I love to debunk the wine snobbery of it all. There are a few good wine writers trying to do the same. Both John and Nancy are spot on in their comments too.

Josh @nectarwine (twitter)

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Tamara, author do sipwithme.blogspot.com, Dec 29 2009, 9:03 AM

Good article and I hear what you’re saying, but I personally find it more interesting to taste (and read about) quality over quantity. Not just wine either, same goes for beer. I can drink a tall boy for next to nothing or I can indulge in a deliciously handcrafted local ale. I’d pay 5 times the amount for the microbrew… and I’d be more likely to read a review about it too. Same for food for that matter. Do you want to read about a Big Mac you can get for under $5 or do you want to read about and taste the juicy gourmet kobe beef hamburger loaded with toppings you could never imagine on a burger (like a quails egg!)? News that you can use is good, but it has to be more than just about value. Just sayin’. icon_wink.gif

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John Cesano, blog author, Dec 29 2009, 10:41 AM

Tamara, your points are valid…as far as they go. When I visited friend in Oregon a couple of months ago, I did not drink a single Budweiser, but I did enjoy a handcrafted IPA or two at Wild River Brewing in Grants Pass. When I listed my 10 Perfect Foods, Kobe beef made the list. I have waxed poetic over wines that most folks, outside of the circle of wine geeks (and yes I consider myself one), will never taste as well.

With nearly every wine writer writing about wines that regular folks will never taste, it just perpetuates the wine industry’s failures to effectively market their wines to a wider audience. If you venture from Oregon to Napa, I’ll look forward to reading your review of the 2007 Dana Estates Lotus Vineyard Cabernet. Your prose is solid, and, as I am a self-professed wine geek, it would be interesting to read your review of a wine no one I know will never taste.

Handcrafted beers, and even Kobe beef, are available to the average consumer. Many of the wines I read reviews of are not.

You seem to be likening the wines I would recommend regular folks try with their meals, over the beer or iced tea they currently drink, to a 24 ounce can of Budweiser. It is just that attitude, dare I say snobbery, that puts so many people off ordering wine.

I love quality. I acknowledge that many more $20 wines will appeal to my palate than $10 wines, and there is a great likelihood that I will enjoy a $40 wine more than a $20 wine; but I’m not writing for myself, or for a circle of other wine writers. I have chosen to write for my friends, most of whom are just just regular folks, most of whom too rarely drink wine. I will write try to find “value” wines that taste good, or pair well with food, review and recommend them. I’ve taken on the job the industry doesn’t do, trying to get regular folks to drink wine now and again.

I think I’m on the right track, this was my most read blog entry by far.

Thanks for the comment. I love your blog and I’m adding it to my blog roll.

John

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John Vitale, editor & publisher of Washington Tasting Room Magazine, Dec 29 2009 1:48 PM

I read your post “So, you don’t get wine writers or the wine industry?” with a big grin on my face.

Cheers, keep up the good work on your blog!

John Vitale

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Scott Casey, Man of Mystery, Dec 29, 2009 9:59 PM

Love your Blog John. I agree with you 1000% wine beats all drinks when it comes to food.

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Nancy Cameron Iannios, Oregon’s best tasting room and wine club manager, Dec 29 2009, 10:10 PM

I’m definitely not trying to get into any debates, but I’m 100% behind John on this entire subject. I’m not convinced that a high priced bottle of wine is a guarantee of “quality”. I personally prefer red wines that have been fermented in New French Oak rather than American Oak. The cost of New French Oak is much more expensive than American Oak so wine producers have to cover their costs by pricing their wines accordingly. New French Oak aging is my personal preference but it’s not an indication of whether or not the wine is of higher “quality”. From my experience there are lots of marketing ploys involved in determining price points. For the most part, these price points have absolutely nothing to do with the actual quality of the wine and have more to do with a marketing manager’s opinion about what is going to make their product move at the best percentage of profit. Some people automatically see value in something with a higher price tag on it, but wine is no different than any other product…it’s about supply and demand and impressions left through marketing efforts. Most “impressions” in the wine industry are created with a sense of snobbery that appeals to a specific market. I think the point that John is trying to make is about industry “impressions” that leave the ordinary person feeling that wine is unapproachable. The “ordinary” person accounts for a much higher percentage of the buying population. So, purely from a numbers standpoint, the wine industry could probably sell more product to a wider audience if they were to take the snob appeal out of their product.

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John Cesano, blog author, Dec 29 2009, 11:37 PM

Nancy, I always welcome your comments. You have a viewpoint I respect, and as the best Oregon tasting room and wine club manager I know, your opinions enrich this blog.

To be fair, I am thrilled with Tamara’s comment as well. I would love people to look at my entries as the beginning of a conversation. I welcome comments, and mine is not the only valid viewpoint. It is entirely possible, perhaps probable, that I will be completely wrong in something I write. Tamara’s thoughts were so well presented that I added her to my blogroll immediately.

As Tamara’s blog is about visiting every Oregon tasting room in a year, it is more than likely that the two of you, Nancy and Tamara, have met.

I tried to taste wines at Fetzer’s tasting room in Hopland today, only to find it was closed about 3 years ago. Instead, I tasted some delicious wines from Topel Winery of Mendocino County at their tasting room in Healdsburg. While I’ll be putting up a new entry tomorrow recapping my visit to Topel’s tasting room, I can say that getting out to taste inexpensive wines looking for some jewels will be hampered if large wine groups are closing their brand’s tasting rooms.

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Denise Slattery, triovintners.com, Dec 30 2009 8:00 AM

Hi – This is a great summation of what’s screwed up in this industry. I like what I have read here. Thanks very much. Couple of things to add: I make wine and have a small winery which is holding on financially but a bit stressed at this time (who isn’t?) I would say the hardest job I have (besides cleaning barrels and tanks!) is marketing my wine. It’s not just about pouring samples in a tasting room. It’s really a 360 degree process that requires me to have everything buttoned up in terms of marketing and communications. Fortunately I really enjoy this part and like the challenge, but I am stunned at how stupidly the industry has organized itself, especially with regard to the point scale / medal winning / incomprehensible review system that we are all (consumers and trade alike) forced to contend with. I loathe kowtowing to the point-people and therefore do not send wine to WS or WA for review. But I second guess myself on this decision with each new release….”What if we actually got a high score on a wine from WS? That’s good for business. Right?”

Most of the wineries in this county (and there are something like 6,000 +) are small, family-run operations that are thriving because they are focused on small lot productions and a hand-crafted product. Making only 250 cases of a particular wine for me is mostly a matter of economics, not about creating an aura of exclusivity. Is the wine better because there’s less of it? Not necessarily. Does it cost more to make because there is less of it? Of course. But I think the point should not be lost on consumers that when it’s gone, it’s gone. So, pay attention and try it because it’s going to provide an experience for you. Not because so-and-so gave it 100 points. Right?

Finally, the craziest obstacle to promoting more everyday wine consumption is the insane restrictions that states apply to the sale of wine. As long as these hold-over restrictions from prohibition continue, and the three-tier system is protected, wineries are prevented from direct to consumer trade in many states. I can deal with the TTB compliance issues (which are also tedious and arcane but primarily there to capture tax revenue) but I loathe the three-tier system and believe this is a restriction of free trade. I think it’s down right anti- American!

To each and every one of you, thank you for writing this blog entry. Your opinions and viewpoints, uniquely yours, benefit us all when shared, and enrich my blog tremendously. Keep reading, keep commenting, keep sipping. Consider signing up as a subscriber of the blog too, Thanks! -John

I have a friend named Rob who isn’t really a wine guy. Rob isn’t alone, many people aren’t into wine.

The wine industry has allowed a perception that wine is more special than beer to permeate society. Working guys drink beer. Fancy pant elites drink wine.

I don’t know of any other industry that would purposely allow barriers to purchase to exist like this.

With wine, we’re not talking about unattainably expensive status symbol luxury items like Rolex watches, but there are many people who would more willingly buy a Rolex watch than a bottle of wine. With the Rolex, you know what you bought, an expensive, investment grade, time piece.

People just don’t know about wine, and not knowing are afraid to order it.

By allowing wine to be perceived as complex, a beverage for learned experts, the industry has fostered a fear in consumers. “I’m not James Bond, I don’t know a good vintage, or even a wine type; I’ll just have a beer, or a shot of tequila, or a Mojito, or a coke, or iced tea…anything but wine. I don’t want to look stupid in front of my friends or the waiter or the shop keeper.”

At the same time that Bacardi was marketing their rum through aggressive Mojito promotion, and selling more rum than ever, the wine industry was allowing fear to continue to be a wall most people won’t climb to try their product.

I could scream.

I read the blogs of many wine writers, pick up the wine magazines, keep up on marketing trends. 100 point wine ratings, 5 star ratings, indecipherable wine speak, Frasier Crane-esque reverence paid to a handful of producers of wines not available to the general public or too expensive to justify buying. Open a door or window and let’s get some air in here; most of what you’ll read about wine is from writers who have bought into the failed marketing of the industry – of absolutely no interest to anyone outside of the community of wine cognoscenti. Yawn.

Wine is so much better with most meals than beer, or iced tea, or coke, or just about any other beverage, but the industry is not getting that message across; it also hurts that restaurant wines cost triple what they would in a store and wine service is generally poor.

The next time you are in a nice restaurant, you will see many if not most people drinking beer or iced tea instead of wine. I can assure you that given a wine recommendation that would suit their meal better, and offered a glass of that wine at a reasonable price, most everyone would be drinking and enjoying both their wine and their meal more. I blame the wine industry for poor marketing.

Rather than be one of thousands of other wine writers bleating about the same unattainable cult wines, effectively bragging to my fellow wine writers about the wines I am drinking, I want to write about wine for the guy that would rather have wine with his meal but doesn’t want to feel like an ass.

Although wine knowledge is never ending, wine is simple. Let me say that again; Wine Is Simple.

Take the wine I drank my Christmas meal with, a 2008 Menage a Trois from Folie a Deux winery in Napa County’s St. Helena; while the wine goes for $12 a bottle, I just found the same wine on sale at Lucky’s supermarket for $8.99, so price needn’t be an obstacle to having good wine with food.

I appreciate that there are a wealth of wines in supermarkets that run from $8 – $20 per bottle, and some are good and some aren’t. I’ll try to taste a number of them and give you my recommendations.

Menage a Trois is a playful way of saying that the wine is a blend of three grape varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, the king of reds, big, structured, dense, with black berry and currant notes, Merlot, Cab’s softer sister red, rounder, fleshier, with cherry notes, and Zinfandel, a brash, in your face red, with raspberry notes.

You have heard, “red wine with meat.” With three red wines in one bottle, this wine is a great wine for pairing with a host of meat dishes from hamburgers and hotdogs to pork shoulder and flank steak. Pasta in an Italian red sauce, Caesar salad; heck, I could drink this wine with just about anything and be happy.

Wine shouldn’t be about inviolable rules, but I will share a few “wouldn’t be a bad idea”s with you along the way.

The “wouldn’t be a bad idea” for today is not overfilling your wine glass just because you have the room to do so. My wine glasses are large, either 16 or 20 ounces, and I pour no more than 4 ounces in my glass. I get to swirl the wine, let it breathe, let the bowl of the wine glass collect wonderful scents, bury my nose in the glass, and inhale all the aroma and bouquet the wine has to give. A sniff and a sip, can change a bite of already good food into something almost transcendent. Doesn’t always, but, oh is it nice when it does!

I can get about six glasses of wine from a bottle at 4 ounces per glass. That means my $8.99 sale bottle of 2008 Menage a Trois is costing me about a buck and a half per glass.

The wine industry should be telling you that you can get a great wine to pair with food at home for about a buck and a half a glass.

That’s a lot more valuable information to most consumers than knowing about another garage winery whose entire release is sold out but just got a 10 page write up in a major wine publication after scoring a perfect 100 points in a possibly not blind tasting.

I’ll be visiting Fetzer and Bonterra in Mendocino County, doing some wine tasting close to home this week, hopefully I will be able to make some more recommendations. I also want to taste some of Topel Winery’s wines, they are also from nearby, but their tasting room is in Healdsburg, so tasting for me will have to wait a bit. I also should be seeing some wine accessory samples arrive this week that a distributer said they would send; I’ll try those out and let you know what I think. I’m also going to try cooking polenta a different way, and I’m going to make another batch of involtini this week. Lots of things to write about, I hope you’ll keep checking in.

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If you do have the time, and are near Healdsburg, CA stop into the Topel Winery tasting room and taste some wines before year’s end. They have a 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Grace at $130/case ($1.80/glass) , 2004 Hidden Vineyard Cabernet at $190/case ($2.64/glass), and 2005 Cuvee Donnis Syrah at $150/case ($2.08/glass). These prices are discounted 43 – 51% per case, promo codes are “Grace”, “Hidden”, and “Donnis”, and the sale only runs through the end of December.

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Edited to add: A friend, and reader of my blog, Shannon let me know that the 2008 Menage a Trois was $6.99 at Costco. Seriously, at $1.16 a glass, this wine costs less per ounce than the bottled water I bought at the Fairplex in Pomona, CA at the beginning of this month. Buy it, pair it with meat. Thank me later.

Involtini. A flavorful pinwheel of meat and stuffing. I hadn’t had any in over twenty years. It took me a long time to realize that I was going to get to eat it again for Christmas dinner, even as I rolled my hands up to help cook it.

Seventeen people were coming for Christmas dinner and my mother-in-law Joan’s house. When I left Ukiah on Tuesday to take my son to visit with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, I thought Joan was cooking a turducken and I was thrilled. I almost cooked a turducken for Thanksgiving, but went traditional banging out the perfect turkey; so my joy at trying this remakable ballotine was nearly palpable.

Turducken is a Lousiana specialty where a turkey is boned and stuffed with a boned duck, which was previously stuffed with a boned chicken, all further stuffed with cornbread and sausage stuffing; and a ballotine is a protein, meat, fish or fowl, that has been boned, stuffed, rolled, tied, and cooked.

When I arrived Tuesday, Joan told me that turducken was off the menu, she did not remove the poultry from the shipping container, thinking that there was enough dry ice to keep it well for several days. Sadly, most food is shipped with only enough dry ice to get it safely to your door and such was the case here, the turducken was unfrozen and not cold on the outside, and as it was poultry that meant that there was surely spoilage.

Joan told me that we would be having a “brah-zhule” on polenta. I didn’t know what a “brah-zhule” was, but didn’t confess to my ignorance.

On Wednesday, Joan and I started prepping Christmas dinner. I love cooking with Joan, she is a great cook, and our backgrounds do not overlap, so I always learn a ton cooking with her. Joan asked me to pound out some already thin carne asada meat, either flank or skirt steak, so that each steak was larger in surface area. I pounded each piece of carne asada until it was about twice the original surface area.

Meanwhile, Joan combined garlic, flat-leaf parsley, grated Pecorino Romano cheese, pine nuts, and bacon. Joan spooned the mixture onto the meat, rolled it up, and I tied each ballotine with cooking string.

With a flash of comprehension, I realized that “brah-zhule” was similar to what I knew as involtini. A check on the internet, and I find that braciole and involtini are the exact same food item and oddly has two names.

Traditionally, instead of spooning a lump of the stuffing mixture onto the meat, and wrapping it by rolling and tying, the stuffing is usually spread thinly along the surface of the meat, then rolled and tied. The only difference is that the involtini/braciole, when sliced, will present a pinwheel of meat and stuffing when prepared in the traditional manner.

Joan made meatballs and browned them, then put them in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Next, she browned and added to the pan both sweet Italian and hot Italian sausages, some boneless pork shoulder, and the involtini.

We covered the meats in an Italian red sauce of tomato, wine, onion, garlic, herbs, and spices, and set it in the oven to cook most of the way, just needing a little oven time on Christmas to reheat and finish.

On Christmas day, Joan set about cooking polenta in a crock pot, using a recipe by Michele Anna Jordan found in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20091215/LIFESTYLE/912149959/1309

Polenta is a cornmeal mush with butter and cheese, and is to Italian cooking what rice is to many other cultures. Put it on a plate, and top it with what you have available. Peasant food become fancy.

Okay, here’s the thing; I grew up eating a lot of involtini in Italian red sauce over polenta. I grew up in an Italian family, and the men hunted. Weekends would find twenty or more Italian men up at a 13,500 acre ranch, hunting by day and cooking by night. This is a dish I ate in endless variety growing up, the meat and stuffing changing, almost always cooked by men. Imagine the scene in the Godfather where Clemenza is teaching Michael the art of making spaghetti sauce for twenty, or the scene from Goodfellas where, in prison,  Paulie is slicing garlic with a razor blade paper thin for tomato sauce. That’s how it felt growing up. Men cooked, not all the time, but almost always better than the women.

Other treats cooked up for Christmas dinner included my take on a Rachael Ray recipe potato dish: I cut up 1 1/2 pound each of baby fingerling heirloom potatoes, baby ruby gold potatoes, baby dutch yellow potatoes, and baby South American purple potatoes. I cut each baby potato in half length wise, then cut them from one end to the other into 1/4″ slices. I put the six pounds of sliced potatoes into a roasting pan.

To 6 cups of heavy cream, I added a stick of butter, 4 cloved of crushed fresh garlic, and 4 sprigs each of sage, rosemary and thyme. I cooked over a medium flame, stirring constantly for about 20 minutes, deeply infusing the cream with flavor. I strained the cream, adding about two ounces of microplaned (super finely grated) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and poured the super flavored cream over the potatoes.

Next, I microplaned five more ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano into a large bowl, then spead the cheese on top of the potatoes. I cooked the potatoes at 400 degrees for about 50 minutes. Better than Rachael’s recipe, more flavorful, it came out just fine; think of an Italian rustic potato au gratin dish.

There was sweet potato wrapped marshmallow, on a pineapple ring, topped with a cherry, a spiral cut ham, a perfectly baked salmon with lemon, butter and herb, stuffed zucchini, baked oyster, green bean casserole, salad, french bread, and more. It was all great, but for me, it was all about the involtini.


For my first pass through the chow line, I ladled polenta onto my plate, on top of the polenta I put meats, the involtini, some meatballs, some pork shoulder, and some sausage, and on top of the meat I ladled Italian red sauce.

I also poured myself a glass of the 2008 Folie à Deux Ménage à Trois, a blend of Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. With raspberry notes from the Zin, cherry from the Merlot, and blackberry from the Cab, this wine was loaded with rich juicy red fruit notes, and was a great wine for dinner as each food could find a different element of the wine to pair with. Inexpensive, only about $12 a bottle, I was impressed throughout the meal with this wine’s versatility and deliciousness. Honestly, better with food than without.

I spent quite a while with my first plate at dinner, scooping a little polenta, a bit of meat, and some sauce into a perfect bite, sipping a little wine, the emergent whole so much better than the sum of its parts. Each bite a joyful experience, and a trigger to memories of times spent with my father, my brother, and a bunch of old Italian men many years ago.

My second plate was a tasting of the other dishes. While good, some great – I have to get the stuffed zucchini recipe – none, for me, matched the magic of involtini, sauce, and polenta.

I had a glass of bubbly, Korbel’s first sparkler, their Sec. Korbel Sec is made with French Colombard, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, and is a little sweeter than most bubblies, but not cloyingly so. It was nice to have bubbly on hand. One of Joan’s daughters (my son’s aunt) got married last week, and a grandaughter (my son’s cousin) will have a baby next month on or near my birthday. There were many reasons to be enjoying bobbly, but any day that ends in “y” is a good day to drink bubbly – no reason needed.

For Christmas, I received an electric pepper mill, an oregano dipping oil, a “green” water bottle, and a stack of old Cook’s Illustrated magazines, from the folks who produce America’s Test Kitchen on PBS. I am really looking forward to reading the food magazines, they look chock full of ideas for me to try out.

I was pleased to see my son’s face as he opened his presents. He listened to the rock songs featuring saxophone that I loaded onto his new iPod, is ecstatic about getting an XBox 360, and is old enough to be happy about getting new clothes.

It was great seeing family, it is nice that I am friends with my son’s mom, my ex-wife, and that her family still consider me their son-in-law, brother-in-law, or uncle. It was great getting to cook, and getting to help cook. It was fun learning that involtini is also known as braciole.

One of the best Christmas gifts I received were the memories of times spent with my father, triggered by food. My father passed away in 2008, but he was alive in my memory as I cooked and ate Christmas dinner.

I am not a cake person, but I love pie. I put my blackberry pie on my list of ten perfect foods a little over a week ago. With fresh blackberries not available on the vine where I live, there are plenty of pie filling alternatives. This week, many people are going to be making pies for Christmas dinner, apple pies, pumpkin pies, mincemeat pies.

As my Christmas present to you, I’m sharing the blackberry pie recipe I use. I use the pie crust recipe for all of my pies, strawberry, cherry, apple, pear.

Where I often talk about a wine to pair with food, I am going to recommend vanilla ice cream as a perfect pairing partner to any fresh and delicious holiday pie you make.

Use and enjoy the pie crust recipe this week for your Christmas pies, I know we’ll be having apple pie after Christmas dinner for dessert. Save and use the blackberry pie recipe for next year when blackberries come into season, you will love it.

Family, friends, and a holiday meal. If you make your pie crust from scratch, the flaky deliciousness will say, “I care.”

Double Pie Crust

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup shortening
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 egg

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a large bowl, combine flour and salt. Cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in water until mixture forms a ball. Divide dough in half, and shape into balls. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.
  2. Roll out dough on a floured counter. Don’t over work it. Use as directed in pie recipe.
  3. Brush both the bottom crust and top crust with a little beaten egg

Blackberry Pie

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 cups fresh blackberries
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/4 cup tapioca flour
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 TBS butter

DIRECTIONS

  1. Combine 3 1/2 cups berries with the sugar and flour. Spoon the mixture into an unbaked pie shell. Spread the remaining 1/2 cup berries on top of the sweetened berries, squeeze a little lemon juice and dot butter over berries, and cover with the top crust. Seal and crimp the edges. Brush the top crust with milk, and sprinkle with 1/4 cup sugar.
  2. Bake at 425 degree F (220 degrees C) for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature of the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C), and bake for an additional 20 to 25 minutes.

Happy holidays everyone. I’ll be back the day after Christmas and I’m sure I’ll be telling you about a tasty meal with wine and family.

One of the most useful tools I have experienced as a wine guy is a wine aroma and bouquet nosing exercise.

When talking about how a wine smells, wine folk break down the scents into two main parts – aroma and bouquet.

Aroma refers to the scents that come from the varietal grape used to make the wine and are often fruit or floral in nature; blackberry, raspberry, cherry, apple, pear, rose, and honeysuckle are all examples of aroma.

Bouquet refers to the scents that come from winemaking choices. Put grape juice in oak barrels instead of stainless steel tanks, put the wine through a second fermentation called malolactic – changing tart apple flavors to round buttery flavors – and the wine you produce may have notes of oak, toast, cream and vanilla, these are examples of bouquet.

Together aroma and bouquet are described as a wine’s nose, as in “that ’97 Cabernet is holding up just fine, it still has a great nose of deep rich blackberry and current, with a little rose and eucalyptus, served up in an oaken bowl.”

While at Windsor Vineyards, I worked with and for a good friend Mary Jean Dubé. Mary Jean used to put on a nosing exercise regularly. She would task several people with a few notes each, and on the day of the tasting she would collect raw ingredient samples from each of the people she had asked to help. Mary Jean would end up with about 40 different aroma and bouquet scent samples; lemon, fresh cut grass, vanilla, butterscotch, rose petal, pepper, and so on.

Mary Jean would pour about 4 ounces of base wine in a 16 ounce glass; the wines couldn’t have much varietal character of their own as that would interfere with the exercise. Gallo hearty Burgundy and Chablis served well, they were red and white, they were made from grapes, they had alcohol, they were wine; but they were almost aroma and bouquet free. They each smelled like wine, and that’s about it.

With 20 4 ounce pours of red wine and another 20 4 ounce pours of white wine in front of her, Mary Jean would start adding a bit of a sample scent to each glass; different red wine glasses would get some blackberry, cherry, oak, tobacco or pepper scenting ingredients while different white wine glasses might get a supplement of apple, apricot, butter, hay, or violet. Putting a petri dish on each 16 ounce glass to act as an aroma/bouquet lid, and the name of the scent in the glass on a 3″ x 5″ card placed answer down under the glass, the exercise would be ready for any and all to test their noses at nosing wine’s noses.

I took part in the exercise at least a half dozen times and loved it every time. It is always good to sharpen and test your senses, find out your weaknesses, and work to become a better wine noser/taster – at least it is if your are working in a professional capacity within the industry.

Le Nez du Vin and other aroma and bouquet nosing kits are commercially available to make nosing exercises easier to put on. A variety of aroma and bouquet essences are available in a collection of bottles within a kit; kind of like a chemistry set’s collection of chemicals.

Visiting some Oregon wineries a couple of months ago, Nancy Iannios reminded me of the existence of the UC Davis Wine Aroma Wheel by Ann Noble. I had a friend who likes wine, but isn’t “into” wine, that was going to visit wine country and wanted to spend a week together learning about wine. The wine aroma wheel is the best simple tool to help someone begin to find the magic that is wine tasting.

Essentially, the wheel helps you figure out what you are smelling, breaking down into 12 separate categories that are then further broken down into sub categories. An aroma might be defined as fruity as opposed to woody. Looking at the fruity section of the wheel, the scent might be further defined as berry as opposed to citrus or tropical fruit. Within the berry fruits, the scent might be further defined as strawberry as opposed to any of the other berry fruits. The strawberry smell was always there, you were smelling it, you either didn’t know you were smelling it or couldn’t precisely identify it. The aroma wheel helps you identify the different aroma and bouquet notes in the glass of wine you have in front of you.

ZAP, Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, have a Zinfandel specific aroma wheel.

Alder Yarrow has a downloadable aroma card here on his Vinography.com site available in either color or b&w.

Funniest note you’ll find often in Sauvignon Blanc (also known as Fume Blanc): Cat Pee. If you’ve drank Sauvignon Blanc and enjoyed it, you may be surprised the next time you taste and nose your favorite Fume. Often there, right next to a smell of hay or straw, will be the unmistakable scent of cat pee. Sometimes winemakers blend in up to 25% Semillon in an attempt to disguise the cat pee aroma. It isn’t really off putting. If you liked the wine before, you should still like it – just maybe with some wry amusement or chagrin each time you smell it.

Wine elites waxing poetic over scents of cat pee. The industry can do with a lot less of that and a lot more regular folks who happen to love wine, sharing their love and knowledge through their blogs.

One of my wine industry jobs was with the Wine Appreciation Guild, one of the industry’s largest publishers of wine books and a one stop distributor of both wine books and accessories. My job was to sell wine books and wine accessories to wineries for their tasting rooms, to wine shops, and to other specialty merchants in 42 California counties.

http://www.wineappreciation.com

There are many people here on the interwebs that know about wine, and I’ll carve my own niche by writing from the heart about wine as a means to an end, a beverage to be enjoyed with family and friends, as opposed to the end itself. I am not the guy to read if you are looking for a review of the nearly unattainable, released in three bottle maximum allotment to people on THE LIST only, cult Napa Cab or Russian River Valley Pinot. I love wine, know wine, can share my knowledge; but I am a regular guy.

In addition to telling you about a wine in context, who I shared it with, the food we ate with it, I can also tell you about a good wine book or wine gadget. Go with what you know, I wrote recently, and I will. Out of the thousands of wine writers inhabiting the web, I have unique knowledge. Hopefully, my writing will find an audience thirsty for what I am pouring.

Vacu-Vin. There is no wine preservation system more ubiquitous. Gwyneth Paltrow told Oprah that it is a “must-have” in her kitchen. Every frau and pretentious wine poser in the country has one. Sales of the devices number in the tens of millions.

For the one or two of you who are unfamiliar with Vacu-Vin, here’s what the manufacturers say

http://www.vacuvin.com/Vacuum_Wine_Saver_286_270_267.html

“The Wine Saver is a vacuum pump, which extracts the air from the opened bottle and re-seals it with a re-usable rubber stopper. Place the re-usable stopper in the bottle and extract the air from the bottle using the Wine Saver pump. A “click” sound tells you when you have reached the optimum vacuum level. The vacuum slows down the oxidation process which makes it possible to enjoy your wine again at a later date. The question “how often do I have to pump?” is a thing of the past. The unique and patented vacuum indicator will emit a “click” sound when the correct vacuum is reached.”


The Wine Appreciation Guild carried them, and everyone I worked with wanted them to sell in their stores.


I had a problem. The Vacu-Vin doesn’t work:

http://www.winelife.com/pdf/lab-report-26292-vacu-vin-test.pdf

“The “Vacu-Vin” device as submitted was evaluated to determine efficacy in reduction of oxidative spoilage in opened wines. Using the protocol described above, the “Vacu-Vin” device was found to have no measurable effect in reduction of oxidative spoilage.”

-Gordon Burns, ETS Laboratories, 1204 Church Street, St. Helena, CA 94574


http://www.winespectator.com/magazine/show/id/6257

Vacu-vin doesn’t work, It never has.

Sensorily, to me anyway, the Vacu-vin was a shuck. You could track the deterioration in each sample. Indeed, just recorking the wine worked equally as well – or as badly.

The [Wall Street] Journal asked Professor David Roe of the Portland State University chemistry department to test the gizmo…At best he achieved a vacuum of somewhat less than 70 percent…In just 90 minutes, he reported, the vacuum pressure diminished by 15 percent.

I asked Professor Roe to repeat his test with a newly purchased (newer, ‘improved’, model) Vacu-Vin. The results? “The pump is more efficient, but no more effective,” he reports. “The vacuum is the same, around 70 to 75 percent. And the leak rate is the same: After two hours you lose 25 percent of the vacuum. Overnight – 12 hours – the vacuum is totally gone.”

-Matt Kramer, “A Giant Sucking Sound…And That’s All”


http://www.consumerreports.org December 2006

What to do with leftover wine? Just put a cork in it

UNNECESSARY EQUIPMENT There’s no clear need for Vacu-Vin Vacuum Wine Saver and other wine-preservation systems, our tests suggest.

A lot of people turn to wine-preservation systems that seek to retard or stop oxidation, the chemical process that degrades wine. If you’re among those who swear by such systems, we have surprising news, based on our tests of four widely known brands: No system beat simply recorking the bottle and sticking it in the fridge.

Getting the air out…The Vacu-Vin Vacuum Wine Saver, $10, uses rubber stoppers (two are provided) with a pump that sucks out air.

We tested three varietals with the systems on three different occasions for three different periods of time. For comparison, we also stoppered one bottle with its own cork. After all the bottles spent time in our wine cellar, expert wine consultants compared their contents in blind taste tests with freshly opened bottles.

If our trained experts, with nearly 60 years in the business, couldn’t discern among wine storage systems, most consumers probably can’t, either. So just go ahead and cork it (you can turn the cork over if it’s easier to get in). But try not to wait more than a week or so to drink the wine, and sooner is better.


I would tell the buyers for the winery tasting rooms, the wine shops, and the kitchen stores that the Vacu-Vin doesn’t work – but it didn’t stop most of them, because you, the home customer, wanted to buy and use these things.

You don’t see good restaurants using Vacu-Vins to preserve their wines poured by the glass. You don’t see good wineries using Vacu-Vins in between the wine tastes they poor in their tasting rooms. NY Times wine guru Eric Asimov doesn’t pump air out of wine bottles, he doesn’t believe it does much of anything.

http://thepour.blogs.nytimes.com/2006/05/25/when-age-is-measured-in-days/

When I see a wine bar using a Vacu-Vin, I won’t drink any but the first glass from a bottle.

Here’s the deal: when you open a wine and let it breathe, you are letting tannins dissipate, alcohol flush burn off, and fruit come forward. You’ll find that the hot, harsh, and closed Cabernet at opening becomes a smooth delicious beverage with blackberry and currant notes with a little time. Oxygen is wine’s friend initially.

While I am prepping food for dinner, I usually open a bottle, or more than one bottle if cooking for friends, pour a little of each in a separate wine glass, so I can repeatedly swirl and sniff each. I am looking for the wine to open and become perfect. At that point, I recork the bottle so I can just open, pour, and seal all the way through the meal. I know the last glass will be as good as the first. Every glass perfect.

If I opened the wine, let it breathe, and then ignored it, the fruit would follow the tannins, and perfect would become sad. Oxygen, so important to a wine at opening, becomes wine’s enemy afterward. Leaving a wine open ruins wine over time.

Pumping the air out of a bottle of wine with a Vacu-Vin strips the wine of aroma and bouquet. Each time it is used it ruins the wine. To me, a couple of seconds is like hours of damage.

The Vacu-Vin doesn’t even create a complete vacuum. As tested, fully 25-30% of the air, and oxygen, remains inside the bottle – before the Vacu-Vin fails and all of the air, and oxygen, returns. To me, the worst think about the Vacu-Vin is that consumers are fooled into a false sense of preservation security and don’t seek another, effective, method to save the aroma, bouquet, and flavors of a bottle of wine in between glasses.

Matt Kramer and the Wall Street Journal engaged a University science department professor who measured the Vacu-Vin’s fail using drills and tubes and meters, all very high tech. Similar high tech methods were used by Gordon Burns of ETS Laboratories and the testers at Consumer Reports.

Look, I know that if you are into wine, you have one of these gadgets at home. Want to see it fail before your own eyes? Fill an empty wine bottle half way with mini marshmallows, use the Vacu-Vin as directed, sucking some of the air out of the bottle, creating a partial vacuum at best. As you pump, the marshmallows will swell until they fill the available space inside the bottle. You will see that, as the Vacu-Vin seal leaks and fresh air goes back into the bottle, the marshmallows shrink. You can watch the level of the marshmallows fall from bottle fill to half bottle as the Vacu-Vin fail is total.

While at the Wine Appreciation Guild, the owner Elliot Mackey, knowing my feelings about the Vacu-Vin, put me in a surprise direct face-to-face meeting with one of the company’s representatives. I felt a bit awkward, but presented him with much of the evidence I have laid out here for you. The representative assured me that he had heard these charges before and had a “wealth of anecdotal evidence” to counter it.

Just because a non critical taster, perhaps an actress appearing on Oprah, thinks that her Vacu-Vin is doing something beneficial, and allows that incorrect assumption to color expectations at tasting her old wine, self deluding herself that the wine is well preserved – just because there are tens of millions of people who got suckered, don’t know it, and think this junk works – well, so what? A wealth of anecdotal evidence does not counter evidence of Vacu-Vin’s complete lack of efficacy, nor does it counter Vacu-Vin’s fail in blind tastings performed by sommeliers and other wine professionals.

I am a believer in never presenting a problem without a possible solution. I’ve created a problem by telling the truth as I see it. There are tens of millions of people ruining their wine, thinking they are saving their wine’s quality. I know I won’t reach quite that number of readers, but for the few who do find their way to my blog, I’ll tell you how I keep wines delicious in between glasses.


I recork the bottles. Believing it matters, I use a decoratively topped, denser than normal, non-porous Corker instead of the old porous cork. If I am going to keep the wine for more than a couple of days, I pair a blast of Private Preserve (nitrogen/argon/inert gasses in a can) and the Corker and have experienced solid longer term storage.


http://thecorker.com

http://www.privatepreserve.com

__________

Oil and Vinegar preservation:

For the foodies out there who have made it this far through a wine entry, I use the Private Preserve/Corker combo on my specialty oils and vinegars for the kitchen and have eliminated the oil goes rancid and vinegar goes musty equivalent of wine goes yucky.


Oh, and if you have pour spouts in your oil and vinegar, or wine, you are just letting it breathe and go bad. So unless you are Gordon Ramsey and go through multiple bottles of oil/vinegar/wine in the kitchen each night, throw away the spouts, they are as ridiculously bad as a Vacu-Vin.

Just saying’.

DISCLOSURE: I have sold Corkers in art and craft shows, I do not now. I am very experienced with their efficacy. I worked for the Wine Appreciation Guild over seven years ago, I do not now. I have not worked with Gordon Ramsey, but am willing to accept a free meal from him.

Yesterday, I googled “wine and food blogs” to get a sense of what other writers were doing, and a couple of clicks later I found myself reading Alder Yarrow’s blog at Vinography.com

Yarrow is from, relatively, nearby in San Francisco and writes very regularly on wine. I like his writing style. Yarrow clearly knows wine, has access to all the cool wine writer descriptors but doesn’t come off stuffy. With writing that is accessible, and a confidence that allows for a little self deprecation, Yarrow’s wine blogging makes for an enjoyable and informative read.

One entry I found, posted Dec 10, was titled “So You Wanna Be a Wine Writer?“, and as I do want to be a wine writer, I clicked and read about The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley being held four days, February 16-19, 2010.

For four days and four nights, approximately sixty wine writers will “meet, teach, gather, eat, drink, learn, and celebrate their craft in the heart of the Napa Valley”.

The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

Yarrow describes chatting and learning from the best wine journalists and writers in the English speaking world, a real immersion takes place; we’ll sit together with, chat and learn from people I look up to. Past aspiring writers who attended the Symposium have gone on to “land a major story for the [San Francisco] Chronicle wine section; another got a string of stories in a major wine magazine; still another just launched his own wine magazine; and several more published their first books. Perhaps most impressively, one or two even started blogging”.

Now, the cost of attending is about $1,600, and is quite fair for the cost of the Symposium, hotel room, food (catered by Michelin starred chefs at Meadowood) and wine; but it is beyond my ability to pay. I am not a paid wine writer, a professional, but an aspiring wine writer. I write because I have to, something inside of me gets antsy if I don’t put finger to keyboard.

My goal is to write about wine. I would like to take my penchant for blogging and rudimentary skills as a writer, combined with my experience in wine marketing, my degree in marketing, and turn it all into a career in winery social media marketing. I could really use the professional boost that the symposium offers. The opportunity to write and be critiqued, guided, by established, successful wine writing professionals is incredibly valuable to me personally and professionally.

About halfway through Yarrow’s piece, he mentions scholarships, more formally described as fellowships. Last year 15 Napa wineries underwrote the costs of the Symposium for 15 fortunate wine writers, fellows. This year, 16 fortunate fellows will receive fellowships.

The wineries who covered the costs of attending the 2009 Symposium were Blackbird Vineyards (fellowship included an invitation to Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley), Chimney Rock Winery (fellowship included a tasting of Chimney Rock wines), Emilio’s Terrace, Franciscan Estate (fellowship included an invitation to tour with Director of Winemaking Janet Myers followed by lunch or dinner), Judd’s Hill (fellowship included an invitation to dinner with the winemaking family owners), Far Niente (fellowship included invitation to taste estate wines including current and select Cave Collection vintages), Peju (fellowship included invitation to tasting, lunch and tour of the winery with co-founder Herta Peju), PlumpJack (fellowship included an afternoon with winemaker Anthony Biali and General Manager John Conover, tasting at the winery), Raymond Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Winery, Rubicon Estate (fellowship included overnight stay on the property and private tour of the estate, followed by a tasting of Rubicon and other estate wines), Saintsbury, Shafer Vineyards, Silverado Vineyards, Terlato Family Winery (fellowship included a tasting of Terlato Family Vineyards wines), TOR Kenward Family Vineyards (fellowship included selecting of a special bottle from an extensive wine cellar and lunch with the Kenward family), and Tres Sabores (fellowship included a night or two of lodging at the winery’s Rutherford guesthouse and use of a Tres Sabores vehicle, and tour the areas farms and talks with organic growing movement leaders, and dinner with community members).

The fellowships came from tiny wineries like Emilio’s Terrace, with production of under 1,000 cases, to industry giants like Constellation (owns Franciscan and Mondavi above) and Terlato Wine Group (owns Chimney Rock and Terlato above).

Applications for one of the 16 fellowships for 2010 had to be postmarked yesterday, the same day I chanced upon information about the Symposium and fellowship opportunities.

I was to mail a simple entry application listing my name, address, phone, e-mail, website, media outlet/employer, and a bio of no more than 150 words. I was also required to provide five legible copies of each of two writing samples published within the last year. The maximum number of pages for the submission was to be eight. The two pieces I submitted were Wine…here’s what I want to share. and A tale of two Merlots and together they came to exactly eight pages.

So on the last day possible, I stumbled upon an incredible opportunity, and have submitted a (I think, I hope) winning entry. The packet was mailed yesterday. I took the large envelope up to the post office counter to have it be postmark dated in my presence. The postal employee said that first class, Ukiah to St. Helena, takes just one day.

Five judges, professional wine writers all, will score submissions, judges scores will be compiled and averaged, and fellowships will be awarded based on the highest average scores.

I will know, one way or the other, by January 8, 2010.

Wine. Just four little letters, wine; but thousands of books have been published on the subject, with hundreds more written every year, countless magazines, periodicals, and trade publications are printed monthly, and writers opine in columns appearing in the newspapers of nearly every city in the world each week.

Wine. What insightful and new bits of information and wisdom do I have to share, that hasn’t been imparted, shared, by numerous others before?

I will likely add nothing new, and yet my experiences, uniquely my own, may trigger memories of similar experiences you hold; and a particular bottle, and the place you tasted it, and the people you tasted it with, may come back to you as clearly as yesterday. Maybe it was yesterday.

I am wine geekier than most. Experienced, a professional’s palate, around wine all of my life, with developed preferences, I am a Frasier Crane without the pretentiousness, without the snobbiness.  Raised on Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, I love big rich red wines; ideally with a ton of structure supporting accessible forward fruit. If an old friend showed up with a box of chilled white Zinfandel, something I personally have never bought for myself, I would work up a menu to feature the crushed-strawberry-over-ice notes it might have, pour myself a glass, and enjoy time shared with a friend.

The blackberry currant of a Cabernet, or the brambly raspberry and black pepper spice of a Zinfandel, breathed in through my nose buried in a large glass; the wine swirled, aroma molecules breaking free, traveling up my nose, aromas, bouquet, analyzed, information passed on to the brain for comparison with similar previous smelled items. Judgement, memories triggered, new memories being formed.

I love smelling wines. I can happily swirl 4 ounces of wine in the bottom of a 16 or 20 ounce glass, and inhale the wine, breathe in the smells, experience the changes as a newly opened wine’s tannins and alcohol heat flush dissipate and the fruit comes forward. I love to let a wine breathe in my glass, “nosing” it over and over.

I often open a wine to be used at dinner, either in the food as a part of the recipe, or as an accompanying meal beverage – or more often as both. I love wine, I love food, and I love to pour myself a glass of wine to smell and inspire me as I prep a meal’s ingredients. I often spend an hour just breathing in a wine before tasting it.

I have a picture that hangs over my desk, and has hung on the wall of each of the wine industry related offices I worked in over the years; in the picture are an 11 year old me, and my then 7 year old brother, crushing grapes by foot. Any fan of Lucy Ricardo’s I Love Lucy trip to Italy can recognize instantly what my brother and I are doing. I love the picture, because it demonstrates how far back wine reaches into my life.

While I grew up with, and always loved, wine, one of the first wines that made me sit up and take notice was the 1976 Simi Cabernet Sauvignon. As I didn’t turn 21 until 1982, I found it too late and had to purchase the wine as a library release directly from the winery. I think I was spending $50 a bottle 25 years ago. I couldn’t afford much back then, but somehow I managed to always have a couple of bottles on hand for years until the winery ran out.

Fifteen years later, my dad asked me to watch his house when he went on vacation to Italy; and tucked away, I found a bottle of 1976 Charles Krug. I invited a wine loving friend up to the house for dinner, planning to showcase the Krug. Robert Mondavi is one of my wine industry heroes, he is a God, having changed California winemaking for all wineries, not just the winery he created in his own name. Mondavi left his family’s winery, the Charles Krug winery, to make his own wines his own way, and in doing so paved the way for everyone else, including Krug, to make better wines. I looked forward to tasting the ’76 Krug Cab, a winery from a historied family, from an area known for growing great Cabernet grapes, from an incredibly good vintage. Would it have held up? Would it be faded? Would it be vinegar?

Typically, I opened the wine while prepping dinner, and was not thrilled with the nose, it seemed muted, very closed, possibly dead. As time went on, the alcohol flush disappeared, but all that was left was a tannic edge without much fruit. The wine had gone, sadly faded. I sniffed and sipped at 30 minutes, an hour, two hours, three hours. Nothing.

My friend came for dinner, we ate and glanced wistfully at the bottle that never opened up. As I plated dessert, I tried the 76 Krug Cab one more time. Oh My God. a wine aged under dubious conditions for twenty five years, left open to breathe for over 4 hours, finally opened to show off the most amazing array of fruit and leather and herb and spice. Rich, deep and full, our dinner wine became the sweetest non-sweet dessert wine ever.

I remember during barrel tasting weekend in Sonoma County tasting a Zinfandel at Preston Vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley. I was stunned by the flavors, still in the barrel, with lots of growing up yet to do, I was tasting what I thought of as the best Zinfandel I had ever tasted. I was so excited to taste the Zinfandel that would be made from this barrel. When at last the finished wine was blended and bottled, I tasted the newly released Zinfandel and was shocked.

Traditionally, Zinfandel may be blended with some Carignane, just as Cabernet Sauvignon is often blended with some Merlot. There are certain blendings, classic, that are accepted as appropriate and often result in a wine superior to the unblended wines otherwise made. Lou Preston chose to blend the best barrels of Zinfandel I had ever tasted with Cabernet, producing a wine that tasted like no other Zinfandel I had ever tasted. I was horrified, crushed, mourning the loss of what I had imagined.

Ignoring the label, putting aside expectations of what a Zinfandel should taste like, and what this Zinfandel could have tasted like, but tasting this wine as simply a red wine, and asking myself if I liked it or not, I found that I did indeed like it. I liked it quite a bit. I often took visiting friends by the Dry Creek Store for sandwiches, then to Preston Vineyards to buy a bottle of this Zinfandel, and over a few games of Bocce on the grounds of Preston Vineyards I would recount the tale of this wine from barrel to bottle, as I experienced it.

Another powerfully memorable wine is the 1995 Kistler Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast, near where the Russian River empties into the Pacific Ocean. The Chardonnay seemed to hold every note in the nose and mouth that I had ever experienced in all other Chardonnays combined. It was all there: oak, toast, cream, vanilla, apple, pear, tropical and citrus, clove, caramel, butterscotch, and so much more. It was like tasting 1.5 Liters of flavor crammed into a 750 milliliter bottle. It was like magic, I have never experienced anything quite like it before or since.

I was in a restaurant in the foodie Buckhead section of Atlanta and saw the ’95 Kistler Chardonnay on the wine menu at $60 which is about the same as it cost on release in a store; remembering the magic, with great happiness, I ordered a bottle. The wine came to the table at perhaps a single degree above freezing, all of the amazing notes locked in by cold. This was a truly sad wine experience, to me it seemed criminal. I would much rather have enjoyed the wine at room temperature with the notes flying out of the glass than frozen and unable to escape.

From the 1973 vintage, Mike Grgich made Chateau Montelena a Chardonnay that won first place among the Chardonnays and white Burgundies at the famed 1976 Paris tasting using fruit that was purchased from the Bacigalupi vineyards in Sonoma County. I had a chance to taste wines made by California winemaker of the year Carol Shelton, using these same grapes, but from the superior 1995 vintage, for Windsor Vineyards. I had a stocked cellar of 360 bottles of wines at the time, I did not need more wine, but I found myself buying cases of this incredible Chardonnay.

Carol Shelton made wines that featured the flavors of the fruit, allowing the grapes and what they had experienced while on the vine to express itself in the bottle. One of the most consistent, approachable wines Shelton made year between the years of 1995 and 2000 was her Murphy Ranch Chardonnay for Windsor Vineyards. Legend, true or not I don’t know, is that Carol was able by contract to pick fruit from the Murphy Ranch in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County before the vineyard owners could harvest the remaining grapes for use in their own Murphy Goode Chardonnay. All I know is that the Carol’s Murphy Ranch Chardonnay made up the largest portion of my collected Chardonnays during this time. I bought bottles from Murphy Goode each vintage as well to do a sort of horizontal tasting, same wine, same grapes, different winemaker.

I could write about the differences of the Chardonnays; the Kistler, the Montelena, the Windsor Bacigalupi Vineyard, the Windsor Murphy Ranch, The Murphy Goode; or about the different areas the grapes come from: Napa or the Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley and Coast appellations of Sonoma County; or about the different vintages the grapes were grown: the late frosts and early rains or the perfect long and warm growing seasons. It is all of this and more that makes wine endlessly fascinating to the wine geek in me; but suffice it to say that wine is alive, it changes, even twin bottles, cellared well, can taste different months apart.

I could write endlessly about wines, and the wineries and vineyards of my family home in Sonoma County, California. I could tell you about learning that wines change by vintage as my first wife and I had a favored wine become a least favored wine when the last bottle of one vintage was consumed and the first bottle of the new vintage was tasted. I could share that Sonoma County with half the wineries of Napa County wins twice as many Gold Medals in National and International wine competitions – and the wines cost less.

I could write about the lesser known wines of the county I now live in, Mendocino. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown in the Anderson Valley; the similarities and differences of these grapes when compared with the grapes from the better known Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, the sparkling wine of Roederer Estate in the Anderson Valley compared to the California Champagne of the Russian River Valley’s Korbel. The lusciousness of Handley’s Anderson Valley Pinot, or the commitment to organic and sustainable farming practices of Mendocino County wineries – even wine giant Fetzer, located just off the 101 in Hopland. One of the most exciting one man wineries I know of is in Ukiah, where John Chiarito’s head pruned vines produce artisanal Italian varietals, Negroamaro and Nero D’Avloa, as well as gorgeously dense Petite Sirah and Zinfandel.

Mostly, when I write about wine, I want to share with you a memory; the taste of the wine, where I was, what I was doing, and who I was doing it with.

There are books dedicated to recommended pairings; red wine with meat, white wine with fish. I have found that any wine is best paired with friends.

What is a perfect food? Something so good that it makes you sit up, your taste buds surprised, delighted. Something that is perfect in and of itself, something that when on a plate or in a bowl really doesn’t require embellishment. Something delicious. Something that when it has been absent from your diet, you long for. Something you would travel an hour or more to eat. Here are 10 perfect foods. Enjoy.

Pork

Someone asked me this year to name the one single food I would choose if going onto a deserted island – the island being magically supplied with a never ending supply of fresh whatever you choose, and equipped with the means to cook it.

Without thinking, I chose pork.

Chops, roasts, ham, sausage, bacon, cracklins, hocks, feet, so many delicious cuts and ways to prepare them.

Oh my, did I forget whole, whether cooked in the ground or turned on a spit. I’ve had pig both ways, and they may be some of the most delicious meat treats on earth.

Growing up, I hunted. Wild pig, or boar, tastes different than the domesticated animal we mostly eat. Variety.

I would still happily choose pork as my deserted island food. Pork is my # 1 perfect food.

Chili Relleno

A Poblano chili, fried, stuffed with cheese, battered and fried again, topped with a ranchero sauce.

Ingredients matter. Pick good chilis, good cheeses, and don’t forget the sauce. Salsa or a simple tomato sauce will not do. A good ranchero sauce will permanently stain clothing, it looks like a tomato sauce, but pepper, chilis, herbs and spices lurk beneath the surface, and the flavor is at one complex and delicious, bringing heat but not too much.

I have had Chili Relleno just a handful of times that makes you sit up and take notice. Often, they are limp, soggy, indifferently sauced; but in the hands of some cooks, this can be one of the best foods.

I like a chili relleno that has enough firmness, just a bit of crispness, that the shell can be pierced with a knife and ranchero sauce can be poured into as well as on top of the chili relleno.

Manna. Amazing. Each part, just okay, but together, the sum is so much, exponentially, better than the parts. The search for the perfect chili relleno can become an entertaining life quest. If you don’t have long to live, I’ll give you a hint: the best Chili Relleno I have ever tasted was in the least likely of mexican restaurants in Millbrae, CA.

Good hunting.

Blackberry pie with vanilla ice cream

I wrote in an earlier entry about my first attempts at a fruit pie, they came this year. I made three perfect blackberry pies from fruit freshly picked, and served it with a premium vanilla ice cream. Three entire pies were devoured in under 24 hours.

My pie when cut maintained it’s shape. The fruit filling was perfect, neither too wet nor too dry; my pie crust was flaky, yet sturdy. Each slice of pie looked delicious.

Two things are critical when making a great fruit pie; use fresh fruit and make your own crust.

Cioppino

This was my favorite dish growing up. Thanksgivings in northern Californian Italian American households often featured a great crab cioppino instead of a turkey; or if both were served, the turkey would remain largely untouched for Friday sandwiches while pot after pot of cioppino were consumed.

Cioppino is said to have been created at Alioto’s restaurant on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. It may have started there, but they do not make the best cioppino.

Needless to say, my mother made the best cioppino I have ever tasted. An Italian American fisherman’s stew, similar to a bouillabaisse, it features a HOMEMADE tomato sauce, white fish, clams, shrimp, and crab, lots and lots of dungeness crab. Cioppino without dungeness crab is not cioppino, just a fisherman’s stew.

On my mom’s passing I recreated my mom’s recipe (a family secret), but I ran into Guy Fieri who shared a recipe with a huge licorice twist, using lots of anise.

This is a dish that can have as many different recipes as cooks, and all are good, many great.

The best restaurant cioppino I have ever had was at Fontana’s in Cupertino on Steven’s Creek Blvd. Perfect meal at Fontana’s: ceasar salad (I know it is not Italian), gnocchi al pesto, and cioppino; served with a bottle of Ruffino Chianti Riserva Ducale, Gold Label. Hint, unbutton your top pant button when sitting down, that’s a lot of food.

Gnocchi al pesto

The best Gnocchi I’ve ever tasted were made by the wife of one of my dad’s business associates. My dad ran the mechanic’s shop for a garbage company in Santa Rosa. One of the partners, when vacationing in Italy, met and married an incredibly young Italian girl. Old enough to eventually bear him a son and daughter, when she came to the United States she could not speak any English.

Margarite could cook though. Taught by her mother, aunts, and grandmothers, Margarite cooked 9 course lunches for the garbage company partners and their male sons. After lunch, the men would retire to the bocce court to smoke cigars and drink grappa, while Margarite cleaned the table and did the dishes.

One of the dishes Margarite made was gnocchi al pesto. Gnocchi are little potato dumplings, light fluffy, delicious, hand formed. Pesto should be a blend of basil, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pine nuts and olive oil, however some people get cheap and try to substitute a Wisconsin parmesan cheese or walnuts. Combine freshly made and boiled potato dumplings in a coating of pesto and oh my God. I still remember the first time I tasted Margarite’s gnocchi as being revelatory. Food can shock and delight and surprise.

The best restaurant gnocchi I have tasted is at Firenza by Night in San Francisco’s North Beach.

Lox and bagel

I was a little hungover after spending a night out with friends at the Whisky on Sunset in West Hollywood last week. I got in my car and went in search of breakfast and found the Bright Spot in Echo Park. Close to ordering sausage and eggs, I saw the lox and bagel plate and surprised myself by ordering it instead of the pork plate breakfast.

I am so glad I went with the lox and bagel. The lox was fresh and generously portioned, affixed to the lightly toasted bagel with a schemer of cream cheese. Wonderfully briny caper berries were scattered on top of the lox. Sliced cucumber, sliced tomato, and sliced red onions, along with a small pile of alfalfa sprouts came on the side and I used some of each for each bite.

The capers providing a sea saltiness and the sprouts offering a peppery note, the cucumber and tomato, both fresh, married with the smoked fish, cheese and bread in each glorious bite.

This meal only works when the ingredients are fresh, otherwise it is just food, but what I tasted last week at the Bright Spot in L.A.’s Echo Park inspired me to return the following morning for a repeat, and to attempt to make it at home yesterday.

Veggie sandwich

There is no wrong here, but the more piled, varied, and creative, the better.

I love lettuce, spinach leaves, sprouts, tomato, cucumber, carrot, asparagus, beet, radish, pickle, onion, and olive on a Straun bread, or stuffed into a pita shell, with cheese, most often cream cheese, and maybe a little mayo. A sprinkle of salt and pepper. You can taste the healthy. Each flavor distinct. Fresh. Wonderful.

Kobe beef

I did a $200 dinner for one in Philadelphia at Morimoto, Iron Chef (both Japanese and American versions) Masaharu Morimoto has always impressed me with his cooking, and my travels allowed me to dine at his original restaurant. I went with the multi course chef’s tasting menu. I could describe the o-toro fatty tuna and caviar with bonito flakes and ponzu with fresh wasabi, the way the tuna, unthawed, just melted on your tongue into goneness. the pop of the salti caviar. I could teasingly describe the scallop carpaccio (I love scallops), thinly sliced scallops seared in hot oil, with yuzu and micro greens; or the broiled lobster and asparagus, the lobster dripping oils and all kinds of delicious. No I will not tease you with the supporting cast,

The star of the night was the Kobe beef. I have never in my life tasted beef so…beefy. It was like the essence of beef permeated every deliciously orgasmic taste of beef. Served with a foie gras sauce because it wasn’t already too effin great already.

Caprese salad

There are a few moments when you realize that the way you learned to do something is not the best way. My father’s zucchini was bitter, he allowed the garlic to burn, and I was never really a fan. Zucchini, almost anywhere else was better.

We’ve had tomato, and mozzarella, and basil, and olive oil,  and salt and pepper in our kitchen growing up. How did we not combine them into this simple, ubiquitous, and delicious Italian summer salad.

It was not until I was working for Windsor Vineyards, returning with Susan Johnson from a San Francisco trade show for the winery, having not eaten all day, that I tasted my first Insalata Caprese at Pomodoro in the Strawberry Town & Country Village in Mill Valley. I wanted to kick my own butt for not having made this before.

Simple and delicious. The only variables are the freshness of your ingredients. The fresher the better.

Cheesecake

I used to watch the Frugal Gourmet’s every new episode on PBS. Jeff Smith cooked with love. Food was the center of family and friend get togethers. Cooking was magical.

Imagine how unhappy I was when the man I watched each week, the man who wrote the cookbooks I bought, turned out to be a very flawed human being, a pedophile. Still, he has passed on, so let’s let go of the sin, and hold on to the sinfully delicious cheesecake.

Jeff’s New York style cheesecake recipe is the best I’ve ever found. Better even than Alton Brown’s cheesecake recipe.

The trick to stellar cheesecake is quality ingredients. I go to Traverso’s market in Santa Rosa for high quality Italian cream cheese when I make a cheesecake, I would never use Philly cream cheese in a cheesecake.

Do not use a store bought pre-made pie crust either. Make your own graham cracker crust too. It’s easy.

Making a cheesecake is a bit of a production, so I usually make between three and five. They don’t last long.

Once I made four cheesecakes and forgot just one ingredient: vanilla. I can not stress enough the importance of not making my mistake. It was an expensive and disappointing mistake. Quality vanilla is essential for a good cheesecake.

A good cheesecake should be tall, not flat, it should taste amazing and have a great texture. Each bite should reward the taster, and there is no such thing as too many bites.

Cheesecake, made correctly, does not need a topping of any kind. Cheesecake, made correctly, would be better than any possible topping. Cheesecake should be served unadorned. Fruit can be served on the side, as an accompaniment.

The best restaurant cheesecake I have tasted came from Katz’s Deli and Bar in Austin, TX. At least a pound, as big as your head, as delicious as any you will find.

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