I grew up with Zinfandel. When I was a kid, my dad Charlie and his friends would hunt almost every weekend; duck hunting, pig hunting, deer hunting. Our freezer was always full of meat. I grew up thinking that everyone was Italian, and that everyone hunted. My folks never took me to see Bambi.

My dad was part of a group of about 20 guys who went in together to lease large pieces of property to hunt. Their hunting clubs were scattered all over Mendocino and Sonoma Counties. For a long time, we hunted the 12,500 acre Rockpile Ranch straddling both Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, being the largest piece of property in either county. I remember my dad taking me for weekends to the club. I would ride in a jeep or truck during the day as the men looked for a large pig, or buck. Lunches would invariably be Salumi and Cheddar on hard French bread rolls. Any game taken would be field dressed, then cleaned and hung back in camp at the end of the day. After cleaning up after the day’s hunt, the men would cook a big dinner. Polenta, meats, Italian sauces, pasta, vegetables, salad, Zinfandel.

Growing up, all the Italian men I knew drank Zinfandel. It came in jugs, it wasn’t complex, it was good and it was cheap. It went into the food, and into coffee cups and high ball glasses, styrofoam cups and complimentary collector jelly glasses from the gas station – free with an 8 gallon purchase.

I crushed Zinfandel grapes when I was my son Charlie’s age, just 12 years old, and the juice was made into wine that I was allowed to taste with food.

Zinfandel has been my first wine love, my longest loved wine, my favorite wine for most of my life.

Big, bold, very red, often high in alcohol, with flavors of brambly raspberry and black pepper spice; Zinfandel is as big as Cabernet Sauvignon in body, structure, and flavor profile but more affordable. Although DNA tests have shown Zinfandel is really the grape varietal Crljenak Kaštelanski from Croatia, and also Identical to Italy’s Primitivo grape, it has been thought of as California’s grape by generations of California’s wine drinkers.

Years ago, I attended the ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and producers) tasting, a tasting of Zinfandels put on at Fort Mason in San Francisco in January. Hundreds of Zinfandels to taste. Thousands of people tasting. A perfect day spent tasting some iconic Zinfandels, like Carol Shelton’s Rockpile Zin, and discovering new stars.

ZAP is marking the 19th Zinfandel festival this year with the theme Zin in Paradise, and it isn’t just the incredible Saturday Grand Zinfandel Tasting, but three days of events. Tickets are still available for most of the events.

http://www.zinfandel.org/

The festival kicks off Thursday evening with the Good Eats & Zinfandel Pairing at Fort Mason’s Herbst Pavillion. Celebrity chef Beverly Gannon will be serving up Hawaiian Regional Cuisine with Zinfandels, along with 49 other chefs and wineries. As I read the list of wineries, restaurants, and dishes being served, my mouth goes into watering overdrive mode, and I am actually excited about attending this event. The list is too long to print here, but go to the event page and look at the amazing bounty of food, and the participating wineries, and get yourself to this event! If you are looking for me, I’ll be the very happy, short, round, bearded man in line in front of you for more yummy food and wine.

On Friday, I am going to sit down with a group of about 150 people at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco for Flights, a showcase of Zinfandel.

The panelists will discuss blending, Zinfandel’s uniqueness, preferred blending varietals, and each panelist will bring a proprietary blended Zinfandel to pour and discuss.

The wineries, panelists and Zinfandels include:

  • Ridge Vineyards, winemaker Eric Baugher, 2007 Zinfandel Paso Robles and the 2007 Geyserville
  • Three Wine Company, winemaker and proprietor Matt Cline, 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel, California and 2007 Old Vines, California (Field Blend)
  • JC Cellars, founder and winemaker Jeff Cohn, 2007 Imposter Blend and 2007 Sweetwater Zinfandel
  • Robert Biale Vineyards, winemaker Steve Hall, 2007 Aldo’s Vineyard Zinfandel and 2007 Stagecoach Zinfandel
  • Bedrock Wine Company, winemaker and proprietor Morgan Twain Peterson, 2007 Heirloom Wine, Sonoma Valley and 2007 Ravenswood, Bedrock Vineyard Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley

Friday Evening, also at the Mark Hopkins, is an Evening with the Winemakers, Benefit Live Auction and Dinner, where Chef Beverly Gannon will prepare:

  • Asian Duck Tostada
  • Blackened Ahi with Sweet Thai Chili Sauce, Wasabi Micro Greens, Tobiko, Mashed Potato in Filo Cup
  • Smoked Salmon Pinwhhels with Chipotle-Chili Fresh Fruit Salsa
  • Kalua Pork and Goat Cheese Won Tons with Mango Chili Sauce
  • Terrine of Foie Gras, BBQ Eel, Potato Pineapple Compote, Vanilla Syrup and Spicy Micro Greens
  • Lamb Shank Canneloni with a Poached Fig Demi-Glaze Double Cut Lamb Chop, Lavendar Honey Glazed Baby Carrots
  • Chocolate Macadamia Nut Tart

I had the opportunity to take part in a high end food and wine dinner like this when I helped winemaker Carol Shelton, who had the Best in Class Zinfandel at the California State Fair – a Zinfandel with four gold medals – pour her Zinfandel and other favorite wines at the best Meet the Winemaker dinner I have ever attended. The dinner was at Susan and Drew Goss’ Zinfandel restaurant in Chicago’s River North area, near the Fonterra Grill and Spago. Without exception, the sold out (it sold out in under 3 hours, a record for the restaurant) 110 seat restaurant’s diners enjoyed one of the best dining experiences of their lives. Many hundreds of bottles were opened and consumed (I helped Carol taste them all earlier that day and found all 5 TCA tainted corked bottles – unlucky me) and Susan Goss prepared a multi course menu around Carol’s wines that amazed, delighted and thrilled everyone who attended the dinner.

This is going to be one of those kind of once in a lifetime dining experiences and Beverly’s menu looks even more fantastic than Susan’s menu. In addition to the incredible sit down mind blowing meal with Zinfandels poured to pair with each course, there will be 25 or so one of a kind Zinfandel themed live auction lots to bid on during the evening.

ZAP’s Zinfandel Festival culminates Saturday with the epically huge Grand Zinfandel Tasting in both the Herbst and Festival pavilions at Fort Mason in San Francisco from 2 p.m. – 5 p.m., ZAP members get an hour start on the general public and can taste from 1 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Over the years, ZAP’s Zinfandel festival has grown, more than doubling in size. The number of Zinfandels poured couldn’t be tasted by any one person, be they veteran wine reviewer or liver compromised bum.

Plastic lined garbage cans are provided throughout the festival and serve as giant wine spittoons. I hate spitting out perfectly good wine, but it is the only way to go as an attempt is made to taste as many Zinfandels as possible before my palate is completely blown out by the plethora of high alcohol hugely bodied monster Zinfandels.

I am thrilled to be attending this years Grand Zinfandel Tasting, and getting an early 10 a.m. start as part of the media tasting. I will have my red wine notebook and pen with me.

It almost goes without saying, but eat before, during and after the event, be safe, and consider public transportation.

DISCLOSURE: ZAP is covering my attendance to events with a press pass. I love this event and would have gushed about the event if I was paying out of pocket to attend. I will be writing a couple of articles after the event. One will focus on the events generally, the other will include tasting notes for Zinfandels tasted over the weekend. Full disclosure requires that I think Julie Ann Kodmur is an angel.

NOTE: Scroll to the bottom of this post for an update. Thanks.

My niece Jennifer is pregnant. In November she wrote on facebook, “I would really love to enjoy a glass of Asti Spumanti champagne.”

Within minutes, a friend posted, “LOL! NEVER!”.

Huh? I had to chime in, and wrote, “In a world where caffeine, chocolate, raw oysters, unpasteurized cheese, tropical fruits, drugs that alleviate cold symptoms, nail polish, suntan lotion and hair dye, all of which in some amount may harm the fetus; wine in small amounts, sipped slowly with food, has been shown to increase fetal motility and result in more intelligent infants. I’m kind of the wine guy in the family, and would point you to the 1994 Wine Spectator article by Thomas Matthews, The Myths of Motherhood, or the study of 33,000 California woman showing that the 47% who drank moderately during pregnancy had zero incidence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS); and the 1993 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology by Little and Weinberg showing a higher successful birthrate among moderate consumers of alcohol than rates among abstainers. Find a doctor who reads, and enjoy the glass of Asti on Thanksgiving. The stress reduction and joy in the mother is healthy for the fetus. Just saying’.”

I do tend to go on.

Another friend of Jennifer, also pregnant wrote, “I don’t know you John, but as a fellow pregnant gal who can’t have anything she loves either, I L-O-V-E your post.”

Jennifer finished up the thread with, “Bwahaha, thanks uncle John,,,I’ve enjoyed a small glass of wine here and there…I’ve also enjoyed sushi, massages, pedicures, caffeine AND…of course…chocolate! Baby’s fine…he comes from good healthy stock”

In December, Jennifer posted, “I’m really craving a glass of good champagne…maybe spumanti” on her facebook wall.

I replied, “You know what Uncle John says…a glass is a healthy choice for you and the baby,”

Another friend wrote, “sorry, hopefully you can have one soon. When are you having that baby?”, written as though having a glass of wine, or bubbly, before the baby is born is unthinkable.

When Lisa, the mother of my only child Charlie, was pregnant, we attended a wonderful wine tasting in San Francisco. It was my birthday, and I did more than taste the many Zinfandels being poured at the event, I had a bit to drink that day. My wife, noticeably pregnant at 7 months, tasted; but after nosing and swirling the wine in her mouth, she spit it into large receptacles provided for that purpose. Although she drank no wine at all, she was subjected to many dirty looks, and one old woman actually hissed at her. There is an anti-alcohol sentiment ingrained in people who should know better.

A pregnant woman wants a small glass of wine to sip with a meal, and the instinctive response of her friends is shock and admonishment. The response is based on all of the information generally available. The next time you pick up a bottle of wine, look and you will find a warning mandated by the United States government, “According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects.”

While there is overwhelming evidence of health benefits associated with moderate consumption of wine in the general population, and specific health benefits to a pregnant woman and her fetus, the same United States government requiring that wineries put warning on their labels forbids including any information about healthful benefits associated with wine consumption; “a specific [health] claim on a label or in an advertisement, ” no matter how well documented, “is considered misleading.” and requires further detailed warnings of the risks of alcohol if included – said warnings being unable to fit on a wine label. Effectively, the government is engaged in censorship and prohibiting free speech. Worse, it requires warning, and disallows wineries from countering the warning with truthful statements.

With wineries muzzled, unable to present any information regarding health and wine, or pregnancy and wine consumption, gross distortions and outright lies are posted in pregnancy forums and spread by ignorant, but well meaning, friends. A quick google search of “wine and pregnancy” will lead to link after link of falsehood spread as truth – and the wine industry is prohibited from countering these lies with the truth.

For a short time, 20 or more wineries were going to include, “To learn the health effects of wine consumption, send for the Federal Government Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” on their wine labels. The Dietary Guidelines, while almost wholly damning of alcohol consumption, bending to overwhelming scientific evidence included two new lines, “Alcoholic beverages have been used to enhance the enjoyment of meals by many societies throughout human history,” and, “Current evidence suggests that moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease in some individuals.”

Neo-prohibitionist and tramplers of the US constitution’s First Amendment, guaranteeing free speech, threw a fit. Rather than allow a winery to point at a government pamphlet in advertising or on a label, without mention of any health benefit; these forces for ignorance pushed through a new requirement: any winery mentioning the dietary guideline pamphlet must include a new warning on their label and promotional material, “this statement should not encourage you to drink or to increase your alcohol consumption for health reasons.”

Some of the information the government is preventing wineries from telling you about includes:

Men with high blood pressure who drink one or two drinks a day were 44 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption is associated lower risks of coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, and total mortality in elderly men and women…These findings suggest that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a reduced risk of dementia in individuals aged 55 or older, according to a six year study by Dr. Ruitenberg in the Netherlands, published in The Lancet

Moderate drinkers had 50% fewer deaths from coronary disease than abstainers, according to the 60 year Framingham Heart Study

Preliminary evidence in a Harvard study suggest that longevity may be increased in red wine drinkers, while European studies point to a possibility that Alzheimer’s and other cognitive degeneration may be postponed for moderate drinkers.

Light drinking pregnant women, not abstainers, have the best chance of delivering a baby of optimal weight, according to Dr. Robert Sokol of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse in Detroit.

Mentioned above, there is the study of 33,300 California women, 47% of whom drank moderately during their pregnancies. Not one had a baby with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

There were fewer stillbirths and fewer losses of fetus due to early labor among women who consumed a moderate level of alcohol, according to a study by Little and Weinberg, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology

Children of moderate drinkers tend to score the highest on developmental tests at the age of 18 months, according to the book Alcohol and the Fetus, by Dr. Rosset and Dr. Wiener.

There is research that shows moderate drinking during pregnancy may actually help the development of the child after birth, according to a study by Dr. Whitten and Dr. Lipp of the University of California at San Francisco

But what about the government warning on the label warning about birth defects for pregnant women who choose to drink moderately? The government can’t lie, can they?

The campaign against drinking during pregnancy started in 1973 when several studies showed that heavy drinking during pregnancy can cause a condition known as ‘Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.’ These studies demonstrated that the children of many alcoholic mothers were born with a cluster of severe birth defects.“What the government conveniently chose to ignore” say Dr. Whitten and Dr. Lipp, is that “this syndrome is extremely rare, occurring only 3 times in 100,000 births, and only when the mother drinks abusively throughout her pregnancy”.

In the absence of valid, and useful information to the contrary, many people make grossly incorrect assumptions about wine and health, and wine and pregnancy. Our government forces wineries to print one sided, misleading, and possibly false information on their labels, and prohibits the dissemination of the many health benefits associated with moderate, responsible consumption of wine. This ridiculous censorship, combined with the efforts of anti-alcohol forces*, leads otherwise intelligent people to make a pregnant woman feel bad if she has a sip of wine.

If you don’t drink at all, don’t feel that you need to start if you become pregnant. If you abuse alcohol, stop; your life is at risk, as well as your baby’s if you become pregnant. If, however, you enjoy the responsible, moderate, consumption of wine with dinner, and you become pregnant, don’t feel compelled to abstain for the health of your unborn child.

Moderate consumption of wine during pregnancy is shown to lead to safer births and healthier, smarter children than those born to either abstainers or abusers of alcohol.

Sometimes, being between jobs is nice. Because I do not work for a winery or wine distributer, I am able to tell you the truth that those in the industry are prohibited from telling you. Just sayin’.

If you are reading this, and are pregnant, I toast you. The good news is that you can raise a glass in response. Cheers!


*see the ‘talking points’ memo created by these neo-prohibitionists to beat back mention of a possible health benefit in the official US Dietary Guidelines pamphlet at http://www.cspinet.org/booze/talkpoint2.htm .

sources:

http://www.beekmanwine.com/prevtopak.htm

http://www.framingham.com/heart/backgrnd.htm

http://www.winepros.org/wine101/wine-health.htm

http://www.rayjohnsononwine.com/health_benefits_wine.htm

http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/healthissues/1084904085.htmlhttp://www.peele.net/lib/bottle.htmlhttp://www.thefreelibrary.com/Drink+up+anyway.+(Wine+Label+Censorship).-a0101174742

For those interested in the topic of alcohol and health, I recommend Gene Ford’s book , “The Science of Healthy Drinking”.

UPDATE:

I have caused a bit of an uproar with a wine column that ran Thursday, May 2, 2013. This column was recycled and used.

My wine and pregnancy piece was actually written 4 years ago and was an extension of an online conversation with my niece who was pregnant. Much of the basis for the article was a long article regarding the science of moderate consumption during pregnancy that appeared in Wine Spectator before my son was born.

My son’s mom had the very occasional half glass of wine with a meal, and my son was the tallest boy in his grade throughout elementary school each year, played as a center on CYO, city, and school basketball teams, and regularly crushed any standardized test he took.

I am pretty sure my mom had more than a single drink of alcohol, and probably smoked, when she was pregnant with me, as did the mothers of many of the people I know who are my age. The people I know, of my generation, seem to be doing well.

I posted this piece here in 2010 and it generated positive feedback. I was contacted by some pregnancy forums, and thanked for the post.

I was completely ignorant of the information accumulation regarding drinking while pregnant, or the move beyond Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to include lower birth weights and other symptoms to identify a larger collection of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders, existing now.

In addition to a counterpoint column from our county’s public health officer and other letters in the paper following my column, I have heard from members of the medical community who shared that we live in a county with serious drug addiction problems and, for these people, alcohol is a drug, and it is better to be absolutist and say that no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy than give folks, who the piece wasn’t written for, a sense that they are not likely harming their child with their abuse.

I also was contacted by some mothers with adopted children that do suffer from FASD and/or FAS. The stories they shared were personal, tragic, and compelling. They, too, would urge that no alcohol be consumed during pregnancy, and each said that spending a week, or even a day, with their children would drive the point home more strongly than any words.
Obviously, I would never have allowed the piece to be recycled for my newspaper wine column if the response years ago to the same piece online wasn’t overwhelmingly positive.

I apologize for the outrage I caused with my recycled piece, but hope the conversations started through the controversy lead to more informed choices. I, for one, probably learned the most.

John

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.

Wow. I am fully whelmed. Not merely whelmed, certainly not underwhelmed, fortunately not overwhelmed; I am completely, perfectly, and fully whelmed from my high school 30 year reunion weekend activities and interactions.

I had the best 30 year high school reunion experience imaginable – and I have a pretty good imagination. If I found the event boringly underwhelming, I was prepared to write lies about former classmates hooking up in men’s room stalls to add spice to my recounting of events, but the interactions I had were wonderful in their own right and will suffice in their retelling. I will say that there was one rumor so salacious that I was nearly overwhelmed by simply considering whether it could be true or not, but out of love and respect for the subject of the rumor, I won’t repeat it here…but it rocks, true or not, trumping any departure from reality and truth I had considered.

On Thursday, I met my best high school friend Christina Lang in the baggage area of the San Francisco airport. We hugged, went outside so she could replenish her nicotine load, then went back in to collect her bags. Can I just say that women pack way too much shit, or the things you pack weigh way too much?

Years ago, when I smoked, I loved Noc Noc, a bar in the lower Haight of San Francisco, because you could smoke inside. I have never done heroin, but I also thought Noc Noc would be a great place to do it. Drippy organic shapes, odd textures, and couches that are really mats on the floor and wall are just a few of the stand out features that differentiate Noc Noc from it’s neighboring bars.

Christina flew in at a time that put us at odds with north bound rush hour traffic, so instead of joining the stream, I took Christina to Noc Noc. Sadly, for her, smoking is no longer tolerated. Happily, for us, they had happy hour beer prices. Ra’Mat, Noc Noc’s owner and bartender was friendly and fits his establishment well. I am glad it remains in the area.

Fortified, we drove to Santa Rosa, making great use of the carpool lanes, and I tried to introduce Christina to Guy Fieri’s cooking, or style anyway, at his Tex Wasabi restaurant; but the restaurant is closed for restoration. Instead we went to Chevy’s and ate appetizers in the bar, washed down with shots and beer.

Christina and I reminisced, remembering back 30 years, to when the restaurant we were in was called Sourdough Rebo’s. 30 years ago, Christina and I, as high school seniors, cut school and were lunching at Rebo’s, complete with alcohol beverages, when the waitress brought Christina another drink. When we were puzzled, not having ordered the drink, our waitress explained that the drink had been bought and sent by another table. When we turned to see who sent the drink, I saw my mother raising her own drink to Christina. I was not surprised to find, later that afternoon, my mom was not happy to see her 18 year old son cutting school and drinking a margarita.

After dinner, we checked in to our one night only hotel, the America’s Best Inn (formerly the Ramada) on Hopper Avenue.

Christina and I have been friends for a very long time, and have shared numerous rooms, platonically, in several states. I am not a big fan, no, wait, I loathe sleeping clothing. When with Christina in the past, I slept in a swim suit or shorts. For this trip, a once in 30 year event, I found, purchased, and wore Raiders pajamas.  Christina’s pajamas were not as amazingly cool, but fit her personality well, composed of an over indulgent use of the color pink.

After watching some television, mixed with conversation, I fell asleep, and commenced to snore. Christina said I answered a question she had asked, and quite literally was asleep and snoring within three seconds of speaking. She thought I was joking, but with panic at having forgotten earplugs, quickly realized I was actually asleep and the snores, now ascending in volume, were quite real.

Christina woke me up, and I offered up my iPhone, set to iPod mode. Christina found that random songs from my musical library, played at full volume, were superior to mere earplugs when trying to battle my snoring.

On Friday morning, I awoke much earlier than Christina, and read for hours before inviting her to wake up and put her feet to floor to begin the day. I walked the entirety of the 100 yards that separated our hotel room from a neighboring Starbucks for a pair of large coffees.

As we were going to be eating lunch shortly, we skipped breakfast (If you have seen pictures of me, you know that is a sentence not written often – I like breakfast like Hobbits like second breakfast).

We drove to the Dry Creek Store and stocked up with sandwiches, cheeses, salami, salads and waters, packing what we could in a mini cooler. Next we drove to Preston Vineyards in the north end of the Dry Creek Valley.

Christina and I tasted a Sauvignon Blanc, Madam Preston (a white Rhone varietal blend), Carignane, L. Preston (a red Rhone varietal blend), Zinfandel, and Syrah-Sirah. Christina prefers whites and settled on the Sauvignon Blanc to buy a bottle of; a red lover, I loved both the Carignane and L. Preston, and purchased a bottle of the L. Preston. I was sad that fresh made breads were not available for purchase, but soldiered on stoically. We grabbed a basket filled with bocce balls, our bottles and glasses and our picnic cooler and made our way to the picnic area next to the bocce courts.

The day was beautiful. Perfect 81 degree temperature, blue skies, flowers, vegetables, herbs, olive trees, and vineyards, all grown organically adding color and scents. Christina and I ate our sandwiches, sipped our wines, and I taught Christina to play bocce.

I love Christina, and while she can get a ball from one end of a court to another, she will never join the Women’s Professional Bocce Tour. Christina is a greatly skilled actor, gets paid for doing it, while I am but a mere clown when given a stage; so in our variety we make the world more interesting.

In a short while, we were joined at Preston by Nancy Howard and Rachelle Merian.

Note: with great respect to the lucky men who married the beautiful and talented women of the 1979 graduating class of Piner High School, all names of the women of our class will be their maiden names. Are we cool, Misters Iannios and Albini?

Anyway, Nancy got a glass of red and Rachelle drank water, and I showed the girls how to play bocce.

Another note: all of our 47 or 48 year old female classmates are, and will always be, girls to me.

Rachelle split up the practiced team of Christina and myself and paired me with Nancy and herself with Christina. It has been written elsewhere that Nancy Howard may just be the most interesting woman in the world, but to her list of accomplishments can now be added Queen of Bocce.

Rachelle captured my favorite picture of Christina and me while at Preston. Thank you, I love it and you.

Next we were joined by Shannon Smyth and Tim Vigil, and shortly after Nancy and Rachelle departed, Bill Towner arrived.

There was more wine tasting and conversation than bocce playing, and the entire afternoon, spent with friends, was wonderful.

Christina and I, sadly, had to leave, as we needed to drive to the Flaming-O Hotel and Resort, check in to our room, and change clothes for the cocktail reception.

Upon checking in, and lugging Christina’s extraordinarily too heavy luggage to our room on the elevator free second floor, Christina found that our room was not equipped with a smoking balcony and one short phone call later we were moved to the other end of our building.

Christina and I dressed for the cocktail reception. I got to break out a totally cool (it’s my story, so I get to to say it’s cool) seersucker suit with alternating chalk green and white stripe, burgundy shirt and gold Jerry Garcia tie (I completely forgot that our school colors were burgundy and gold). Christina, after accidentally matching my yellow shirt choice for our day in wine country, matched me with a purple and gold color combo cocktail dress and shoes. I will say that we may have overdressed for the event, but at no time did I feel overdressed – just damn good looking with a gorgeous date.

I hesitate to try to begin to chronicle the interactions that we had with each of our classmates, because I know I will forget someone and then I will feel a less worthy scribe. Suffice it to say that I loved that so many people showed up at the lounge of the Flaming-O for a reunion eve cocktail reception.

I was thrilled to see my cousin Lorenda Rossi, who continues to be a total babe (clearly she shares no blood with me); Susan Ward, who is the only woman in our graduating class that I will acknowledge openly is more intelligent than I am; our complete Senior class cheerleader squad; and of course Nancy.

Not long ago, Connie Fiori wrote that she was having difficulty telling the good-guys and d-bags apart. That stuck with me, because there are always, sadly, a few douchebags out there, masquerading as good guys.

Friday night, while Christina and I were at the cocktail reception; Nancy was with a group at dinner, and a complete and total douchebag said something horrifically insensitive, rude and insulting to her. I won’t say what was said, or by whom, but I didn’t say word one to him at the reunion the next night and gave him the stink eye when I did see him briefly. If he weren’t so large, I would crush him like a Formicidae insect.

Hungry, not having eaten since our picnic lunch, Christina and I travelled to the nearby Lyons restaurant where I ate a truly revolting Chicken Alfredo special. Refueled, we ventured back to the cocktail reception, but the noise of the night’s band, Crossfire, and the ever increasing crowdedness in the lounge drove us back to our rooms by 11:00 PM to rest before the next day’s events.

Saturday morning, after waking, Christina and I headed across the street to Hank’s Creekside Cafe where I had coffee, the fresh milled wheat pancake special with a side of homemade corned beef hash. Simple quality ingredients make for a great meal.

After breakfast, I switched into orange swim shorts and white shirt, and headed down to the pool to read. During the day, I was joined by Tim Vigil, Keith Lewis, Dave Giffiths, Curtis and Beverly Allsop, Doug Duffield, Rachelle Merian, Nancy Howard, and Christina Lang. I didn’t swim, I didn’t read much, but I got in lots of fun conversation and a couple of spicy bloody Marys made by Chuy, the lounge bartender. The pool gathering broke up shortly after 5, giving us about an hour to get changed for the reunion main event.

I quickly changed into a classic black suit, black tie, shined black shoes, french cuff white shirt, Obama cuff links. Christina, in a much more leisurely fashion, changed into a beautiful black Calvin Klein dress with gorgeous black high heels with sparkly accents. I had to play Bob Mackie (Cher’s most famous clothier), forget I’m a straight male, remember Christina is married and I like her husband, and help her double stick tape the décolletage of her dress above and to her strapless black bra. I did this only after failing to find Rachelle or Nancy in their room after running down the hallway to ask for their help instead. I performed what was the oddest task of my week. Christina did indeed look beautiful.

Christina had wanted to sit with Rachelle and Nancy during dinner, but when I arrived earlier to check us in while Christina was finishing with her last minute finishing touches, Connie Price (and her husband Joe) asked me to sit with her.

I went back to the room to collect Christina, had our pictures taken by the official photographer, and mingled.

At dinner, I decided that I would enjoy cigarettes that night (only the second time smoking in 2009), and while I was outside, some weird interplay unfolded between Christina and another table mate. Christina was described to me as confrontational, but before things could escalate or turn odder still, the table mate in question was scooped up by their spouse and they left the event.

I know Christina was neither confrontational or hostile, and the only real weirdness of the evening passed quickly, although I may jokingly refer to Christina’s ongoing hostile behavior in the future. Somehow word got out, and Christina was jokingly chided the next day for her ways.

I loved everyone and tried to see everyone, but I was shocked that there were people I did not see and I know that there are many who I had no chance to talk with. I wish we had at least another 12 hours, seriously.

Among my stand out favorites were Janet Bertino who eschewed the dress up aspects and showed up in a bright orange t-shirt; I now love Janet for her fearless fashion sense.

Another note: speaking of fashion sense, over the weekend, more than one classmate shared their remembrance of a pair of bright yellow pants I wore in high school.

I loved Todd Grames’ facebook text suggesting that I might meet an 8:00 AM group Saturday to run. Perhaps my best laugh, among many, over the weekend.

I loved seeing Melanie crash the room, as a class of ’81er she was rocking her young chick status.

I loved seeing Dean and his incredibly sweet and perfect wife Mindy.

Still another note: Dean, a practicing preacher, was the perfect person to ask the religious question of the night: Did Lee Ann and Sourette sell their souls to the devil to look so remarkably unchanged by time?

I loved seeing Julie O’Keefe, and her husband Buck.

I loved seeing Stefanie, one of my serious elementary school crushes. I hope to dance with the brides at your wedding – soon.

I am a little in awe of Brian Teager. Brian, your poem was beautiful.

I loved seeing Christina, who was nervous about not knowing anyone, deflect a troubling event with aplomb and have a terrific time.

At one point in the evening, Kim Finitz was giving out awards; you know, most children, farthest distance travelled, longest career in porn, longest marriage, etc. When Kim finished, I got the microphone and made two toasts.

With some personal friends in mind, I asked everyone to think of those from our class who couldn’t attend our reunion, because of passing, accident, distance or economy, and instructing everyone to raise their glass, we drank to absent friends.

Next, I raised a glass to Kim Finitz who singlehandedly pulled off the best reunion event imaginable. Kim did a magnificent job and has the love and appreciation of our entire class. The toast was met with a roar from all assembled, and Rachelle came up and presented Kim with a beautiful vase full of long stem roses, suitably ribboned in burgundy and gold.

The evening ended all too soon.

On Sunday, we packed and readied ourselves to leave the Flaming-O. Before leaving, Christina and I joined Rachelle, Nancy, Keith and Dave for Sunday brunch.

After brunch, Christina and I drove south to Cotati to pick up my 12 year old son from his grandparent’s house, where he spent the weekend, and take him home to Ukiah, by way of Windsor’s Riverfront Regional Park, where the last reunion weekend event was being held – a picnic gathering amongst the redwoods.

It was great seeing everyone who attended the final event. I had a chance to see some of the pictures that are now up on facebook from the reunion events, and a wonderful “in memory” video tribute to our classmates who have passed on that Todd created.

The only real bummer of the weekend was how cold it was in the shade of the redwoods. We did not stay as long as I would have liked, because it was uncomfortable. I can’t say my son Charlie was bummed, he didn’t really want to hang out with what he considers to be old people.

I dropped my son off at home in Ukiah to begin the homework he forgot to take to Cotati, and continued with Christina to Willits, where I dropped her off at her sister Susie’s house. With a hug and a kiss of my best friend, my reunion weekend ended.

I was amazed at how young my classmates are. I could see the spark of fun and life and youth and joy in each one. I love you all and thank each of you for an amazing reunion weekend experience.

__________

I have come back to this post and edited about a dozen times. I notice that a phrase is inelegant and fix it, or a sentence confusing or ambiguous and clarify it. Sometimes my first post even includes an embarrassing misspelling and I clean it up during a subsequent read.

This blog entry had over 100 reads in the first two hours it was up, and now has over 300 reads, so I felt I should try to make the effort to have it best reflect my reunion experience.

I have added content to my entry, something I haven’t done before.

I reserve the right to come back and further edit more into or out of my piece.

I want to say, but separate from the main piece, that I almost didn’t attend my own class reunion. I was almost, foolishly, scared off by someone who didn’t even come. Somewhat ironically, I wish the person who almost scared me off had been able to attend.

When I asked everyone to raise a glass to absent friends, in my thoughts were Joe Menth who passed the night we received our yearbooks, Ron Pipes who had work and distance issues that could not be overcome, Michelle Hampton who was at once my catnip and my Kryptonite, Bob McLean who with all the heart in the world had too weak a heart to travel, and two friends from our Comstock junior high school days who did not stay with us through to graduation at Piner: Gregg Stebben and Michelle Roney. With over a hundred graduates holding dear their missed absent friends in their own mind, I am sure that we included everyone.

I can not begin to tell you how much I enjoyed this reunion weekend. Reading over the chronology of what transpired gives you, the reader, a glimpse into the experience. I imagine that you can appreciate that I enjoyed myself. Magnify the enjoyment you imagine I experienced ten fold, and you may start to approach an accurate appreciation of how good a time I had.

I am immensely glad that I attended my 30 year reunion.

Today, I had to drive from my home in Ukiah to Santa Rosa to pack up and be ready for my 3:45 AM wake up and trip to San Francisco to set up and work the North Beach Festival (of really cool handcrafted art topped Corkers for wine bottles and other not as cool things).

As I have applied for my dream job, and the dream job is being offered by Murphy-Goode Winery, I thought I would pop into the tasting room in downtown Healdsburg for a taste of what was being poured today.

Rather than drive directly to the tasting room, getting off the freeway, US 101, at the last possible moment; I chose to leave the freeway in Geyserville, and drive out Hwy 128 through the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County, taking the long way to Healdsburg.

As I left the little town of Geyserville behind me, along with the freeway, I quickly found myself driving through vineyards. The lushly green canopy of leaves on the trellised vines spreading out on both sides of the turning country road, orange California poppies growing wild on the sides of the road, the earth brown, and the grass on the hillsides dried to nearly the same tan brown color of the earthy dirt roads around and through the vineyards themselves, the green vineyards on the hillsides contrasting green against brown, oak trees brown and full leafy green, white feathery bands of clouds against a sky of baby blue; the beauty of the Alexander Valley so powerful, I am happy that I can take the time to drive a slower road.

The road becomes emptier of cars as I reach the turn off to the Indian casino, River Rock, where all cars but mine turn up the hillside drive to give their money away.

I see vineyard workers in cowboy hats and boots. I worked one summer in the vineyards of Healdsburg. I like my view of the vineyard now much better than my view of countless individual vines then.

I pull over and park across from the Murphy Ranch vineyard at the Sonoma Wine Company Alexander Valley Facility. Once upon a time Murphy-Goode used this facility to make wine and pour them for visitors to their co-located tasting room. No more, a large “CLOSED” sign seems perpetually in place to dissuade visits. While I walked about, remembering past visits to the Murphy-Goode tasting room, remembering the friends I visited here with, and the wines we tasted, lost in fond memories, a truck with two men pulled up beside me near the front door and asked me if they were at Murphy-Goode.

I told them that their memory was either very good, or their information very old. I told the two ballooners (their vanity license plate: BALLOON) that the tasting room was gone from here, but directed them to 20 Matheson in downtown Healdsburg. I felt good. Get my dream job or not, 99% of the applicants could not have been able to help these men, fewer than 1 in 100 would have known that this was the former location of Murphy-Goode so would not have stopped to gather memories. I felt more qualified that ever, there is something very special about local knowledge.

Eventually, I got back in my van and continued generally south toward Healdsburg. At the corner of West Sausal Lane and Alexander Valley Road is the closed and dusty Alexander Valley store. I pray the store reopens after remodeling and site improvements, it is both iconic and a perfect landmark, “turn right at the Alexander Valley store.”

I did make my right turn at the Alexander Valley store, saw two women selling cherries by the side of the road, looked down and saw canoes and sunbathers as I crossed the Russian River, and made my way to Healdsburg Avenue.

At the corner was someone selling cherries, strawberries, and oranges; and a taco truck. In northern California taco trucks are ubiquitous, and many a meal is produced at restaurant quality yet at a low price. I smiled at the sign painted boldly on the side of the truck, “Taqueria Guanajuato,” as I made my turn onto Healdsburg Avenue to drive the final leg of my trip to the Murphy-Goode tasting room.

I am pleased to be able to write about more than the tasting room and the wine. The wines I tasted were more delicious for being in the mood my drive through Murphy-Goode’s past, and mine, put me in.

Upon entering the tasting room, I saw a lap top opened to allow people to view video applications for my dream job, so I cued my application (#1015) for the next lap top fiddler to encounter. I noted the upcoming summer jazz performances that Murphy-Goode was sponsoring. I looked at the Murphy-Goode logo clothing that I will want to wear when I am chosen for “A Really Goode Job.”

I bellied up to the tasting bar and asked to taste the first wine being poured, Murphy-Goode’s 2008 North Coast Sauvignon Blanc, “The Fume.” The wine was crisply delicious, showing an abundance of fruit, tropical, citus, and a hint of pear, with a touch of Sauvignon blanc’s straw and cat pee nose. The fruit was so forward, and the straw and especially the cat pee notes so well hidden that I guessed incorrectly that the wine had some Semillon blended in to help boost the fruit. 1 wine tasted, 1 wine loved, 1 bottle purchased.

Next, I tasted a 2007 Chardonnay made with oak barrels sourced in Minnesota. Huh? Okay, The wine maker David Ready is from Minnesota, and likes to link the winery in ways surprising to Minnesota when possible (Viking horns are part of the company uniform). I was told that the Minnesota oak was smaller grain than typical American oak barrel grain. I remember that there was a time when a trained taster could identify American oak held wines by a dill note imparted, a note absent in French oak held wines. I asked about this note, and whether it occurred in these Minnesota oak held wines. The tasting room gal I asked suggested I taste for myself. I would love to tell you about this wine, but I can’t. Served almost ice cold, I couldn’t break much nose or mouth free from the icy clutches of the cold. I liked what I tasted, but I couldn’t taste enough to write more about this wine. Sad, I was really intrigued by the uniqueness of Minnesota oak, I love different, I love unusual, I love quirky.

The other tasting room pourer, I think his name was Will, and I talked of Murphy-Goode past and present. We both had been around wines and wineries for quite a long time and knew many of the same people. It made our conversation easy. We talked about Jess Jackson buying Murphy-Goode; Tim Murphy passed away in 2001, Dale Goode wanted to transition into retirement, and Jess Jackson believes in keeping everything the same in a hands off “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” way, welcoming David Ready Jr. as the winemaker following in his father Dave’s footsteps.

I noted other wineries Jackson had picked up and allowed to continue unchanged, doing what they do best. If you buy a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir artisan winery, you don’t force them to make Sangiovese, or blend Cab into their Pinot, or any other crazy change.

Not sucking up, but Jess Jackson is an icon to me for wine business prowess; up there with Mondavi and the Gallos.

Anyway, next up to tast were a trio of reds.

I started with the 2005 Alexander Valley Snake Eyes (think Reserve) Zinfandel. Oh my God, I think I fell in love with this wine at first nose. I want to marry it, at least get a room and spend the night together. Big, bold, rambly raspberry and black pepper spice for days. Everything promised in the nose, delivered in the mouth. A big mouth feel wine, lots of finish. lots of wine flavor in just a 750 ml bottle. The grapes come from vines of the Ellis ranch which are about 70 years old and you can taste the maturity. This is not your friend’s mom’s white zin; this monster of a Zin, all red, all the time, comes in at a whopping 15.8% alcohol, which is huge; especially as it doesn’t taste hot and thin like some other high alcohol Zinfandels.

Next I tasted the 2004 All In Claret, a Bordeaux style blend, some would call it a Meritage. This wine had a little Petite Verdot, more Merlot, and was mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. Absent in this Claret were Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Supple, delicious, far tamer than the Zinfandel; big, but not scary big. This was a red my friends would love. Filled with Blackberry and currant, with leathery fat cherry. This would be a phenomenal food wine. I would love to drink it with grilled steak. Simple and perfect. Feeling a tiny bit adventurous? Melt a little gorgonzola onto the steak while grilling. The party will be in your mouth.

Finally, I tasted a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon because of a promised eucalyptus note. it seems the vineyard is planted next to a roadside wind block stand of eucalyptus trees, and the flavors sort of leech their way into the first rows of nearby grape vines. I have tasted a wine that had the same notes for the same reason before, and liked it very much. I liked this wine, a little rough around the edges, but chockablock filled with blackberry and eucalyptus notes. The tasting room pourer, Will (?), poured me a second tasting glass through a Vinturi, a wine aeration device. the 2004 Cabernet was instantly improved. The rough edges I had noted before were smoothed out. I liked the wine more, but loved the Vinturi.

I wanted to buy a bottle of red to go with my Fume purchase. The choice came down to the Zinfandel that I would love the most, or the Claret that my friends would love the most.

My friends are going to have to love giant Zinfandels, or they can drink some really perfect Sauvignon Blanc instead; these are the two wines I chose to buy today.

A few years back, Susan Johnson and I ate at Kuletos off Union Square in San Francisco. We were enjoying a special meal on the Windsor Vineyards corporate credit card as a reward for doing a special two day tasting in San Francisco for a corporate client.

We brought a bottle of our 1994 Windsor Vineyards Carol Shelton Signature Series Merlot. Both Susan and I are big red fans, generally preferring the power and strength of a Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel to a the softness of a Merlot, but this wine had taken four gold medals, including a double gold/best Merlot award at the California State Fair, and we knew from several previous tastings that this was a monster of a Merlot.

As the Windsor wine was not on the wine list, we asked our waiter about a corkage fee, agreed to it, asked the waiter to bring a glass for himself, and let him do the honors of opening our bottle to breathe.

We noticed that there was a Matanzas Creek Merlot from the same big 1994 vintage that had earned some of the highest ratings for a ’94 Merlot from Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast, 97/100 or above, on the wine list and available at $60, a very fair restaurant price, and as we were staying in San Francisco overnight, we ordered a bottle to taste against the Windsor Merlot.

For our meals, we chose a roast duck breast in a grappa soaked cherry reduction special that seemed made to be paired with our wines.

If you have never eaten at Kuletos, the restaurant is warm and inviting, an upscale yet comfortable Northern Italian restaurant, rich with wood and marble, professional yet friendly service staff, and consistently well turned out food that can be paired with wines by the glass, half bottle or full bottle from their more than adequate wine list.

Having snacked earlier in the day, we chose a selection of cured meats and salumi to start us off, and a deconstructed Caesar hearts of romaine salad dressed in an anchovy and garlic dressing with croutons to share before our duck dinner.

Carol Shelton’s Windsor Merlot opened with a rich ruby red color, and the nose of warm cherry was echoed in the mouth and joined by notes of plum and berry against spicy French oak. There was even a hint of bacon fat, and everyone loves bacon fat. Not overpowering, but perfectly balanced, the iron fist in a velvet glove, this Merlot had loads of gorgeous fruit hanging on a well structured backbone of firm tannins and good acidity, and the finish kept each note in balance with the others as it disappeared over time.

Our waiter was pleased to be invited to taste our wine, and surprised that a wine he had never run across before was so good.

The 1994 Matanzas Creek, reserve something or other, Merlot, Sonoma Valley was simply gorgeous. It is heaven to have two beautiful and delicious wines, at once similar and very different, to experience and enjoy with a good friend, also wine knowledgeable, over foods perfectly matched to the wines.

The Matanzas Creek Merlot showed a garnet color, the nose more like Cabernet with Blackberry and Cassis notes against oak in the front with perfumed floral notes behind. Again, this was a power Merlot, more iron, less velvet, and the tannins were big for a Merlot. Flavors of candied cherry, toast, oak, and creamy vanilla. A Merlot you can eat, thick and chewy, with a long and powerful finish.

The salumi and cured meat plate was a treat, popping bits of tasty meats into our mouth to be joined by a small sip of wine and swallowed.

I don’t know if inviting your waiter to taste two remarkably wonderful wines will have the same effect it seemed to have on our waiter, but that night he made a slew of errors, or helped the kitchen out of their slew of errors, because long before our duck hit the table, we had a soup and two more appetizers, all unordered, find their way to our table. All mistakes, we were told, could we possibly help the restaurant by consuming them?

Susan and I are great friends, we have worked together twice, almost thrice, and have helped each other on our separate employments. We enjoy each other’s company, conversation is never difficult for us, we both love wine and have remained in the industry for many years, and we both love food and have cooked for the other on a number of occasions.

While all of the food was good, and it was nice to taste each course with first one wine and then the other; the highlight of the evening was tasting the wines against and with the grappa soaked cherry reduction sauced duck breasts, crispy skin, and delicious fat, juicy meat and two great wines, either of which would have been perfect. Wine and food flavors marrying delightfully, the union richer, more delicious, than the individual flavors alone.

Susan and I communicated through this course largely by shared moans of pleasure.

We shared a chocolate and cherry cake torte for dessert, and I risked ruining a perfect meal by ordering coffee. Don’t you hate a bad cup of old, unattended, burnt coffee at a meal’s end?

Have no fear, oh blog reader, the dessert and coffee were both perfect. I don’t really recall the salad, or the numerous unordered appetizers, except to say that they were uniformly good. This was one of those perfect meals.

We even saved a glass of the Windsor Merlot and had the waiter prepare a plate from our leftovers for a homeless man who had asked us for change on our way to the restaurant. On that night everyone ate and drank well.

Yesterday, I traveled a couple of hours to San Francisco to pick up a couple who were visiting from overseas and take them out for a bit.

The couple were a friend from an online forum I frequent and her husband, and I had really been looking forward to meeting them in person for quite a while.

Being in San Francisco is always exciting, and the energy of the city combined with the infectious smiles of my friends worked to hopefully allow me to serve as a decent host to one of my favorite cities anywhere.

We met at the hotel they chose, the Hotel Triton. I had always enjoyed the Triton because it is colorfully decorated with an artistic flair that I admire but can’t replicate and it is conveniently located at the Grant Street gate to Chinatown.

Instead of walking into Chinatown, we left the city and drove across the Golden Gate bridge to San Rafael and Taqueria San Jose for some Mexican food. The food so common to me, available everywhere at home, is what these travelers wanted and we enjoyed Super Burritos, 2 al pastor and 1 cabeza, along with two Pacifico beers and a lime green Jarritos for the designated driver.

We toured some of the neighborhoods of San Francisco on a driving tour, including the Presidio, Marina, Cow Hollow, Lower Pacific Heights, Lower Haight, Haight Ashbury, Civic Center, Tenderloin, SOMA, Financial District, Downtown, Chinatown, North Beach, and Nob Hill.

I got to spend about 4 hours with my friends, and I enjoyed our time together. We chatted the whole time, and I so lost myself in a naturally flowing conversation that I completely forgot to ask about a mutual friend of ours from South Carolina.

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