Solid as a…(Thoughts on Marriage and Winebelly)

I do some of my best “writing” in the middle of the night. In those quiet moments, my mind stirs while others sleep. Maybe it is the quiet. Maybe it is the half-conscious mind, free to roam. Tumbling around, thoughts and ideas seem both foggy and clear, vague and precise. I find an angle, a ribbon to tie it together, a theme upon which to build.

Sometimes in the morning, the idea is still there and solid, sometimes it fades with the light, and other times it is revealed to be not the cohesive profundity I’d imagined. And sometimes it dangles between all of those outcomes. I can’t quite let go of the idea, it is there somewhere, but I can’t quite pull it together.

Yesterday was my anniversary. So between the hours of 4-6am, marriage was on my mind. And rocks. One after another, the analogies and word pictures came to me. I was sure that I would wake up and start writing about rocks. But when you haven’t slept well, creativity can come slowly. Instead of writing about rocks, my legs felt strapped to them, my mind felt full of them, and I had nothing to write.

But, a good glass of wine can help you find renewed inspiration.  And as my husband and I sat on the patio of Winebelly, a great new wine bar and tapas place in South Austin, I decided that I would toss out a few pebbles of wisdom (?), gratitude, and wine recs whether or not the theme “worked.”

My marriage began with a rock. With great planning and fanfare, he placed a rock on my finger and asked me to be his. Our home, built upon and with rocks(or a derivative) has been the place where we’ve tried to build something of value. I’ve carried rocks. Rocks of resentment and anger, until they become so heavy I have no choice but to put them down. He has scaled the same boulder, day after day. Building a business to support our family as I rocked our babies to sleep.

We’ve thrown stones, words that hurt and scar. We’ve collected stones of beauty and skipped them from the shore. We’ve climbed together, mountains that were both literal and figurative. Sometimes he’d carry the weight, sometimes I would. But there is usually something beautiful at the top.

20140410-175735.jpgWhat do we get from rocks? Minerals. And what wine inspired me? A great mineral-driven, citrusy, Sancerre with well-integrated acid. (Like that segue?) Chateau de Sancerre from the Loire Valley to be specific.  He ordered the special, scallops over a coconut risotto cake with red curry and apple-mango slaw.  He loved it.  I can’t vouch for it, obviously, but it looked delicious!  We also shared the roasted asparagus with wild mushrooms, soft poached egg, shaved parm and smoked aioli.  Amazing.  I’m going to try to replicate it for Easter.  The pairing worked.  I’m sure there are wines that would have worked better, but we were going by the glass and wanted to have the same.  It is a wine I will be seeking out.

20140410-175722.jpgFor the second round we ordered Fried Quail legs with roasted pear, arugula and black pepper honey.  For the third round we had the Brick chicken with herbed spaetzle, grilled raddichio and crispy shallots.  To work with both we Proyecto de Espana Garnacha Salvaje del Moncayo which was poured from a bottle with one of the prettiest labels I’ve seen.  Medium bodied, subtle tannins, great fruit with some earth and acid.  Really food friendly and a great story.  The service was great.  Well informed, friendly, casual.  (Thanks, Scott and David!)  It was a great evening and we will be back soon.

As we sat down, the light was just as it had been when we had our first dance.  It was to the Madeleine Peyroux version of a Leonard Cohen song, “Dance Me to the End of Love.”  We could not have know what was coming, how love changes and changes you.  We could not have known about the rocky roads and the everyday triumphs.  But we held on tight and climbed.  Thanks for sticking with me.  Thanks for always looking ahead.  Thank you for being MY rock through all of the crazy.  Happy Anniversary!



Virginia is for (Wine) Lovers

We all know what you’re supposed to do when life hands you lemons.  And when life hands you a 40 year old vineyard, you make wine.  When Scott and Martha Stinson were looking for a place to retire, they came upon the property which boasts an eighteenth century farmhouse and 12 acres of vines.

Scott’s background in architecture gave him the vision for the restoration of the Piedmont Estate buildings.  A love of French wines gave him and his daughter, Rachel, a vision for the vines.  Under the guidance of viticulturist and vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, they revived the soil and planted Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Manseng, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tannat.  They source from other Virginia growers as needed to create smaller production, French inspired boutique wines.

I had been hearing about the great wines coming out of Virginia but had not had the opportunity to try any so I was thrilled to receive the samples of Stinson Vineyards wines from Folsom and Sons.  In fact, I couldn’t wait to open them. I gave them a couple of weeks to settle and opened them for happy hour on the deck.

Without a kitchen, my options are limited for pairing fare, but thanks to a borrowed toaster oven, I pulled off something. The first one I opened was the 2012 Cabernet Franc.  When I think Cab Franc, I think green pepper, so I roasted some Shishito peppers.  It is one of my current favorite appetizers.  Toss them in olive oil and broil them until they blister.  Shave some parmesan cheese and sprinkle with salt and a squeeze (or three) or lemon.

It worked just as I hoped.  Really beautiful Bing Cherry notes and a pop of pepper.  Medium bodied, good acid, with a clean, bright finish.  Some Cab Francs have a bite at the end.  This tasted like lovely, unmanipulated fruit.

This past Friday was our first day in the 80s in a while.  After a very long week, it was time to open the 2012 Rosé.  The wine is 100% Mourvédre sourced from Horton Vineyards in Madison County, Virginia.  Pale salmon color, clean dusty nose.  I kept getting cinnamon stick at the end.  On the palate, pink grapefruit, good minerality, herbal notes.  Maybe tarragon?  Herbs de Provence? Whatever it was, it was delicious.  I could have paired it many ways.  Chicken salad with tarragon, grilled salmon with herbs and green olives, farro salad with feta, mint, parsley.  It is a versatile, food-friendly, tasty wine.

When I was growing up, the “Virginia is For Lovers” tourism campaign was in full swing.  If Stinson Vineyards is any indication, “Virginia is for Wine Lovers” is bound to gain a similar momentum.



Dinner with the Don

2009_2[1]Last fall I was invited to a dinner in Houston hosted by Concha Y Toro to introduce their 2009 flagship wine, Don Melchor.  The winemaker, Enrique Tirado, would be hosting the event which included a vertical tasting of the wine.  It sounded like a fabulous event, but without much notice, I couldn’t get away.  Fortunately for me, the company representing *Don Melchor, Gregory White PR, knows how to make a great impression.  As a consolation, they sent me a bottle of the 2009 to try at home.

So I did what any food-loving, wine-loving person would do.  I researched the menu from the event and did my best to create a meal worthy of the wine.  I invited some friends, those friends, that I knew would really appreciate the wine and we made our own event.

Grown in the Puento Alto Vineyard in the Maipo Valley of Chile, on vinestock that hails from the Bordeaux region, the fruit in this wine has the potential to rival any Cabernet from around the world.  Enrique Tirado’s natural talent and dedication to research have elevated the wine to cult status.  Each final blend is tasted with Jacques Boissenot, one of Bordeaux’s most well-respected consultants.  Old world vines, new world soil, old world methods, new world research.  It is truly an expression of the best of both worlds.

According to the Examiner article, the wine worked really well with roast lamb with fennel.  So, I headed to the local Farmer’s market to get a couple of racks of French cut grass-fed Lamb rib from I.O. Ranch, well worth the extra stop if you are in the Austin area.  And if you don’t, they ship!  From Johnson’s Backyard, I picked up fennel, turnip, and carrots.  My goal was to use what I knew about the wine and to bring out earthy notes with the root vegetables.  I used my brother-in-law’s rack recipe.

20140129-113950.jpgSear the lamb rack on high heat, 2-3 minutes per side.

Coat the rack with a combination of goat cheese and Dijon mustard.  Then coat in seasoned (rosemary, salt and pepper) Panko bread crumbs.

Cover the tips with foil so they don’t burn.  Roast on a rack at 400 degrees until medium rare. (20min depending on size)

20140129-114010.jpgFor sides I boiled and mashed equal parts turnip and Yukon gold potatoes with horseradish, milk, butter, salt and pepper.

I roasted whole carrots with sliced fennel, leeks, olive oil, salt and pepper for about 45 minutes.

When the lamb was roasted, we pulled it, let it sit for about five minutes, sliced it and then drizzled it with au jus, frozen from the Christmas Prime rib, which I reduced.

We decanted the wine for about an hour.  Aromas of black fruit, cassis and berry.  Spice, tobacco, and cocoa.  The flavors echoed the aromas with big, smooth fruit, velvety mouthfeel, layered finish.  The elements of spice and tobacco were there but in balance with the fruit.  It paired beautifully with the dish.  The earthy lamb and turnip, the sweet fennel and carrots, the richness of the au jus with the soft tannins.  It was fantastic.


This wine is in the very special Weekend Wine (or holiday) category with a price point of $125.  As I’ve said before though, if you are cooking at home, you can justify a splurge in the wine realm.  Rack of Lamb and Don Melchor at home or a crowded Prix Fixe chicken dinner and paying $75 for a $25 bottle on Valentine’s Day?  No contest.

It is hard to rival the experience of delving into new wines with the winemaker, especially wines of this caliber.  Of course I wish I had been there.  But I will also say, it is hard to compete with dinner at home with those you love.  Many thanks to the people at Gregory White PR for the invitation and for allowing me to “join” from the comfort of my crazy home.

*This wine was provided as a media sample by Gregory White PR.  The opinions are my own.

Frankly Delicious

I wish you could smell my kitchen right now.  Scratch that, I wish you could smell my whole house right now.  By now, no matter where you live, you’ve likely heard of Franklin BBQ.  If you haven’t seen the press, maybe you’ve seen the Chase credit card commercial.  The local joint has reached cult-like status and, in order to try the smoked gold, you will likely need to stand in line for 2-4 hours depending on the day.  Unless…

There is another option.  If you order well in advance, like weeks in advance, you can pick up a whole brisket or two.  It’s in limited supply as well, but if you can swing it, you’ll be in hog (or cow) heaven.  So for my husband’s 40th camping trip, we ordered a couple of briskets and shared the love.  The first night we dined (chowed) in traditional form, the second night out I made a soup with some of the leftovers.  You can guess how that went over.  In fact, my husband has been asking for it weekly since then.  So tonight, I thawed the leftover’s leftovers and made Franklin’s Brisket Stew, Take 2.

If you’ve done much cooking while camping, you know you have to sacrifice a little.  We bring a stash of spices etc, but there is always something you forget.  This time I had my entire kitchen (running water and all) at hand.

Franklin’s Brisket Stew, Take 2.

1 small onion

3 celery stalks

3 large carrots

1 leek

1 Yellow pepper

2 wax peppers (anything with a little heat, or a lot)

1 can beef broth

4 cups Chicken Broth

1 cup tomato puree

2 Tbsp. Brown sugar

1 Tbsp. Red wine vinegar

(While camping I subbed the 3 above ingredients for ketchup)

1 lb. Franklin’s brisket ( I defrosted in the broth, removed the really fattty pieces, and shredded it but you have options.)

1 bag frozen green beans, or fresh

1/2 bag frozen corn

Dash clove

a few shakes of Italian herb blend

Salt and pepper to taste, but the brisket adds a lot of each. 

So what to drink with this big bowl of comfort?  I wanted something big, but not overpowering.  Something that could stand up to the pepper and compliment the smoky flavors, not compete.  Then I remembered back in March when I met Bart Hansen.  He got up early to stand in line for some Q but the line that is foreboding on a normal day becomes down-right unsurmountable during SXSW.  Bart owns Dane Cellars and sent me some samples which I’ve been opening with measure.  I don’t want them to end.  The Chenin was delish. The Zin, super yum.  I’ve been saving the Old Vine Zin and the Syrah, but what else could I open tonight?  If he couldn’t try it when he was here, he can at least be paired with it, right? Plus, he’s the featured winemaker at The Girl & The Fig this month so, if you’re in the Sonoma area, you can taste this wine.

The 2009 Just Creek Vineyard Syrah was aged 15 months in French oak and bottle unfiltered.  The color is deep, opaque, with a lighter ring, like the skin of a Bing Cherry.  A rich, powerful nose, with black fruits and pepper. This wine is huge, yet well-balanced.  A great intermingling of fruit and spice the whole way through with a long, coying finish.

This is the third wine I’ve had from Bart and each time I have been so impressed with his talent.  Each wine has so much going on and yet shows great restraint.  Every sip leaves you wanting more, intrigued and enticed.

So how did it work with the stew? Beautifully.  No competition.  The pairing brought out blueberries in the wine and the smokiness in the stew.   I don’t know if I could have picked a better match.  That’s a big statement from me.  And the hubs said he thinks the dish could win awards and was the best stew/soup/comfort food I’ve made.  That’s a big statement from him.  Now, I know most of you don’t have access to Franklin or Dane Cellars, but you can improvise.  I’m not saying it will compare.  I mean, people wait HOURS for this stuff, but it could be dang good.  And Bart sells his wine online.  That’s a great consolation prize. And next time you’re in town, Bart, you may want to bring some Syrah.

Less is More-Clean Slate Riesling

There was a time when a meatless meal would be cause for a mini-revolt.  But I’ve gotten better at creating delicious, satisfying vegan meals and my husband’s gotten better about not complaining.  Less meat is just better for your health and the environment.  It’s a win-win.  Less is more.

There was a time when my day was so crazy and I was so overwhelmed that I wanted a glass of wine every night.  Now I get a break during school hours and am more in the groove of the SAHM thing.  So instead of having a Monday wine on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I generally have one or two glasses of something tasty, once or twice a week.   Less is more.

I have had a few samples of wine that I have been meaning to try, but when you drink less, you drink less.  So yesterday I opened a bottle of Clean Slate Riesling that has been in my refrigerator for weeks.  I’m glad I did.  The wine hails from the Mosel region of Germany which is known for producing some great Riesling.  While choosing most German Rieslings can be intimidating because of their classifications, this one is straightforward.  A look at the label will give you a good hint about what you are getting.

Clean floral and fruit notes with little residual sugar and a lot of minerality.  Just as the photo indicates.  Citrus, stone fruits, and a little spice.  When people ask about minerality in wine, I always think of the smell of slate.  I think of climbing on slate river beds as a child and the taste of your hands after.  No, I didn’t go around licking my hands as a child, but it happens, right?  If you’ve ever done it, you know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t, open a Mosel Riesling.

With a price point around $10, it is a great Monday wine.  I wish I’d opened it on Monday, in fact, because it would have been perfect with the meal I made.  I was in clean-out-the-fridge mode so I used what I had and it turned out to be, in my husband’s words, the best vegan combination I’ve made so far.

I cubed and roasted some butternut squash with olive oil, salt and pepper and then added mint.  I made brown rice with sautéed leeks, currants, cilantro, cumin, cinnamon, and a little lemon juice at the end.  I also roasted brussel sprouts which I finished with a little Sriracha and lemon juice.  It was delicious.  The warm, fall flavors with a little heat would have paired perfectly with the wine.

You may have read that I was cutting out this, that, and most things in between.  I was really strict at first, then I loosened up on the weekends.  But after two months without the weight budging, I got discouraged and my husband started to complain.  Understandably.  So I adopted my sister’s 80/20 lifestyle.  Eat in the anti-inflammatory way 80% of the time, but when I’m at someone’s home or on date night, I’ll loosen up.   And if I have a sample begging to be opened, I’ll open it.  I’ll just pair it with something healthy.  I’ll still make overall health the goal, but I’ll lighten up on the rules.  Less is more.

Going Out with a Bang

Ok, so I am doing it.  Trying it.  Ok, starting it anyway.  I eat healthy.  I exercise (sometimes more vigorously than others).  And I can’t drop the last ten from my now 3-year-old “baby.”  My sister has been eating the anti-inflammatory way since she discovered it, for the most part.  She was motivated by arthritis but the weight loss is a welcome “side effect” so I am going to try.  Which means no dairy, gluten, sugar, booze, etc.  Which means that I won’t be 100% long-term, but I can be strict for a while and then do some figuring out what works for me.

So I went shopping yesterday for some new supplies but when I got home I realized I had one “last supper.”  I should have planned ahead and made it more exciting, but I did want it to include wheat and dairy with a dash of decadence.  So I did a play on Pasta Carbonara and popped open a wine I’ve been waiting to try all summer, Dane Cellars 2009 Chenin Blanc.  I met the winemaker, Bart Hansen, at SXSW last spring and he sent me a few samples.  I was trying to wait for other wine writers to taste them with me but summer schedules have not permitted any get-togethers.  I got tired of waiting.

In typical fashion, I popped the cork while I was cooking to taste while my palate was clear. And just because.  I think of Chenin as a summer wine, but last night I tasted early fall.  Growing up near MacIntosh apple country, I have a weak spot for a crisp, slightly tart apple.  That is exactly what I tasted when I tried the wine.  Clean, tart early harvest MacIntosh apples.  Add a touch of acid and floral and there you have it.  The recipe I used suggested Sauvignon Blanc but this pairing worked well too.  Basically what you want with Carbonara is some acid to cut the richness of the pancetta and cheese.  The Chenin had that in spades. And at around $15, it nearly qualifies as a Monday wine.

I also didn’t have pancetta since this was on-the-fly gluttony, so I used olive oil and a touch of bacon grease I had in the freezer.  While the pasta was cooking (no spaghetti, just wheat gemelli), I sautéed the garlic and thin ham strips until the garlic was soft and the ham was crisp.  While that was happening I grated about a cup of parmesan cheese and mixed that in with two whisked eggs.  When the pasta was just out of the water, I tossed it in the pan and added the egg/cheese mixture.  (If you want to thin the sauce,add some pasta water).  At the very end I added about a tablespoon of thinly sliced green onion, a touch I adopted from La Traviata.

It wasn’t fancy, but everyone loved it and it paired really well with the wine.  The hubs even ate anything that was left on the kids’ plates.  I’ll make it again, I think?  Or if you know of a good vegan gluten-free version, let me know. (Or any other favorite adaptations).

So I won’t have a lot of new wines to share in the next couple weeks, or maybe I’ll have time to write about ones I’ve already had.  What’s the worst that can happen?  Either I lose that stubborn ten or I get to go back to Pasta Carbonara.  I call that Win-Win.

Send in the Reserves

A few weeks ago I hosted a dinner party to sample some Petite Sirah that I was graciously sent from members of P.S. I Love You.  I chose to limit it to six bottles that night for a few reasons.  I feel like that is about the max I can evaluate fairly before palate fatigue sets in and I wanted to opportunity to try some alternate pairings.

It is a guarantee that on the rare occasion that my husband goes to the store, he will come home with one of his favorites. Usually it is something that his frugal wife doesn’t buy.  Yesterday he went and came home with some big ol’ lamb chops which he does on the grill with rosemary.  For sides, he bought a baguette and stuff for a salad.  He requested some kind of cheese appetizer, but hadn’t picked one out.  Time to dig in the drawer. I decided on goat cheese and I added some rosemary and black pepper.  Now for the fun part- what to open?


I decided it was time to send in the reserves: 2008 Guglielmo Private Reserve from the Santa Clara Valley ($25).  I knew many of the Petite Sirah producers had suggested game for pairings and, of the three I’d saved, this one looked like it would be the best fit.  I decanted and got everything else ready.

In appearance, it looked lighter than most of the others, less purple, more cranberry.    The nose was big berries, a little cocoa, and cinnamon stick. The fruit was well-integrated and balanced with the spice.  From the first sip, I knew I had chosen well.  The fruit complimented the herbal notes.  It was big enough to hold up to the lamb but didn’t over power the goat cheese.  I served some Kalamata olives with the bread and cheese and those were fabulous with it as well.

This is an elegant wine.  Not over-the-top, but firm. Plum, blackberry, and spice.  Food friendly and approachable.  Again, I find myself further impressed with the range and the value in the variety.  And I still have two more bottles in reserve.  Cheers to that.

{Disclosure- I was provided this wine as a media sample.  All opinions are my own.}

Being Enough this Mother’s Day

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with other wine lovers and professionals about the great wines coming out of the Finger Lakes. We tasted Lemberger, Pinot Noir, and two Russian grapes that were new for me, Sapervi and Sereksiya. I always learn something from the producers and writers, but this year, one 140 character tidbit in particular keeps ringing around in my head. Julia Burke, NyWineWench, wrote “Nice of YOU to appreciate it (instead of comparing NY reds to Napa cab)! ” to which Mary Cressler of Vindulge responded, “No way!! NY is NY. CA is CA. OR is OR. Absolutely no need to ever compare to each other. They are who they are!” This idea is one that extends to other areas of our lives, doesn’t it?

If you have been drinking wine for any period of time, you’ve likely come across the idea of terroir, the expression of the land found in wine. Now, there are debates over this, but I’ll leave you to research that for yourself. I am more interested in the general idea of comparing. If you open a Pinot from New York and expect it to taste like one from California, you might be taken aback. If you open one from Burgundy and expect it to taste like one Oregon, you may (or may not) be surprised. Regardless of your expectation, if you don’t take the time to stop comparing, and enjoy it for what it is, you are likely going to miss out on something special.

The other night my brother-in-law made a fish dish, Halibut with Balsamic strawberries. I opened a Pinot from New York, hoping it would work, but it didn’t have the level of acid I was looking for. My husband suggested one of our “flagship” Pinots but I knew that it would be too big, too much black fruit for the dish. We opened the 2010 Stoller Pinot Noir from Dundee Hills and it was just right. Gorgeous cranberry red, red fruit, spice, a bit of fennel. Lovely.

Each Pinot had its own personality and it would be hard to compare them. One was great with fish while the other paired nicely with mushroom risotto. The other wine is big and beautiful, but it would have overpowered the dish. You just need the right wine for the right dish.

After a long day of mothering, a dear friend and I went for a walk last night, after dinner was served, dishes were done, while our husbands gave the children a bath. She was feeling pretty beat up. The worst offender? Herself. You see, she is a fantastic mom, but she doesn’t see it. She only sees that another friend never seems to lose it and she has THREE kids. She wonders how I find time to write and I have TWO kids. She thinks that she is not allowed to have a bad day and that she has no excuse for not get everything done because she only has ONE child. Which is funny, because I look at her super clean house and see how she’s so good and playing with her son and instructing him. I see that she’s in fantastic shape and takes him to the park and museum while I send my kids out in the yard so I can have 30 minutes to write.

Being a mother can, at times, feel like equal parts of joy and suffering. Comparison likes to rear its ugly head in both arenas. Comparing the successes and milestones, comparing the challenges and woes. This Mother’s Day, I challenge you, I challenge myself, to see the coming year through different eyes. How different would our day look if we choose grace, love, and mercy, not only for children but for ourselves? If instead of “doing more” we find peace and satisfaction in the “being?”

Brené Brown talks a lot about comparing in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. In the book, her friend reminds her that “Comparison is the thief of happiness.” Isn’t it though? She reminds us that comparison is “paralyzing” and prevents us from being creative. If creativity is an expression of self, and we are worried about how we measure up to another’s standard, how can we be fully ourselves? If we try to mother our children in the way our neighbor does, is that really best for our child? There is always more to learn, ideas and inspiration to gain from others. But if we aren’t living authentically and being true to ourselves, living “wholeheartedly” as Brown say, then we are not fully living. You are the best mom for your child. You in your whole, complete self. Your whole and complete self can only be found by giving ourselves the space to be different, the grace to grow and fail.

Motherhood is full of “doing.” There is always more to “do.” But do you also value the being? There is a danger when our focus is on the “doing” rather than “being.” Life becomes exhausting and “it” will never get “done.” Is your value tied to what you accomplish or do you believe that who you are is enough? Being available to question while they explore? Being an example in your career or at the grocery store? Being a constant in their lives? A source of comfort? Isn’t that just as important?

Our children are a reflection of us in so many ways-in appearance, in behavior, talents, and challenges. Sometimes the reflection can be a little hard to take. Sometimes, it reflects something beautiful. It always reflects a unique image, an image that IS enough, just right for your child, just right for you. Do you appreciate its unique beauty or are you too busy comparing?

Addie Broyles of the Austin American Statesman interviewed me this week for pairings with a Mother’s Day brunch. One question she asked was what I wanted for Mother’s Day. In the pre-coffee fog, my immediate response was to not do dishes and to have a few moments of peace. Now, I still stand by that, but with some time to think, I have an additional response.

This Mother’s Day, I wish all of my friends, those that are mothers and those that are not, peace. Peace with oneself, peace in your home. May you come closer to understanding your fullness and not feel the need to compare. Enjoy what you can, let go of what you don’t. Do the dishes, don’t do the dishes, but keep it in perspective. Rejoice in the successes of others and strive to find your own success, with your OWN definition. Love big and with grace. And enjoy what is in YOUR glass, right here, right now.

I need to add a big Happy Mother’s Day to my own mom, a woman who always loved big, who was always there, and has never fully seen all the beauty in her own reflection. Cheers!

“Simi”lar stories, Fabulous Pairings

They have similar backgrounds and similar goals, so it is not surprising that Simi Winery and Chef Kolin Vazzoler make a great pair.  Both from Italian heritage, the winery and Chef Kolin focus on producing high quality wines and foods that are sourced locally.  Kolin learned about the culinary arts from his mother and grandmother.  Now he teaches others in the industry about pairing the Simi wines and mentors those new to the profession.

kolinI had the opportunity to talk with Kolin yesterday at the Austin Food and Wine Festival.  Kolin grew up in British Columbia where he earned his culinary certification and began his career.  He moved to San Francisco to work with Gary Danko and spent eight years honing his skills in the city before heading to Healdsburg to work at Simi Winery.

I asked him how working at a winery differs from the restaurant world.  If you’ve spent any time in the industry you know that the hours can be daunting, so that is one benefit the winery offers.  In a restaurant, the chef creates the dish and then you seek out the wine that will work best with the food.  At the winery, the opposite holds true.  He is creating a dish that will best highlight the wine.  In the creative process, adjustments often have to be made, but Kolin has learned a few tricks that we can easily apply.  For example, if the wine is coming across “hot,” add some acid, lemon or salt.  If the wine seems to be falling flat, add savory notes, herbs perhaps.

appeAt the festival, Kolin was pairing the 2010 Sonoma County Pinot Noir with Crispy Chicken Skin, Mushroom Purée, and Dried Cherry.  And what a pairing it was.  The mushroom puree accented the earthy notes in the wine.  The dried cherry echoed the red fruits and the ginger salt highlighted the spice.  Delicious.

So what food and wine combinations have surprised Kolin?  He now enjoys pairing seafood with reds.  Catalan stew, Cioppino, Acqua Pazza all have ingredients which create depth and spice and they need something heavier, spicier to compliment the dish.

And what is his current favorite pairing with the Simi wines?  The Landslide Cabernet Sauvignon is both bright and rich.  Great fruit is balanced by fresh earthy notes.  Full, but not heavy, he enjoys pairing this wine with one of their specialty pizzas with charred radicchio and gorgonzola.  Yum.

My brother is also a chef in the Bay area and about the same age as Kolin.  I’ve watched him go from creating complicated, multi-ingredient works of art to a much simpler approach.  Find good food, in season, locally sourced and you don’t need to do much to it.  The food speaks for itself.  Your job is to find the combinations that work well together and let the natural beauty of the food shine.  From talking with Kolin, it is apparent that he has gone through a similar transition.  Eat what is available, fresh.  Play with it, but keep it simple.  Returning to his roots, this style of cooking is a natural fit for Kolin.

Although the restaurant is not generally open to the public, they do have private events and are working to make his dishes more accessible.  During summer weekends, pizzas and other rustic Italian fare are available.  They are looking into creating dishes to be enjoyed at home and “pop-up” dinners as well.  If you can’t make it to Healdsburg, Simi Wines are readily available and Chef Kolin has shared many of the recipes for his favorite pairings on the website.  Now to find the time to execute them…Cheers!

Disclaimer: I was provided with a pass to the Austin Food and Wine Festival in order to write this piece.  The opinions and thoughts are my own.

P.S. You Were a Hit at the Dinner Party!

Without question, one of my favorite things about wine is how it brings people together.  From harvest to blending, tastings to dinner parties, community is central to the production and enjoyment of wine.  One community that has grown around the love of one grape in particular is P.S I Love You.  The producers and advocates of Petite Sirah formed the group in 2002.  Since then it has grown to over 100 members.

I was introduced to the group by Jo Diaz, the executive director and a fellow member of another group, Women Wine Writers.  I was recently the fortunate recipient of samples from P.S. I Love You.  This gave me a great excuse to bring a new group of wine lovers together to help me sample and learn more about Petite Sirah.

I taught in a multi-age setting and I still love the theory behind it.  Surround the learner with those that are farther ahead in one arena and those that are behind.  Ideas become solidified as you share and support others.  You are challenged to grow as you see new ideas practiced and applied.  All people have different gifts.  We excel in one area and need help in others.   These ideas don’t stop in the classroom.  Or perhaps our entire experience is one big “classroom.”  Either way, the same theories still apply.

Although the Petite Sirah gathering was only scheduled two days in advance, the group could not have been better planned.  One guest had more technical and production experience.  Another came with a palate trained through years of cooking.  Yet another spent years in Italy and fine dining so he brought his own unique angle.   I invited friends that love wine and the learning process and I learned from their unbiased perspectives.

I got a head start on the sampling the night before so that I could come into it with some prior knowledge.  Plus, it gave me the opportunity to try another pairing.  On Thursday, my brother-in-law made grilled Balsamic pork chops which I paired with roasted sweet potatoes and a kale salad.  We opened the 2011 Rock Wall Jack’s Dry Creek for the meal.  This wine was beautifully balanced with tons on blackberry and spice.  Hearty enough to hold up to the balsamic and pepper on the pork, smooth enough to drink by itself after the meal.  A very nice wine.  We also opened the Petite Petit by Michael David Winery.  Trust me, there is nothing “petite” about this wine.  Huge fruit, punctuated by the Petit Verdot, this one really needed some food.  Next time I plan on having some cheese with enough muscle to hold this one.  After a sampling of both ends of the PS spectrum, I felt more prepared for the full tasting.

petite sirah

I read a lot about pairings and asked the producers to share their favorites. We started with a cheese plate.  For dinner, I decided on venison meatballs with marinara, garlic bread and salad.  That way I could bring in the game and the hearty tomato in one dish.  Also, I could do all the work before guests arrived which is always preferred.  I chose six wines to taste that night.  I have found that, after that, my palate becomes saturated and I can’t properly evaluate a wine.  Plus, that leaves me a couple more to pair in the future.

In retrospect, I may have changed the order, but based on what I knew, courses, and price point, I put them in the following order:

1) 2010 Bogle Vineyards $11 Cheese course-Big black fruit, tar, spicy pepper, full-bodied

2) 2011 Concannon Central Coast $10 -Cheese course-Red and black berries, leather, medium-bodied. Would have served this before Bogle. A great value.

3) 2010 Stanton Vineyards $45- Served with Main Course-Absolutely delicious.  Complimented the meal nicely.  Perfumed nose. Integrated red and black fruit, balanced, big and complex.

4) 2010 Pedroncelli Dry Creek Valley$17 Served with Main Course-Super complex.  Red and black fruit, some eucalyptus and spice.  Hearty and rich layers. Full bodied and a fantastic value.

5) 2010 Wooden Valley Winery $19 Served with dessert. Cocoa and Cassis, round vanilla and almond notes.  With the addition of Zinfandel, this wine is fruit forward and approachable.

6) 2010 Earthquake $26  With a name like Earthquake, I assumed this wine would pack a big punch and needed to come last.  I was right.  Bold, hefty, in your face tannins and fruits that doesn’t quit.  Consider yourself warned and pair with something that would rank high on the Richter scale.

So what did we learn for our course in Petite Sirah?  Also known as Durif, this grape is typically used in blending, but is lovely on its own.  Depending on growing conditions and production techniques, the grape can produce very diverse wines.  We learned that this wine is made for food, specifically hearty foods.  We learned that there are some great values in Petite Sirah.  Layered, rich and under $20?  Yes, please.

The best learning is done is a safe environment.  When wine flows, conversation follows.  Questions arise, points of view differ, but, in the right setting, you all come away richer, and hopefully wiser.  Thank you P.S. I Love You for providing the opportunity to learn.  Thank you, dear friends, for teaching and learning with me.  Most importantly, thank you for creating an environment in which learning is possible.  Cheers!

Disclaimer: These wines were provided as samples by the producers affiliated with P.S. I Love You.  The opinions are my own and those of my dinner guests.