Two Wrenches, a few Corks, and a Milestone

Nothing throws a wrench in your plans quite like a flu invasion.  In a week that was filled with obligations, appointments, and celebrations, it could not have come at a worse time.  But we did what you have to do.  We canceled, improvised, and scaled back to try to make it work.

On Monday, my son started with a fever, on Tuesday it was diagnosed as the flu.  I canceled two appointments, but I still made it to my evening plans.  Gusto Tastings held their final Texas vs. The World of the year with the focus on Syrah.  I honestly didn’t know what to expect from Syrah in Texas.  I hadn’t had any (that I remember) and it is not what I think of when I think of Texas wine.  They have changed the format and now all of the tastings are blind which adds a new element to the competition.  Nineteen wines were tasted and evaluated, the producers revealed at the end.  With producers from France, Australia, California. and Washington, I knew the competition was stiff.  You can imagine my surprise when three out of my top five came from Texas.  And I wasn’t alone.  I was tasting with friends that have been in the wine industry professionally and long time enthusiasts.  We all shared the enthusiasm.  And ironically, or perhaps appropriately, the top two came from the two producers that were joining us that night.  If you are wanting to try what Texas has to offer in the way of Syrah, although there were a few others I enjoyed, I would recommend 2011 Lost Oak Estate Syrah Reserve, “The Sheriff” and 2009 Texas Hills Vineyards Hill Country Syrah.  Both had great fruit, balance, and spice.

On Wednesday, my daughter and husband came down with symptoms and I downed vitamins and Elderberry.  Turning your house into an infirmary in inconvenient at any time, but when your brother is flying in to celebrate your mom’s 70th birthday, it is a huge disappointment.  I cancelled our original plans, nursed, lysoled, and managed to avoid the “love.”   I was, at least, able to join my family at my mom’s house while my husband and children recovered at home.

We had planned on staying at The Winfield Inn, a bed and breakfast where we married.  Because my brother is a chef, eating out is often a disappointment, so we planned a meal that would not require a kitchen or take-out.  Raclette is similar to fondue in that is consists of melted cheese and is interactive.  It is different in that it is both a grill and a broiler and the cheese is melted and the poured over the nibbles. Each person has a pan and a paddle; with the germs going around my house I’m sure everyone appreciated the more sanitary nature of the Raclette.  We had Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, potatoes, sausage, Bresaola, cornichons, and pickled onions.  We opened Chateau Paradis Rose, McPherson Tre Colore, and an Eroica Riesling.  Eroica is a love child created from Chateau St. Michelle’s Washington grapes and Dr. Loosen’s Mosel winemaking skills.  Great aroma, fruit, acid and minerality.  It was a lovely evening, but only the beginning.

My brother had planned a “This is Your Life” menu for her actual birthday: some of her favorites, a taste of home, a sentimental cocktail.  We began the evening with the only cocktail we’ve ever heard about from her, one she hadn’t had in over forty years, a Pink Squirrel.  It is made with Creme de Noyaux, Creme de Cacao, and heavy cream.  Yes, it is every bit as decadent as it sounds. One was enough, then some sparkling from Washington, Treveri.  Here was the planned menu:

Broiled Artichoke dip on country bread (made with fresh, not canned or jarred artichokes)

Mulligutawney with fresh curry leaves and vadouvan

Harrington ham with lingonberry chutney
Braised cabbage and quince
New potatoes
Chanterelle custards

Meyer Lemon Tart

See why we don’t go out to dinner?  If the virus was the first wrench, the ham getting stuck in Indiana was the second.  He improvised with Bone-in pork chops instead.   It was a delicious as it sounds.  With dinner we had J Vineyard Pinot Gris and Argyle Pinot Noir.  They both paired nicely.

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While the food was spectacular, what made the day truly special was the love we were celebrating.  My mother has always been the heart of our family.  We watched her pour out her life to serve others and spread kindness and encouragement.  Whether she was sharing a kind word in line at the grocery store or a meal with someone in need, she made it look effortless.  Whether she quietly held someone’s hand that needed to vent or gave sage advice that was hard to hear, she did it with gentleness.  She would go out of her way to make you know you were seen, heard, and important.

I see so much of that in my brother.  He thoughtfully planned the meal, assembled ingredients, was in the kitchen all day, and made it look effortless.  His advice is always wise, his words gentle and few, with humor to put anyone at ease.  He goes above and beyond in his service and remains humble about his enormous talent.  It was an honor to be a part of the day, to watch love in action, to see the legacy my mother has created.  I couldn’t love them more.

We asked my mother questions about her life.  Childhood memories, of which there are few, favorite vacations, of which there are many, and if she could love a day over again, which would you choose?  Her answer?  That very day because of the love she felt and having her family together.  That is how she’s always been.

In the Christian community, Proverbs 31 has become a cliché standard.  It is equally intimidating (how in the world?) and inspirational.  I see so much of my mother; I know what a privilege that is and worthy of celebration.

“Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: Many woman do noble things, but you surpass them all…Give her the reward she has earned.” Proverbs 31: 28-31

Oh, That’s Right This is a Wine Blog…

Lately I have been writing about a little of this and a lot of that but not a lot about wine. Lest I forget why many of you started reading, here are some of the highlights of my summer quaffing.

1) Champlain Valley wines.

I was pleasantly surprised by what I was tasting. Think cool climate acid, clean fruit, not overly complex but versatile. Most of these producers are fairly new to the game and some are doing better than others but it was fun to try some varieties, like Louise Swenson and Marquette, that were new to me. East Shore Vineyard and The Champlain Wine Company were at the head of the leaderboard in my limited experience.

2) Ridge Vineyards 06 Lytton Springs Zinfandel

Huge fruit and spice, beautiful layers. This super complex Zin is a special occasion wine at around $50 but it is sure to impress. Paul Draper has such a great approach to the art and industry of winemaking that the wine is a conversation piece in and of itself.

3) Loxton Cellars

Originally from Australia, Chris Loxton is no stranger to Syrah. His goal is to produce wines with a sense of place.  With a focus on Syrah and Zin, he uses the most natural processes that he can. When I think of California Zins and Syrah, I think big, bold, and a little heavy. His were surprisingly light, yet complex. We left with a bottle of Zin. Subtle tannins, spice, acid and bright fruit. Delish. We may be joining this one.

4) Walt Wines

The tasting room is right off the Sonoma square and they specialize in Pinots. I think we tasted six, all tasty. They source their grapes from several regions and the labels are color coded accordingly. My two favorites were from the Anderson Valley, so that’s good for me to know when choosing. They did one that was an experimental wine with the stems being removed, smoked and then the wine filtered through them. I wish I had my notes (taken on the tasting sheet, a casualty of travel), but I think that is correct. Really interesting. Check them out.

5) Domaine du Montru Muscadet Sevre & Maine sur lie.

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My new favorite summer Monday wine. Priced under $10, this wine is complex and bright, with great citrus notes and minerality. Find it, open it, and enjoy. Easy and the perfect wine on these hot September (?!?) days.  If you’re in ATX, it is at Central Market.

6) 2009 Haraszthy Zinfandel Amador County ($18)

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While camping in Big Trees, we would go down to the local Chevron each day so my husband could get some work done. While in there, I saw a small wine section with all local producers. On a recent Twitter tasting someone mentioned that he felt Amador County Zins didn’t get their due so I tried this little, or should I say big whopping, gem. Jammy red fruit and bold spice, perfect with ziti and sausage that my husband whipped up on the cool Sierra evening.

When I looked up the wine, I realized that the family is well versed on the topic. Vallejo Haraszthy, the current owner, is a descendant of General Vallejo, founder of Sonoma, and Count Agoston Haraszthy, the founder of Buena Vista Winery.

The bear on the label is a nod to the flag of California and the motto, Solus Sto, is Latin for “Stand Alone.” They continue to honor each region for its’ own unique characteristics. A fun wine with a great story.

As I ease into my new-found twice-a-week morning freedom, I hope to not be such a stranger. And I’m celebrating a BIG birthday this weekend so I should have some more recommendations soon. 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.

Fond Memories-Robert Mondavi

There are some wines that invite an immediate image.  One sip and you are transplanted, to a memory or an ideal.  Robert Mondavi’s 2010 Napa Valley Pinot Noir conjures images of fallen leaves and cashmere sweaters, blackberry brambles and tartan blankets.  It is just what I want from a Pinot Noir.

Many years ago, I spent a week of early autumn in the hills of Santa Rosa.  We picked blackberries for cobbler in the late morning sun, trudged through tall, crisp grasses on afternoon walks, and shared blankets and stories in the evening.  Bottle after bottle, I drank in Sonoma and felt like I was home.  The bottle says “Carneros,” but I taste Santa Rosa.

If the sense of smell is that which is most closely affiliated with memories, then this wine has the potential to help you make some fabulous ones.  Blackberry, nutmeg, and soft oak.  The fruit bursts on the palate and slowly fades to sweet, woodsy spice.  I chose to pair the wine with a pork tenderloin.  I covered the bottom of the pan with sliced onion and peppers, coated the tenderloin with several herbs, olive oil, salt and pepper.  I tossed fingerling potatoes in rosemary, olive oil, salt and pepper.  I served them with a salad of mixed greens, red pear, and Maytag blue cheese. 

The pairing was quite nice.  The herbs enhanced the fruit, the oak carried the wine through the cheese, and the pear played nicely with the nutmeg notes.  I would buy this wine again in a heartbeat.  Another nice pairing would be a salad with blackberries and hazelnuts with goat cheese medallions.  You could go in many directions with this wine.

The first piece of writing I put out publically was a poem, an ode to a wine that brought me back to an afternoon in Sonoma.  That is what a good wine does.  It gives you a piece of a time and place.  It speaks to your closely held memories and can transport you.  Thank you, Robert Mondavi, for the brief vacation on a Sunday evening.

*{Disclosure: I was provided with this wine from PR Firm, Folsom & Associates. All statements and opinions expressed in this article are my own. The photo of a Carneros vineyard was provided by my father-in-law.}

The Night Began with Dom (Paggi House)

Any night that begins with a bottle of Dom Pérignon is bound to finish well, right?  Actually, it could begin and end with the one bottle and be more than fabulous in my book.  Add in some great company and a meal at the Paggi House and this girl is blissful.

We occasionally have dinner with my husband’s business partner and his wife to catch up and spend some time together.  They are amazing people and I am eternally grateful for their kindness, support, and generosity.  This time we met at the office, before dinner, because the men wanted to celebrate a great year, thus far.  Is there a better way to celebrate than Champagne?  I think not.  We then headed to the Paggi House, which is quickly becoming our new favorite spot to have dinner together.  Three out of four of us enjoyed our previous meal so much that we couldn’t stray and try something new.  And we were equally happy this time around. 

One thing we did differently was to have Chris McFall, the resident Sommelier, choose our wines.  I am glad we did.  I had the Proscuitto and Melon salad with Balsamic and Fig to begin and Ahi with Squash Ribbons and Broccoli Rabe with Grapefruit Buerre Blanc.  My husband had Venison Tartare and Scallops with Bone Marrow, Braised Fennel, and an Almond Creme.  He paired both with a glass of 2009 Domaine Nicolas Rossignol Bourgogne Pinot Noir .  The earthy qualities and subtle fruit was a great foil for the spice in the Tuna.  It was bright enough to handle the richness of the Scallops and bone marrow.  A lovely and surprising pairing.

After dinner, my husband and I stayed and sat at the bar for a bit.  Thanks to Stephan and Jose Sapien, the Mixologist, for being so friendly and informative.   They have a great cocktail list with some very interesting surprises.  If you decide to visit at happy hour, most of the drinks and a list of appetizers are half price.  I think I will be visiting in the near future.  And if you want to meet me with a bottle of Dom Pérignon, I won’t complain.  Cheers!