Monday, August 16, 2010

I've Moved!

That's right, from now on you can follow me & my blog at my new website!  There are now links to my upcoming events, pairing ideas, and much more!  I hope to see you all over there. Cheers!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wine Tasting Tips

One of my friends on Facebook posted a question on my wall earlier this week about 'tips for going to a wine tasting'. Her and her husband recently had a baby and they are going to their first wine tasting for some "grownup time". I responded to her with the following tips:
1. Pace yourself - don't get schnookered (you'll look like a novice & probably buy more than you wanted to)
2. Drink plenty of water - to help pace yourself and keep hydrated.
3. Be sure to eat beforehand - Another way to prevent against getting schnookered.
4.If going as a couple, decide who will be responsible for driving home (just in case tips #1-3 don't work out for you)
5. Do whatever makes you comfortable - if swirling a glass or slurping your wine feels awkward, don't worry about doing it. It will just make you paranoid and you'll be too caught up in 'looking proper' (no one likes a wine snob or wine slob).
6. Don't wear white. Dark colors are best, in case you get bumped or are too overzealous with your swirling.
7. Don't wear cologne or perfume - people are there to sniff and enjoy the wine, not to smell your potent perfume.
8. Take notes or take photos with your camera phone so you can remember what you liked.
9. If you like any of the wines you taste, it is usually a better deal to buy them at the event, then somewhere else later; but don't feel pressured to buy anything if you aren't crazy about any of them.
10. Relax and have fun!!!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Some Things are Worth the Time/Effort - A Recipe for New Orleans BBQ Shrimp

The first time I tried this recipe was back in 2003, when I was still in college and tinkering around with the idea of going to culinary school.  I loved putting off homework so I could bake, stir-fry, and experiment with new cooking techniques.  These days I don't have quite as much free-time as I did back then, but some things are worth making the time for.  So I decided to take the couple hours needed to create one of my favorite dishes, Emeril's New Orleans BBQ Shrimp. Here's the recipe with my additions/alterations:

3 pounds large Gulf shrimp, in their shells
2 tablespoons Creole seasoning (i used Zatarains)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup chopped onions
2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 bay leaves
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 cups water
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup dry white wine (I used an Aussie white blend)
1 cup heavy cream

Peel the shrimp completely and de-vein. Reserve the shells and set aside. Sprinkle the shrimp with 1 tablespoon Creole seasoning. Use you hands to coat the shrimp with the seasonings. Refrigerate the shrimp while you make the sauce base.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a skillet over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions and garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the reserved shrimp shells, the remaining Creole seasoning, the bay leaves, lemons, water, Worcestershire, and wine. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, allow to cool for about 15 minutes. Strain into a small saucepan.
Place over high heat, bring to a boil, and cook until thick, syrupy, and dark brown, for about 15 minutes. 

Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the seasoned shrimp and saute them, occasionally shaking the skillet, for 2 minutes. Add the cream and enough barbecue base to coat. Stir and simmer for 3 minutes. Remove the shrimp to a warm platter with tongs and whisk the butter into the sauce. Remove from the heat. Mound the shrimp in the center of a platter. Spoon the sauce over the shrimp and around the plate. 

This time around I decided to serve the shrimp with some grits (polenta), but in the past I have served it with white rice (which I think is better).  I had a little leftover BBQ base, so I have it in a storage container and have since added dollops to my mac'n'cheese, BLTs, and baked is so flavorful and delicious on/in so many things!  

My recommended wine pairing with this recipe is an off-dry Gewurztraminer to help quench your thirst that all the spiciness creates, while still working well with the depth of flavor the dish provides.  
Cheers & bon appetit! 

Monday, July 12, 2010

How I Spent My Fourth of July Weekend

Some people camp, others go on a road trip or I decided to go out on a limb and fly out for an "audition" at one of our nation's finest restaurants.

Months ago, I had decided to shake things up a bit and send in my resume to The Herbfarm Restaurant in Woodinville, WA.  For those of you that follow my blogs, you will know that I vacationed to that area in February.  Well, The hubby and I liked the area when we were there and I have always been in awe of what The Herbfarm has achieved, so we thought it would be a nice move. But I thought it was a shot in the dark because their job posting had said that they were looking for candidates in their immediate area.  It seems that after several months of searching, they just couldn't find the right candidate nearby.  So I got an email and then a phone call.  Then another phone call. Then another and another.  Next thing I know, I am online booking a flight so I could check the place out firsthand and they could check out me.

Thursday afternoon I arrived and had an interview at 1pm.  I sat down with the two owners and current sommelier for an hour long interview where I was asked to do a sample pairing menu, a mock service demonstration, and talk about my career goals.  I was then dismissed, so I could rest up before returning to the restaurant for dinner.  When I returned at 6:15pm, I was greeted with a delicious non-alcoholic punch and wondered down to the cellar.  I felt like a kid in a candy shop...a really, really big, expensive candy shop.  I chatted with the owner for a little while and then made my way outside for the garden tour.

One of my favorite things about The Herbfarm is that they specialize in something that is so important to me-they grow all of their own herbs and produce, utilize products that are sustainably grown or caught locally, and really focus on the guest experience. It is quite the experience to tour their herb farm and listen to the owner talk about their growing practices and history, all while tasting/smelling things like day-lily petals, chive blossoms, and lavender. 

After the garden tour, I was seated at one of the European tables with 4 couples that came from various backgrounds and places. It was a lively and fun group.  We talked about our hometowns and jobs, about other restaurants we'd dined at, and our favorite movies; but as each course came out, everyone would fall silent for a moment as we all fell in awe of the flawless execution of the delivery and presentation. The conversation would slowly start back up, beginning with 'ooh's and 'ahhs' about the food before us.  After 9 heavenly courses I sauntered back to my hotel room to rest up and get ready to see it from the other side.

On Friday, I arrived just before 3pm to help the sommelier set up for the evening service.  We opened and decanted bottles, studied the night's reservation list, and organized our service station.  I studied up on the menu, tried to calm my nerves, and got ready for the "audition" to start.  It all felt a little overwhelming and chaotic to me, but I did my best to just absorb and organize everything in my mind. I welcomed guests, ran out courses, cleared plates, opened doors, and...oh yeah...poured wine. I didn't have too many opportunities to connect with guests like I usually would because I was too concerned with making sure I was walking the right way around a table, holding things in the correct hand, and doing everything I could to stay out of the way. After a long night of controlled chaos, I decided I had better get some rest, recalibrate, and relax.

On Saturday, I came back with two goals: 1) Be more confident on the floor and 2) make the guests' experiences memorable. I felt like after my Friday night bootcamp, I could come back knowing how to do things and doing them with my own flare.  I wanted to make sure that I could see myself doing this and enjoy doing it day after day.  About two hours into the evening, I completely forgot that I was there for an interview and fell into this zone.  I was joking with guests, taking photos for them, and walking the floor like I had done it a million times before.  It didn't take long before I was snapped back out of it, though, when I was asked by one of the owners to explain the dish (in detail) that was going out.  I tripped over my words and chopped my way through it.  Definitely needed some more practice on that.  Though, it was reassuring when, at the end of the night, one of the servers came up to me and said that she didn't even notice me on the floor that night.  Which is a good thing because it meant that she was constantly trying to correct me or maneuver around me.

After the last guest was gone, the service staff all worked together to get the room reset and cleaned up.  After that we sat down with the owners to go over the evening of service and discuss areas of opportunity.  Then, I was told that I could head back to my hotel room and that they were all going to stay to talk about me.

I got a phone call from one of the owners two days after I returned to WI.  Bittersweet news...they liked me, but needed me to have more PacificNW wine knowledge and felt that I was a little out of practice being on the floor.  This news meant that I didn't have to take a big risk and move 2,002 miles, find a new house, sell my current house, help my husband find a job, and leave my current gigs.  But it did leave me a little disappointed that I missed out on a new adventure - an adventure that would have thrown me out on that dining room 'stage' every night, would have allowed me to work for such a respected restaurant with owners that value so much that is dear to me, and would have landed me in an area that I find so astounding...

But I remain optimistic and excited about my wine-filled future.  Who knows, I may end up living in Seattle...or France...or back in California... or....?  For now, I am going to continue riding the fun and turbulent wave I'm on and keep seeing where it will take me....

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Book Whirlwind

Well, it has been far too long since my last post, but I have been riding one heck of a wave lately!  My book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine & Food Pairing, came out on June 1st and since I got the first copy in the mail, I have been out on the road promoting it.  In 25 days I have signed over 120 books at over 10 events and paired over 50 dishes/foods at these events. I have put over 4,000 miles on my car and taught classes to over 300 people... And I'm just getting started! 

It has been so much fun to teach people about wine and food pairing basics and to experiment with some really unusual pairings at each of the classes.  My coauthor, Jeanette has been able to also attend many of the events (often with her 4month old cutie in tow) and has shared so much of her cheese knowledge at each of our classes (many of which have been based around cheese, since we live in the cheese state).  One of my favorite wine/cheese pairing tips that she taught me (and I finally got to try first hand) is to add a little fresh-cracked pepper to your cheese when drinking it with red wine.  It really makes the flavors of the red wine pop!

Some other new and unusual pairings that were fun to try included:
  • Reuben Dip (all the ingredients you'd have on a Reuben sandwich, but in dip form) with a German Pinot Noir. 
  • Cream Puffs with an oaky Chardonnay (not a 'perfect' pairing, but it really made for an interesting combination. I need to seek out some late-harvest Chardonnay and try it with some cream puffs come State Fair time).
  • Merieke Gouda with a lightly-oaked chardonnay.
  • Sweet Salmon Spread on crackers with Spatlese Riesling.
  • Dark Chocolate Bread Pudding with a dry, Paso Robles Zinfandel (the bread pudding wan't too sweet and worked wonderfully with the Zin). 
 Hopefully I'll be able to get back in the habit of updating my blog regularly and sharing other unusual pairings, as well as some new wineries and wine regions in the US that I'll be visiting.  But until then, CHEERS!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Finally Getting Back to Normalcy

Well, it has been nearly a week since I was out in California, working hard to earn a green pin, and I am just now starting to get back into the swing of things.  It is so weird to go from studying every single spare moment, to being able to do simple things like clean the house, enjoy a mimosa, and pet my cats.

While I wasn't successful in my first attempt at the Court of Master Sommeliers' Advanced Exam, I feel like I gained so much from the experience.  I learned so much, drank some darn-good wine, and forged some amazing friendships.  (Hey, I'm an honorary Seattleite now!)  Sure I wish I would have earned that green pin, but when only 13/52 people pass, I can't feel too terrible.  It is a hard exam (that's an understatement) and an emotional rollercoaster (wheeee!), and I now know how to better prepare myself for it all. 

So, I managed to survive...and I can't wait to get back in there and do it again next April.  But for now, I am going to relax (yeah, right) and get ready for my book release.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Wine-ding Around the US #3 - (Northern) Idaho

If any of you reading this are from Idaho or know Idaho wine, you are probably thinking to yourselves, "why would a wine geek go to Northern Idaho to find wine, instead of Southern where all the action is?"  That's exactly why. Well, okay, not really.  My grandparents chose Northern Idaho to retire to and I was able to coordinate a visit with them, along with a winery visit (or two).  I very rarely go to a wine region just for the sake of going to a winery.  It usually involves a tradeshow, grand tasting, exam, family get-together, or other miscellaneous visit.

For this visit, my husband and I stayed at probably one of the neatest and most unusual (in a good way) places I've ever stayed at - Cedar Springs B&B.  The owners grow their own produce, grind their own flour for waffles (their breakfast specialty, which you can top with a plethora of homemade fruit preserves), and live in harmony with the land around them.  The couple that owns Cedar Springs B&B were fascinating and friendly - albeit a little odd - but I loved 'em.  The rooms were clean, the food was delicious, and the surroundings were surreal.

About an hour north of Cedar Springs B&B is a town called Sandpoint - home to a bleu cheese factory, an awesome pub with amazing grub (Eichardt's Pub), and a winery with a difficult name until someone says it for you.  (Oh, and Coldwater Creek clothing company started in this city of 6,000 people and still has its headquarters and a wine bar there, too.)  I could totally tolerate living in a place like this - wine, cheese, beer...what else do you need?  Plus, it all is nestled along a beautiful lake - the Pend d'Oreille, which is where the winery I visited got its name.  "Pend-or-rell"? "Pen-duh-oree-al"? Nope. Think French - "Pend-duh-Ray". See? Much easier than it looks.  My husband and I bellied up to the tasting bar between some other tourists and locals that were already sipping away.  The locals were enjoying a glass while they waited to have their magnum wine bottle refilled - yes, Pend d'Oreille Winery has a refill program on their house red blend.  But, before I got too excited, I wanted to find out if this refill wine was even worth refilling.

I sampled Pend d'Oreill's Bistro Rouge (their house red) and it was...well, delicious.  They bottle the wine in 750ml bottles (mainly for out-of-towners), but also store it in wine kegs used for their in-house refill system.  Locals can take home a full bottle of Bistro Rouge and when the bottle runs dry, they can bring it back and have it refilled.  This not only keeps your house-wine supply full, but it saves a glass bottle from ending up in a landfill. It is green, but you fill it with red.  What an awesome concept.

Pend d'Oreille's other local specialty is their the Huckleberry Blush.  I am not one for non-grape fruit wines, so I was not exactly eager to try this one out.  Once I was discovered as a wine professional, I was introduced to the winemaker/owner and the assistant winemaker and got a tour of the backroom (if you go as a regular patron, the tasting room staff will also be happy to show you the winery backroom, just ask).  I just so happened to join them just as they finished bottling their new vintage of Huckleberry Blush and they were eager to let me try some.  It is predominantly made with Riesling grapes, but finished with the juice of fermented huckleberries (the local fruit that seems to be incorporated into just about anything).  For a sweet fruit-wine blend, it was actually pretty tasty - who woulda thunk it?   I could totally see myself enjoying a bottle of it on the shores of Lake Pend d'Oreill on a hot, sunny day.

In addition to their Bistro Red and Huckleberry Blush, Pend d'Oreille makes all sorts of other delicious single-varietal whites and reds including Chardonnay, Viognier, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Primitivo.  Most of the grapes are imported from Washington (just a few hours away) and all the pressing, fermenting, and bottling takes place at their winery.  They offer various tasting flights in their tasting room and they give you some tasty little breadsticks to help cleanse your palate between each wine. The tasting room also doubles as a gift shop, but unlike others I've seen, this one doesn't over-run the place with clutter and cheesy wine knickknacks galore (who really takes wine seriously when sitting next to something like this?).

The folks at Pend d'Oreille really know what they're doing.  Their staff is friendly and passionate, their wine is delicious and well made, and the whole place just had this energy about energy that is created by happy people that are actually having fun at their jobs and truly love what they do. 

Now I just need an excuse to go back (and stay).

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Adventures in Woodinville, WA - Day 1

To state it simply - Woodinville is not what I expected.  So many of Washington's wineries are based in Woodinville, like Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Cellars, Novelty Hill, Januik, and DiStefano just to name a few.  I was picturing a city surrounded by rolling hills covered in grapevines with new chateaus and tasting rooms flanking the main drag.  I was kind of right.  There are TONS of wineries and brand new tasting rooms on both sides of Woodinville Drive.  But instead being situated in the middle of vineyards, many of them are located in industrial parks, strip malls, and warehouses.  The only grapevines in sight were some novelty vines here and there in front of the bigger tasting venues.

Now I should have known better.  No one bottles their wine in Woodinville with a Woodinville AVA - there isn't one.  Everyone sources their grapes from areas within Columbia Valley and Walla Walla.  It turns out that Woodinville has become a hub for wineries because of its close proximity to Seattle, making it a perfect day-trip spot for tourists and locals.  In fact, even wineries that have their actual winemaking facilities in Southern Washington have tasting rooms in Woodinville to help capture the growing interest in wine tourism.

The main purpose of my visit to Woodinville was to visit and taste the wines of DiStefano Winery.  DiStefano was honored as Washington's Winery of the Year in 2008 and creates an impressive line of wines.  I had arranged a private tasting and tour with the owner, Mark Newton for my entire family - my husband and I were staying with my aunt, uncle, and cousin and my father flew up from CA to visit, too - so there was a small crowd for Mark to entertain, which he did ever so generously.

Mark started by pouring us their highly rated Sauvignon Blanc which everyone loved.  It is crisp, yet still round thanks to a little bit of Semillon and some time spent on its lees (dead yeast cells).  We then tried their newly-bottled rosé which my family LOVED, to my surprise. (yes, i think good, dry pink wine rocks, but I wasn't sure my family would share the same opinion).  We then continued onto the DiStefano reds and took the tasting into the winemaking warehouse.  We were surrounded by giant stainless steel fermentation tanks and stacks of oak barriques.  Mark went on to tell everyone about the process of fermentation and aging and the difference in oak types.  We sipped our Meritages, then some Grenache, and finished off with some Syrah - by the end of it my non-expectorating family members were getting pretty loopy.  We all purchased a few bottles (Mark even signed a few for my family) and we bid our farewells. All of us were famished from all that tasting, so we ventured to nearby Issaquah for some giant burgers at XXX Root Beer.
So, if you ever find yourself in Seattle, be sure to make the 20 minute trek out to Woodinville.  It is a town built around wineries, restaurants, and even a brewery - how could you go wrong?  Just don't expect to see sprawling vineyards anywhere nearby.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Master Sommelier Seminar - White Burgundy

On Tuesday, I ventured to Chicago for a few hours to taste some white Burgundies with some of the most respected sommeliers in the Midwest.  A professional organization that I am a member of, The Guild of Sommeliers, had organized a series of tasting seminars across the U.S. and one just happened to be a short drive (well, thanks to the snow that day, it was a trainride) away from me.  It was a small fee to register for and I probably would have willingly paid more just for the networking and educational opportunity this provided.

I arrived to the seminar about 2 minutes late thanks to the train supposedly having engine problems and having to stop for nearly 20 minutes.  Luckily, I discovered some of my fellow Wisconsinite sommeliers were on the train, so we all showed up late together.  The three Master Sommeliers that were moderating the seminar (Master Spellman, Master Kruth, and Master Alvarado) greeted us at the door with a handshake and we quickly took our seats at a table covered with glasses filled with a spectrum of gold and yellow liquids.

Immediately, I started sizing them all up.  That one's oldest (it was the most golden in color).  That one is youngest or maybe not even Chardonnay (it was watery-white and almost green in color).  I stuck my nose in one. Hmm, smells like Chablis.

We went around the room and introduced ourselves.  The room was filled with sommeliers from Chicago, California, and Wisconsin; plus a dentist that specialized in root canals who just wanted to know more about wine to better enjoy it. How random, but cool.  When it got to me, I kind of froze and spit out something about being a Certified Sommelier studying for my Advanced and also a wine writer.  No mention of my day job (which I'm sure my Wisconsinite colleagues thought odd) and no mention of my WSET studies. Oh well.  Let's taste.

We had 15 minutes to smell, sip and ponder the seven wines in front of us.  I went through the Court of Master Sommeliers' process of deductive tasting where you jot down notes about everything: color, alcohol, viscosity, acid, brightness, rim variation, concentration, aromas... you get the picture. You then make a few educated guesses about the wine's age, region, and quality level.  I got through five and a half of the wines before they decided to start going through them.

The main thing I was hoping to get out of this seminar was clues about how to identify specific sup-appellations and quality levels.  Sure, I could smell a Chardonnay and tell you that it is Chardonnay and probably that it is Burgundian, but I would be blindly guessing if I told you it was specifically from Chablis or Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet (all villages within the larger 'Burgundy' region).

After the first two, I thought I had it down.  I nailed the vintages and was doing fairly well with the quality levels.  The Masters started talking about various aromas that could clue you into a certain sub-appellation.  Things like "baby-diaper" for Puligny-Montrachet, "hazelnut" for Chassagne-Montrachet, and "baked brie" for Meursault all made perfect sense once they said it.

When we got to the fifth wine, I was stumped.  It didn't even smell like Chardonnay.  It was full of these weird saline/metallic aromas that I had never smelled before.  It ended up being an Aligote which is permitted in certain areas of Burgundy, like Gamay is. I had never had an Aligote before, so that made the trip all worth it right there.  When we got to the wine I had only made it halfway through, I opened my mouth at the wrong time and got volunteered to talk about the observations I made.  I nervously stumbled through my notes and then abruptly stopped where my notes ended.  Luckily, someone was able to pick it up and finish the observation portion.  It came back to me for the conclusion, though.  Not cool.  I had no clue what village it was from at all.  It was the oldest one of the lot, though, so I was able to hone in on the vintage and even got the quality level.  It ended up being a 1998 Bienvenue-Batard Grand Cru. Something else I had never tasted.

Some of the pointers the Masters gave for exams:
  • Don't feel like you need to guess the exact oak type (French vs. American) unless you are positive
  • Don't be afraid to say a wine is "unclean" if it is a little oxidized. 
  • Chardonnay always has some sort of apple aroma - whether it be red apple, baked apple, dried apple, or green apple. 
  • Alcohol doesn't lie, but acid can.  When trying to determine a region or vintage based on the alcohol levels, if the wine tastes 'hot' (high in alcohol), the vintage was either warm or the region is. 

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Wine-ding Around The US #2 - Indiana

Thanks to my husband, I have a new title for my American wine-adventure blogs.  (Though you should have heard some of the rejected titles he through out along with this...maybe I'll save those for a blooper-reel like blog entry)

Chateau Thomas Winery

Indianapolis, IN
Date Visited: 11.21.09
American Viticultural Area (AVA): None, since no grapes grown
Grapes Grown: None - All are imported

Sometimes it is fun to just get in the car and drive.  I had to meet with a friend/colleague for dinner at a restaurant (that sadly is no longer in business - another victim claimed by the recession) in Chicago that I featured in my upcoming book to pick up some wine samples and talk a little business.  After an evening of decadence, the hubby and I decided to mix things up a bit and not stay the night in Chicago as we had initially planned.  Instead, we hopped in the car and just started driving south.

We had talked about exploring Indiana 'just for fun' since it was a short road trip away and because I have distant family ties there.  So as we were driving, I called and arranged for two nights at the Nestle Inn B&B in Indianapolis (thanks iPhone for making that a cinch!) and stopped at a cheapo motel along the way (hey, it was nearly 3am! Told you it was a decadent evening!).  After a night of sleeping off the foie gras, Champagne, and gold-leafed cocoa cubes; we were ready to venture to the Hoosier state.

First stop, Traders Point Creamery - Where there is cheese, there must be wine!  This family-owned & operated creamery is all organic and the cows are truly happy (and adorable). We enjoyed brunch at their cafe, The Loft, where we indulged in the richest mac'n'cheese I've ever had and a salad to help keep things somewhat healthy.  I was planning on having a glass of wine with it all (their well-designed list was comprised solely of organic wines), but the hum of the milkshake mixer was calling me - Best milkshake-EVER.

After we again stuffed ourselves to the brim, we continued our drive toward Indianapolis, which is where I found my winery. Indiana is part of the Ohio River Valley AVA and has over 40 registered wineries.  The one that kept popping up in all the guidebooks and web-searches was Chateau Thomas, a winery smack-dab in the middle of metropolitan Indianapolis owned by a wine-loving OB/GYN.  The winery was founded in 1984, but in 1997 Dr. Thomas moved the winery to its new location - right between a Checkers fast food restaurant and a Holiday Inn Express.  Not the surroundings I expected for an award-winning winery.

The winery is divided into three parts: a HUGE gift shop, a small tasting bar, and a large state-of-the-art winery in back. This was definitely set up to catch tourists. I made my way through the kitschy corkscrews and bedazzled t-shirts to the tasting bar.  I opted for the 'premium' tasting option which allowed me to choose 5 wines from their reserve line.  Chateau Thomas imports all of their grapes from California, Washington, Oregon, and Canada to make their wines, which is a common practice in Indiana.

Thomas' 2003 Reserve Cabernet Franc was the highlight of the tasting. Rich and complex with a finish that outlasted the long, yet delightful, stories told by the woman behind the bar. Their ice wines were also delicious and a nice note to end on.  And while Chateau Thomas' wines exceeded my expectations, I just couldn't bring myself to spend $35 on a bottle of Indiana-made California wine with a really outdated label.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to visit any of the other wineries in Indiana, but we did find an awesome brew-pub that made fantastic beer in-house and some darn-good comfort food.  Next time we make it to the Hoosier state, though, I need to find some local-grown wine.  But for that, it looks like I'll have to venture down to southern Indiana.  And then I might as well cross the border to check out a Kentucky winery or two... more on that to come...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Is all wine vegan? How about gluten-free?

If bottles of wine came with an ingredients list, like all of our other foodstuffs, shouldn't it just read something like "INGREDIENTS: grapes"? These days with ingredients labels as long as term papers, we've been trained to expect that there is more to it. Wine grapes get mixed with a lot of things before they enter the bottle, but just what kind of dietary effects will that have on the wine?

If you are vegan, be on the alert. Oddly enough, not all wines are free from animal products. Many winemakers use isinglass (fish-bladder), gelatin, or egg whites in a clarification process called fining. These ingredients are added to the top of a vat of wine and slowly percolate through the wine, catching suspended particles and foreign bodies. They are then drained off from the bottom and the wine is bottled. There is a good chance that only trace elements of any of these fining agents would be left behind in the wine, but just the fact that it was processed with non-vegan item technically makes it non-vegan. So if you're vegan or are buying a bottle of wine as a gift for a vegan friend, look for "un-fined" wines or wines fined with bentonite (clay).

Now for those with Celiac's Disease, you know beer is off the menu (unless you've found a sorghum beer you like), but what about wine? I had a friend ask me this yesterday and while my instinct was to say "sure, wine is safe!", my previous lesson with thinking all wine was vegan made me think twice. I went through all of the possible winemaking additives and couldn't come up with any way any sort of gluten would make it into the wine. Then I Googled. One site I found claimed that some oak barrels were held together using a putty made from flour. Every barrel I've ever seen fabricated was made with just wood staves and metal rings. No slurry or putty of any sort. More Googling confirmed this. So those that can't have gluten, rejoice! Wine is still safe!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Weekday Dinner - Leftover Makeover

On Monday night I made one of my favorite guilt-free comfort food recipes - Turkey Meatloaf. The first time I made this recipe, I thought there was no way it would all hold together, but I was wrong. Magically that gooey glob bakes up to a flavorful and compact little meatloaf. The problem is, it just makes too much for two people.

So I had a half-loaf sitting in the fridge that needed to have something done with it. (Leftovers are not my friend. I just don't like eating the same thing day after day. And there is nothing more disgusting than microwaved meat)

I stared at the tupperware container for a minute, then inspiration struck and I got cookin'. I took the leftover meatloaf and broke it down with a wooden spoon in a skillet. I let is sizzle for a minute and then added a splash of some Barbera d'Asti (which then paired wonderfully with the completed dish) and some tomato sauce I had left over from making pizzas last week. Mixed it all around and had what resembled a Bolognese sauce. I then prepared a pot of cheesy polenta (I used 1% milk instead of water)and scooped the turkey Bolognese sauce over it. It was delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I forgot to even snap a picture of it before it was all gone.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lesser Known American Wine Regions #1 - Hawaii

Two years ago when I was in Hawaii, standing in the middle of a vineyard growing out of lava rock, I formulated a personal goal to visit at least one winery in each one of America's 50 great states.  I figured if I could find a winery in Hawaii, I could find one anywhere.  At the time I thought Alaska could prove to be a challenge, but after some research I was thrilled to discover that the only challenge would be getting all the way up there!  Today there are over 6000 wineries in the U.S. and at least one winery in every single state, many of which actually grow and utilize local grapes.  So all I have to do is get to them!

So here is the first (of what will hopefully be over 50) lesser-known wine region recap:

Volcano Winery

Volcano, HI
Date Visited: 09.13.07
American Viticultural Area (AVA): None
Grapes Grown: Symphony

My husband and I were fortunate to visit Hawaii together as part of an insurance conference he was invited to attend on Oahu. I got to play tag-along and spend my days sun-bathing and sightseeing (rough, I know) while he sat in conference rooms and listened to insurance seminars (which, he claims were fascinating, but that's why he does what he does and I do what I do).  We decided that once the conference was over we would take a puddle-jumper to the Big Island and stay at an e-friend's B&B so we could do some sightseeing together.  After some extensive Googling, I found all sorts of things that I wanted to see in the short three days we would be there. (And somehow we managed to do them all!)

Many people on travel websites mentioned how interesting Volcano Winery was to visit and how nice the staff was.  That said to me 'fun touristy place with wines not worth mentioning'.  But I was wrong.  It just turns out that the winery is just so beautiful and their staff is just so super-friendly that people forget to mention the wines, which is a shame really.  Located less than an hour away from Volcanoes National Park (though less than 10 miles away as-the-crow-flies), this winery is virtually in the middle of nowhere. After a fun and scenic drive, we parked our rental car in their parking lot, which is nestled just beside their grapevines, and strolled into their immaculate tasting room.  We were greeted with a friendly "Aloha!" when we walked in the door and given a basic run-down of their wines by the tasting room manager.

Volcano winery prides themselves on wine made from the Symphony grape, as well as blends made with exotic, locally-grown fruits.  We sampled the Volcano Blush & Volcano Red (blends of wine with jaboticaba berries), the Symphony Dry, and Macadamia Nut Honey Wine.  The Symphony Dry reminded me a lot of Gewurztraminer, but with the floral notes of some Torrontes wines.  It was a little too perfumed for my tastes, but a fascinating wine nonetheless.  We ended up liking the Volcano Blush the most, which was odd, as I have been accused of turning my nose up in snobbery when it comes to fruit wine and blush wine.  Maybe in this case two wrongs made a right? --Yeah, let's go with that. (But I'll admit, I am starting to come around on the whole blush and fruit wine thing.  Not all of them are pure evil, as I used to believe.)

So if you are ever on the Big Island of Hawaii, be sure to stop by the Volcano Winery for a glass or two before you head of to the steam vents and lava flows of Volcanoes National Park.  It is well worth the drive to see grapevines growing in such unusual conditions and to taste a couple fruit and blush wines that are actually a welcome refreshment with all that humidity and sunshine!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Undercover Wine Geek

I love to visit wine shops and restaurants.  Most of the time, I am able to sneak in undetected and get what I need. Sometimes, though, I stop to help out some lost customer that appears to be invisible to the employees.  "Oh, do you work here?" they usually ask me when I offer my help. "Nope, just your friendly, undercover wine geek," I reply with my hands on my waist a la Wonder Woman.  Oh, the eyebrow-lifts I've seen after that.  But usually, once the confusion wears off, the eyebrows lower and the floodgates open, pouring out all sorts of wine questions. (It is amazing how many people won't ask questions about wine unless they are approached. Perhaps a sign that wine professionals are still too intimidating?)

Now, I want to encourage everyone to ask questions, but also keep in mind that the answers you get may not be 100% accurate all of the time.  Most of the time it isn't even intentional.  Not everyone that is a "wine professional" knows all there is to know about wine - heck, I barely know everything there is to know!  Just check the 'facts' you get and learn your personal preferences and you'll be better equipped to sift through all the little (red & white) wine lies that are out there.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Expanding your Wine Horizons in 2010

Last year, the the Wall Street Journal's now-no-more wine writers, Dorothy & John, created a list of 20 things you should do in 2009 to expand your wine horizons.  This year, they added 6 more (21-26).  I don't know if I could have written a better list, myself, but I did tack on a couple extras (27-30).  How many are you going to attempt this year?
  1. Try a Wine From a Different Country
  2. Go to a Wine Bar and Have a Flight of Wine
  3. Order the Cheapest Wine on a Restaurant's Wine List
  4. Open a Sparkler at Home for No Reason at All (I am a firm believer in drinking Bubbly whenever possible!)
  5. Take Notes on a Fine Wine From Beginning to End
  6. Have a Sauternes
  7. Have a Blind Tasting
  8. Organize Your Labels
  9. Visit the Closest Winery to Your Home (I amazed by how many people tell me they live within an hour of a winery and have never even visited it)
  10. Attend a Winemaker's Dinner at a Restaurant
  11. Have Fun With Stemware
  12. Find a New Wine Store
  13. Try a Varietal You've Never Had From a U.S. Winery
  14. Either: Have 12 Different Bottles in the House at Once Or: Drink Up (If you are the average American and don't have more than a couple bottles of wine in your house at a time, go buy a mixed case.  You'll find it comes in handy when you have company or have the craving for a glass of wine.  But if you already have a cellar going, make it a point to drink some!)
  15. Go Crazy on a Wine Pairing for Dinner Some Night (Let me know if you want some help with this one!)
  16. Try an Older White
  17. Try a Type of Wine You Think You Don't Like (This one is great.  There are so many styles out there for each varietal, that there is likely one for you.  Hate Chardonnay? Try one that is unoaked.)
  18. Get a New Corkscrew
  19. Serve a Dessert Wine to Guests
  20. Shatter Your Price Limit
  21. Try wine from a different state. (If you can find something from somewhere other than CA, WA, OR  try that.  There is good wine being produced in nearly every state these days!)
  22. Next time you are making a special meal, go to two good wine shops and ask them to match the main course with a wine in a certain price range. (Love this mini-'smackdown' challenge.)
  23. Take a wine trip. 
  24. Truly engage a sommelier at a fine restaurant. (I love when people would ask me questions and seem like they genuinely wanted to know more about wine, my job, etc. Often, I would give them a little taste of something different, if they were really cool.)
  25. Do a little research on a wine before or after you drink it.
  26. Go to a mass tasting.
  27. Take a bottle to a restaurant and pay their corkage fee.  (Grab that bottle you've been saving for a "special occasion" and take it with you to your favorite restaurant.  Be sure to offer the sommelier/server a taste - they'll really appreciate it, so long as there isn't a policy against it.)
  28.  Go to a wine shop, give the owner/manager/employee a price range, and tell them to "just pick something". (You'll probably get a reply along the lines of "Oh, I don't know where to start" or "Well, what do you usually drink?", but just tell them you want to try something new and that you are totally in their hands.)
  29. Enjoy wine outside.  (Take a bottle with you on a picnic, BBQ, or camping trip.  I just love how wine tastes with fresh-air.)
  30. Drink Rosé! (Too many people think that pink wine is for sissies, but dry rosé is one of the best food-friendly wine styles out there.)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Making Dollars and Sense of Wine

Just what is the difference between a $10 bottle and a $100 bottle of wine?  The obvious and common answer is "quality", but there is just so much more to it than that.  Thing is, there's so much that goes into producing a bottle of fermented grape juice, most of which most people don't even think of when they're drinking the stuff.

1. Land: The grapes have to grow somewhere and most premier vineyard sites aren't cheap!  Cabernet grown in Bordeaux, France is going to cost far more than Cabernet grown in the boondocks of Washington state because vineyard land is far more prestigious and costly in Bordeaux.  Also when it comes to land, winemakers can chose to use grapes from a single isolated region or a blend of grapes from a larger area (ex.Napa vs. California). When wines are made from a blend of a larger region, they are typically cheaper due to the fact that some of the grapes are coming from cheaper growing areas.

2. Labor: Just like we learned in our Econ 101 classes, labor is a big cost contributor.  Someone needs to plant, care for, and pick the grapes.  And then someone else needs to turn those grapes into wine and get them into bottles.  Some cheaper wines are produced in more automated fashions that use harvesting machines, gyropalates, and robotic bottling/labeling lines.

3. Aging: Typically, the longer a wine is aged (whether it be in barrel, tank or bottle) at the winery, the more it is going to cost.  Merlot that has seen 18 months in oak, is going to cost more than a Merlot that was 'oak chipped' for a few weeks.  Oak barrels are costly and so is the space in the winery that they take up.  Wines that are "cellar aged" in the bottle before release will cost more because the winery has reserved a lot of space in their cellar to let those bottles just sit and take up valuable real estate. 

4. Supplies: Just like your car had all sorts of add-on options when you bought it, bottles can be tricked out or stripped down.  It still boggles my mind how many different types of glass, corks/closures, labels, boxes/crates and wax/foil options there are. You can engrave/emboss your bottle, get longer and more expensive corks with your logo "firebranded" on it, use heavier glass, package them in wood crates, or even hand-dip (+1 labor) the neck of your bottle in wax to make it extra fancy.  The sky's the limit and so is the cost you can incur.

5. Marketing: Some wineries are now part of mega-corporations like LVMH that believe wine should be advertised in every form of media possible and should be treated as a mass-marketed (and produced) product.  No small boutique winery is going to want (or be able to afford) to buy up TV time or huge magazine ads.  They look at their wine as an artistic expression, not a profit-driving commodity.  All those catchy Korbel commercials aren't cheap and you can be sure that advertising cost was figured into the cost of your that bottle of Brut you're eyeing.

6. Prestige/Scores: Veuve Cliquot, Opus One, Petrus, Silver Oak...are they really worth it?  Some say they are the best wines on the Earth and others think it is mostly hype (I vote for hype).  A lot of time and effort (+1 Marketing) and money go into building up a reputation - these brands have done just that and they make sure to charge you for it. You can also bet that once a wine gets a high score from Parker, Spectator, or Tanzer it won't be a "value" for long.

7. Certifications: Biodynamic and Organic certifications don't come cheap to a vineyard/winery.  The fees to get certified and the effort and supplies needed to do it come at a premium. So just like an organic carrot might set you back more than its mainstream counterpart, organic/biodynamic wines are going to cost you more, too - but some say the extra cost is worth it, both in produce and in wine.

Now, what you need to do is determine what factors are most important to you and buy your wine based on that. Do you think it is worth the extra few $$ to get a wine that is handmade or are you fine with mass-produced wines?  Are you an organic food/wine devotee?  Do you like wines that have pretty labels or fancy bottles that would make great mantle-pieces?  Do you view wine as a status symbol and only want to be seen drinking the fanciest of wines?  Once you figure out where your wine dollars are best spent, you will begin to get more out of your wine.