PalateXposure

Taste Life

Luxurious Languedoc

“Learn to enjoy the way as much as you would enjoy when you reach the destination.” -Sakshi Chetana, Laughing Buddha:The Alchemy of Euphoric Living

 

This was my first trip to the South of France. Having been to France before, I kept hearing from others how different the south was from the rest of the country, especially Paris itself. I could not wait to experience it. Indeed it was, as hospitable and heartwarming as I had envisioned, and so much more.

 

Languedoc is the southwestern region of France. It is known for its enormous wine production, exceptional cuisine, and easygoing lifestyle. I landed in Toulouse, the “pink city of Languedoc,” named so due to the abundance of pink painted buildings. Interestingly, everywhere I went the shutters were always painted different colors, each reflecting the homeowner’s personality and adding a festive element to the ordinary. When I travel I put on my “child-tinted glasses” – I purposefully don’t do any research prior to the trip.  I let the geographies, events and local folks unfold as they are; while I absorb it all with a child-like enthusiasm and endless wonder.

Wine

 

It is no exaggeration to say that French consumers are spoiled. They enjoy a virtually unlimited choice of modestly priced wines, with most landing in the range of €10 – €15. The majority of wines are uncomplicated, straightforward, lovely sippers vs. brain twisters.

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There are a number of fascinating indigenous varieties grown there, including Loin de l’oeil, Negret, Piquepoul, Savagnin, Maccabeu, Bourboulenc and several others. Many Vignerons practice organic farming. In fact, Languedoc is responsible for roughly 1/3 of all of France’s organically produced wines.

 

Mediterranean climate, combined with a wide variety of soils, from sandy clay to kimmeridgian, calcareous that offer endless opportunities to produce interesting wines. They offer astounding QPR (quality-price ratio). With thirteen appellations producing sixteen denominations of still wines, and three producing a variety of sparklers, the choices are virtually unlimited.

 

Robert Parker

 

1375It became quickly apparent that Robert Parker’s “Midas touch” has been felt throughout the region. There are several large circulation, influential wine publications in France, rough equivalents to Wine Spectator, which rates wines. Evidently a lower score by these publications doesn’t necessarily affect sales, however a lower score by Parker certainly does.  This phenomena remains an enigma. During the discussions on the subject, I offered the same theory as I do in the States. Parker has one palate, granted a formidable one, but it is still a singular physical entity, and it is the entity that influences his judgment. Therein lies the answer. His palate is his likely only influence. Unlike many others in the industry whose motivations are subject to question, his integrity is beyond reproach. That ultra-rare commodity is what makes Robert Parker an international phenomena.

 

Geography

 

The Languedoc-Roussillion wine growing region stretches for 700,000 acres. It is an extremely expansive, diverse region spanning from the French and Spanish border to the Provence. It is the biggest wine producing region in the world, far out-producing the entire United States, 245and is responsible for 1/3 of France’s total wine production. If you are aiming to visit, tailor it to your specific interests. I visited six appellations in six days.  To accomplish this, I traveled at breakneck speed; akin to galloping though a stunning countryside. I would advise zeroing on fewer areas for a more in-depth focus. I would especially recommend that red wine lovers visit the Cahors for some finely crafted Malbecs.

 

Food

 

038This category should have been named “All Things Duck.”  On my first day, I was greeted the same day with several types of foie gras, “gesier” salad made with duck gizzards, duck tartare, duck marinated in garlic, parsley and olive oil, duck charcuterie. I ate everything except for the quack. I truly was expecting a duck dessert! The trend continued throughout the trip, with every single restaurant offering duck prepared in a variety of ways. It is a regional specialty and a staple in Languedoc.  Socializing over a long meal is a very important ritual for the residents of Languedoc. Quality time spent with relatives and friends is a top priority, especially on weekends.  Saturday morning is typically spent at the market, shopping for fresh ingredients and the rest of the day is spent preparing and consuming a feast over many hours, accompanied by many bottles of local wine.

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Folks

 

The French love to spend time with friends and family. In the evenings, virtually every table at every cafe is filled with patrons, no matter how small the town. People seemed jovial, happy, and easy-going. Whether it was a large group or a couple, everyone seemed to be enjoying life. And, of course, there was always wine on the table. The meals are typically three courses, and almost always finish with rich, aromatic coffee.

The French love to chat and are highly interactive. I found them to be intellectually curious, with sharp probing minds. They seem at ease with themselves, which becomes contagious and makes for a lively, friendly and relaxed social atmosphere.453

 

 

French Women

 

801Effortlessly chic, French ladies master casual elegance, whether they are wearing the latest fashion or just jeans and rubber boots (think working wine cellar) They consume copious amounts of foie gras, crusty French bread, drink wine and countless cups of coffee, and many smoke quite a bit. Yet they don’t gain an ounce.  They look as ladylike as Grace Kelly, even when holding a cigarette in one hand and a demitasse of espresso in the other. If I had half of their confidence I would own the world.

 

You may have wondered why I titled the piece “Luxurious Languedoc,” given the fact that the region isn’t wealthiest area of France. The “luxury” aspect comes from affording oneself a lifestyle that is about balancing one’s needs and wants. If your definition of luxury includes indulgent, hedonistic foods, leisurely wines, copious amounts of time spent with loved ones, you will find a home in this charming land of no pretense. They say money doesn’t buy happiness. Based upon what I experienced that holds true. Happiness can’t be bought, but it can be obtained. It appears that my French peers have figured out how to wrestle this elusive bird out of hiding. Somewhere between “gesier” salad and a glass or two of Piquepoul, they seemed to achieve the luxury of “being.”

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The Marlborough-ness of it all… “Methode Marlborough”

“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real.” – Brene Brown 

My plane touched down in Blenheim, the heart of New Zealand’s Marlborough wine country at 9:35 AM. By 10:00, I was standing at the Cellar Door (the New Zealand term for “tasting room”) of Spy Valley Wines, with adrenaline rushing through my jetlagged veins. This trip was long awaited and I was determined to enjoy every minute of it. My gracious host, Spy Valley’s charming winemaker, Paul Bourgeois, cheerfully showed me around the facility. It was a crisp and sunny winter’s day and I soaked in the brightest sky I had ever seen.

I purposely did no research prior to my trip, wanting the experience to land on me in the most organic way possible. Prior to my visit, all I knew of Spy Valley was that the winery there made a great, well-priced Sauvignon Blanc.

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Leave your exploding pen and grappling hook at home, kids.

I noted that Spy Valley is quite a clandestine title.  “Is it a spy epicenter?” I asked my host. To my astonishment, I was accidentally right. The winery is located right next to a government satellite spy base. I then felt the need to suggest they name their wines after Agent 007 only to discover James Bond posters on the wall. They even offer a Pinot Noir bottling called “Pinot 007″ Apparently a 13+ hour flight causes clairvoyance!

The New Zealand wine industry is a mere 30 something years old.  Spy Valley (originally named Johnson Estate) was started over 20 years ago, so the winery is a veteran. Founder, Brian Johnson and his wife Jan had originally started a luxury lodge on the site and went on to plant 380 acres of vines. At the time, Chardonnay was the dominant variety, yet Brian had the foresight to plant others, including Pinot Dijon clones 115, 113, 114, 667, 777, etc.  The winery was built in 2002 and is currently producing several varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer as well as Pinot Noir.

I was particularly taken with their  sparkling wine, named “Echelon.”  It’s a 50/50 Pinot and Chardonnay blend, made bone dry, without dosage, left two and a half years on lees. Only 1500 six pack cases were made, with a large share of production going to Japan. Spy Valley is a member of a group called “Methode Marlborough,” formed with the idea to promote and popularize the region’ delectable sparkling wines.

Of note, is the winery’s Envoy program, started in 2005.  The wines produced under the Spy Valley Envoy label are single-vineyard offerings with fruit sourced from individual low-yield blocks (under 2 tons per acre).  Envoy labeled wines are fashioned with ultimate quality fruit combined with meticulous attention to detail during the winemaking process. The method is clearly low intervention, with close attention being paid to the vineyard prior to harvest. We spoke briefly of the “Marlboroughness” – highly identifiable and instantly relatable flavor profile: the seductive passion fruit, exotic quince, bright gooseberry, that subtle elegance, combined with unmistakable vibrancy and brisk freshness.

The winery is entirely self-sustained, with solar panels (Spy Valley was the first in the area to go solar), nitrogen generator, its own bottling line – a rarity, and even a glass crushing facility for recycling bottles.  It is clear that New Zealand wine production and vineyard techniques have improved with each harvest. We all learn best from our own errors. Lessons learned are the most valuable tools in the arsenal of Mother Nature’s apprentice.

Spy Valley has no ambitions to emulate the Old World wines or elaborate on what Mother Nature graciously delivers. Their only goal is to make wines of authenticity, with strong textural elements, clean finish, that are driven by opulent, regionally-induced aromatics. Harmony is the key; with no element overpowering or out of place or in any way. Age worthiness is valued and maintaining the integrity of each bottling is paramount.

Spy Valley was a heady start to what turned out to be a trip full of revelations and rarified insider look into the world prior known by taste impressions alone.bridge 139

My next stop was Wairau River Wines, a short drive on Rapaura Road, the rough equivalent of Highway 29 in the Napa Valley. I was greeted by Matt Parker, the winery’s VP of International Sales.Owners, Phil and Chris Rose founded the winery in 1978. They planted 600 acres of vineyards, and the business still remains a true family affair; with all of the family, even kids, contributing to the business. Wines are produced from 100% estate fruit. The wine label reflect the family connection, with river patterns signifying family roots moving in unison.

Fruit driven, low yielding, hand farming and uncompromising quality are the hallmarks of the operation. The winery boasts a well known restaurant, famous for its cheese soufflé and sublime lamburgers. The menu features fresh, local produce and is inspired by the magnificent bounty of Marlborough region.

I tasted 2013 and previewed 2014 Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blancs side by side. Based upon my preview, I say readers rejoice! Both are great. The 2014’s are aromatically off- the-charts. Even in their extreme youth, they are seductive endeavors. I know I will be adding them to my cellar once they hit the US market.  Fresh flavors, punchy, assertive minerality and salinity, varietal purity and savvy personally are all part of Wairau River wine style. Limited number of their wines are available in major US markets.

bridge 188My next stop was the winery called “Mud House” who has presence in both Marlborough and Central Otago. They have been recently acquired by an Australian company called Accolade, a global wine producer and distributor.

I was greeted by Ben Glover, the winemaker, and his brother, Jack, who is the head of marketing. After a chilly (August is winter in New Zealand), yet visually stunning tour of the vineyards, I was treated to a comprehensive tasting of their wines. Ben is a graduate of Canterbury University and a recipient of a post graduate degree in oenology from Lincoln University.  He has fifteen vintages of winemaking under his belt plus the same number of years of wine judging; and it shows.

Pretence doesn’t reside in the Mud House abode; hard work and dedication does. Ben is clearly passionate about his craft. He’s filled with the spirit of innovation and a relentless drive towards producing unabashedly new world style, aromatically superior wines. This is no sweet tropical fruit bowl, ladies and gentlemen, think bright acidity, superb minerality, voluptuous yet well harnessed fruit without a hint of flabbiness. Glover is a purist. He offers no-tricks winemaking. His style straightforward and honest. He focuses on nursing and shepherding, not manipulating and transforming.

I mumbled something about jalapeño and snow pea flavors, assuming that the jet lag has finally set in and got the best of me, yet to my astonishment, those were actually correct, along with nettles, tomato stalks (those will be coming up a lot) and piercing freshness.

Established in 1996, the Mud House name reflects the wine’s humble beginnings, it’s inherent connection to earth. Terroir is the term that gets abused a lot these days. Mud House really embraces this concept.   Wine drinkers will experience it in every sip of their deeply authentic, carefully crafted wines.  Collaborative efforts of the viticulturists, vineyard managers and winemakers provide a harmonious unified vision ensuring the integrity of the final product.  Using both traditional, established and innovative techniques, Ben crafts cool climate wines of character and distinction.

Seek them out at every opportunity. I know I will.

These three producers represent what I love about New Zealand, a pioneering spirit, authenticity, incredible value and most of all, a diverse and incredibly tasty portfolio of wines. To that, I say “Good on You”!

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New Zealand – Marlborough Series – Prologue

Good As Gold

“People say you only live once… I say live life the way it was meant to be with Family, Friends and Laughter. Live life to the fullest!” – Nishan Panwar

 “Good As Gold”

I first heard of  New Zealand’s premier wine growing region, Marlborough, from a California winemaker a number of years ago. He was quite taken with New Zealand and appeared emotionally impacted by the beauty of the region. Admittedly, I was intrigued. I kept hearing about the country’s gorgeousness from wine lovers who had visited or worked there. I soon acquired my first bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and that was it. I was hooked for life. The distinct, vibrant, impossibly fresh, with bright acidity and racy personality, these wines have become steady companions in my drinking repertoire. In fact, New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs (or “Savvies” as New Zealanders affectionately refer to them), have prominently dominated my personal consumption for many years. Finally it was my turn to gush. I was on my way to New Zealand, after years of dreaming about it, bound for Marlborough, my beloved Sauvignon Blanc country.

The Marlborough region is located on the South Island, in the “golden triangle.”  Diurnal temperature shifts (warm days, cool nights) along with geological features and weather patterns provide an ideal environment for grape growing. The region is responsible for over 70% of New Zealand’s wine production, most of which is Sauvignon Blanc. Interestingly, if you speak to a Napa wine person and they mention “Sauvignon”, you can be sure they are speaking of Cabernet Sauvignon. If you are speaking to a New Zealander, and  the term “Sauvignon” comes up, it is most certainly a reference to Sauvignon Blanc, is the reigning varietal here.

There is a notable shift from traditional, recognizable, grassy and gooseberry Sauvignon Blancs New Zealand is known for worldwide to more delineated, terroir driven, site-specific wines. A number of wines I have tasted exhibited distinct jalapeño, tomato stalk flavor profile that was like nothing else I’ve ever had. It was an exhilaratingly unique, stimulating and profoundly different spectrum of flavor.

Cloudy Bay

A great deal of credit goes to wineries such as Cloudy Bay who took US market by storm and claimed a prominent spot in the wine scene. They succeeded by providing US
consumers wines that were quite exciting and well-priced.

A while ago, in the States, the likes of Kendall Jackson, etc. pioneered a certain style of white wines and the rest, as they say, is history. Perhaps in similar fashion Kim Crawford, Cloudy Bay and similar brands were trailblazers for the smaller brands by way of quick expansion and Sauvignon export market dominance, particularly in the UK and Australia.

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The picturesque Cloudy Bay vineyards.

New Zealand’s extraordinarily fresh, vibrant, juicy and tasty Sauvignon Blanc created a precedent that is well… unprecedented. Somehow, when climate and soil came to play on the picturesque South Pacific island, magic happened. A star was born that was destined to pave the way for the New Zealand wine industry. Merely 30 years ago, the first Sauvignon Blanc grapes were planted, courtesy of a Government
sponsored program to discourage unsuitable varieties. It worked; and liquid gold was born. Whether subtly transparent in its straw color or boasting brilliant, deep golden glow it is undoubtedly the belle of the ball, with a powerful, meaningful purpose of transforming an agrarian region into a savvy superpower.

As Sauvignon Blanc sales have soared around the world, back home in Marlborough folks are now able to experiment with new varietals. Some tiny brands started with plantings other than Sauvignon.  Pinot Gris is gaining brisk momentum. Alsatian varieties are steadily gaining in prominence, with pioneers such as Johanesshof Cellars leading the way. Many wineries produce wonderful sparkling wines in Methode Traditionale. For red wine lovers, the region also produces lovely, well priced, Pinot Noir. Many Marlborough vintners are seeking to produce “Savvies” that differ from the region’s largely value-priced offerings. There is a lot of experimentation going on with new and old oak treatments. Expect to see a new generation of products that offer new and interesting interpretations of this varietal.

New Zealand winery hospitality is terrific. Most larger wineries offer elaborate lunch options at their in-house restaurants. It can get quite busy on the weekends, even in the off-season, with locals popping in for along  a three course meal accompanied by a glass or two of wine. This ritual is very different from the US version of wine hospitality. A few California wineries offer light cheese or chocolate pairings, but only a handful feature a restaurant on premises.

Winemakers in the region are a relatively tight knit group. They share a spirit of camaraderie; and are fun loving and very open and transparent in discussing their trials and triumphs.

Unlike California, Oregon or Washington, roughly half of all vineyards are privately owned (as opposed to belonging to the wineries) and most are under contract for fruit.

On my day of arrival, I had a chance to attend a massive blind tasting led by Raymond Chan, a local wine personality. The event was attended by a mix of public, trade insiders and winemakers; all vying for the coveted highest score generated by the highest number of correct guesses. Six wines were offered for the tasting, only two representing New Zealand, a Viognier and a late harvest Gewürztraminer. Our tasting team, humorously titled “Katpiss and The Plungers,” finished with a respectable score, but fell short of winning glory.

During my trip to New Zealand I have learned a number of things about the area’s wines, winemaking styles, production logistics and  most importantly, the people behind them. It was arguably the most intriguing trip of my life. New Zealanders are people of formidable work ethic, immense curiosity, filled with a spirit of innovation and friendly collaboration. Intensely practical, savvy and handy, they are also in touch with their creative side. Most of all, New Zealanders are deeply invested in their community. They particularly value quality time spent with their family and friends.

Rugby

Rugby is one of New Zealand’s favorite sports.

Weekends are dedicated to family barbeques, outings and, yes, New Zealand national past time – rugby. It is no exaggeration to say that nearly everyone in the country watches the sport and is intellectually and emotionally engaged in it. By sheer coincidence, the local rugby team was staying at my hotel over the weekend and somehow, in the process of conversation with the team’s coach, I ended up with a ticket to the Sunday game. When I mentioned it to a couple wine people, the reaction was wildly enthusiastic, with “good on you” cheers overflowing.

When the game day approached and I made my way to the stadium, it was clear that the whole town turned out in support of their local team. All ages, from 6 to 60 were enjoying the game, with some adults showing an occasional burst of displeasure, yelling out “fat fingers!”

Socially, New Zealanders are quite jovial and outgoing. I would estimate the US smart phone usage ratio while socializing is ten-to-one compared with New Zealanders. In New Zealand folks talk, not text. They interact with each other, not their hand held devices. I saw many groups of people relaxing and having lively conversations at a number of venues, from casual bars to upscale restaurants. They were always laughing, teasing one another and having oodles of fun. The friendliness, the natural curiosity, the infectious laughter. Folks appeared very connected, secure and happy. They seem to know by instinct what some of us take years to discover: conviviality with your “mates,” and intense dedication to one’s immediate and extended family make for an uncommon quality of life. Their relaxed attitude and slower paced life makes one pay closer attention to what truly matters.

New Zealanders often use the expression “as good as gold” which means “it’s all good” or “no worries.” Liquid gold found a welcome home there, yet something even more important had taken a powerful hold.  And that, in my view, is as good as gold.

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Hilliard Bruce – The Brand with a View on Authenticity

“Truth is a point of view, but authenticity can’t be faked.”

-Peter Guber

One only has to spend a few minutes with John Hilliard, proprietor of Hilliard Bruce Vineyard,  to realize that he is a dynamic man of principles, deep convictions, formidable work ethic and unrelenting drive to succeed at everything he does. Born in Houston, as an heir to a shipyard dynasty, he quadrupled his family’s business in record time. John’s passion for painting led him to become a patron of the arts as well as an active involvement in Diverse Works, a Houston based art organization where he became President. He also became an Advisory Board Member for the Museum of Fine Arts and Glassel Art School.

 

A little over a dozen years ago, John reconnected with his childhood friend Christine Bruce, an avid equestrian and a musician who shared his passion for horticulture. Together they subsequently earned the Master Gardner certifications at Texas A & M and University of Arizona. After successfully running a ranch outside of Houston, John and Christine bought a 101 acre ranch in Santa Rita Hills. They planted 21 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, utilizing top experts in viticulture. John took extension classes at UC Davis, Allan Hancock College, and Grayson County College to learn the winemaking craft. Today, the couple is as hands-on as it gets. Christine can birth a horse with one hand and make ethereal, sublime Chardonnay with another.

 

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Vineyards of Hilliard Bruce

They named their winery, Hilliard Bruce to reflect both of their last names and to represent the collaborative effort they nurture. The vineyard is planted to multiple Pinot clones including Calera, Pommard, and Dijons a.k.a “sweatheart” clones and two clones of Chardonnay – 76 and 96.  It is continuously tended to by a permanent crew of five, a rarity in the wine business, due to cost, augmented by Coastal Vineyards management staff. A quick look confirms how challenging this steep, rocky, densely planted hillside vineyard is to farm. It’s immediately obvious how much hand farming goes into this high maintenance site. A long growing season influenced by maritime weather ensures physiologically ripe fruit of complexity and integrity.

 

Currently the winery is building an elaborate production facility; a design concept of Dan Lee, with the implementation of Vladimir Milosevic , who designed wineries such as Sea Smoke, Pali, Larner, Sierra Madre, Fiddlehead, Foxen, Grassini, Firestone Brewery and Hospitality Center, etc. It is to become a state of the art, LEED certified gravity flow winery with far larger capacity than Hilliard Bruce’s current boutique production site. The facility is built into a hillside, with an underground barrel room. It is elegantly minimalist, yet undeniably impressive. Due to be finished by the harvest time, Bruce firmly reminds his foreman: “Grapes are getting ripe!” It will have the capacity to sort and press hundreds of tons of grapes. It will also feature a demo kitchen, dining room and an expansive tasting room. The design is a unique combination of functionality and art.   

 

John’s passions run deep when it comes to viticulture, organic farming and sustainability. Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certification is difficult to obtain and even more challenging to implement correctly. John’s goals naturally align with SIP principles: environmental impact control, conservation of natural resources, minimizing pollution and maximizing productivity.

 

The winery is powered by a 35KW solar power system. Since John and Christine raise Arabians on the property, the fertilizer comes from them, and is processed into compost. Water is supplied by a nearly 2 million gallon on-site reservoir. Vine irrigation is closely monitored through high tech sensors.

 

John clearly feels no goodwill for anyone who touts sustainability as a marketing tool to boost revenue. “Artisanal”,  “organic”, “sustainable” have become buzzwords in the wine industry and are used without any actual commitment to corresponding practices. John points out that there are a plethora of misconceptions about organic farming. Rather than science based, it’s primarily driven by emotion, rhetoric and populism. For example, many “organic” farmers use copper sulfur which is inherently inorganic and poses danger.  Ironically, and statistically, organic farmers are the largest users of pesticides in California. Another aspect that frequently gets overlooked by the overzealous folks who don’t let science get in a way of fantasy is the dosage. In other words, the Environmental Impact Quotient is crucial to healthy land maintenance. Chemicals are present in just about every organic matter, including our saliva. “Artificial chemical” is a misnomer and organics are in fact, chemicals.

 

As I listened to John peel apart the onion layers of organic farming I realized how honest he is with himself and his peers and how badly that is needed in any industry, especially when it comes to any type of farming and food production. We, as a society, have developed a highly irrational fear of chemicals fueled by populist, opportunistic, marketing driven entities who prey on emotional thinking and lack of intellectual scrutiny. “Greenwashing” is ubiquitous; not many meet energy efficiency in earnest but love to pontificate on its benefits.

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Picturesque pond at Hilliard Bruce Vineyards

 

John and Christine’s extensive gardening background was a perfect training ground; being a Master gardener naturally predisposes one to look for the right balance of soil, climate, clonal selections. They did just that by choosing the right location (after scouting wine properties all over the state, including Napa and Sonoma Valleys.) Santa Rita Hills is a relatively new American Viticultural Area and offered a plethora of possibilities.

 

John, by his own admission is not in the business of making money. He is in the business of making good wine; his way. After observing a number of winemakers at work in Central Coast Wine Services, most notably, Paul Lato, he decided to be his own winemaker. His reasoning? If he messes it up, it would be his responsibility, rather than living with errors of others. This is no designer, vanity, or absentee owner brand. Its hands-on, all the way.

 

True to form, John and Christine were determined to make wines of uncommon distinction, integrity, and style, an epitome of artistry and elegance. Unrestrained beauty not masked or overwhelmed by oak or any other additions. In fact, if John feels that the barrel he is tasting has too high residual sugar content, it gets declassified and sold off in bulk.

 

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Hilliard Bruce wines

Well the proof is in the pudding, isn’t it? I recently tasted four wines – 2011 Chardonnay, 2011 Earth , 2011 Sky and 2010 Sun. All five Hilliard Bruce wines, four Pinot Noirs titled Sun, Sky, Moon, Earth, and a Chardonnay, are tiny production (240-529 cases) offerings. They are strictly allocated to their mailing list and top-notch restaurants.

 

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Hilliard Bruce Residence

 

Take a look at her home decor, and you would get an instant sense of Christine Bruce’s sense of elegance and style.
Understated, yet high visual impact. Her Chardonnay? Same.

Glorious shimmering color, creamy citrusy and slightly nutty aromatics. Not a hint of austerity, it is all about classic, well framed flavors wrapped in a gorgeous floral bouquet that lingers leisurely on the palate.  Without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite 2011 Chardonnay from Santa Rita Hills.

 

Not all vintners make good winemakers. John is the exception to the rule. His drive for perfection and an obvious talent serves him well. His 2011 Pinot Noirs are highly focused. They offer gorgeous purity of fresh and dry fruit, firm yet silky tannins with a clean, lengthy, luscious finish. What more can one desire from in a fine Pinot Noir? The 2010 is quite a head turner. Rich and expansive, it fans out on the palate; performing an expert black fruit dance with just a hint of spice and dark earth, the kind you smell after a fresh summer rain. The tannins are beautiful, long, and luxurious.

 

During a recent visit, we were musing over the sizes of their newly printed T-shirts with the Hilliard Bruce logo. John turned to his wife and, softly, with the warmest tone of voice, said “You look so cute in that T-shirt.” This private comment wasn’t meant for my ears, but I heard. It sent unexpected shivers down my spine. This couple of twenty-some years is still in love. And that love shows through in their wonderful wines.

 

 

john and christine

John Hilliard and Christine Bruce

John and Christine are living proof that if you invest your heart and soul, if you love completely and with abandon, if your artistic talents are rooted in a sense of accountability and personal responsibility; anything is possible. If every wine brand took those principles to heart, we would live in a wine lover’s paradise.

 

 

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How the West Won Me – West of West Wine Festival

“A gourmet meal without a glass of wine just seems tragic to me somehow.”

― Kathy Mattea

If you consider yourself any sort of Pinot lover, friend or even a distant acquaintance, you may want to block next’ year’s first weekend of August on your calendar. West of West is a two day festival that takes place in the city of Sebastopol, located in the heart of Sonoma County. The event offers seminars, tastings and elaborate dinners hosted by wine making luminaries.

 

This year’s event featured:
Forty extraordinary wineries pouring Pinots and Chardonnays during two grand tastings

  • Seven winemaker dinners
  • Two educational seminars
  • The Grand Dinner featuring forty wineries presented by  the winemakers themselves

The event took place at The Barlow, a former apple processing plant that is now home to art galleries, retailers, a coffee roaster, a micro-brewery, restaurants, wine tasting rooms, a gin distillery and a fantastic ice cream shop.

 

Leading up to the event were two fabulous winemaker’s dinners, the Littorai dinner at Chalkboard in Healdsburg and the Freeman Winery dinner, which was held at the winemakers’ beautiful home.

 

The Littorai Vineyards dinner at Chalkboard restaurant that evening was superb. Chef Shane McAnelly’s daily changing menu celebrates the finest local ingredients. If the food doesn’t entice you, their wine list and innovative cocktail menu will.

 

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Black Miso Cod at Chalkboard

The dinner began with a big-eye tuna crudo with iberico lardo, umeboshi, ponzu and scallion appetizer.  Paired with Littorai’s stunning 2012 Savoy Pinot Noir, it hit every hedonistic note. The main course, Misoyaki black cod with duck fat potatoes, roasted grapes, pink peppercorn jus and house pickled ginger, just about send me over the edge. Littorai’s wines are undeniably consistent, age-worthy, and impeccably crafted; a perfect pairing with Chef McAnelly’s marvelous meal!

I started the next day at Flying Goat Coffee, with a beverage titled Bangkok, a Vietnamese style espresso based drink with house made sweetened condensed milk. Yum.

 

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The Liberty Duck by Bay Laurel Culinary

Ken and Akiko Freeman’s dinner was catered by none other than Christopher Greenwald, a highly regarded chef from Bay Laurel Culinary. The menu featured cast-iron seared wild king salmon, locally grown “Liberty” duck and a variety of fascinating wines. We tasted Freeman’s entire portfolio of current releases in the wine cave prior to the meal.  Rather than pairing their own wines with the mealthe Freemans offered 2006 Pinots from Oregon and France to compare and contrast with their 2006 Akiko’s Cuvee. My thoughts? Akiko’s Cuvee clearly prevailed.

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The Evolution of California Cuisine & Wine Seminar

The WOW event kicked off the next morning with a seminar titled “The Evolutions of California Cuisine & Wine” hosted by renowned chefs such as Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions, Evan Rich of Rich Table, and Nick Balla and Courtney Burns from San Francisco’s Bar Tartine.

The seminar centered around how today’s most admired chefs focus on fresh, local ingredients and how wine plays into the gamut of flavor combinations.

 

A main topic of discussion was the symbiotic relationship that today’s great chefs have with the local farmers.  The best chefs spend tremendous amount of time, energy and thought sourcing the finest local ingredients. It was also apparent, that due to the efforts of chefs such as Stuart, Evan and Nick, menus are more frequently placing fresh vegetables in the coveted front and center position, with proteins playing a supporting role!

 

It was great to hear Chef Rich speak of his wine list evolving from mainly imports to a heavy focus on California wine, specifically Pinot Noir. West Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir naturally lends itself to food and wine pairings due to its acidity, minerality and delineated, robust aromatics and flavors. It makes complete sense to match local wines to local cuisine and it was very gratifying to hear such talented Chefs fully embrace the concept.  We clearly are eating and drinking better that we ever have, in no small part due to the efforts of the above mentioned chefs, who push the envelope and supply the inspired, unforgettable culinary experiences.

 

After a delicious lunch, prepared by Rocker Oysterfeller and Firefly Fine Catering, we reconvened for the seminar on Charles Heintz vineyards featuring several producers who source fruit from his renowned estate, located just outside Occidental. Some of California’s most revered Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers including  Ceritas, DuckhornDuMOLFlowersFreemanLittorai, Peirson Meyer, Moone-TsaiRadio-Coteau, Von HoltWilliams Selyem, and Zepaltas produce wine from Charles’ grapes. His criteria for choosing which wineries?  Sell fruit to winemakers whose personalities and winemaking philosophy he likes, a synergy of art and science that honors the vineyard he nurtures daily. In that spirit, Charles even gives away fruit to the aspiring winemakers who are passionate about their craft. The seminar was fantastic and focused on the unique confluence of soil, climactic condition and meticulous viticultural practices that provide winemakers with high typicity, physiologically ripened, no expense spared, no compromises fruit that they personalize in the cellar. 2013 Barrel samples, as well as  blind tasting of three Chardonnays, were a revelation. It looks like 2013 may be the vintage of the century for California.

 

After a short break, the Grand Tasting was upon us. 40 producers vying for your palate, offering some of their best efforts, some in Magnum format. Here are a few highlights:

  • 32 Winds 2011 Chardonnay, made by Ehren Jordan from fruit sourced from Lucky Well Vineyard planted by Ulises Valdez to Ehren’s specs.  This elegant, high toned, Chardonnay with gorgeous minerality, showcases beautiful vanilla, peach and floral aromas.
  • Alma Fria Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs, crafted by Carroll Kemp of Red Car.  They speak to the soil and the soul of winemaking. Concentrated and balanced, these wines will age gracefully, and yet, are a pleasure to consume now.
  • Readers and twitter followers may be familiar with my ongoing affection for Benovia, Hartford, Failla, Flowers, MacPhail, Ramey, Red Car and Siduri wines. They are consistent, always well crafted, invariably delicious and the winemaking personalities behind these brands are off the charts.
  • A couple of notable mentions go out to Senses Wines. Their 2012 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, made under the tutelage of Thomas Rivers Brown are easily the QPR of the event. These are modest, down to earth, wildly talented folks that you should get to know.
  • Wayfarer, the inaugural release of Jayson and Cleo Pahlmeyer are on the opposite end of the spectrum, price wise yet deliver elegance and finesse of withering heights. Crafted by Bibiana Gonzalez Rave, a winemaker to watch (she has her own brand she co-crafts with her husband, Jeff Pinsoni, called Shared Notes), these wines are stunning, ultra-refined, and
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    The Grand Dinner

    polished.

The Grand dinner that evening was superb, offering the best salmon I’ve had in my life. The mouth melting, sublime goodness, flanked by summer beans, punctuated with salmatto sauce delivered by the genius of Bar Tartine, left a lifetime impression. The dessert, made by State Bird Provisions, roasted peach melba, oozed exquisite sensuality.

 

Winemakers brought copious amounts of wine (many in Magnums) as well as library vintages, so one can imagine that nothing short of palatal orgy ensued. If I could stretch that evening over six months, I gratefully would. Alas, time machines do not exist, so I was forced to consume a half year supply of West Sonoma Coast greatness over a few hours.

Not quite ready to depart, I stalled the next day, spending quality time at Zazu’s Sunday brunch.  I savored their fabulous spicy Bloody Mary cocktail and unbearably tasty fried rabbit sandwich. If you get a chance, check out Chef Duskie Estes’ homage to all things pig.
Spending time in West Sonoma is a treat for the senses in a variety of ways. Each bite of food, taste of wine and tidbit of conversation leaves an indelible impression. The folks there are genuine and have a strong sense of community, a strong bond with their land and a huge capacity to connect with one another. The West of West event embraces and frames all of this. It is one of the best, most intimate, soulful wine events in the country.  You will leave wistful and fulfilled; yearning for your next encounter. You will leave a piece of yourself in the foggy, magical forests, vineyards and mountains of  the Sonoma Coast. It will win you over when you are not looking and you will fall in love.

 

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IPNC Is The Place To Be

“Pinot Noir, more than anything, should tell the truth. And it does that very well. But you have to take a risk in order to hear the truth and then you might not always hear what you expect.”

– Scott Wright, founder of Oregon’s Scott Paul Winery

The 28th annual International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) took place on July 25th-27th on Linfield College’s campus in McMinnville, Oregon.  It launched with the usual fanfare and unbridled excitement of loyal fans who have been coming to the event for many years to celebrate this elusive, yet transparent grape. The theme of this year’s event was “Pinot Noir and the Doors of Perception” with each seminar, blind tasting and winery tour geared towards challenging one’s own preconceived notions and grandfathered assumptions.

IPNC is known for its incredible confluence of chefs, world famous vintners and wine educators. It enjoys a stellar reputation of a place to be, see, and be seen. Many wineries vie for a coveted invitation spot. Having experienced three festivals, I can clearly see why. It’s perennially a well run event, driven by the efforts of the IPNC staff and a large number of volunteers who donate their time in support of the event. Perhaps equaled only by la Paulee in France; it’s a festival for which many oenophiles plan a year ahead to attend.

The event’s clever format consists of pre-IPNC winery dinners, two days of seminars and field trips, two lunches and two dinners, including the traditionally sold out Salmon Bake. Especially enjoyable is the Sunday Sparkling Brunch, which features sommeliers in colorful short shorts and hilarious wigs pouring guests awesome sparkling wines.

The event started off with keynote speaker, David Lynch of Bon Appetit magazine, who delivered a humorous rendition on why the wine world never needs to take itself seriously. Looking around the room he referred to the crowd as “the whitest ever, eerily resembling the Bush’s family reunion”

The field trips to a variety of wineries had the guests abuzz. The winemakers who wound up on busses were as surprised as the festival attendees, to learn that they would be tasting their own wines blind and were expected to correctly identify them!

This year’s “University of Pinot” featured a wide range of seminar options:

  • Sensory Science: The Physiology of Taste with Josh Raynolds, assistant editor of Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar
  • Matchmaking: Smoke and Mirrors, a food and wine pairing seminar led by Chef Ben Dyer and James-Beard-Award winning wine, spirits, and food writer, Jordan MacKay
  • Chemistry: Dropping Acid (a sly reference to the “Door’s of Perception” theme) presented by wine-philosopher, Elaine Brown
  • Climatology: The Future of Cool Climate Viticulture with Master Sommelier, Vajra Stratigos and climatologist, Greg Jones
  • Field Study: Distilling Terroir with perfumer Hall Newbegin
  • Geography: Loire Valley Pinot with master sommelier, Pascaline LePeltier
  • Regional Studies: The New California Wine with Jon Bonne, the wine editor at The San Francisco Chronicle
  • Gastronomy: Pairing Tea and Cheese with Smith Teamaker owner, Steven Smith

Perhaps the most intriguing seminar was the “Aroma of Color” one led by Jordi Ballester, a researcher in Sensory Science Université de Bourgogne. He has dedicated his career to studying the cognition behind the perception of wine. Is perception reality? Short answer is, yes. The “black glass” tasting was fascinating. We were supplied with three wines poured into black stemware and were asked to identify whether the wines were red, white or rosé. The group was unevenly split with most participants guessing correctly.   However, as we were put to the addition challenge of blindly identifying various wines, it became very clear that there were many psychological factors at play. Furthermore, extensive wine expertise can be both an asset or a hindrance.

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Grilled Leg of Lamb by Vitaly Paley

My IPNC extravaganza kicked off with a dinner at the beautiful Domaine Serene. Chef Vitaly Paley of Paley’s Place, Imperial, Portland Penny Diner prepared a feast for the senses. Truth be told, there were a number of great meals that weekend, but Chef Paley’s food proved to be simply unforgettable; quite refined, yet somehow soulful and nostalgic. Beautifully textural braised octopus salad with melt-in-your-mouth butter-poached potatoes; rustic mushroom and foie gras stuffed rabbit; skillfully elevated grilled leg of lamb with chorizo masa cake and green sauce were all executed to perfection.

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Ellen and Robert Brittan

The walk around tastings held prior to the evening’s dinners were remarkable. Many of the world’s best Pinot producers
poured their current releases. Noteworthy Oregon wines included Archery Summit, Bergstrom, Brittan (my wine of the event), Dominio IV, Hamacher (stunning 2012s), Harper Voit, Patricia Green, R Stuart & Co. and Scott Paul. California standouts included Donum, Drew, Foxen, Knez, La Follette, Navarro, Red Car, Rhys, Siduri and Talley. New Zealand was well represented by Mt Beautiful, Wooing Tree and, most notably Villa Maria Estate. 2010 Taylor’s Pass was extraordinary and supplied a powerful motivation for tasting a whole lot more NZ Pinot. During a blind tasting, Villa Maria’s winemaker, Alastair Maling (Master of Wine), was the only one to correctly identify his own and his peers’ wines.

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Winemaking Panel at Ponzi Vineyards

In a long standing IPNC tradition, each year attendee are treated to a bus trip through the unbearably picturesque Oregon countryside, to a secret location.  This year’s destination: Ponzi Vineyards. It was a truly great visit, complete with a phenomenal lunch catered by the Ringside Fish House. Prior to, there was a winemaking panel from heaven, with Alastair Maling, Luisa Ponzi, Eric Hamacher, Andrew Rich, Bryan Weil, each tasting their five wines blind along with us. Ponzi is a generational winery, with a long history of success across an expansive varietal board. They even make an ice-wine, called Vino Gelato, which is quite delish and made for a nice addition to the dessert course.

The Grand Dames dinner is traditionally terrific; with beautiful food prepared by renowned northwestern chefs.  Additionally, many winemakers graciously shared library and large format bottlings. This year, the dinner celebrated female chef talents such as Stephanie Pearl Kimmel of Marche, Kristen D. Murray of Marice, Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita, and Cathy Whims of Nostrana.

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The Annual Salmon Bake

The Salmon Bake, perhaps the most anticipated part of the event, started with a long line forming outside of the campus’s Oak Grove. In the spirit of generosity common to the wine world, many guests brought multiple bottles of wine to share with table-mates. If you see an impressive collection of illustrious and highly allocated Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, Oregon, California wines randomly covering the tables, you are at IPNC! Your palate ought to be bracing for an onslaught of goodness that you will process for months to come. The food was brilliantly executed by Ben Dyer, David Kreifels, Jason Owens of Reverend’s BBQ, Tommy Habetz and Nick Wood of Bunk, and Jason Stoller Smith from Timberline Lodge.

Sunday’s Passport to Pinot that often gets overlooked due to the fact that it features all of the same wineries that poured during the weekend. However, in my book, it’s a do-not-miss event. Complete with acrobatic acts and phenomenal food purveyors, it’s an opportunity to taste and validate what you have learned during the previous days. The wineries poured in two shifts, with a short break in between. Seventy top notch Pinots on the same lawn? I’m in!

What sets IPNC apart and puts it into its own category? Between the quality and diversity of producers selected, some of the best Chefs in the country, guests sharing legendary wines and very tightly, organizationally professionally run logistics, one would have to really struggle not to have a great time.

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Anthony King of Lemelson Vineyards

Anthony King, of Lemelson Vineyards and next year’s event chair, has some big shoes to fill!  Yet, I have no doubt that the next year’s IPNC attendees are in for a treat. I know my personal expectations are sky high. Hear that, Anthony? 2015 isn’t all that
far away.

 

 

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Culinary Institute of America Serves Up a Feast for the Senses

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” ― Virginia Woolf 

Culinary_Institute_of_America_logo.svgThere is a CIA no one really wants to know and there is the CIA everyone should get to know.  My introduction to Culinary Institute of America began in late 90s when I started attending food and wine events there.

Located in the heart of the wine country in charming St Helena, the historic building (constructed in 1889) brings together many food and wine industry luminaries. It’s hard to adequately describe this magical spot, which emanates old world charm combined with modern sensibilities.

The CIA offers a wide range of educational programs; from associate degrees to non-accredited consumer-orientated courses.  These courses range from two to five day boot camps.

Given my love of wine and food, and my familiarity with the venue, I was excited by the opportunity to attend the “Wine Boot Camp – Become Wine Wise” course. Little did I know that the week that I spent at the CIA would forever change me.

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Robert Bath, the teacher of the “Become Wine Wise” course at the CIA.

Last week, I was fortunate to attend the Wine Boot Camp taught by Robert Bath, a Master Sommelier – one of only 135 in the US to have earned this coveted title. His 30 year long career highlights include:

  • composing the original wine list for Thomas Keller’ French Laundry as well as working with several of Wine Spectator Award restaurants
  • founding a consultancy group RLB Wine Group which developed wine education programs for brands such as Marriott, Crystal Cruises, Taj, Kendal Jackson, etc.
  • being the national sales manager for Shafer Vineyards in addition to working with Duckhorn, Dalla Valle, Viader, Hartwell, Iron Horse, etc.
  • contributing to prestigious publications such as the Sommelier Journal and Sante
  • importing wine from vineyards across New Zealand

The idea behind the five day course was to expand one’s existing wine savvy and also expose students to a wide array of wine related subjects; from basics of deductive tasting methods to Master Sommelier level service program. Whether you are an aspiring wine aficionado or a trained professional, this course offers an unprecedented opportunity to greatly expand your existing knowledge base.

Every day of instruction contained a series of stimulating sensory and intellectual experiences. Bob Bath is a great teacher who draws you out and facilitates maximum immersion. Leading questions, blind and guided tastings, cerebral and palatal workouts made for a wonderful learning experience.

Day one was dedicated to the basics of wine tasting, learning a systematic wine evaluation process, becoming familiar with the concept of appellations, wine making methods and practices, and key concepts of wine styles. It featured a series of blind tastings that stretched every attendee’s wine appreciation skills.

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Nile Zacherle, shown here, has ten years of wine making experience.

Day two included a field trip to David Arthur Vineyards and Montagna Vineyards. The  afternoon was spent with the co-winemaker for the brands, Nile Zacherle, whose initial interest in alcohol fermentation was spurred on by beer and evolved into wine stints in Australia, and in California at Sterling Vineyards, Chateau Montelena and Barnett. Nile introduced us to wines from a two year old vineyard that was planted primarily to clonal material sourced from friends and neighbors, as oppose to nurseries, in order to avoid any possibility of disease-tainted vines. We were subsequently invited to sample 2011, 2012 and 2013 (barrel samples) of David Arthur flagship wine, “Elevation 1147″ and “La Presa” from Montagna. It was a fascinating comparative tasting of two magnificent offerings.  Crafted by the same winemaker, this tasting showcased soil and vintage diversity as well as different varietal compositions.

Back in class we learned about American Viticultural Areas, wine labeling, vineyard and farming influences and major distinguishing characteristics of white grape varietals.

That night, as part of the curriculum, we had fabulous dinner at the CIA Greystone restaurant.  The restaurant is run by CIA students, with the faculty oversight. The menu focuses on local, seasonal ingredients. Delightfully, the facility features a full view of the open kitchen. The food was fantastic. The meal started with a fresh salad consisting of spring greens, popped quinoa and pea sprouts dressed in sky billgoat cheese. It was followed by a perfectly prepared black pepper cured five dot ranch strip sirloin. The chocolate cake with blackberry reduction just about pushed us over the edge.

Day three was dedicated to discussing the diversity of Napa Valley’s various viticultural areas. A field trip to Raymond Vineyards drove home the point. The vineyard management team at Raymond Vineyards is known for their rigorous biodynamic regime, courtesy of the owner, Jean Charles Boisset’s unrelenting pursuit of organic farming. We had an opportunity to spend quality time with their gardener (the facility boasts an organic “Theater of Nature” garden), oenologist, viticulturalist and VIP hospitality coordinator. We toured the winery and tasted an array of wines, including the famed “Generations” 2010 Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Day four was all about food and wine pairing; and boy was it hands on! One of the most fascinating moments of my tasting career was the “white bean soup” exercise. A large pot of flavor-neutral white bean soup appeared along with a tray of various flavor enhancers.   There were eighteen flavor enhancers offered, including fresh herbs, olive oils, bacon, dukka (an Indian spice) and Chinese hoisin sauce. The goal was to find the optimal pairing of flavored white bean soup with six different wines. We wound up trying dozens upon dozens of combinations, with folks reaching consensus on only a few; but mostly having exploratory fun.

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William Heubel prepares a delicious ravioli.

Later we were introduced to Chef William Heubel, our “Iron Chef” for the day.  He guided us through a preparation of a wonderful three course meal consisting of pillowy ravioli on a bed of spinach and porcini mushrooms, parmesan infused brodo (an Italian stock) finished with goat cheese, lamb with rare red polenta, and luscious plum dessert.

Traci Dutton, manager of wine and beverage studies at the CIA, paired wines with our meal. We enjoyed  a fascinating interplay of white, rose, and red wines with our dishes. The meal was followed by a great conversation with Chef Heubel.  He discussed the perils of CIA student’s expecting instant success. Although many CIA graduates move onto some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country (recent examples include Press and Auberge du Soleil), for many it takes years of hard work before fame and recognition arrive.

Hailing from a number of four star properties such as Four Seasons Lanai, The Highlands Inn in Carmel, Ventana in Big Sur, and L’Auberge de Sedona, Heubel settled in at CIA. His food philosophy centers around eating thoughtfully and consciously. He favors shifting the focus from protein being the star of the show, to a more balanced approach where side dishes which are prepared using seasonal, local fare share the spotlight.

Day five came was dedicated to “living with wine” – wine storage, stemware, decanting, alternative bottle closures, and opening various wine bottles (there is a way of opening sparkling wine sans noise and flying corks drama).

“Wine as a lifestyle” is a powerful and highly applicable concept, that can be practiced in any circumstances. Value added is exponential, the better you drink and eat, the more you want to delve further into your own potential to live well. Wine’s flavor profiles, stylistic differences and price points take on a whole different meaning with the background knowledge under one’s belt.   If you are an wine aficionado, or just a novice, this course will greatly enhance and deepen your love of wine. I learned more about food and wine in five days than I had in the last five years. If you love learning, while tasting world class wines personally selected by one of the top Sommeliers on the planet, and eating phenomenal food, this class is for you!

Incidentally, daily lunches occur in CIA’s magnificent teaching kitchen and consist of roughly a hundred (not kidding) food options, from bouillabaisse to opulent dessert. The students in culinary arts program produce a wide array of complex dishes. They look spectacular and taste even better. I found myself promising that I’d hit the gym twice a day, so that I could consume more.

Each day I came back to my hotel room mentally spent yet exhilarated, looking forward to my next class experience and feeling a childlike sense of wonder and exploration.

On the last day of class I found myself fighting tears. Typically I get exuberant over wine and food related events.  This one was very different. I felt like I was leaving my best friend or a beloved family member behind. When Robert Bath signed my diploma, I felt my heart drop. It was really over. I absent-mindedly said good byes to my classmates and thanked Bob for one of the greatest teaching experiences of my life. I was overwhelmed with sadness that I won’t be coming back the next day. I can’t recommend strongly enough that you give your palate, and possibly your heart, a chance of a lifetime. Get to know my CIA, an American institution, where your senses and desires come alive.

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Sweet Homecoming For Napa Valley, with 18.7 Million reasons to celebrate

“Only great souls know the grandeur there is in charity”  – Jacques Bossuet

It is the most exhilarating weekend of the year in Napa Valley; overflowing with euphoric anticipation, filling the balmy June air with excitement .

live_celebrationAuctionNapaValley (ANV), seems to be everyone’s favorite charity event.  Since its start in 1981, the Napa Valley Vintners Association, which operates AuctionNapaValley, has raised and donated more $120 million to community causes.

The 34th Annual ANV, titled “Sweet Home Napa Valley,” had a pair of gargantuan shoes to fill. Last year, the most watched wine auction in the country, broke its own previous record, raising $16.9 million for local health care and children’s education programs. The wine community brimmed with happy anticipation, combined with a hint of trepidation. Tough standard to live up to.

Saturday evening the world learned that they need not have worried. AuctionNapaValley set a new record by raising 18.7 million dollars; surpassing the previous record by 10% and solidifying ANV reputation as the most prestigious and highly effective charity auction in the US.

Multiple lots earned over $400,000, with several prominent vintners becoming top bidders themselves. Prior to the main event, many participating vintner hosts went all-out for to support the four-day event by hosting pre-parties or winery sponsored dinners prepared by private Chefs. The barrel and live auctions were, once again, runaway successes.

After a head spinning final tally and an extravagant epicurean journey (with lots of culinary and winemaking celebrity sightings) one wonders what makes this auction so incredibly special? Is it the presence of Margrit Mondavi, widow of the late Robert Mondavi, who has been involved with every wine auction from its inception? Is it the site of Thomas Keller, Michael Chiarello and Masaharu Morimoto greeting guests and chatting away with fellow chefs? Is it the rivers of extraordinary wines, freely poured? Is it the ostentatious, one-of a kind lots, such as the Star of Africa pendant studded with 100 diamonds and encased in a fluid-filled sapphire orb? Or is it the opportunity to experience the debut of Bill Harlan’s “Promontory”?

I think not. What makes this event special is that it is an event by the community for the community; permeated with the pure spirit of neighbor helping neighbor.

This large scale, theatrical production, that takes over a year to plan and countless individuals to execute it is a real coup d’etat. Although appears effortless, this gargantuan task brings together seasoned auctioneers, chefs, winemakers, and industry luminaries, all bound together by copious amounts of goodwill. It’s where worlds intersect; billionaires meet volunteers, community leaders assist vintners, and police officers volunteer their time. Its a place to see and be seen but where charity is the greatest equalizer.

By the Numbers:

500 Vintner members. 1000 Vintners participated.

1000 Barrel Auction guests. 100 barrels of predominantly 2012 Cabernet. Total $1.694 million. Top Lot: BrandNapaValley at $83,050 (followed by Shafer Vineyards: $55,200 and Continuum Estate: $52,750)

E-auction open to everyone: 175 lots. Total $490,000. Top Lot: Continuum Estate, Freemark Abbey and Staglin – $21,000

50 live auction lots, 5 hours of bidding, 1000 attendees. Total 16.6 million, 7 lots were doubled to accommodate the under-bidder.

Top Live Auction Lots were:

Fund-a-Need

 Total raised: $3.8 million, 100 bidders energetically raising their paddles, with highest contribution of $1 million by billionaire Kieu Hoang. A Vietnam-born U.S. citizen, Hoang is the pharmaceuticals executive of companies focused on plasma, and a believer in the link between wine and good health. Having already spent $240,000 for a lot that included a jeroboam of 2010 Ovid, dinner for eight and the services of the famed architect’s Harold Backen who will design or remodel a house or a winery; Hoang seemed elated to contribute more to his new wine home base.

“Promontory” by Bill Harlan: $600,000

Acquired by a vintner and philanthropist Lee Anderson, this lot entitles him to the lifetime 1st Mailing List Customer title as well as ten cases of the first ten vintages of wine produced by Promontory.  It also included five double magnums from the 2009 through the 2013 vintage and accommodations at Meadowood, along with lunch or dinner for 30 at the estate.

Opus One: $550,000
Next year’s Auction Chairs, enticed five couples to pay $110,000 each for a trip to Bordeaux, a visit to Château Mouton-Rothschild, Mondavi’s partner in Opus One, five large format bottles of Opus One, and VIP packages to Auction Napa Valley 2015.

Araujo Estates: $520,000
Araujo Estates’ new owners, The Pinault Wine Group offered a whirlwind trip to Bordeaux; including tours of Château Latour, Margaux, Pessac-Léognan, St.-Emilion and Pomerol.  Also included was a 6-liter bottle of Araujo for the winner’s cellar.

Raymond Vineyards: $840,000 (Winning bid $420,000, doubled for two separate winners)
The charismatic Jean-Charles Boisset, with the help of his friend Harvey Weinstein, offered the winning bidder an unforgettable night at the Academy Awards, including a private jet, evening gown, tuxedo, an Oscar after-party, a VIP table, with plenty of chances to hobnob with Hollywood elite.  Also included were double magnums and a Salmanazar of Raymond Vineyards Generations Cabernet.

Casa Piena: $420,000
In addition to a couple of delicious double magnums from proprietors Carmen and Gail Policy’s Casa Piena, the winning bidders are entitled to four tickets to the 2016 Super Bowl in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, as well as a pre-Super Bowl party with the NFL Commissioner.

Chappellet Vineyard: $410,000
Blakesley and Cyril Chappellet offered a “traveling in style” package, that includes a ten-day trip for four to New Zealand, business class, lodging, 10 dinners in NZ plus a lavish dinner for 24 in Napa Valley, and four double magnums of Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon.

Lokoya: $400,000
If you would rather visit Australia, this package included a ten-day trip to for two, including a helicopter tour of Adelaide, private winery tours and sixteen bottles of wine.

Gargiulo Vineyards, Silver Oak and Twomey Cellars: $400,000
This lot included a trip to Colorado’s Diamond Tail Ranch, four Fender guitars, four target rifles, four fly rods, meals by Charlie Palmer, entertainment by Grammy Award winner Billy Dean, plus three wines offered by the Duncans and Gargiulos.

Mayacamas Vineyards: $660,000 (Winning bid was $330,000, doubled for two bidders)
Mayacamas Vineyards, recently acquired by Charles Banks (former Screaming Eagle partner), offered a stunning historic collection of wine, including a magnum from 1964 and five jeroboams from 1978, 1989, 1997, 2002 and 2013 as well as a six-decade vertical tasting. Also included were two dinners for twelve at their historic property, prepared by Blackberry Farms’ Chef Joseph Lenn, as well as a two-night stay for six couples at the Mayacamas estate on Mt Veeder.

NapaValley Vintners and Lexus: $580,000 (Winning bid $290,000, lot doubled for two separate bidders)
This lot included a three-day cycling adventure for two couples in the Great Smoky Mountains, four customized Panatela bicycles, 48 bottles of Napa Valley wine. Tickets to the Tour de Smokies, accommodations and meals at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee and use of Lexus vehicles.

Darioush and Robb Report Magazine: $440,000 (Winning bid $220,00, paid by two separate bidders)
Judgeship for the 2015 Robb Report Car of the Year and 2015 Culinary Masters Competition, five-night stay at Four Seasons Maui, five-night stay and Four Seasons Bora Bora, and dinner for five couples with Darioush and Shahpar Khaledi.

One of the most intense foodie lots, Colgin Cellars, offering four double magnums and a dinner for 50 (!) at either the French Laundry or Per Se, sold for $340,000.

For those looking for fantasy and once in a lifetime adventure, this was a playground like no other. International destinations, such as France, Australia and New Zealand lots were clear winners, but so were the “sweet home” lots.

David Alan Bernahl, founder of Coastal Luxury Management who produces Pebble Beach Food and Wine (among many other luxury wine and food events) attended the event; he was very impressed!  No slouch when it comes to top notch food and wine events, his appraisal of ANV was sky high.

I had a chance to spend some time with Sex in the City star, Kyle Maclachlan who was in town filming Anthony Bourdain’s new show, The Getaway. This show follows celebrities into their favorite locations. He was filming a segment in Napa’s famous bakery, Alexis Baking Co and briefly stopped in at ANV. Himself a vintner and a philanthropist in his native WA state, he spoke eloquently about the importance of giving back to the community: “It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s an important part of connecting with and supporting one another.”

All in all, ANV demonstrated, once more, the generosity of those who love to visit and who inhabit this very blessed spot. One can’t argue with success, and, certainly, one can’t argue with love for your extended family; your community, and your favorite place to come home to… Home indeed, is where the heart is.

Congratulations, ANV, you deserve it all.

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BottleRock Napa Valley festival spells success

Napa residents David Graham, Justin Drago, Joe Fischer and Jason Scoggins produce this year’s Bottlerock Napa Valley festival.

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The Fray

A bright blue sky and the Petaluma Bay breeze caressing the Napa Valley Expo grounds spelled perfect weather for this weekend’s much anticipated BottleRock Napa Valley festival.  The event debuted last year with a four day music, wine and food extravaganza. Many Napa residents fell in love with the inaugural experience and the hundred and twenty thousand people who attended last
year’s festival were not disappointed.

Napa natives were particularly thrilled about having a major music experience in their own backyard. Things close early in Napa Valley area; one would be hard pressed to find many spots open after 10 pm, so this was a welcome change.

Four Napa residents, David Graham, Justin Drago, Joe Fischer and Jason Scoggins, who are partners in Latitude 38 Entertainment, had produced this year’s festival. Although none of them are experienced in the music business, they have business acumen to spare.  Taking over from last year’s management, they were able to book bands, promote and sell out the event, and coordinate all of the logistics; all within two and a half months! They capped attendance at fifty thousand. At times you could feel the immense crowd’s presence, yet it wasn’t as overwhelming as one may have expected. The clearly defined goal of providing an authentic Napa experience succeeded. Once again, food and wine were stellar and the choice of talent was fantastic. Additionally, their “worst seat in the house = best at any other venue” strategy paid off. The enhanced platinum VIP program entitled 300 lucky guests to food prepared by Michelin starred chefs and wine chosen by a Master Sommelier as well as direct stage viewing.

Tri-Tip Trolley

Their selection of bands clearly embodied the festival’s  “something for everyone” motto. Whether you wanted to relax with a glass of Ceja Pinot Noir or jam to an Indie rock band, you came to the right place. The bands performed on four stages. The Whole Foods marketplace featured the likes of Morimoto, Tarla Grill, Napkins, Ca’Momi, Oakville Grocery and many more.  A multitude of food trucks were on hand, with the highlight being the newly launched, Tri-Tip Trolley, which was my favorite bite of the event.

I’m not sure what pairs better with food: great wine or great music.

The partners were passionate about merging music, fine wine, food and fun in a setting of a wine country back drop. The team’s laser-like focus on guest experience and unrelenting commitment to excellence paid off.

They met with community leaders to discuss noise issues, and how to attract more local business activities in conjunction with the event. The noise concerns were alleviated by a creative positioning of amplifiers. They contributed to the Napa economy by promoting after-parties at local restaurants and wine bars. Spreading the wealth and supporting local business were one of the partners core
values. The event was run in a tight, very business-like way without sacrificing neighborliness or community values.

Isaac Slade of The Fray, with a bottle of Rombauer Cabernet prominently displayed on his piano, rocked the house; performing a stunning version of his hit “How to Save a Life.”The crowds took in a mix of indie bands, classic hip-hop and an onslaught of nostalgia from 1990s.  The event featured performers such as Third Eye Blind and Smash Mouth. The alternative rock band Cure was a huge hit with the crowds, as was Outkast, Eric Church, Third Eye Blind, Blues Travelers, Spin Doctors, Cracker, Weezer, LLCool J, Barenaked Ladies, Camper Van Beethoven, Gin Blossoms, Matt and Kim, Sublime with Rome, and TV on the Radio; over 60 bands in all.Howie Day was a highlight for me. His performance was extraordinary. Emotionally charged lyrics combined with inspired music have been a hallmarks of his impressive career. He found a loyal and receptive audience at this event. His hit song “Collide” was a runaway audience favorite.

Several of the principles’ dads served in the military, so military-related causes are near and dear to their hearts. Part of the proceeds of the festival going forward will be donated to charitable causes dedicated supporting our troops.

Howie Day

The BottleRock was a very successful event that embraced a variety of genres, both on and off stage. You could have a simple bite with your favorite beer or a sophisticated glass of wine paired with expertly made sushi, all within a few feet of each other. You could come for a concert and stay for three, all for the same admission fee. You could chat with winemakers at their wine booths or relax in a lounge with a refreshing drink. You could kiss your partner passionately under the stars while swaying to your favorite tunes…

Can’t wait for it to return next year.

Click to view the slideshow:

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Russian River Valley Pinot Classic makes Memorial Day memorable

The annual Russian River Valley Pinot Classic is a great Memorial Day weekend event for wine lovers.

Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Russian River Valley (RRV) has been known for classy Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays for decades. Nestled in the heart of Sonoma County, the region has 15,000 acres under vine planted to 35 varieties. It is home to over a 100 wineries and produces a number of world-class wines. It’s also a gracious host of the annual Russian River Valley Pinot Classic.

I attended this event last year and was happy to spend yet another glorious weekend in the lush vineyards and picturesque tasting rooms of one of my favorite wine regions. The event took place over the Memorial Day weekend, a somber occasion honoring our fallen troops. It was touching to see how many wineries showed tributes in respect for the day; red, white and blue were on display everywhere.

The event offers guests stops at a series of wineries which host open houses, pour library releases, offer a preview of upcoming vintages and (often), food pairings. I stopped at a number of participating wineries. Here are a few highlights:My adventure started at Hartford Winery, where I tasted barrel components of their Fog Dance 2013. Especially memorable were the 2011 Fog Dance and 2011 Marin offering which were paired with smoked duck and quinoa accompanied by pickled strawberries in balsamic gastrique.

On to Swan Vineyards where I had a chance to sample 2010 Great Oak Pinot Noir and 2010 and 2011 Trenton as well as half a dozen barrel samples. Their futures program is a savvy way to save a few dollars on some great wines.

Emeritus, one of my favorite RRV producers, generously offered a vertical tasting of Emeritus Hallberg Ranch 2010-2011- 2012, a barrel sample of 2013 and even a sip of 2011 Wesley. What a treat!

Dutton-Goldfield offered barrel samples of 2013 single vineyard pinot noirs, along the finished wines. Library offerings abound.Since I have no will power when it comes to Red Car wines, I felt that an unscheduled stop was in order. Winemaker Carroll Kemp crafts some of the industry’s most delicious wines. His 2013 Rose is a stellar example of a Rose of Pinot Noir. His brand new 2012 Chardonnay knocked my socks off. Both 2012 Sonoma Coast and Falstaff were divine, for dramatically different reasons. Syrah fans can’t afford to miss Kemp’s Syrahs, they are some of the best made in California.Discovering a new wine is always an exciting occurrence in my world, so I was particularly pleased to see DRNK on the participating winery list. The event debuted their 2013 Rose, 2013 Viognier, 2012 Chardonnay, 2012 Hallberg Ranch and 2012 Caver’s Cuvee Pinots. They also offered barrel samples of exceptional 2013 Hallberg Ranch Pinot Noir. DRNK is partnership between O’Reilly Media founder, Dale Dougherty and winemaker Ryan Kunde. Their wines were brimming with character, integrity and class. I highly recommend that consumers check them out.

The marquee event was the La Paulee dinner. Named after a vital chef’s tool, sauté pan, or poile, a “Paulée” is a gathering that celebrates the end of harvest with a simple family style meal cooked in a poile.In accordance with tradition,vintners and their guests share a post harvestsigh of relief, conviviality and special wines from their cellars.Vintners from Arista,Bacigalupi,Benovia, Bucher, C. Donatello, Davis,DeLoach, Hartford, Iron Horse, J Vineyards, Joseph Swan,Kosta Browne, LaCrema, LaFollette, Merry Edwards, Russian Hill, Siduri, Thomas George,Trione and Williams Selyem dug deep into their cellars and came out with doublemagnums of their flagship wines. Rare Burgundy made the rounds, courtesy of the attending guests. The classic French menu ofombreohevalier,oeufmeurette aufoiegras, cheese and dessert prepared b yMichou Cornu, Chef de Cuisine at Boisset Family Estates was superb.

Having successfully recovered from the opulent festivities, the next day I made my way to VML, which was the highlight of the weekend. Formerly C. Donatello winery, it is now home to some of the tastiest RRV wines. The 2013 Rosé of Pinot Noir, 2012 Chardonnay, 2012 RRV Pinot Noir and the 2012 Floodgate Vineyard Pinot were all fantastic. A tri-tip pairing, served with arugula and divine chipotle aioli, plus live music completed the idyllic ambiance. Especially enjoyable was an impromptu pairing of Pinot Noir and blueberries, straight from the winery’s lovely garden.

Bacigalupi Vineyards, a generational wine grower who sold fruit to Chateau Montelena for the historic Chardonnay that took top honors at the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” celebrated Memorial Day by pairing nana’s red gravy meatballs with their wonderful 2012 Estate Pinot.

The exciting new discovery of the day was UPTick. According to the winery “UPTick” is defined as… “a transaction in the stock market at a price above the price of the preceding transaction.” It can also mean a move forward to a higher level experience in the quality and production of wine.”

They certainly delivered a “higher level” visual experience. Their decor consists of an electronic ticker-tape on the wall with real-time Dow and NASDAQ quotes. In addition an old-fashioned ticker machine and a bull sculpture graced the Wall Street themed tasting room. There were commemorative flags honoring the fallen heroes of 9/11, as Uptick owners lost friends in the tragedy. They support a number of military and firefighter charities and donated 25% of sales made during May 24th-26th event to the Marine Corps Relief Society.

It was wonderful to see the wine world honor the day and the sacrifices our brave man and women made on the battlefield. The wine country is a place for great connections and celebrations of life. Somehow the joys of life seemed more poignant that day.

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