Apr 13 2016

Because It’s Wednesday

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Spring is slow-coming this year.  New England has been hit recently with multiple “spring” snowstorms putting the brakes on trees with budding leaves, flowers emerging from the ground and garden planting.

Warmer weather has not arrived with any regularity yet and at this point, it cannot arrive soon enough.  Inclimate weather provides the opportunity to slow down and spend some quality time in the kitchen, whether that is exploring a new recipe or simply learning how to master a new culinary technique.  And why shouldn’t you?  Sometimes you simply have to “treat yourself.”

The idea of “treating yourself” is certainly familiar in Napa Valley.  Often heard among hospitality is the justification, “because it’s Wednesday.”   The idea of treating yourself to something whether it is a nice bottle of wine with dinner or a nicer meal does not have to be relegated to a special occasion.  Instead, as the theory suggests, you can enjoy a nice bottle of wine with a nice dinner simply “because it’s Wednesday”.

This past week knowing that I was going to prepare a nice meal, I decided to explore my wine collection and revisit a lovely vintage of a red wine blend, “C’est Si Bon” made by Elyse Winery (“Elyse”).  C’est Si Bon (which means “It’s so good” in French) is a delicious blend of grapes indigenous to the Rhone Valley in Southern France and consists of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise and Viognier.   It is a lighter bodied red wine than many of its other red wine counterparts and it is also noted for its distinctive acidity.  Always delicious when released by the winery and difficult to set aside and allow to age, if you can age any of this flagship wine by Elyse, you will be delighted.   The 2007 vintage of C’est Si Bon hails from that landmark year which was a textbook growing year and the red wines made in Northern California were outstanding.   Given the strength of the growing year, the wines of that vintage have a wonderful aptitude for cellaring.  Case in point, opening a 2007 C’est Si Bon today makes the wine almost 9 years old since harvest and the wine still shows bright round juicy flavors of red plums, raspberries, a hint of milk chocolate and subtle aromas of lavender.  Previously the wine was rated 89 points by The Wine Enthusiast and today it does not disappoint but exceeds even the knowledgeable palate’s expectations.  The wine awakens the front of the palate with big sweet cherry flavors and then explodes into the mid-palate filling it with delicious fruit, subtle nuances of milk chocolate and finishing gently with cherry flavors which slowly fade away.  In the glass the wine is jewel like, with a deep garnet color yet with the ability to capture the light and edge the glass with ruby notes.

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Even though the wine is a blend of red varietals, it has versatility to pair with poultry, fish or vegetable dishes in addition to beef.  To demonstrate this, I prepared chicken breasts roasted in Vermont Grade B maple syrup, lemon juice, slices of lemon and sweet onion, Herbes de Provence and ribbons of fresh sage.

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To accompany the chicken, steamed seasonal asparagus, a polenta with lemon zest and fresh sage drizzled with a sauce made from reducing the drippings with a bit of balsamic vinegar.

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Dinner, which would at first blush look like a hearty winter meal, offers bright flavors akin to spring by incorporating lemon and its zest in both the chicken and the polenta.  Sweet, herb and juicy acidity bring together a delicious meal which pairs wonderfully with the 2007 vintage of the C’est Si Bon.

And to enjoy something like this on a Wednesday night provides a sufficient break from the routine and revitalizes one to finish out the remainder of the work week.   That in itself is more than enough justification to enjoy this:  because it’s Wednesday.  So why not?  Cheers!

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Feb 24 2016

Seeking a Bit of February Brightness

Published by under Chicken,Food,Pinot Noir,Red Wine

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February, regardless of where you live, is that point in winter when you have a couple of substantial storms under your belt, waved goodbye to the holidays in the rearview mirror and you note that finally the sun has begun to rise a bit earlier and set a bit later. It is right about now when nearly everyone gets a bit restless and when that first spring-like breeze teases us, we are all too ready to bound outside whether it is truly warm or not. We all seek a bit of brightness right about now.

As we seek signs of pending spring, Napa Valley comes alive with brilliant yellow mustard blooms and the rest of us in the country look hopefully at the start of daffodils peeking up from the winter earth.

Whether you find yourself surrounded with spring blooms, overcast with clouds or under a pile of snow somewhere, you can find a bit of brightness in a thoughtful dinner paired with the right varietal of wine.

Throughout the colder months we reach for hearty red wine which warms the soul. However, Pinot Noir with its coy acidity is a lovely varietal to consider in February. Pinot Noir, a red grape varietal, grows throughout the world but thrives best in cooler climates. A sensitive if not temperamental grape, Pinot Noir with the proper cultivation, vineyard location and care can produce elegant and complex wines.

Once bottled, not all Pinot Noir wines are equal and frankly, their quality depends on where the vineyard is located and the vineyard’s age. In California, Pinot Noir wines vary widely up and down the coast. The farther north you go, Pinot Noir wines have the potential to be bigger and bolder.

For this article I elected to enjoy Domaine Carneros’ 2011 Mt. Eden Clonal Series Pinot Noir. Domaine Carneros and its vineyards are located in the Carneros American Viticultural Area (“AVA”), right down the road from where I lived in Napa Valley. While Domaine Carneros is readily known for its wonderful sparkling wines and glamorous chateau patio that looks out over the Carneros AVA, for many years the winery has been making Pinot Noir with notable success. When this wine was first available for tasting, it was 2013. At the time of release, the wine very young. Now today in February of 2016, this Pinot Noir has truly grown into its own, has aged well and offers a wonderful mature profile.

 

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The wine’s nose is smoky to the point of seeming meaty. The flavor profile presents sultry notes of roasted raspberries, bits of bacon fat, subtle hints of lavender and bits of winter sage. The front of the palate experiences big round complex flavor before the wine rumbles aggressively across the middle of the palate releasing earthy flavors and politely leaves with a finish that is elegant and sweet.

So what is it about Pinot Noir that makes people grin and often passionately seek it out? It is a combination of the complex flavors that it can yield and that coy acidity that I originally mentioned. Most do not expect brightness from red wine and Pinot Noir can feign delicacy while letting big flavors tease an inquisitive palate. It is because of this acidity that one does not pair it with typical heavy meat dishes. It lacks the tannins which effortlessly slice through fat. Instead, it is Pinot Noir’s acidity that makes this red wine varietal lighter and capable of pairing well with salmon or poultry dishes.

The earthiness of Pinot Noir allows it to pair beautifully with fresh winter herbs such as sage and rosemary, portabello mushrooms, the hint of mold found in gorgonzola cheese and winter dark leafy greens such as spinach.

These seasonal winter ingredients conjure up an image of a roaring fireplace but the wine’s acidity allows us to veer away from the heavier and denser meals traditional to winter. Generally with acidity, immediately the home chef’s thoughts turn to foods that might involve tomatoes but cranberry is a good winter alternative.

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To start the meal, homemade crostini is not only simple to make but a wonderful canvas to set forth some of the actual foods that the palate identifies in the wine. Here crostini is made with ciabatta bread, sea salt, fresh ground black pepper, gorganzola cheese and fresh sage.
For dinner, roasted chicken with fresh rosemary and sage is a simple lean protein base to serve as a backdrop to the combination of flavors found in the accompanying deconstructed stuffed crimini mushrooms and cranberry sauce.

 

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Deconstructing the stuffed mushroom, crimini mushrooms are thinly sliced, sautéed with minced shallots, chopped sage and toasted panko bread crumbs. At the last minute giant fresh spinach leaves are added to barely wilt.

The true standout on the plate is the Pinot Noir Cranberry Sauce with Herbs de Provence. The acidity in the cranberry and the acidity in the Pinot Noir neutralize each other which allows the bright red fruit flavors of the wine to become bolder and juicier and similarly the biting nature of the cranberry vanishes. My herb mix contains actual little lavender blossoms. The lavender brings a depth to the cranberry sauce and its fragrance brings romance to the plate.

In total, a savory and delicious combination of flavors. Cooking with the fresh herbs fills the house with such wonderful aromatics that you cannot help but grin and know that spring is not far off. Cheers!

 

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Apr 16 2014

Get Into The Spring of Things With Rosé

Published by under Food,Rosé,Salad

 

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It is no secret that Rosé is summer’s companion.  Often cheeky in its acidity, flavor and sweetness, it coyly hints of the arrival of summer freedom and the possibilities that lie therein.  It pairs well with hot weather:  no matter if your climate is dry or humid.  Slowly sipping Rosé on a hot afternoon brings an entitled sense of harmless laziness.

 

In the wine industry, however, the release of Rosé is a right of passage into the height of spring.  Here in Napa Valley, the temperatures continue to be warm and dry.  Spring is in full swing with flowers blooming everywhere and new flower varieties emerging almost daily. Just driving down some of Napa’s busy roads will encompass you with the fragrance of roses.  The wineries are ever ready to stock one’s collection in these early weeks of spring to prepare one for the warm days ahead and the pending arrival of summer. For those of us in the know, a good glass of chilled Rosé is easy at hand.

 

There are many different styles of Rosé.   These wines vary based on the grape varietal (or blend) used and the style in which they are made.   The hand of the vintner is readily apparent.  The easiest and most common way to identify that which you prefer is simply whether you like a dry style or not.  As our temperatures continue to warm, I will feature some of my favorite Rosé wines (some are new to my wine cellar).   To kick things off, however, it is only fair to commence with the winery that makes one of the most consistent Rosé bottlings in Napa Valley:   Elyse Winery.

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Elyse Winery (“Elyse”), located on Hoffman Lane just south of the town of Yountville, has year after year bottled a wonderfully consistent, elegant, dry style Rosé.  Elyse has strived to present its Rosé in a style most likened to those hailing from Tavel, France.  Regardless of the vintage, there is always a unique tart quality coupled with flavors of rhubarb, strawberry, apricot and perhaps raspberry.   None of these fruits are overly sugary and all yield a certain degree of acidity.  So when you taste a bit of Elyse’s Rosé, it should come at no surprise to you that the wine will be dry, as opposed to sugary (if not candied) flavors.  While there is a tartness to the wine, it is not one that makes you pucker.  Instead, it begs for salty pairings such as prosciutto, parmesan cheese, certain olives or even tangy cheeses.   Its acidity opens the palate to a realm of pairing possibilities and when couled with its hint of sweet fruit, consider that culinary gate flung wide open.

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Year after year, I seek out this wine for my Rosé rotation.  If I can manage to save some, I even enjoy it at Thanksgiving with my roasted turkey recipe (which I have posted on the Facebook Fan Page for my web site in years past).  This year, I find it wonderfully enjoyable in the spring.  Admittedly, I am still finishing my 2012 vintage.   Elyse has recently released the tasting notes for the 2013 vintage so if it is not already available for purchase in the tasting room, surely it will be soon.

 

For the curious, the 2013 vintage consists of 47% Grenache, 38% Mourvedre, 10% Carignan, 3% Cinsault, and 2% Counoise.  One of the other consistently attractive attributes of this wine is that its alcohol content is ony 13.6% which makes it tolerable for sipping in warmer weather.  A simple rule of thumb for me is that if a Rosé hits 14%, no matter how delicious it may be, I simply do not want that level of alcohol content on a hot day.  Once the alcohol level rises that high, I find (as do many of my dining guests) that something more substantive needs to pair alongside. 

 

Pairing suggestions, as I mentioned earlier, are versatile. The first year that I paired Elyse’s Rosé on this site, it fit perfectly with a grilled sourdough apricot mozzarella sandwich.  A few years later, the wine paired wonderfully with a butter roasted herbed chicken and an asparagus prosciutto risotto.  When I attended a winemaker dinner hosted by Ray and Nancy Coursen at Redd, they entertained their guests on the patio of the restaurant with a lovely thin crusted pizza with olive oil, arugula, prosciutto and whisps of shaved parmesan.  When I want something simple, I pick up a can of Graber Olives and can slowly nibble and sip while reading on an afternoon.   Most recently, I created some parmesan puff pastry twists and a unique kale salad and yes, Elyse’s Rosé paired just fine.

 

Puff pastry twists are utterly simple to make and easy to improve.  Using freshly grated parmesan and a wonderful spring collection of herbs (lemon thyme, marjoram, opal and sweet basil), these snacks are a fantastic centerpiece to set in front of guests, fill their glasses and allow the conversation to begin.

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Salads are generally a challenge in wine pairing but when you have a wine with some acidity, salad becomes a cinch.   Wonderful dark leafy kale can be marinated with a lemon dressing to soften its bitterness.  I used Meyer Lemons from my tree, some locally made honey and tossed in blueberries that I grow along with chopped pecans.  The result was delicious, satisfying and paired wonderfully for an afternoon lunch.

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There is something about Elyse’s Rosé that causes you to linger and enjoy, while time carelessly whisks away.   While it could be paired with a myriad of choices, pairing it with something straightforward will not leave you disappointed.

Right now, in the midst of spring, a glass of Rosé is the perfect way to take in the bevy of floral and herbal aromas around you, to ponder the powder blue sky above, to soak in the warm rays of the sun or simply embrace the slow sway of the green leaf canopy above you.  You, too, intuitively slow, simply sipping and nibbling while you soak up spring and wonder about all that summer this year may be.  Cheers!

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Mar 26 2014

The Wondrous Versatility of Riesling


Riesling is one of those white wines that drinks well on its own and yet pairs easily with a wide range of food.   It can be served in the winter, spring, summer or fall.  It finds its way around cheeses, vegetables, seafood, poultry, Asian dishes, Mexican cuisine and even some Thai and Indian cuisine.  It is a wine that does not need to be rushed and offers a lovely minerality, racy acidity and bevy of fruit flavors to reflect where it is grown.  The varietal’s grape vine consists of a uniquely hard wood for white wine grapes and as such, it can be grown in cooler climates and admittedly shows its best attributes when grown in the right climate.

In Napa Valley there are only a couple of Rieslings which I will purchase and have featured them on this site.  Generally I prefer fruit coming from farther north and in Washington State but admittedly there is a lovely Riesling that hails from farther south down Highway 101 in Central Coastal California from the beloved Edna Valley of San Luis Obispo County.  This article will serve as a reminder to check from time to time this web site’s “SLO Vine tab” for a few favorite picks from San Luis Obispo County.   These wines hold equal enjoyment to Napa Valley wines and merit equal attention and review.

Located just south of the town San Luis Obispo is the beautiful Edna Valley which is home to the Niven Family Wine Estate which makes a number of labels under one house with the same winemaker, Christian Roguenaut.   Tangent is one of the winery’s labels and it tends to focus on wonderfully delicious white wines.  The Paragon Vineyard (owned by the Niven Family) is the home of the winery’s Riesling grapes and when made into a wine it is clear that this is a product of the cool Central Coast.   As with most Rieslings, it has a racy acidity that is kept into check with a vibrant minerality and lovely flavors of peach, melon and a bit of citrus.   There is no exposure to oak so the wine is able to show of the true attributes of the vineyard, the soil, the climate and the ability of the winemaker.  White wines which are made with such a true expression of the fruit are, in my opinion, the most enjoyable and give the consumer a true sense of place.

Whether you are highly-skilled in the kitchen or a budding home chef, one easy rule to remember with Riesling is that because it is an acidic white wine, it matches well with other acidic dishes.  Tomatoes are such an easy match for acidic wines:  whether the wine is white or red.  Just because a tomato is red does not mean that it has to pair with a red wine.  To show off Tangent’s Riesling’s pairing ability, I decided to put together a dish involving steamed mussels and juicy garden harvested tomatoes.

The mussels are steamed in some white wine with garlic, shallots, lemon thyme and other herbs from the garden.  As the mussels open, they are removed and set aside.  Large chunks of juicy tomato are added to the pot along with some butter to make a light stew consistency without obliterating the tomatoes.   The mussels are added toward the end to reheat slightly and then served with the tomatoes and broth with warm home-made artisan toasts.

With the wine, the acidity in the Riesling cancels out the acidity in the tomatoes.  All of the fruit flavors of the wine tumble forward and the tomato becomes sweet and robust.   The mussels have a wonderful flavor of their own which pair perfectly with the minerality of the Riesling.   The toasts served alongside sop up any of the remaining broth and are not too heavy with the wine.

This is such a simple and straight-forward way to enjoy Tangent’s Riesling at home and to serve to guests out on the deck on a warm spring evening.   It is the very basic essentials to cuisine and wine pairing at play and will satisfy everyone at your table.   Cheers!

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Mar 12 2014

A Season for Everything: Proprietary White Wine Blends

Published by under Blends,Fish,Food,Salad,White Wine


What exactly is a “proprietary blend” wine?   It certainly sounds fancy and depending on the marketing, it could be intimidating.  The wine means simply what the word implies:  this is a winemaker’s own special blend of either red or white grapes to make a wine that he or she believes unique enough to have marketable legs with the general public.   Depending on the grapes used and depending on from which vineyards they hail, a proprietary blended wine could be quite expensive.  A savvy vintner however will realize that when making a blended wine that there is the unique opportunity to hedge the cost of the higher quality fruit by incorporating more affordable blending grapes and make the wine accessible to the average consumer.   If the winemaker is truly talented, the wine will not only be affordable but will instill the consumer with a feeling of empowerment in that he or she will feel that they have acquired something very special for a price within his or her budget.

The Wagner Family (yes, those same Wagners behind Caymus) sell a fun white proprietary blend wine made by Jon Bolta called “Conundrum”.    Each vintage involves a different blend of white wine grapes grown in various vineyards and AVAs in California and sometimes they are exposed to oak, sometimes American, sometimes new French and sometimes no oak at all.   Even though the blend varies each year and is kept under tight secretive key, there is a consistency to this wine so that no matter the vintage you can pull it from the shelf of your local distributor and find very close similarities and the equally fun game of trying to pinpoint and guess year after year exactly what is it that you are tasting.  In a simple glass you can taste a range of fruit from tropical to apricot, green apple, pear, peach, melon and a hint of citrus.  You will find a dash of minerality, a round mouth feel often accompanying Roussane or Chardonnay, a spritz sometimes associated with Muscat.   The blend is simply fun and due to its varying varietal combinations, it keeps the palate guessing but similarly becomes a siren for food or cheese pairings.   For depending on what you put with the Conundrum White Proprietary Blend you will coax out various white wine grapes that just might give you a closer hint as to what is in the wine.

As you can already imagine, with such ability to pair with a wide variety or cuisine, it can similarly pair across the seasons of the year and become such a different wine depending on the climate and the season in which it finds itself served.   During spring (or during the warm weeks leading up to the official arrival of the season as we are having in California), the home garden is welcomed daily by various vegetables that have waited all winter to jump forth from the soil.  It seemed like only a week ago that I was privately lamenting that I did not have any asparagus yet in the garden and then over the weekend not only did I suddenly have asparagus but it was growing at an astronomical rate … as if like the rest of the U.S., it could no longer wait for the official arrival of spring.

From a culinary perspective, asparagus is its freshest in the spring.  It is extremely tender and very sweet.  It is so sweet that it can be eaten raw.  If you are able to purchase it at your farmer’s market or even better, harvest it from your own garden, you will have the opportunity to experience this vegetable not only at its freshest but at its sweetest.  It is during this early window of seasonality that the home chef has the opportunity to experience this deliciously sweet delicate vegetable as a flavorful raw salad that your guests will not texturally anticipate.


Seafood is a natural easy pairing with most white wines and adding shrimp to a raw asparagus shaved salad makes an easy pairing with Conundrum Proprietary White Wine.   To dress the salad, a seasonal Meyer lemon vinaigrette is created to whisk away any residual briny flavor from the shrimp and immediately invokes thoughts of ceviche.  The vinaigrette involves lemon zest, Meyer lemon juice, shallot, minced bits of asparagus, lemon thyme and white wine vinegar.  Adding minced fresh cantaloupe (which also begins to come into season in the spring) enlivens and adds an additional component of sweetness balanced by some chopped chives from the garden.

With this salad, there is no bitterness in it at all. It refreshes and gives one a feeling of seasonal sustainability.   If you have been craving seasonal vegetables all winter long, this simple salad is your easy tribute to spring.

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