It’s no surprise to me to discover the best of class U.S. zinfandel hails from Lodi, California, also referred to as the “unofficial” zinfandel capital of the world. Close to 40 percent of the nation’s best zinfandel is grown in this northern portion of California’s Central Valley.
As a wine judge at the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, I was bestowed the honor of selecting the best of 82 U.S. zinfandels priced between $28-$31 per bottle. Here is a list of my team of three’s picks:
I first tasted Alpine Distilling spirits at a “Meet the Makers” event in Salt Lake City, Utah, during the inaugural Salt Lake City Food and Wine Fest held inside the Park City Culinary Institute, incredibly, located in Salt Lake City. From there, I headed to Park City and while dining at 350 Main, located at, well… you guessed it… 350 Main Street, I noticed Alpine spirits on the drinks menu and was happy to discover strong support for local businesses.
The distiller, Robert S. Sergent, Jr., greeted me with enthusiasm, kindness and generosity, offering me a cocktail I simply had to taste, made with his preserve liqueur — a blend of black tea, blood orange, ginger, raspberry and lemon — and his products are all kosher! Although I am not a regular consumer of spirits (I usually stick to wine), I trusted Robert’s recommendations on tastings, especially when he revealed his expert culinary past and education in Louisville, Kentucky, the mecca of grand spirits. This floral-forward cocktail tasted fresh, clean and worthy of a space on my shelf above my wine rack in my home. Due to the high altitude and void of a designated driver, I stopped at one sip and moved on to sip his single-malt whiskey, with a burning finish of a true spirit, and a taste of the vodka.
In addition to a culinary past, Robert was a leader in the corporate sector, at Johnson & Johnson and the National Football League. But he wanted something more, as he states in his bio: “I wanted to create something from scratch that I am passionate about, teach my kids the value of hard work, and give back to the community we love.”
The next time I see Alpine spirits on the menu, and when I can enjoy a passenger’s ride, I will definitely order a cocktail; in the meantime, I turned to Crepe Suzettes drizzled with caramel and crowned with a dollop of bourbon-infused whipped cream as my “safe” consumption before my drive to Park City.
While the chefs kept busy, more than 30 guests mixed and mingled with the event’s numerous featured local distillers. Among the various liqueurs, single malt whiskeys, vodkas and mixed cocktails showcased, the event, titled “Meet the Makers”, singled out one Park City distiller named Rob Sergent, Jr., whose artisanal Preserve Liqueur, made with black tea, blood orange, ginger, raspberry and lemon, was especially memorable (and Kosher, too!).
Below, please enjoy the Ginger Berry Spritz recipe when you can relax, sit back in a lounge chair and soak in a sunset.
Since I was only 6 years old during Woodstock, it is obvious that I didn’t attend this historical music festival. So, the next best hippie chic music experience I deem close to what I’ve heard regarding Woodstock is #BottleRock Napa, a 3-day musical playground with culinary chef demos, and yes… lots of wine. The event is, after all, in the Napa Valley, and it draws in 150,000 attendees in a 3-day period.
Inspired by a cloud of soap bubbles from the tent of Sonoma-based Coppola Winery, my first stop was in front of the tent for Domaine Chandon, where I happily sipped Chandon Rosé bubbles. I wasn’t even concerned about the plastic cup it was served in…it was that good.
A walk in the nearby Wine Garden, is where I sipped Napa Valley white wine, Dissonance. I was told this is the label of Foo Fighters, ‘so I couldn’t wait to sip this rock star wine. But, unlike the awesome rock band’s stellar reputation and performance on Sunday, May 28, Dissonance fell a bit short, or sour to describe the taste. It was a bit too acidic; perhaps with a plate of fries. Next time, I’ll try the merlot, which is what Blackbird in French means, and what has put this label on the oenophile map.
I later realized that there were distinct Foo Fighter wine labels for Blackbird Vineyards:
2016 Foo Fighters Rosé | Central Coast, California ($24) Farmed from vineyards along the slopes of Mount Diablo, winemaker Aaron Pott intentionally crafted an elegant, dry rosé to appreciate at every occasion from the mundane to the extraordinary.
2015 Foo Fighters Cabernet Sauvignon | Red Hills, Lake County ($35) Crafted by winemaker Aaron Pott from 2,400 ft. high vineyards in the Red Hills of Lake County, this ten barrel Cabernet Sauvignon commemorating BottleRock 2017 is steadfast in its character.
2011 Foo Fighters Proprietary Red Wine | Napa Valley ($60) This four-barrel Signature Series Cuvée is hand-tuned to express the lithe structure that only comes from exceptional fruit.
Like missing out on Woodstock, I missed out on sipping these Foo Fighter wines and will always wonder how these small-run labels performed on the palate.
Ever since I arrived to my new life in Napa Valley, California, I’ve felt like I’ve been living on another planet. The people are of a different nature than what I’m used to, having lived my whole life on the East Coast.They’re not European, but the landscape has a strong Burgundian familiarity. So, it was fitting to take a seat at Beringer Vineyards for a cheese and wine tasting with Janet Fletcher (pictured below), publisher of “Planet Cheese.”
The stars aligned for me to sit in on this tasting event that began with a West Marin Nicasio Valley Foggy Morning cheese made with cow’s milk. To match the intensity of this delicate, young farmstead cheese, we each received a pour of 2013 Luminus Chardonnay, Oak Knoll ($38) made with grapes from north of Napa on a flat vineyard that allows even ripening and balance of fruit. The nose on this Beringer white offered apricot, and flavors of mango.
“This is a good aperitif wine,” stated Janet.
Its crispness brought forth a slight intensity, and I agree: it is a great wine to start off an evening. The cheese brought the wine forward, and so we moved forward to the next pairing.
Point Reyes Farmstead Toma has been around for almost 8 years, hailing from Marin County. This is another farmstead cheese, which means it has its own cows. Its commonality is with Gouda, and would go well with beer and lots of wine choices. We enjoyed a glass of 2013 Private Reserve Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($46) made with grapes grown on vineyards in Yountville. The cheese was moist and creamy…butter aromas and crème fraiche taste, while the wine offered a nose of pear, pineapple and intense elegance. The cheese didn’t stand alone. It was a good match.
Next, Vella Mezzo Secco of Sonoma County was served with a Beringer 2012 Quantum, Napa Valley ($65) made with grapes from vineyards of Howell Mountain and Saint Helena. This is a Bordeaux-style blend of earthiness from cabernet sauvignon (70%) grapes, merlot, malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc. A nose of deep chocolate, smoke, dark berry led way to good tannin structure and a silky finish of baking spices. The cheese was drier than the rest, with more grain and deeper flavor…made from raw cow’s milk. Its aroma was on the nutty side, but I also detected a brown butter scent.
Number four on the list was Bellwether Farms Blackstone, which is a new cheese on the market made from cow’s AND sheep’s milk of Sonoma County.
Bellwether Farms Blackstone with Beringer 2012 Steinhauer Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon was my favorite of the tasting.
The rind has ash on it, which adds a peppery aroma to the already buttered, peppered lamb scent. Paired with a 2012 Steinhauer Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain ($110), the earthy, jammy, pie filling flavor was amazing. Aged in 95% new French oak barrels, notes of dark chocolate/mocha, toast level of perfection and cigar, cedar offers a glimpse to its age-ability of 15-20 years to which this wine might be laid down.
Last pairing: Bleating Heart Cheese Fat Bottom Girl, made with sheep’s milk from Marin County and paired with a 2012 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($165). This wine is made for private reserve from grapes of Howell Mountain and Saint Helena. This is Beringer’s most sought after bottle, according to Janet. The cheese is dry, almost brittle, and like the cheese, this wine was not my favorite. Or at least it needed to be decanted.
At the onset of this tasting, our group of 35 to 40 in attendance was instructed to start with the cheese, then chose the wine. But know this… You will never get a “horrible pairing” of cheese and wine. It’s simply that some cheeses are better when served with a particular wine.
I would attend another of Janet’s classes, if I can find one with an opening. If the below schedule of sold out classes is any indication, she is a popular speaker, author and cheese guru. Check it out:
I only drink Champagne on two occasions, when I am in love and when I am not.
– Coco Chanel
I stand in the cellar at Champagne Collet in Aÿ, in the heart of the Champagne region, where one million bottles a year are produced. The historic cellars which were once a refuge during war are now home to some of Champagne’s finest caves, where millions of bottles age for our eventual palatable pleasure. As an attendee at the International Wine Tourism Conference 2015, held this year in La Champagne, France, I was honored to receive a hands-on education in Champagne making and tasting.
“The bottles are placed in a 45-degree angle, necks down in the pupitres,” our guide explains, and the riddler turns the bottles every one to three days over a period of several weeks. Referred to as “remuage,” the process of riddling was invented by Widow Clicquot of Veuve Clicquot fame. Today, most Champagne bottles are riddled mechanically, but the ridge-lined shape of this particular Collet bottle does not fit within the parameters of the machine and must be turned manually.
A bottle of Esprit Couture was bestowed upon me, and I recently had the pleasure of sharing it with friends. This is a Champagne crafted entirely by hand from start to finish utilizing Collet’s finest crus in a blend of 40 percent Chardonnay (for elegance and finesse), 50 percent Pinot Noir (for depth and structure) and 10 percent Pinot Meunier (fruit flavor).
This particular Champagne is aged for a minimum of five years within Collet’s chalk cellars.
Upon sipping this amazing bubbly, there was no doubt it was just that… fine effervesces gave way to vanilla and floral aromas with a taste of minerality and citrus blended perfectly for the palate.
Perhaps it is in the crafting of a selection of grapes from twenty vineyards in La Champagne, but the delicate aromas and flavors, like melting roses on my palate, wins my praise once I sip Collet’s privee rosé dry Champagne. This is a blend of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes with a bit of pinot meunier for its fruitiness, aged four years in a century-old chalk cellar.
The next morning, my tour on the Champagne Trail continues with a half-mile-long stroll on Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, where I walk on top of 200 million bottles of bubbly. Or so I’m told.
Thoughts about taste and terroir dominate my mind as I reflect on my journey through the wine regions of France. Author and scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett once conducted research on sensory pleasures in food, citing the fact that “Wine is alive”— “It matures over the years and changes even in a few hours. It is an event. Even a single taste can be like an act in a play that is as long as the life of the vintage.” I would have to agree.
To view Collet’s video on Champagne’s tradition, click here.
Hold the mustard… not! You’ll want to taste plenty of varieties in Dijon, where the TGV arrived early one morning to drop me off to a place where some of the world’s best mustard is produced and sold. In Dijon, mustard is everywhere and in all colors and flavors. It is here where I purchase a jar of mustard blended with Modena balsamic vinegar to bring home for a later indulgence. Once tasted, it proved worthy of another train ride to get more of this specialty to the Burgundy region of France.
Aside from mustard, Dijon offers a city of history, and I partake in a brief walking tour offered by the Dijon Tourism Office to shed some light on the small area’s historical background. From Notre Dame to the Romanesque Dijon Cathedral to the Rue des Forges and Maison Milliere, I stroll along the cobblestone streets in awe of this quaint city in Eastern France.
What brought me to Dijon, however, was not the mustard, or the “Kir” Dijon is known for – also known as crème de cassis, but the annual International and Gastronomic Fair, where over 500 exhibitors and 200,000 visitors flock for a taste of the region’s specialties. So, I hopped on a tram to arrive at the amazing Foire Gastronomique.
Champagne is poured for a price, so I decide to sip an A. Bergere Champagne and sample Comte cheeses and more culinary delights, including escargot marinated in butter and seasoned with garlic and parsley. An order of pomme frites paired well with the Champagne as I strolled along the aisles holding the French specialty served in a paper cone.
A quick tram ride to the train station later, I’m headed to Beaune.
Google Mapping my way to the historic monument, the Hospices, I learn this is where some of the priciest wines are sold via a well-known wine auction. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to taste these wines, I did get a taste of the infirmary where, coincidentally, a woman in our small group fell ill. As I strolled through the “palace for the poor,” established in 1443 by chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy – Nicolas Rolin and his wife, Guigone de Salins – and listened on the audio-guide, I couldn’t help but wonder how the nuns would have taken care of my friend. I could almost see her lying in one of the many rows of beds. Fortunately, the pharmacies of France proved knowledgeable and within an hour of taking a recommended dose of a magic pill, the cheese-overindulgence side effects were a mere memory.
Off to the next stop, I ponder over the fact that the United States spends the most dollars on Burgundy wines of France, with the U.K. holding second place. In 2011 alone, 199 million bottles were sold, with the majority being white wine — mostly Chardonnay.
So, why are Burgundian red wines so special? Apparently, these wines are what they are due to their terroir, and some of the most expensive wines in the world come from this region of France. If you like pinot noir, these wines will send you swooning. They differ from American pinot noir grapes in that the Burgundian grapes are more fruit-forward, but they all pair well with savory, less spicy dishes.
To learn more, I stopped at Vins des Tonneliers, a distributer in Beaune that offers more than 500 Burgundy appellations selected carefully and personally from 52 family-run domains located in the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune vineyards, the latter most famous for its white grand cru. With a few friends in tow, we tasted some local amuses-bouches and several rare wines made in small quantities from this distributor’s chilly wine cellar named La Vinif.
One Thursday each month, La Vinif offers “Thursday Aperitifs,” focusing on different themes and entertainment (visit Facebook page La Vinif – for members only). Customized service is what the Vins des Tonneliers offers, so for corporate events and parties, you can make an appointment for a full tasting, and this means with appetizers, to select the bottles of choice. Vins des Tonneliers will also help you with wine menus, corporate gifts, training, customer events, distribution and team-building seminars. The benefits of being a member of this organization include phone advice to those seeking wine pairing or wine-opening decisions on aging bottles, personalized notifications, occasional discounts, and access to private sales (membership fee is 150 euros/year). I walked out learning that dependent upon weather conditions, a white wine can be stored for 5 to 7 years, and a red for 8 to 10 years.
I tasted an elegant chardonnay without a label, produced by a viticulturist, and a Pernand-Vergelesses ($25) that offered a clean, fresh minerality pairing nicely with cheese, fish, white meat – as an aperitif, and a puligne made from a wine merchant. As for the reds, a Pierre Bouchard 2011 Cote de Nuits-Villages ($17) offered licorice aroma and a spicy, young, delicious taste or raspberries and more red fruits, and a 2009 Domaine J.M. Boillet that isn’t titled as a grand cru – but it should be. This particular wine can be stored until 2024. I also walked out with a bottle of 2008 Savigny-les-Beaune first grand cru “Aux Gravains” rouge that proved black current-forward when I tasted it, and opened it almost two months later for a special dinner of oysters, escargot and various French cheeses; it was a medium-bodied, flavorful pinot noir.
By 10 p.m. same day, I was back in Paris, satiated with wine tastings that paired well with adventure, and I now had a flavor of Dijon and Beaune, a destination I’d head back to for an overnight visit to sip and explore the various wine shops, bars and wineries in the walk-able circle. I also developed a strong thirst to return to Burgundy for a visit to the elusive Romanee-Conti, where one of the most expensive wine labels in the world is produced.
As the second part of a VIP Louvre Museum Night Tour and Wine Tasting offered by City Wonders, Paris has become even more interesting when a small group walked from an educational and highly interesting 2.5-hour tour within the Louvre to take a seat at the long wooden table within the historic stoned basement of O’Chateau. The history of O’Chateau is one filled with stories of its guests — dukes, ambassadors, princesses, countesses and all variety of important thinkers and writers of the time. Tonight, however, we are all VIP’s enjoying three wines and a plate of cheeses and hams while we learn about a few wines of France.
The first wine, an elegant Saumur 2012 cuvee vent du nord, was explained by the wine instructor, and the group listened intently about the regions within France from where each wine hailed. This chenin blanc grape was fruity and fresh, medium bodied and average. But, with the cheeses and jambon to which it was paired, worked perfectly.
Next, a lesson in Beaujolais, France. This Corcelette Morgon 2013 is a wine made with a grape of the southern wine growing region in Burgundy and is referred to as its own appellation and not in the same category of Burgundian wines. It is light and dry, and we we are instructed to swirl and gaze at the ruby color of this gamay grape. We are enthralled in the process of tasting wine and devouring the cheeses and hams before us.
Finally, the malbec is poured. This is a 2012 Combel La Serre Cuvee Originelle Cahors from SW France. The instructor indicates its spiciness and bit of tobacco kick in the teeth. This is a wine that sells for around $10, and pairs best with beef and spicy food, mature and hard cheeses, as well as poultry. If you can find a 2010, this would be the better vintage.
So, the tasting was short and sweet, er… dry, actually if you refer to the wines, and after the closing of the tour, many in the group head upstairs to order a bottle of wine and food from the menu. At 10 p.m., the night has only just begun in Paris.
If you happen to be in Paris this weekend, spend an afternoon in Montmartre, by the Sacre Coeur. Through Oct. 12, the annual wine harvest festival “Vendanges de Montmartre” takes place to celebrate the first grapes grown in Paris. But first, begin on the corner of Saint Vincent and rue des Saules to appreciate the only and remaining working vineyard of Paris – called Clos Montmartre, which dates back to 1932 and grows gamay and pinot noir grapes, as well as some sauvignon blanc and riesling. Don’t expect to taste wines made in Montmartre, however, as they are auctioned off at steep prices for collections only. You do not want to drink these. Not only are they inferior tastes, they are also known to be diuretic.
Now that you’ve appreciated the small vineyard, head back up the hill and take the funicular to the butte of Montemarte – unless you want a good step workout. Once at the top, you’ll be able to browse through endless tables of artisan food and wines. Many of these tables offer samples, but do not expect to sample tastes of wines complimentary; you’ll pay between 2-6 euros a glass. But you will get samples of many incredibly tasty cheeses, some Armagnac, almond/honey nougat, and more. My suggestion is to begin with a glass of Champagne, served in a flute you can keep as a souvenir. And then, browse through the tables until the end, check out a street performance, some artists in action, and head up into the Sacre Coeur to check out the interior beauty. Before you leave the area, hop on the carousel for a short ride and giggle, and then head back to taste and make your purchases if you please. End with a stop for some mulled hot wine, as the beautiful sunny days turn to chilly nights.
As you make your way back to the Metro stop: Anvers, you’ll walk through the souvenir street shops where you can participate or watch some live gambling in action. Yes, there are men with large cardboard boxes they use as a table where they place three hockey puck sized discs for you to choose which one has the two stickers underneath. Winner takes all.
Whatever you decide to do, here are a few of my suggestions of wines tastes I would highly recommend:
– A glass of Champagne Brut A Villers Marmery Premier Cru U.V. made in Champagne, France, made with chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot blanc grapes. A perfect blended wine, this one pairs well with rich fish, shellfish poultry, vegetarian dishes and venison.
– Taste the Comte De Lauze Chateauneuf-Du-Pape U.V. from Southern Rhone, France ($78), made with roussanne, marsanne and grenache blanc grapes. Pair this with pork, shellfish, rich fish or poultry.
– Finally, Jean Lecellier Santenay Passetemps 1er Cru Grand Vin de Bourgogne U.V. from Cote de Beaune, France.
Aside from the spectacular Alaskan scenery on board the ms Westerdam, one in a fleet of Holland America Line vessels, there are many options to educate yourself in the arts, technology, fashion and wines, the latter with chocolate pairings that proved worth the small fee to attend. But the most fun is when you get a chance to sit in on a martini sampling in the Atrium, where there were more attendees than stools at the bar. That didn’t stop me from sampling four delicious takes on the cocktail sipped by sophisticated travelers. Here are my favorite four recipes:
Classic Kamikazi: 2 lime wedges, 1.5 oz. vodka, .5 oz. triple sec and 1.5 oz. sour mix
Tuscan Lemon Drop: rosemary sprig, 1 lemon wedge, 1.5 oz. citron vodka, .5 oz. limoncello, 1 oz. sour mix.
Pomegranate Ginger Drop: 2 lemon wedges, 1.5 oz. vodka, 1 oz. sour mix, .5 oz. pomegranate juice, .5 oz. ginger syrup
Tropical Cable Car: An eighth of a grapefruit, 1 oz. Captain Morgan, 1 oz. malibu, 1 oz. sour mix, 1 oz. pineapple J. and a dash of bitter
I have to say that my favorite martini proved that pomegranate and ginger work well together, and the Tuscan Lemon Drop made me wish I were headed to the rolling hills of Italy.
Our van pulled up to the Bossier Inn & Suites on Diamond Jacks Boulevard in Bossier, Louisiana. As the driver parked in front of a nondescript block of a building surrounded by nothingness, an uneasy feeling washed over me. But, a trust in my itinerary at this travel writer conference eased my anxiety a bit. And then I walked inside.
Parallel to its exterior, my first reaction was to turn around and question whoever coordinated this visit. But this restaurant, Lucky Palace, was what people raved about — especially the wine list. So, how could I dismiss it based on its looks? The culinary offerings alone were intriguing: Asian-Cajun fusion, which translates to alligator in a stir-fry, as it turns out, among other Louisiana delicacies. But the wine list is what turned Lucky Palace around in my mind.
Although informed the owner was a Master Sommelier, he wasn’t. But, he had a sophisticated, expert palate and knew how to pair world wines. Kuan Lim’s story began with a trip from San Antonio with his wife. They stopped at the Bossier Inn & Suites along the way, but ended up staying for 16 years and counting.
It could not have been the surrounding beauty of the hotel, but perhaps he saw potential for making his mark in an area lacking a top-rate wine list. In fact, Lucky Palace has been awarded several Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence. Lim isn’t shy about stocking wines with a cost upward to $350 a bottle, a paradox even if his Chinese restaurant is considered gourmet.
We began with a seriously delicious glass of blanc de blanc (Pol Roger, Reserve, Brut, NV), paired with crawfish rolls that set the tone of sheer pleasure in an evening that ensued with laughter, travel stories and the company of all walks in the field of travel writing: bloggers, speakers, part-time wanderers, and print, online journalists. The social media enthusiasts among us clicked away, and we all cajoled each other and happily drank together. Our pairings continued with salted duck eggs that looked like a southern-style hush puppy, but were not, and we consumed whole shrimp, Chilean sea bass, and of course, that alligator with garlic sauce, paired with a 2011 Bourgogne Blanc, Dupont-Fahn, Chaumes des Perrieres, Burgundy.
Next, a perfectly balanced 2010 Domaine Faiveley, Mercurey, Burgundy, accompanied a plate of roasted duck on scallion pancakes, and Cantonese crispy T-Bone. I passed on the braised oxtail. Ending the tasting menu with a glass of Madeira, Broadbent, 5 Years Reserve was brilliant, especially when served with sensational sesame balls stuffed with peanut butter sauce. They went fast.
During the remainder of my stay in the Bossier/Shreveport, Louisiana area, like an inside secret, each time we drove past the billboard advertisement for Lucky Palace, I couldn’t help but grin like a Cheshire cat. Visit http://www.Lucky-Palace.com if you don’t believe me.