Category Archives: Wine Destinations

What’s old is new again at Cakebread Cellars

The story of Cakebread Cellars begins in Oakland, California. Jack and Dolores Cakebread were high school sweethearts who married and led a somewhat average life…to start. Jack was a mechanic but loved taking photographs…enough to study under Ansel Adams at Yosemite. In homage to Ansel Adams, a new outdoor section at Cakebread Cellars incorporates a stone from Yosemite.

In 1972 Jack was hired as a photographer to head to the Napa Valley on assignment for “The Treasury of American Wines”. His payment for the book of images was later used as a down payment for Cakebread Cellars, a modest structure at that time. It wasn’t until 1985 that the structure seen today was built. Another renovation is in process – a visitor center which will be complete sometime next year.

Although Stephanie Jacobs has served a few roles at Cakebread Cellars for over a decade, most recently she was appointed as head winemaker. Among the 14 vineyards Cakebread owns, she has a love affair with pinot noir from Anderson Valley. I couldn’t wait to try a glass and share her comments with you:

Several of us on the Cakebread production team are UC Davis alums, so we enjoy partnering with their Viticulture and Enology researchers to explore new innovations – from the vineyards to the cellar – in pursuit of quality. That could mean new technology and equipment, like the infrared spectroscopy machine that we’ve started using in the lab to analyze large amounts of grape samples in short amounts of time.  What may have taken four hours in the past now only takes an hour, which is precious time savings during the busy harvest season and helps us make more timely grape picking decisions. 

Innovation isn’t just chasing what’s new.  It could also mean revisiting older historic techniques that have fallen out of fashion or are less commonly used.  For example, we harvest nearly all of our grapes at night because we think it greatly improves fruit quality, plus it provides cooler temperature working conditions for our picking crews during the warm Napa weather months.  Concrete egg fermentation tanks and larger-sized puncheon oak barrels are other examples of “what’s old is new again” when it comes to winemaking explorations.

On a hot 100 degree Saturday, I froze inside the air-conditioned private tasting room, where a pour of a 2017 sauvignon blanc set the stage for a superb tasting of a 2015 chardonnay reserve made from Carneros grapes. Carneros is a region within Napa Valley with a cooler climate; the grapes grow a thinner skin. This wine feels like cream on my palate and instantly I recall my gal pals on the North Shore of Boston who loved Cakebread Cellars chardonnay. I wholeheartedly agree.

Aside from tasting wines, Cakebread Cellars offers cooking classes and an in-depth tour twice each morning to oversee vineyard production – from the grapes’ path to the bottle. Cooking classes include the harvest from Dolores’s Garden for farm-to-table offerings.

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Finally, I’m ready to taste the 2015 pinot noir from grapes of Apple Barn vineyard. This is a heavy counterpart to Annahala Ranch and sold only at this winery. If you’re a wine club member, you can get this wine. This wine alone is worth the membership. But if you require more incentive, upcoming wine club events include an August 25 Full Moon Dinner at Dancing Bear Ranch, an October 13 Harvest Dinner and a December 1 Holiday Cooking Class.

OK, I’m ready for a tasting of the 2014 Dancing Bear Ranch Estate Merlot ($54), which turns out to be robust and dry, with 6% cabernet sauvignon to give it a good backbone.

If you’re in the Napa Valley and want to know what restaurant wine lists include Cakebread Cellars, check out Saint Helena: Cook, Goose & Gander, Market and Sunshine Market.

My farewell sip, a 2013 cabernet sauvignon from Dancing Bear Vineyard, is smooth – an actual drink alone cab?! One bottle will set you back $146 but like so many great wines of California, it’s worth the splurge.

 

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St. Hugo of the Barossa Valley, Australia

We were chauffeured to the Barossa Valley, a premier wine region an hour from Adelaide in South Australia, in a vintage Daimler as part of an Ultimate Wine Experiences tour. First stop: St. Hugo winery.

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Although we were in the one of the driest continents in the world, it rained off and on that day, mostly when our group walked through the vineyards. Our umbrella procession escalated in its amusement when we spotted a few kangaroos hopping between a few rows of grapevines. No need to worry about the grapes; kangaroos like to munch on the grass and offer free labor for their excellent vineyard maintenance.dsc02568.jpg

Inside the luxurious underground private tasting room, where a vault holds a time capsule of vintage wines, I tasted from a bottle of 2016 Shiraz that had no label. Like most Australian wines, it was secured via screw cap. This wine offered a lovely perfume of cherry with a slight of oak, and its taste was somewhat approachable, but could be more so once it’s released next year. The grapes for this Shiraz were sourced from several vineyards.

While at St. Hugo, I learned that from 1980 through 2008, the region only grew Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, but now there’s plenty of Shiraz, Grenache and a few white grape varietals, especially impressive are the Semillon grapes.

I taste a 2015 Barossa Shiraz with ripe tannin structure. Very nice, full-bodied. And then a 2009 Barossa Shiraz harvested during a drought. Those vines were stressed while growing in the ancient sea bed soil, and as a result, the wine offers an intense flavor and velvety structure with great tannins and leather aroma. If held for three more years, you’d get more characteristics of plums and pepper.

Next, a 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon with no label was green pepper dominant in its aroma. St. Hugo deems this as its flagship cabernet. It tastes different than my palate recognizes as cabernet, but it does have a good tannin structure and I find it interesting in comparison to the 2009 cabernet that was so black currants-jammy and high in acidity that I craved a filet mignon to make it work for me.

Behind the Saint

Formerly the wine label Gramp & Sons, St. Hugo came about following a tragedy that occurred in 1938, when Hugo Gramp’s flight from Adelaide to Melbourne – with two other prominent wine industry members, Thomas Hardy and Sidney Hill Smith, ended with a crash.

Honoring Hugo as a legend in winemaking, in 1983, a wine labeled “St. Hugo” was released. The “Saint” was inspired by European tradition of naming vineyards after saints in order to bestow good fortune upon them.

The first St Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon was made with grapes harvested in 1980 and hailed for its power and elegance, much like the great man himself. St Hugo sets the benchmark for excellence in Australian Cabernet Sauvignon.

Silver Trident wines: A blend of symphony and the sea, Old World & New World

Throughout the Napa Valley, wine novices and oenophiles associate cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay as world-class wines to explore within the 400-plus wineries in the region. But in the heart of the Napa Valley, Yountville, the small town with a population in the mid-2,000, is all about luxury boutique wineries. Silver Trident is no exception.

Open shy of three years, the Silver Trident name is a nod to Neptune, and associated with the owner’s ancillary businesses in luxury Virtuoso and Oceania Cruise line.

Private tasting roomBecause Yountville has an ordinance in place that requires wineries to offer a percentage of retail, Silver Trident is adorned with the interior design of Ralph Lauren. With its muted neutral shades of upholstery and tartan wallpaper, seemingly endless crystal accessories and framed photographs of artfully colored sea turtles and retro-glamour photographs, a tasting at Silver Trident feels like a visit to someone’s home, except that each item is priced for potential purchase, including the tasting plates. The intent of tasting in someone’s living room is to eliminate any intimidation.

To set the stage for this wine-tasting experience, please know that the winemaking style of Silver Trident is Old World, but with New World grapes.

Lori and Cheryl - CheersMy trio headed to the larger dining room to take our seats for a wine/food pairing experience that began with a tasting of pinot of rosé made in the Provence style. Ooh la la, it was perfection, and I was surprised I loved it even though it wasn’t made with Grenache. Next, a taste of spring: A sip of 2017 sauvignon blanc with the label Symphony No. 9 (named after the owner’s love of music), paired with a small spoonful of goat cheese and fresh yogurt, courtesy of Sarah Scott, the winery’s chef and caterer.

Taking things up a notch, a Dijon, France clone of pinot noir grown in the Russian River in Sonoma County is a label Silver Trident calls “Benevolent Dictator”. The 2015 is a taste of some of the most sought out fruit in Sonoma. Sipping this wine felt like rose petals falling on my palate. Yes, the tannins were that soft.

A 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon labeled “Twenty Seven Fathoms” mimics marine depth. We enjoy this 100% varietal with an aged Gouda, butter and sea salt biscuit.

It’s no wonder there is a long list of wine club members who receive shipments of the eclectic wines of Silver Trident Winery. Please visit http://www.silvertridentwinery.com for more information.

The wines of BottleRock Napa

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.

Coppolla bubblesInspired 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 realizeBlackbird Dissonance Wine Labeld 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.

Travel: Montana to meet Merry Edwards

Merry Edwards Winery Toasts 20th Anniversary with a Celebration of Wine, Outdoor Adventure and Gourmet Cuisine.

Remember Missoula, Montana, the setting for that ’80s cult hit, “Twin Peaks” that I’ve since heard is making an updated series? Well, I’ll be heading to Missoula in about a month, and so will you if you decide to fly to Montana’s premier luxury ranch resort, The Resort at Paws Up.

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All 37,000 acres of The Resort at Paws Up is located in Blackfoot Valley in western Montana, and is internationally acclaimed for year-round adventures and stellar culinary events, and for a weekend in March is where you can enjoy the perfect blend of wine, gourmet food, thrilling adventures …and more wine.

The Resort’s first-annual Wine Weekend, this year’s Eat, Drink and Meet Merry event (March 16–18), will allow guests the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the country’s leading vintners. This year’s headlining talent will be Merry Edwards herself.

Much like Paws Up’s successful established weekend events, such as Montana Master Grillers (May) and Montana Master Chefs (September), the weekend retreat will feature top-notch talent, outstanding gourmet menus by award-winning Executive Chef Ben Jones, specialized wine pairings, live entertainment and plenty of adrenaline-pumping adventure. After attending, guests will no doubt be able to impress even the most knowledgeable of their wine-loving friends with sommelier-like expertise.

As part of Paws Up’s inaugural Wine Weekend event, Resort guests are invited to wet their whistle during interactive seminars, educational tastings and wilderness excursions with Merry Edwards and her winemaking partner, Ken Coopersmith. The highlight of the weekend will be phenomenal dinners with expert pairings from Merry Edwards Winery, known for its exquisite Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs.

One of California’s first woman winemakers, Merry Edwards became a household name in the industry soon after she started making award-winning wines in the early 1970s. In 2013, Edwards was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintners Hall of Fame, and she also won the coveted James Beard Award for Best Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional in the United States. Edwards was just the fourth woman to be so honored. The Eat, Drink and Meet Merry event corresponds with the 20th anniversary of the founding of Merry Edwards Winery in 1997.

Kick-starting Paws Up’s spring culinary events lineup, Eat, Drink and Meet Merry will be followed by WildFlavor (April 20–23, 2017), a four-day weekend event featuring exquisite menus and cream-of-the-crop culinary talents, including four Top Chef stars. Season 10 winner Chef Kristen Kish and Season 10 runner-up and current contestant Chef Brooke Williamson will be among the featured chefs.

For reservations or more information, call 877-588-6783. The Resort at Paws Up is also on Facebook and Twitter (@Paws_Up) and Instagram (@TheResortatPawsUp).

For more information on The Resort at Paws Up, visit www.pawsup.com or call 800-473-0601. For more information on Merry Edwards, visit www.merryedwards.com, or to schedule an in-depth tasting, contact 888-388-9050.

Fairy tale of a French wine

In Monte Carlo, rosé is the preferred thirst-quencher for wine enthusiasts. I experienced this in 2015, while sipping on a 2014 Château Les Valentines Rosé and dining at a Michelin-star restaurant in Monaco, seaside at Elsa restaurant at Monte Carlo Beach Hotel.

My travel calexa-at-elsaompanion, Alexa (pictured), shared my joy in the life of a princess, sipping on elegant wines such as this Côtes de Provence rosé, with a cherry blossom aroma complemented by the drifting Mediterranean sea air mixed with the fresh floral breeze. Its notes gave way to a minerality typical of French wines, but this particular rosé was like pouring rose petals into a glass lined with drenched pebbles following a summer morning rain. Its color of pale pink/orange misled my palate into thinking this would be a fragile wine short on structure, but I was wrong. This rosé saturated my tongue with a tannin structure of royal character and elegance.

A year later, I found a 2015 bottle of Château Les Valentines Rosé online through a wine searcher app, and I ordered a few to re-introduce myself to this incredible rosé, a wine fit for a princess. Come summer, I will plan for a special dinner with friends to enjoy sips sure to send me back  in time to my time spent reveling in the good life of Monaco.

Digesting Dracula

Before me, a bevy of beautiful women dressed in second-skin skirts and crisp ironed blouses catch our group’s attention. But my eyes are drawn to those stiletto heels they magically maneuver, and to their perfectly made-up faces…. and those smoke-lined, piercing eyes. These are the eyes of lovely young women, but look deeper and you’ll see eyes that reflect the souls of a vicious past; in a moment’s notice these women could easily rip your carotid artery from your neck.

OK, so my imagination got the best of me in Romania, where all of my thoughts led to a vision of Dracula swooping in to drain the blood of unsuspecting souls.

The women, as it turned out, were gathering for Emirates airline hostess interviews; hence the outfits. We were all inside the historic Intercontinental Hotel where, during wartime, the restrooms were outfitted with secret audio devices for spying purposes. I had to assume these audio bugs were still in place. I didn’t speak until we left the building to browse through an artisan’s market of Transylvanian crafts.

The signature swirls of my cobalt blue Transylvanian ceramic bowl will forever remind me of Bucharest, the final destination we toured through on an AMAWaterways Black Sea voyage that began in Budapest and continued through Croatia, Bulgaria and Serbia, with a last stop in Bucharest. We didn’t make a stop in Transylvania, but neither did Bram Stoker, as it turns out.

While Darlene and I settled in our seats of our assigned tour bus, our imaginations, as well as our obnoxious nature, piqued with every Hungarian accented word spoken by our tour guide.

“Ask him to say it!” I pleaded.

Darlene and I egged each other on to request the tour guide recite, “I vant to suck your blood.”

Obnoxious, yes, but effective once we were overheard by the tour guide. And just like that, a truthful history lesson squelched our visions of Count Dracula, much like an eight-year-old child catching a parent stacking presents under a Christmas tree.

Vlad the Impaler, ruler during the 15th century Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, was also Prince of Wallachia and member of the House of Draculesti. He was known as the protector of the Romanians and Bulgarians north and south of the River Danube. As a fictional author, Stoker’s interest in Vlad the Impaler catapulted into an embellishment that will forever captivate audiences into a belief that vampires exist.

They do not.

Stoker didn’t actually visit Transylvania, or for that matter, Dracula’s castle. He did read his history on the subject, however, and with certain aspects transfused into fiction, Dracula came to life. And death.  And life. And so on.

The white face of Dracula was based on the fact that Vlad was a pale-toned man. The sucking of blood was fashioned after Vlad’s time spent imprisoned in a dungeon where he was tossed a live animal for dinner. The only way to kill it would be for him to use his teeth and severe the carotid artery, hence the image of Dracula sucking the blood from women’s necks.

The Hungarian Beef Goulash served onboard the AMAWaterways river cruise would have satiated Dracula’s hunger for iron-rich protein, with a splash of Schwaben Cabernet Sauvignon to wash it down.

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Hungarian Beef Goulash

Courtesy AMAWaterways

  • 2 onions, sliced
  • ½ cup corn oil
  • 1 tsp. caraway seeds
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 lbs. boneless chuck roast, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 2 tbsp. sweet Hungarian paprika
  • 2 cups hot water
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 3 bay leaves

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet; add the onions and sauté lightly. Add the garlic and continue to sauté. Next add the meat, stir well with the other ingredients, and season with salt. Cover and let cook gently until meat browns. Add the sweet paprika, caraway seeds and bay leaves. Cover and cook on low heat for 10 to 15 minutes until meat has picked up the flavor of the seasonings. Adjust heat so that the goulash simmers very gently and let it cook for approximately one hour, or until meat is fork tender. Serve over buttered noodles or rice.

Serves 6.

 

If it’s Wednesday we must be in Vukovar

In Hollywood films, “the bad guys are always Russian and named Elias,” says our AMA Waterways tour guide in a mixed tone of defeat and humor. Our tour begins in Croatia, within its 88,000 square kilometers along the Adriatic Sea. We are off the beaten tourist path except for the beauty of paprika farms that we drive past.

Our bus rides alongside sunflower fields of beauty in juxtaposition of the bullet-riddled buildings we passed far East of Croatia. We are headed to Ilok, to the city for wine tasting, coincidentally on a national holiday – August 5 – a day commemorating the Yugoslav Civil War of 1991-92. You can still see the effects of the bombed buildings, as with each election, empty promises of repair are meant to lure voters to what is commonly known as a corrupt government. Vukovar’s Baroque architecture is a promise of a rebuild of a city, and it is clear that this renovation is ongoing.

Symbols of resistance are everywhere we turn: Hiding places where there are ground-level doors, the water tower, a symbol of resistance. Graffiti on a yellow building in Serbia showcases an image of an angry man. The heaviest fighting took place in Vukovar. A war-ravaged neighborhood where on a drive you see many homes decorated with bullet holes.

The Croats arrived in the 7th century and by the 12th century, the state entered with Hungary. The Ottoman invasion of Europe in the 16th century claimed almost all of Croatia, and by the 17th century, the Austrians liberated Croatia. By the end of World War I, Croatia was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Enter the dark period, also known as World War II, when Croatia declared its independence by committing bad deeds to the Serbs in a Nazi collaboration. By 1945 Croatia was socialist and the red star was its symbol of resistance in the fight against Nazi’s and Fascism.

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In this city, a statue symbolizes the first democratic elections. In 1991 the war began  in the republic of Serbia; Croatia fell under UN protection and later liberated on August 5, thanks to Operation Desert Storm.

Today, Croatia is a parliamentary democracy with a prime minister and president that serves two terms of five years each. Today there is a woman president with no jurisdiction; basically she is a “floor plant in the office,” our tour guide admits.

Unlike its wine, the politics of Croatia are hard to swallow; luckily I am here to taste wine that began thanks to the Roman, Marcus Aurelias, who wanted to plant grapes here. Croatia’s region began with 80% grasevina – and Italian reisling.

The wines I taste in a 15th century castle’s hand-built cellars at Ilok (Nikolar Ilok) are crisp in minerality and the whites in particular are enjoyable on this late summer day. Aged in 7 years young Slovenian oak barrels grown in Venice, Italy, much of this wine was destroyed during the 7 years of war when Serb’s occupied Ilok.

 

But the wine is so tasty that even Queen Elizabeth has a few boxes of 1947 Croatian wine in her cellar. She got these bottles only because the wine bottles were hidden behind brick walls, as pictured, below.

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My tasting notes at Ilocki in Croatia, where a bottle of Podrumi is $5.

#1 – Gratavina (Italian Riesling) 2014

A dry-greenish to hay color, definitely a summer wine that surprises with its buttery flavor.

12% alcohol

#2 – Traminac 2014 has a color more golden than the Gratavina, with a strong floral bouquet of roses. This wine is so delicious it is like sipping honeysuckle, jasmine and rose. It offers a longer finish than the Gratavina. I’m sold, if only I knew where to purchase a bottle in the U.S.

12.5% alcohol

 

#3 Kapistran CRNI 2013 is made from grapes that grow in a region where hunters flock. This is a cabernet sauvignon Frankoka with a dark, very dark, in fact, ruby red color and aroma of berries and currant. This wine is best served with Gouda cheese, wild boar, deer meat and Hungarian Goulash.

12.5% alcohol

 

 

 

It is difficult to swallow the hard history of Croatia, but its wine production goes down easy and with a pleasant, lingering finish.

 

More than Goulash, Hungary has Boar’s Blood?

Although quite tasty, there is more to Hungary than Goulash. For one, there is a huge wine production, but this isn’t new. And neither is the communication of Hungarian wine, still referred to as boar’s blood, or at least blended wines. In the U.S. we typically hear the same blends referred to as “table wine”, “Meritage”, or “Bordeaux blend”.

Historically, wine has been the favored choice over water for hydration, so it’s no surprise that the 3,000 Celtic people who lived in Hungary made wine. Most of the Hungary-wine produced was white, at least before the mid-19th century. In fact, 1686 marked the time when the Turks left and Bosnia monks arrived. German-speaking settlers brought white grapes, but over time, the Serbs switched to red.

To put things in perspective on Hungarian wines and their prestige, know this…Queen Elizabeth drinks Cabernet Sauvignon from Villany. I found this out while on an AMA Waterways River Cruise from Budapest to Bucharest. Tasting in Villany, I had the great pleasure to taste foreign wines in a cave. The first chardonnay comes from a village outside of Villany. This white wine was a favorite of mine —un-oaked and made in stainless-steel tanks.

Wine tasting in Villany surprised me, with its 22 historical wine-producing regions. These fun facts satiated my curiosity almost as much as the wines tantalized my palate. For instance, in the northern region of Hungary, the Tokaj wines are made from white grapes discovered by the French King… from a 15-million-year-old leaf!

Yes, the history of wine production is long in Hungary.

I hadn’t known that the second best known wines hail from nearby Belgrade, Serbia, and that in the 19th century, the Phylloxera outbreak left the majority of vineyards dead. From the point of re-planting, red grapes began to grow in this area…Oporto to be exact, which is the Portuguese wine in Villany.

When the Turks tried to seize Hungary for 25 days, the Hungarians thought they were gonners – they could live or die. So, on their last day, they were happy when their women brought good red wine from the cellars, from barrels to buckets.

The Turks saw the wine trickling down on the Hungarian beards and white shirts. These Hungarians drank too much, and as a result, felt strong — strong enough to fight. The Turks thought they drank boar’s blood and they ran away.

Moral of this story: drink wine in fight or flight.

While tasting, I discovered the 2014 rose would have tasted best mixed with soda water. With an aroma of strawberries and its coppery rose color, this wine seemed to have gone into secondary fermentation – a bit fizzy. It’s blend of 3 sources, including blue cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon did not impress.

Finally I tasted the first of four reds, a ruby color that made me feel regal. It had a faint aroma of currants, a very good tannin structure and medium finish. It proved a medium to light bodied wine, “real blood of Villany Hills” —  an Oporto from 2013.

The second red – again a ruby color – offered a deeper berry aroma and still light, definitely a pinot noir. It was an enjoyable medium bodied wine, a 2011 blue francish with 14% alcohol, originally from Austrian region – Nazi days – when payment was made with blue francs.

Our third wine had the same ruby color – with high alcohol and low acidity – so its shelf-life is less. I got the aroma of a band-aid and obviously disliked this 2011 blend of 40% Oporto, 40% blue francish – seed of sour cherry – and 20% cabernet sauvignon.

Here’s toasting to Attila the Hun and history.

The cheesy little planet of Napa Valley

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

Single class: $65
Monday, March 7:  SOLD OUT Mambo Italiano
Monday, April 4:  SOLD OUT The Hills Are Alive! Alpine Cheeses from France and Switzerland
Monday, May 2: Best of the British Isles
Monday, June 6: SOLD OUT Locavore Night: Notable Newbies from Northern California
Monday, July 11: SOLD OUT Bubblemania
Monday, August 8: Artisan Cheese & Craft Beer: Seven Slam-Dunk Pairings
Monday, September 12: Blue-Ribbon Winners from the American Cheese Society
Monday, October 3: Cabernet Country: Great Cheeses for the King of Reds
All 8 Classes: SOLD OUT Grand Tour