Saturday, January 22, 2011

3 Ghastly Mistakes To Avoid If You Are Hosting A Wine Tasting Event

So, you've invited a group of friends over, every one is bringing a bottle and you want to make sure your wine tasting event occurs without any 'flaws.'  Below are a few mistakes to avoid if you are hosting a wine tasting event to ensure you get a 'Gold Medal!'

Dirty glassware can cause your wine tasting event to go from 'Brilliant' to 'Dull.'. Here are a few tips to ensure clean glasses:
  • Don't just pull the glasses from your cabinet or a box - they will have a stale, cardboard smell.
  • Don't wash your glasses with soapy water - this can leave a film.
  • Never use a paper towel to dry your glasses - this will leave an 'off' odor in the glass (and lint!).
  • Rinse your glasses with warm water and gently dry by hand with a polishing cloth.

How can you identify what's in the glass with distracting smells all around you?. Here's a couple of ideas to keep your wine tasting area odor-free:
  • Do not burn any candles or have plug-in air fresheners in the room.
  • Ask your guests (and you!) to refrain from wearing perfume, cologne, after-shave or other scented personal products.
  • Do not use chemicals or scented cleaning products on the table where you will be tasting.

While some like 'hot' tea or 'iced' coffee, seldom do they like 'warm' white wine or 'too cold' red wine.. Some helpful information on correct temperatures to serve wine:
  • Champagne and Sparkling wines: 41-45 degrees F
  • Lighter, more delicate whites: 45-50 degrees F; Heavier white wines: 50-55 degrees F.
  • Lighter style reds: 55-59 degrees F; Full-bodied reds: 59-64 degrees F
  • It is easier to 'warm' a wine by cupping the glass in your hands than it is to 'chill' the wine by diluting it with ice cubes (gasp!).
That's it for the tips. I hope you've found them helpful.  Remember, wine tasting should be an enjoyable experience and hopefully this advice will help you in preparing your own event!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

New Year's Resolutions... it is the middle of January and how many of you have actually stuck to the goals you set out for yourself just a few short weeks ago?!?  Well, if it's any encouragement to any of you who have, but may be struggling a little bit to keep on task (or those that want to make a second attempt while it's still the first month of the year...), I hope that I can offer you some inspiration along the way.

You see, one of my goals this year is to learn more about wine.  Sounds crazy coming from someone who claims to be a wine professional, right?  But we all need to fine tune our skills along the way to stay on top of our game.  A little bit of continuing education can go a long way.  Think about doctors and teachers who need to stay current in their fields of work.  The same is true in the wine business.  You wouldn't believe how many new regions there are in the past five regions, along with old regions that have changed their laws, and all the new winemaking practices that are out there. 

But I am up for the challenge - literally.  Every day at 6 am to get my day started by studying the latest and greatest about what's new in the wine world.  I realize that in achieving one's goals, first you need to write it down.  When you put something on paper, you can take the emotion out of the situation.  Second, you need to have a time frame in two senses - mapping out when you will achieve this goal (this will be on-going for me) and blocking out time in the day for it.  Then, you need to tell the important people in your life about it.  It's one thing to disappoint yourself if you don't meet your challenge, it's another to have to share that with everyone you told about it in the first place.  Next, monitor your activities and results to adjust as necessary.  Seems easy enough, right?

So, I have my goal, I'm telling you people about it and besides my personal desire to do this, I need to find motivation through other means.  Where do I find that?  In many ways - writings from Master Sommeliers about their journey to achieve their status, wine tasting with peers, people that hire me for my wine services, etc.  But a big motivating factor that keeps me in line is by motivating others around me to stay in touch with their goals - whether it be to gain more clients, get in better shape or do more for the world.  It also comes from people like you who instead of saying, "I should have done that" are having it said about you!  Make it happen, whatever that may be.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Quivira Winery - My First Time in Dry Creek Valley

Quivira Winery - Biodynamic
It was a beautiful fall day, happened to be Veteran's Day, when my tribe from Nantucket visited Quivira Winery.  Nestled in the hills outside of Healdsburg, this winery made a true, lasting impression on everyone in our group.

Our tour guide for the morning was Nancy Bailey, General Manager of Wine Creek Cellars who oversees Quivira, Follette Wines and Torbreck Vintners.  The estate prides itself  on their use of Biodynamic Farming in order to create a healthy, self-sustaining biodiversity, as we saw through out our visit.

In the garden with Nancy Bailey
We started the day in the Quivira Gardens - 120 raised garden beds where seasonal plantings are rotated.  Items grown in the garden are used for consumption at winery events along with being 'sold' to local restaurants.  Instead of the restaurants paying Quivera for the produce, the money is donated to support the Healthcare of Northern Sonoma County.  In the garden is a small bee hive whose unique design allows minimal intervention to the core beehive when removing the honey.  Fruit trees planted around the perimeter of the garden are all heritage varietals of pear, apple and peach.  Nearby, we see the chicken coop whose eggs are used at local restaurants and their manure is a important component to the composting program.

Quivira is also participating in a creek/coho restoration program where small pools are artificially created in the creek to allow fish to rest, spawn and grow as they make their way back upstream.

Carlos farming...
Next, we fed the cows, crossed the Wine Creek that feeds into the Dry Creek River, saw the famous fig tree from their label and the picturesque view from the top of their property, passed by the piggies and made our way back to the winery.  Makes you want to move there...

Jenny Benzie - Dry Creek River
As usual, there is a connection between Quivira and Nantucket.  The former winemaker who recently left to work in Oregon is Stephen Canter.  Stephen is known for his days working at The Wauwinet on Nantucket many years ago.  I had met Stephen several years ago when he did a market visit in South Florida.  There is much excitiement about the new winemaker on board, Hugh Chappelle.  Hugh was most recently at Lynmar Estate, where I met him when I attended the Russian River Valley Pinot Forum in 2008.  What a full circle here!
Winemaker Hugh Chappelle

Now, on the the tasting!  What a great surprise to see that our tasting would be hosted by Ron Washam, who I knew from my days in Los Angeles.  Ron was the sommelier at the Pacific Dining Car and has relocated to this beautiful area (can't blame him!).  All wines noted below are from Quivira.

Sauvignon Blanc, 'Fig Tree Vineyard,' DCV 2009 - about 4,000 cases made; all stainless steel, aged 6 months on the lees; fresh and lively, hint of chalkiness on palate, moderate plus acid
Zinfandel, DCV 2008 - 5% syrah; wet tobacco, black pepper, dried cherry; moderate plus tannin
Zinfandel, 'QUEST,' DCV 2008 - 25% Petite Sirah; debut vintage; almost opaque, concentrated ruby color; cedar, dried hay, jammy sweetness; power without a punch
Grenache, DCV 2008 - one of my favs!; made in large French foudres; rhubarb, wild strawberry;slightly dry with a cherry finish
Syrah, 'Hommage a Ampuis,' DCV 2007 - fermented on viognier skins; plummy color; very floral - lavendar/violet; moderate plus acid, juicy and gamey 
Petite Sirah, DCV 2008 - from Wine Creek Ranch Vineyard (you need a 4X4 to get there practically); deep, dark color; plummy and rich on the palate 

You can bet you will see some of these wines on the list at The Pearl and The Boarding House next season! 
Jenny Benzie, Dre Solimeo, Erin Zircher, Liam Mackey, Angela & Seth Raynor

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tasting at ELYSE Winery

Elyse Winery, Yountville
A beautiful way to start a fall morning is to wake up in the middle of a vineyard in Napa Valley.  I did just this last week while staying at Elyse Winery, located in Yountville. 

Ray Coursen
Ray Coursen  is a man who enjoys life and it shows.  He grew up on a dairy farm in New Jersey and, like most people, had a taste of wine and wanted more.  He relocated to the Napa Valley in 1983 and eventually became the head winemaker at Whitehall Lane.  Ray was finally able to branch out on his own in 1997 when he bought the property where Elyse Winery is currently located.  His winemaker since 2001 is Mike Trotta, who has previous experience at Bernardus Winery in the Carmel Valley and Yalumba in the Barossa Valley.

Angela Raynor, Dre Solimeo, Mike Trotta
My trip to the Napa Valley was organized by Angela & Seth Raynor who I worked for this summer at The Pearl on Nantucket.  They have had a long-time relationship with Ray as he has attended the Nantucket Wine Festival for years and they share many mutual friends in the wine business.  Ray was gracious enough not only to host our accommodations, but also to spend an afternoon with us and his winemaker to taste through his wines paired with a plate of cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery.  Our cheese selection included: Fromage Blanc, Inverness, Pierce Point, Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and Wagon Wheel. 

L'Ingenue 2007 is made somewhat in a Chateauneuf-du-Pape style from mostly Roussanne, with Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier.  Ray says that while Roussanne is the work-horse of this wine, it is the synergy of all four grape varietals that really makes this wine what it is.  Mildly aromatic with tropical fruits, aged about 18 months in all old barrels, this is a perfect food wine.  I have worked in several restaurants around the country and was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to sell this wine this summer.

C'est Si Bon 2006 is a wine made to have fun with -a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignane, Counoise, Syrah and Cinsaut.  Again, aged in all old oak barrels. The grapes for this blend (and the one above) are both sourced from the Sierra Foothills.  An appealing combination of light red and dark fruits makes this wine easily accessible as a seafood wine paired with meatier fish.

Le Corbeau 2005 (translates to 'The Raven') is mostly Grenache, with about 10% Syrah, from the Hudson Vineyard.  What is unique about this wine is they take the cuttings from the vineyard, dry them in an oven, wrap them in cheesecloth and tie them together with a cloth cord.  These bundles are near the grapes when they are fermenting and the wine pulls some spice from the canes during fermentation.  While this was a type of 'bouquet garni' method that Mike brought back from Australian, the wine is neither Australian or Spanish in style, but more French.  The slightly aromatic compound from this process creates a wine that is a bit sauvage!

Zinfandel 'Morisoli Vineyard' (Napa Valley) 2007
is sourced from a vineyard relationship that Ray conceived in his days at Whitehall Lane.  Some of the vines are 130 years old and the soil is a gravely loam.  The wine has a sweet nose and pleasant (not too pungent) on the palate.

Zinfandel 'Black Sears Vineyard' (Howell Mountain) 2007 is blended with 9% Petite Sirah and is a wine of a different beast.  Pepper, tar and resin resonate in this wine, with chewy black cherry on the palate.

Petite Sirah 'Barrel Select' 2007 does have a small amount of Zinfandel added to it.  The wine is bright in color, juicy big black fruits and almost 15% alcohol.

*Cabernet Sauvignon 'Morisoli Vineyard' 2005 was my wine of choice for this tasting (although I am rarely one to have a favorite).  Aged 30 months in barrel and another one and a half years in the bottle before being released, this wine is very complex.  Mocha, chocolate nose, cinnamon stick, velvety texture on the palate.  It's the kind of wine that makes you think a) about the terroir from where it was grown and b) what kind of food you would pair with it!

Many thanks to Ray and his team for such a lovely afternoon!  For those of you in the trade, the wines from Elyse Winery are available through MS Walker in Massachusetts and recently with Selected Brands in Florida.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

OENOTRI - A Southern Italian Restaurant in Downtown Napa

Jenny Benzie and Sur Lucero
Having lived on the East Coast for more than five years now, it is easier sometimes to get to European wine destinations than those on the West Coast.  It has been some time since I visited Napa (the town and/or the wine area), especially since I moved to Florida from California.  Oh, my - how Napa has grown and changed!  I was fortunate enough to be invited by Angela and Seth Raynor (owners of The Pearl on Nantucket where I worked this summer) on an end-of-season thank you/research and development trip with the chefs and managers of their three restaurants.  With seven out of ten in our group being chefs, needless to say... there was going to be a lot of food involved in our East Coast Meets West Coast adventure.

Open Kitchen at Oenotri
First stop along the way was OENOTRI, located in downtown Napa across from the AVIA Hotel.  The restaurant features Southern Italian cuisine while showcasing 'local, fresh, in-season ingredients.'   Specials for the evening our written on brown butcher paper on the wall at the bar.  Another feature of Oenotri are the pizzas from the wood-fueled oven.  Our group was hosted that evening by Maria Helm Sinskey, Culinary Director at Robert Sinksey Winery.  Maria had arranged with Chefs Curtis de Fede and Tyler Rodde a special tasting menu for us that high-lighted what the restaurant does best (see the attached menu).  The restaurant was full this evening and people were waiting for our tables at the bar as we left.  Tourists and local wine peeps alike could be seen in this bustling place, a great sign that an Italian restaurant is so well supported in Napa Valley.

I have been on several wine and culinary adventures; you soon learn to pace yourself throughout the evening for both food and wine.  I was delighted and surprised to see Sur Lucero as our Sommelier for the evening!  Sur and I traveled together just a year ago in Italy as recipients of the Banfi Vintners Scholarship through the Guild of Sommeliers.  While Sur chose all Italian wines for us, he told me that 35% of his list are wines from the Napa Valley.
Maria Helm Sinskey, Sur Lucero, Angela Raynor

Let the meal begin: our selection of house-cured meats was amazing.  I loved the presentation on the 'lazy-susan' made from the end of a wine barrel.  Our wine selection as an aperitif and for the first course was Tiefenbrunner's Feldmarschall 2008.   The wine is made from Müller-Thurgau (riesling x sylvaner), a grape that matures early, is lower in acid and mildly fruity. This is a winery high in the Dolomiti of Italy where I have had the pleasure to visit many years ago.

Our treviso/puntarella salad was delicious.  Fresh, crisp, slightly bitter - which I thought would be somewhat of a challenge for wine pairing.  Sur proved this not to be the case - Biondi M.I. 2007 from Etna (Sicily, think volcano...), made from a blend of 80% Nerello Mascalese and 20% Nerello Cappuccio.  This wine was decanted and had a slight bitterness as well that matched accordingly with the food.


Next came the house-made pennette with mozzerella di bufala.  The cheese becomes delightfully stringy as it cools, so this dish is called the 'telephone wire' as you pull a bite to eat.  The simplicity and execution of this dish made it a winner for the chefs in my group.  Our wine pairing (another winner with the challenge of tomato sauce) was Arnaldo-Caprai 'Collepiano' Sagrantino di Montefalco 2004.

I was most impressed with our last wine and talked about it the rest of my trip.  Macarico Aglianico del Vulture 2004 from Basilicata.  (Mind you, when I was first studying wine, someone in my study group came up with 'Vultures eat Basil' to remember that the wine region and the grape go together!)  This wine had depth, character and resonated on my palate obviously for days later.  Its' strength and meatiness was a nice accompaniment to the mild gaminess of the cotechino and blood sausage with parmesan fonduta.

And my favorite course - dessert! - was a winner for all.  Something that may seem not so hard to make, yet usually falls apart easily, our vanilla bean panna cotta was just firm enough to wiggle on the plate and still stay intact.  Bravo!  While the pears added a nice flair to the plate, I would have preferred another piece of the dolce.

What a fabulous way to start my trip - great food, new and old friends, and wines to prepare my palate for a week long of tasting!