Monthly Archives: July 2014

Le Bon Somm

I had an interesting dinner in London last week. I was there on business, as my real life company is based near Oxford, and we were hosting customers from Japan. There were 10 of us, a few of which had some wine drinking experience, but also a few novices.

Our CEO turned to me and asked me to order wine for dinner, letting everyone know, especially the VP from our Japanese customer, that I was a wine expert, even writing about wine. No pressure! I just have to order wine for 10 people that have a variety of tastes, a range of wine experience, and are undoubtedly ordering different meals. Of course, as we’re a very small company, I need also to be conscious of price.

Open the wine list, and start going through it. There are certain expectations and constraints going in. I’m expecting not to find any reasonably priced California wines, so I’m already a little out of my comfort zone. (In my experience, very little California wine is available in England.) I’m also not going to be getting a French Chardonnay (white Burgundy) or Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux), as these wines will not necessarily go with all the meals. So I’m looking for something fresh and crisp in a white wine, and something not too big in a red, but big enough to handle the lamb dish which is the special for the evening, and will probably be ordered by more than a few people at the table, including me.

After giving me a few minutes with the wine list, in steps the sommelier, asking me about what I’m looking for in wines, and he gets the information above from me. I had been looking at Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire region of France; he pointed out the best value on the list, but also recommended a Muscadet from the same area, with a similar flavor profile, and even a few pounds less expensive. I went with his suggestion, and was rewarded with a really nice bottle that everyone liked. (Muscadet has no relation to Muscat grapes typically used for sweet wines. Muscadet owes its name not to the region where it’s grown, or to the grape variety,, but instead seems to come from the slightly musky smell it can have.)

For the red, I had a pretty good idea what I wanted: a nice Rhone (Syrah-based wine). I had spotted one that I thought would do nicely. The somm suggested a different wine, saying that the one I had chosen might be a bit too big of a wine for everyone to enjoy, but his alternative, also from the Rhone (Cotes du Rhone area), was a GSM – Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah – blend and would be more likely to a crowd pleaser. Again, a few pounds less expensive per bottle.


The lamb special was delicious: lamb shoulder roast brought to the table on a cart and carved table-side. The red wine was 2009 Coudoulet de Beaucastel, owned and operated by the same family that owns/operates Chateau de Beaucastel, which is maybe the best, if not the best known, wine from Chateauneuf du Pape in the Southern Rhone. Coudoulet is “right across the street” (according to the sommelier) from Chateau de Beaucastel, and that street is the demarcation line for the Chateauneuf du Pape region. This wine contains Cinsault in addition to the GSM grapes, and similar to the Chateau de Beaucastel has a comparatively high Mourvèdre content.

This is exactly what the good sommelier should do: listen to his customers, understand their needs, and help choose great wines for the specific customer. Whether you know a lot or a little about wine, don’t hesitate to use the somm.



Mirabelle Tasting Menu Including Wine Pairing

While Lori and I were in the Santa Ynez Valley for the Wine Bloggers Conference, we took ourselves out to dinner to celebrate our anniversary. My brother and his wife recommended the Mirabelle Inn Restaurant, in nearby Solvang, where they had eaten within the last year. With no other information to go on, and because our tastes are similar, we went with it. Great choice.

Mirabelle Tasting Menu

It turns out that the Mirabelle has a tasting menu, including wine pairings. The menu for our meal is shown above, including the wine pairings, which we had. Photos of the individual dishes are below. Each dish and wine were great individually and paired together. It’s hard to say which would be my favorite. Maybe the ceviche, as I’ve long held that I could live on ceviche and margaritas and nothing else. But the duck was so good, not too sweet, and they gave us a spoon for the sauce. The lamb was cooked perfectly, and I didn’t care how fancy the restaurant was (maybe 8 on a 10 scale), I was going to gnaw on the bones. I’m not a real lover of white chocolate, nor of flan, but perhaps the best course was the dessert with the Muscat.

The Mirabelle dining room is quaint and small, with only about 12 tables. If you’re in the area, I’d highly recommend making a reservation at the Mirabelle for dinner.



Our First Time Tasting Pinot Noir

Being at the Wine Bloggers Conference in the Santa Ynez Valley (Santa Barbara County) this past weekend got me thinking about our long ago time living in the area and tasting Santa Ynez Valley wines. Lori and I lived here from 1982 – 1985, and again 1990-1991. We came here with one son, born just before moving here the first time, with the second one born in the middle of our first stay in the area.

There are many memories from our stays, but one that stands out is our first time tasting Pinot Noir. Not just our first time tasting Pinot Noir in the Santa Barbara area, but our first time ever tasting Pinot Noir.

While I started drinking good wine relatively young – thank you Father and Uncle – most of the wine was Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals and blends. Pinot Noir, even though it was being grown in California, in the Carneros district, just wasn’t around. Then, when Lori and I were living in upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes region, we enjoyed the cold weather white wines that are made there. Still no Pinot Noir.

Sometime early in that 1982-1985 period we visited the Sanford and Benedict Winery, which was the only winery on the west side of the 101 highway, closer to the ocean, in what is now the Santa Rita Hills (SRH) AVA. We rolled up, put the baby (the future Winemaker B) in the baby carrier on my back, and walked into the barn that served as their winery. There was no electricity, and so wines were made strictly with gravity flow techniques, with the barn kept cool by running water over the roof of the barn. Michael Benedict was there, and walked us through a couple of fantastic Pinot Noirs, teaching us about Pinot Noir in general, and their Pinot Noir specifically.

It was romantic and idealistic in a back-to-nature sort of way, the wines were wonderful, and we had spent an hour chatting with a winemaker instead of at the counter of a tasting room. Voila! Pinot Noir was added to the range of wines that were really special in my heart.

By the way, that area, the SRH AVA, has now become one of the best areas for Pinot Noir in the world. See my Pinot Noir Heaven post.



Pinot Noir Heaven

I thought I’d died and gone to Pinot Noir heaven! A few nights ago during the Wine Bloggers Conference, I got on a bus with 20 other bloggers for a journey to an unknown destination. 15 minutes later we were at the Melville Vineyards and Winery estate, for a few hours of Pinot Noir heaven.

Melville Vineyards and Winery Estate

We started with a vineyard talk from Chad Melville, one of the two sons of the founder involved with the vineyard and winery. Interesting talk, from one of the top Pinot Noir producers in the Santa Rita Hills (SRH) AVA in Santa Barbara County. They use some different trellising, pruning and canopy management techniques. However, the primary factors influencing the grapes are the climate — the east-west running valleys that bring in the cool air from the ocean — and the soils.

Richard Sanford giving a toast after dinner

We finished with a great meal in the Melville tasting room, with halibut and pork paired with the great wines we had, and then walking out to a full moon over the vineyards.

In between, there was the tasting. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from eight different SRH wineries, with wines from 2007, 2009 and their current release, usually 2012. Here is the lineup of wineries and representatives:

• Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards: Richard Sanford (owner/winemaker and the SRH pioneer grower and winermaker)
• ampelos cellars:
• Babcock Winery and Vineyards: Bryan Babcock (owner/winemaker and SRH pioneer grower)
• Brewer-Clifton Winery: Greg Brewer and Chrystal Clifton
• Carr Vineyards and Winery: Ryan and Jessica Carr
• Lafond Winery and Vineyards: Bruce McGuire (winemaker for Lafond and Santa Barbara Wineries since 1981)
• Melville Vineyards and Winery: Chad Melville (owner/evangelist)
• Zotovich Cellars:

What an incredible lineup of wines, and the people talking about them! Nothing against the Chardonnays, but if I was going to make it through the Pinot Noirs still standing (even sipping and spitting) I had to be focused. Some Pinot Noir highlights for me and my specific tastes:

2007 Alma Rosa, La Encatada Vineyard
2009 Babcock, Ocean’s Ghost Vineyard
2009 Melville, Estate Pinot Noir
2007 Brewer-Clifton, Mount Carmel Vineyard

Pinot Noir, well-made and aging, just beautiful and delicious and balanced. The 2012s were in general pretty good, but still young. Give them a few years.

Jessica and Ryan Carr

A special mention should also go to the 2007 Carr Pinot Gris. Carr doesn’t make a Chardonnay, and so brought Pinot Gris instead, and there was a tuna tartare being passed right when I went to try the Pinot Gris. Delicious pairing! Who would have thought that Pinot Gris could last for 7 years?

What a night. Pinched myself a few times to make sure it wasn’t a dream.



Whirlwind Trip to the Central Coast

My head is still spinning! We are back in Dublin, getting back to our regular routine after having a whirlwind 5 day trip down to the Central Coast wine region. We left last Thursday morning and drove about 2 hours south and found our first winery in the Santa Lucia Highlands wine growing region of Monterey County. We stopped at Pessagno Winery in Gonzales just outside of Salinas. Then we drove about 10 minutes farther south to Hahn Estates in Soledad. Both of these tasting experiences will be written in a future blog. We stopped for lunch in Soledad and had a delicious Mexican meal.

We then hit the road for our destination of Buellton which is about 1/2 hour south of Santa Maria and about 45 minutes north of Santa Barbara, smack dab in the middle of the Santa Barbara Wine Country. We checked into the Marriott Courtyard and had just enough time to unpack and change into something nicer for our anniversary dinner we were about to venture on.

We went to Mirabelle Restaurant located at the Mirabelle Inn, just off the main highway in Solvang. Larry and I were celebrating our 34th wedding anniversary a couple days early due to the fact that we were going to be busy at the Wine Bloggers Conference on the actual day of our anniversary. We looked at the menu and decided to go with the Chef’s Tasting Menu with with the wine pairing. This turned out to be a very delicious meal, and however great the service was, it was a bit rushed and we found ourselves done with our 4-course meal in 1-1/2 hours!

It turned out to be alright since we still had quite the agenda ahead of us with registration and expo with wine tasting back at the hotel. We even had an excursion at 10:00 that evening to Standing Sun Wines where there was a wine tasting of that winery but also over a dozen other wineries were represented there from the Santa Ynez Valley Wine Country Association. They had a beautiful display of desserts of which I passed on since we had just had dessert with our meal. After we sampled wines for awhile we then sat outside around their fire pit and enjoyed meeting fellow wine bloggers.

The next two days were filled with wine tastings, both from the U.S. and from around the world; food pairings, seminars, workshops, keynote speaker, excursions to wineries, blog awards, etc. When Sunday morning came around and we finished the last 2-hour workshops we were ready to start heading back north. We only had to go one hour as we were heading to San Luis Obispo. We were going to be staying right in town at a very nice boutique hotel, the Granada Hotel and Bistro. Our room was ready and they let us check in at 1pm! We ordered in room service to our room and watched the final game of the World Cup. We enjoyed this very much as we had been watching a great deal of the games throughout the world cup series. After the game was over we walked around town, did some shopping and found a nice restaurant, Luna Red, where we ordered happy hour snacks and sangrias.

The next morning we left to head back to Dublin with stops at 3 wineries in Paso Robles, lunch and a massage. The wineries we stopped at were Niner Wine Estates, Sculpterra Winery and Sculpture Garden and Derby Wine Estates. Each of these were very different from each other and we really enjoyed our experience at each of them. We had lunch at Berry Hill Bistro in the square. We left Paso Robles around 4pm strategically planned so we would miss most of the work traffic up in San Jose. We got home around 7pm. All the animals were good and very happy to see us. We brought in all the literature and business cards that we acquired over the long weekend and now need to decipher through it all. That will take some time. Keep posted as I will be writing more details about the specific wineries, restaurants and highlights from the Wine Bloggers Conference, #WBC14.



Indian Food, Portuguese Wine

Just had brunch at the Wine Bloggers Conference, sponsored by the Wine of Portugal. They did a variety of pairings of Portuguese-influenced food — Portugal, India, Brazil, Japan — and Portuguese wine. My favorite was the pairing of Indian food with Portuguese white wine.


Specifically, the dish was called Mathunake Dudkiwale Aloo, which apparently means over easy egg served over a curry of potatoes, chick peas, onions and more. I had this with the Anselmo Mendes (that’s the winery/winemaker) 2013 Passaros Loureiro Vinho Verde. The food was rich, spicy, and wonderful, and the wine had the fruit and acid needed to cut through the flavors, and complement the flavors. A great pairing, and a great way to start off the day.



Movie and Wine with a Beer Chaser

Lori and I went and saw the movie “Chef” yesterday. Fun movie, and I’ll pass along the advice we received from everyone else: Don’t go hungry! The food in the movie looks great.

One interesting thing in the movie was the choice of wine. To set the scene, Dustin Hoffman is playing a restaurant owner, seemingly a relatively high end place. Oliver Platt is a reviewer, who has given the restaurant a lousy review, and is now back for a second review. Jon Favreau, who was the chef, has quit the restaurant after Dustin Hoffman made him cook the same old menu for the first review, instead of the innovate menu Favreau wants to cook. Dustin Hoffman offers the reviewer a glass of “2009 BV”, saying that this was a gift from the winery. I’m sure BV (Beaulieu Vineyards) paid for the product placement, but irrespective of which winery it was, a 2009 is a subtle choice. It’s a very good year for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines like BV, and while it should taste good now, it will taste better in a few years. If Hoffman was a really good restauranteur, and wanted to impress the reviewer, he should have better (more drinkable) wines to offer. But Hoffman is not that good, just thinks he is, and the choice of wines subtly reinforces the point made in the movie. Nothing against BV, as their Tapestry blend is one of my go-to wines (can’t go wrong if you choose this wine) on restaurant wine lists, just making the point that this was an unusually perceptive choice of prop for a movie.


After the movie, which we saw at the Vine in Livermore (great theater), we headed back home. Except that on the way home we saw a sign for a brewery, and it was a hot day, and we were thirsty, and that was about all the excuse we needed to follow the signs. Eventually they led us to Eight Bridges Brewing in Livermore. Their brewery and tasting room is located in an industrial park near the airport in Livermore. We found a nice crowd inside, drinking beer and playing bar games. We joined in on the beer drinking, trying everything except the stout. Lori’s favorite was the Golden Nektar, a Bavarian style pilsner. While I enjoyed the Red and the IPA, my favorite was the Fyrst RIPA. As explained by George, behind the bar, this was originally supposed to be a Red. However, by the time they got their permits, they couldn’t get all the original ingredients, and when it was done it seemed a cross between a Red and an IPA. Thus “RIPA”. Seriously good, nicely balanced beer. I’ll be coming back for more. Try it out for a break from wine tasting.

First the samples, then the empties.


Larry Lapides

Wine Bloggers Conference 2014

We are getting ready for another road trip. This time we are heading down south to Buellton which is in Santa Barbara County. It’s about 1/2 hour north from Santa Barbara. We are heading there specifically to attend the Wine Bloggers Conference 2014, #wbc14. We went to the first and second wine bloggers conference when they were held up in Santa Rosa. The first year, 2009, they concentrated on the wines from Sonoma County and in 2010 they concentrated on the wines from Napa Valley. We had so much fun and met so many nice and interesting people. This year we are very much looking forward to learning more about the Santa Barbara County wines. We will be doing a lot of tasting wine, pairing wine with food, wine blogging, learning and networking with other wine bloggers.

We are leaving Dublin on Thursday and stopping along the way at two wineries in the Central Coast region. More on those in a later post. We are going to be staying at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott and going out to dinner at Mirabelle Restaurant in Solvang. This restaurant was suggested highly to us by my brother-in-law. After 2-1/2 days at the conference we will end our stay in Buelleton by watching the final Wold Cup game. Once that game is over then we will be heading up to San Luis Obispo to the Granada Hotel. This is a small boutique hotel near the center of town. There we will be celebrating our 34th wedding anniversary. We will most likely have dinner in the bistro at the hotel. On Monday we will drive back up to Dublin stopping at one or two wineries along the way.



Zinfandel Can Improve With Age

July 4th yesterday, and instead of heading to Santa Cruz Lori and I were home with a sick cat.  Not what we had planned, but we had to make the best of it.  So we watched some World Cup games, some baseball, just generally relaxed, and planned our own little barbeque.  A rack of ribs, corn on the cob, homemade cole slaw.  Lori’s got a great recipe for the slaw, which involves garlic powder in the sauce.  (If you’re interested, you should ask her.)  For the ribs we used some plum BBQ sauce that we made a year ago.  The recipe for that is on the Food and Wine Pairing page of the main website, and it was great with the ribs.


For wine, we pulled out a bottle of 2004 Peachy Canyon Winery Zinfandel, Old Schoolhouse Vineyard (Paso Robles).  Obviously, we decanted the bottle.  It took about 30 minutes to open up, then had everything:  great nose, fruit on entry, nice and chewy texture, good tannins on the finish.  Bite of ribs, sip of wine.  Rinse and repeat, to borrow from other instructions.

Good Zinfandel can age, and age well.  Maybe not the 20+ years for the high end reds, but this had everything I want in a wine, including the complexity and balance.  Better now than it was in the first few years after bottling.  Of course, you have to start with good zinfandel, and Peachy Canyon is a great winery to keep in mind for Zinfandel.  Always an enjoyable tasting experience too, if you get to Paso Robles.

I hope you all had a great holiday yourselves.