Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Valentine's Day Food and Wine Pairing 101

Thanks to the good people at Evox Television for posting my blog about the basics of wine pairing!
Check out the link here.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Portrait of a Sommelier

Last summer, the Del Mar Theater, a refurbished Art Deco movie house in downtown Santa Cruz, held a one-night-only screening of the film Somm, a documentary that follows four men as they prepare for the most difficult test in the world, the Master Sommeliers examination. The Santa Cruz Mountain Wine Growers Association hosted the event, which included a wine tasting that took place before the show, and a Q & A session with a special guest after the film.

With documentaries, you’re never assured of a Hollywood ending. The film portrays the emotional, grueling, and often humorous journey of four men who attempt to pass an examination with a success rate of about 4%. Barely 200 people have passed the Master Sommelier examination in over 40 years, and as Somm begins, you know that the chances are slim that any of the four would-be-Master-Somms will pass, let alone all four.

In the end, Ian Cauble, the film’s hero, learns that he has failed the exam for his second time, although two of his friends have passed. As the music fades at the end of the movie, text appears on the screen, and we learn that 16 months after the exam documented in the film, Ian earned the title of Master Sommelier. When the crowed discovered that he had passed the exam, the theater erupted in applause. I spotted Ian under the marquee posing for photographs after the screening, and when he was through, my friend Heather and I congratulated him on the film and on his successful completion of the Master Sommelier exam.

Heather and I talked with Ian for a moment about the 2011 Pinot Noir from Beauregard Vineyards that we had poured at the reception before the film. Ian had mentioned during the Q & A that he generally preferred European wines over Californian ones, but that he did enjoy the wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains, especially the Pinot Noirs produced here with high acidity and low alcohol. Heather and I had planned on asking Ian to join us for a drink, but before we had a chance, he invited us to join him at Soif, one of Santa Cruz’s premier restaurants and wine bars.

While Ian looked over the wine selection, I had a chance to talk with him. I asked if he was still working for Krug, one of the more prestigious Champagne labels, which had hired him the day he passed the Master Sommelier exam. He told me, no, he’d actually had to resign because he had come down with mercury poisoning from eating too much fish while representing Krug, but he is hoping to start his own venture soon.

Ian and I tasting in the cellar at Beauregard Vineyards (photo courtesy of Humanitarian Hedon Films, Heather Hazen)

Ian looked over the wines on display and in the carols, and I talked with him about minerality and terroir. We discussed the undeniable yet ineffable quality of terroir, how it is unique to location, but also determined by the philosophical beliefs of the winemaker. I told Ian how I had recently been reading about minerality in wine, and how it seemed to me that in a white wine this was often expressed by high acidity and an absence of fruit, but that I was having some trouble understanding how minerality is expressed in a red wine. Ian nodded, and smiling, told me he’d found our table a nice red wine with good minerality. In fact, he’d selected three wines: a 2012 Grüner Veltliner, the third most commonly planted white grape in Austria, a Premier Cru Chabli, and a 2011 Beaujolais from the Domaine de Robert Morgon Cote du Py.


Ian had a calm, congenial presence at the table; he didn’t try to control the conversation, and instead seemed content to chime in only when pressed for an answer to a question. He was humorous, and though very knowledgeable, resembled his character in the film only in a cursory manor. He was not at all the studious, uptight person known as “Dad” by his friends in the documentary. In fact, Ian told us that this had only happened on one occasion, but that it happened to be caught on film and had been made to look like a common nickname. Ian doesn’t like to see himself on the screen, and so he had gone over to Soif earlier for a couple glasses of wine while he waited for the film to end. He thinks that he comes off in the film as too serious. In person, Ian is humble, a delightful conversationalist, and quite funny; a couple of times I even had the sense that he was holding some ribaldry back because of the company at the table.

We drank the Grüner Veltliner first. There was a peculiar though familiar spicy taste, but I was having difficulty bringing exactly what it was to mind. What fruit is that, I thought—no, not a fruit, not a spice…Ian leaned across the table after swirling his glass and taking a single sip, and asked, “Do you taste the radish?” Radish! That was what I was trying to think of, but its name had escaped me. With one sip Ian knew exactly what the flavors were in the wine, and had no trouble discussing them. “Let the wine sit in your mouth,” he told the table. “Chew on it, have a conversation with the wine, feel the texture. Do you taste that radish spice? Do you feel how it gives way to a tinge of pink peppercorns on the tip of your tongue?” I could feel the spiciness of a radish slowly dissipate over my tongue till just the very tip and edges burned with a subtle heat—as if I’d pressed the tip of my tongue against a pink peppercorn.

After the dry, mineral-driven Chablis, we ended with the Beaujolais. This was my favorite of the three wines we drank that night. I took a sip, and held the wine in my mouth, slowly moving it about with my tongue. “These grapes were grown in solid granite,” Ian said, “you can taste it.” And I could.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

What to Eat With What to Drink: The Delightful World of Pairings

It’s difficult for me to pick a single favorite food and wine pairing. I’m pretty easy to please when it comes to eating and drinking, and when food and wine are put together there’s not much I enjoy more. One of my favorite aspects about pairings is that they allow us to manipulate our palate, and that when food and wine are consumed together they can exponentially expand our sensory experience. There’s so many different ways to pair food and wine—sweet and savory, acidic and salty—the different ways that we can work with weight, richness, fruitiness, etc. is astounding. I often love to pair with contrasting aspects in mind; it’s fun for me to try and find unusual food and wine combinations that work well together. I like the unexpected. There’s joy in surprising your taste buds. However, pairings with an eye toward comparison, or common characteristics, are always a welcome treat.

Perhaps my favorite simple, yet exceptional food and wine pairing while working at Beauregard Vineyards was when my coworker Lonny brought a treat for after work not long after the release the 2010 Beauregard Ranch Zinfandel. After we closed down the bar, Lonny poured us each a small glass of the Zin, and brought out a plate he’d hidden in the fridge. On the plate was a wedge of Humboldt Fog, one of my favorite cheeses. A soft-ripened goat cheese, Humboldt Fog has a creamy inner encased by a runny shell, a layer of ash that runs through it, and a rind made of bloomy mold and ash. The pairing of the rich and herbal goat cheese with the cool-climate, earthy Zinfandel was breathtaking. In one bite it was as if I were sitting on the edge of a meadow, surrounded by dry brush and brambles, picnicking in another place and time. The best pairings have this ability I think, to capture our senses and to pull us out of the present. By choosing what to eat with what to drink we take gastronomy into our own hands, and by doing so we become the curators of an experience that extends beyond the boundaries we are normally confined to each day into the realm of Dionysian pleasure.

(Lonny: the Man, the Myth, the Legend)

Three More Poems

Thanks to phren-Z for publishing my poems, and for the chance to read at Bookshop Santa Cruz!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wine Tasting in Santa Barbara

Rows of newly planted grape vines stretched for miles on either side of the road on my drive down to Santa Barbara. The rolling hills that once were occupied by cattle and the occasional orange grove are now neatly combed and plotted with stakes that support spindly young grape vines with bright green leaves ready to shade the grapes about to bud. It was the end of April, and I had two days to attempt a mini wine tour of Santa Barbara and seek out some terroir-driven wines there. 
            My first stop was a private wine tasting at the Yacht Harbor with Drea O’Connell, a certified sommelier and fine wine specialist. She is spunky, charismatic, and a great resource when it comes to California wines. Santa Barbara is well known for its Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah, though Drea believes Sauvignon Blanc from the Santa Barbara area is excellent, and will be the next wine to take center stage there. After tasting through the flight, I asked Drea where I should go next? She suggested The Funk Zone, a hip location in downtown Santa Barbara with art studios and lots of tasting rooms. She also suggested I get in touch with Josh Klapper, the founder and winemaker for La Fenêtra, at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria. I would have to wait until I was on my way out of town to meet Josh, so until then, it was off to The Funk Zone.
            One of my first stops was a small tasting room tucked away in an alley. Drake Cellars had only one group inside, drinking a Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine that was served on tap, straight from the tank. Though their Chardonnays were good, I was most impressed by their Pinot Noirs. I had visited a couple other spots in the Funk Zone, but Drake was the first to offer up a true terroir-driven vintage. I walked out with a bottle of their 2009 “H Block” from Bien Nacido Vineyard that night, and was so impressed that I returned the next day to pick up another bottle, this time a 2010 Pinot named “Les Galets,” French for ‘pebbles’, specifically the polished river stones found in vineyards in the Côtes du Rhône.

            My favorite tasting room was the Deep Sea. Located on the pier overlooking the Santa Barbara bay, Deep Sea offers a wide range of wine styles with breathtaking views. The owner and winemaker, Tom Conway, was working the day I visited, and I enjoyed a lengthy conversation with him about terroir, marketing, wine styles, and our own preferences for certain wines. Tom’s favorite Deep Sea wine is a 2007 dry farmed Zinfandel, and while I liked this 2007 Rancho Arroyo Grande Zin, my favorite wine was his 2008 Deep Sea Syrah from White Hawk Vineyard. Both wines were unfiltered and unfined, and possessed a certain chalky-earthiness that spoke to my love of single-vineyard, single-varietal wines. After an extra splash of White Hawk Syrah, I asked Tom if he had any suggestions about other places to visit on my trip; he suggested I contact Sanguis, which I did, and was able to schedule a private tasting for the next day on my way out of town.

            My last stop for the day was Municipal Winemakers, where I met my cousin Natalie for a quick tasting before she met some friends for a birthday party. Our favorite wine was the 2011 Bright Red, which had great character for a table red, and reminded me of a true Bordeaux blend. It was so good that I picked up a bottle to bring back for my friend Drew, who has a passion for chewy, high-tannic wines. From there, I drove over to La Super-Rica Taqueria, a must-visit restaurant any time I’m in Santa Barbara, for a couple carnitas tacos before calling it a night.

            The next morning I headed over to Sanguis. The building where they have their tasting room and winemaking facility is gorgeous, but a bit out of place in the neighborhood. Located in an industrial area, and with no sign or address anywhere I could find, I passed the large, solid, hardwood door a couple of times before giving it a knock and being greeted by Jessica, the tasting room manager. It was her birthday, and she was only there to do a little work so she could have the evening free to meet some friends and family. I was very thankful that she had agreed to take some time out of her day to invite me into the winery and show off some of their wines. When I walked in the door, a table was already laid out with five wines glistening in decanters beside their bottles. On the wall behind the table was a shelf full of the appropriate glassware for each wine, some water, and another shelf with corkscrews, the handles of which were made of polished grape vines. Each wine contained a little Viognier, even the reds, and the wines were exquisite—bright and full of character. My favorites were the 2010 Out of Line (94% Chardonnay, 6% Viognier) and the 2009 Some Poets (95% Syrah, 5% Viognier). All the wines were unfiltered, unfined, fermented with native yeast, and aged sur lees. Sanguis also has a second label called “Loner,” which I wish I could have tried, but they produce so few bottles that they reserve the single vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for wine club members only.

            After thanking Jessica, it was time to head north to meet Josh Klapper on my drive home. Josh used to work as a sommelier, but has since left the restaurant industry and moved to the cellar. I met him at Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria, where he produces the wine for La Fenêtra and Acote (his second label). Josh led me through a barrel tasting. He’s trying to make food-friendly, Euro-style wines, and his goal is to produce classical Burgundy, terroir-driven wine in Santa Barbara. I asked Josh what he thought was necessary in order to achieve a wine that expressed terroir. He said that harvest time is the most important—you don’t want to pick over-ripe grapes. But he added that an embodiment of time and place and history are also important; grapes should be picked when there is balanced acidity, sugar, and ripeness. It’s also critical to consider what wine from an area should taste like. Like every region, every varietal also has its own peculiarities that need to be attended to. Josh told me, “Pinots are all about patience and urgency.”

We sampled a barrel of Pinot Noir from Bien Nacido Vineyard, the same place where the grapes were grown for one of the Pinot Noirs I had bought at Drake. And then something registered, something I thought I already knew, but that I had not yet fully grasped or appreciated: great wine begins in the vineyard, and some places produce better grapes than others. Bien Nacido is probably the most famous vineyard in Santa Barbara. Originally planted in the 1970s, the vineyard stretches for approximately 900 acres. Fourteen different varietals are planted there, principally Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Before I left so Josh could finish his cellar work for the day, I asked him if he could recommend an inexpensive place for lunch. He told me that the place I wanted was El Toro: Mexican Deli and Tortilla Factory, and to be sure to get the carnitas. I found El Toro, and ate two of the best carnitas tacos I’ve ever had in my life. I still regret that I didn’t buy some tamales for the road.
After this trip, the terroir of Santa Barbara will always bring to mind dark, earthy Pinots and Syrahs, and carnitas tacos, dripping with juice, dressed only with a little cilantro and onion. Cuisine as an expression of culture is also a reflection of location, and of the restraints and opportunities found there. In Santa Barbara, the geography and socio-economics has lead to the creation of a wine market that is rightly gaining notoriety among California-wine lovers, and of mouthwatering caritas cooked so tenderly it almost feels like a mouthful of Syrah.