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Mother Nature, Unbound

August 9, 2019 2 comments

I love photography. If you flip through the pages of this blog, you will see lots of pictures – I enjoy taking the pictures, and I enjoy sharing them.

Yes, this is a wine blog, and so most of the pictures here are related to either wine and food. Most, but not all – as, for example, will be this post.

I rarely take pictures of people – or even if I do, I rarely share them publicly. Nature, on the other hand, might be my most favorite subject, both for taking the pictures and for sharing them.

Yesterday we needed to take a trip downtown Stamford in the evening, and then the thought was  – why don’t we take the dog down to the beach for a walk?

Oh my… Once we arrived at the beach, for the next 30 minutes or so, we couldn’t stop looking and looking around, trying to fully appreciate and take in one of the most magnificent spectacles ever put out by Mother Nature (okay, yes, I’m going too far – she does it every day, non-stop around the world, but still). I often tell people that Mother Nature is a true and original artist, I just try my best to capture her creations and share them with the world.

I usually prefer to convey my own vision of the same Mother Nature’s act in my pictures (read – edit them), but yesterday’s performance was so perfect that I’m just sharing it as is, not edited at all – #nofilter as we like to say.

Enjoy!

June – What a Month, in Wines and Pictures – Part 2

July 11, 2019 6 comments

Warning – lots of pictures will be following. And you can find Part 1 post here.

My birthday celebration usually means “party”. This year we decided with my wife instead of cooking and cleaning for 2 days to spend time by ourselves and go to stay somewhere fun. We managed to pack a lot in mere 3 days.

As a collector of experiences, I’m trying to fill my Wines of 50 States map, so as we were driving to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I decided to visit local New Hampshire winery. Fulchino Vineyard was almost on the way, so this was our first stop (the details are coming in the separate post). Then we arrived at our intended destination for the evening – Wentworth by the Sea, a magnificent property hosting the Marriott hotel.

Wentworth by the Sea

When I drove by that hotel 5–6 years ago, I still remember my admiration of a beautiful structure. It got stuck in my mind and I was waiting for an opportunity to visit – I’m glad it worked out. Beautiful building, beautiful views, beautiful property – we really enjoyed our short stay. And I will let you decide whether this place is beautiful or not take a look at a few pictures below.

While Marriott was a great property in a magnificent setting, our next stop greatly exceeded my expectations. A few months ago I resubscribed to the Yankee magazine – it is a print magazine which is squarely focused on the happenings in New England part of the US, from Connecticut to Maine. As my “bonus”, I got a tiny leaflet called “Best of New England”, where one of the places that caught my attention was Inn at Woodstock Hill in Woodstock, Connecticut, mentioned as “Best Inn for privacy”. The Inn also conveniently hosted a restaurant with raving reviews, which sounded perfect for the birthday dinner.

When we arrived at the Inn, we found out that our room was located not at the main building, but at the adjacent cottage, which has a total of three rooms, but we would be the only people to stay there. So we literally had a whole house to ourselves, with the deck and the view of the fields. In addition to the fields which looked perfectly untouched, we had a pleasure of walking around a small garden, where blueberries, black (I’m assuming) currant and gooseberries were all growing, and a small field of poppies was yet another source of great pleasure, as we don’t spend much time around those gentle flowers.

I brought with me a couple of bottles to celebrate the occasion. One of those bottles was 2015 Field Recordings Foeder Old Portero Vineyard Arroyo Grande Valley (14.9% ABV, 50% Syrah, 35% Zinfandel, 15% Mourvèvedre, aged for 12 months in 50 barrel American Oak Foeder). While I generally treat Field Recordings wines as every day delicious wines, good for any day which name ends with a “y”, some of those wines are a bit more special, as they are not produced regularly, and when produced, the quantities are minuscule. This was one of such wines, which I had for a couple of years, but then decided that birthday is a good enough occasion to have it open. This happened to be a mistake, as wine could definitely enjoy another 10 years to fully evolve, but even then, it was a delicious, fresh, acidity-forward concoction of sour cherries and blackberries, with well-defined structure and dense finish.

Our dinner didn’t disappoint either. First, the folks at the restaurant were very kind and let us bring our own wine despite having the full wine list (the corking charge was $15, which was totally fine, of course). The wine which I brought, 1998 Kirkland Ranch Merlot Napa Valley (14% ABV) was on my “to open” list for a while. I got a few of these bottles from Benchmark Wine and was really curious to see how the wine would fare, but the bottle went unopened on a few prior occasions. This time the cork was finally pulled out, and the wine delivered lots of pleasure. It started its journey to the peak but was still far from it – fresh, good acidity, a complex bouquet of roasted meat, coffee, dark fruit (cherries and plums), good balance – very enjoyable. The wine continued to evolve throughout the evening, giving me good hope for a few more bottles I have left.

The food at the Inn at Woodstock Hill (the restaurant doesn’t have its own name, and because of it you can’t find it on Yelp, but it has all information on the web) was delicious. We started with an Escargot, which was enjoyed to the last morsel, and Artichoke Bottoms, which were unique and delicious. Then I had The Wedge salad, which is one of my perennial favorites – you can get any salad off the menu complementary to your main dish, a very nice feature – and The Wedge again was delicious. My main dish was Pork Shank, which was… well, I don’t know if I should declare myself a pork shank connoisseur, but I’ve been through the Czech Republic, where pork is king – this dish was absolutely on par with the best versions I tasted in Prague. Yep, it was a delicious standout or it was standoutously delicious (yeah, I know it is not a word – but this is my blog :)), but I’m sure you got my point.

The morning with that fields view was just perfect. I couldn’t stop myself from taking more and more pictures…

We made two more stops before finally getting home. First, we discovered the Rosewood Cottage, a pink-colored summer residence of Henry and Lucy Bowen, built in 1846, also sporting beautiful garden delimited by 150+ years old shrubs. The Cottage, which now belongs to the Historic New England organization, hosted 4 of the US Presidents visiting Bowen family on various occasions. Over these years, the house was painted 13 times in various shades of pink, has many of the original wall coverings (wallpaper) called lincrusta, and stained glass windows, some of those original since the house was built. It also houses the oldest in the United States indoor bowling alley! Does it worth a special trip? Yep, it does.

 

Our last stop was at the Taylor Brooke Winery, also located in Woodstock. Compared to my previous Connecticut wineries experience, this was definitely a better one – but more about it later.

Here you go, my friends – one memorable June of 2019. How was yours? Cheers!

June – What a Month, in Wines and Pictures

July 10, 2019 1 comment

The Vessel Hudson YardsJune might be my favorite month of the year. There are many reasons for me to say that. For one, it is the very beginning of summer. It is like a Friday night when the whole weekend is still ahead – the same thing with June, the summer is just starting. Then it is the month of my birthday and Father’s Day, which means I get to celebrate a few holidays which are related to me. Throw in the end of school celebration and occasional graduation, and you can clearly tell June brings a lot of reasons to be happy.

This June of 2019 went particularly overboard with all the goodness. At the beginning of the month, I got invited to so many wine tastings and dinners that I had to simply decline the number of invitations. Those which I managed to attend were an absolute standout. Tasting of South African wines was small, but superb, with lots of simply delicious wines. Right after the South African wine tasting, I met with Stefano Ruini, the winemaker for Bodegas Luce, tasted through yet another excellent set of wines and finally realized that Luce, the wine I tasted and admired before, is a Merlot Sangiovese blend produced in the heart of the land of Brunello.

The last event of the same day was a dinner with Michael Benedict and John Terlato of Sanford and Benedict Winery, a pioneer of California Pinot Noir, which took place at the spanking new Hudson Yards, at the Wild Ink restaurant, overlooking freshly minted The Vessel.

My next day was even more memorable, with two hours of the pure joy of talking to Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Winery in Napa Valley, and tasting (a better way to put it: been blown away by) Stu’s wines, which were simply a standout.

That eventful week ended with the L’Ecole 41, iconic Walla Walla producer’s lunch and vertical tasting, where I finally discovered for myself what is all the fuss about Ferguson.

Then there was Father’s Day, with all the cooking fun and an opportunity to open a special bottle of wine – it is always easier to pull a better bottle when you have a good reason to do so.

My cooking fun was more of the usual – BBQ. However, I experimented with the way the meat was prepared. The chicken breast was marinated overnight in the onion juice if this is a thing – simply a big Vidalia onion pulverized in the blender and then used as a marinade – with the addition of the bbq spices. The lamb was marinated overnight in the buttermilk also with the addition of rosemary, sage, and the spices. The result was outstanding – both chicken and lamb came out juicy, tender, and delicious.

The wine story started with the 2018 Field Recordings Morro View Edna Valley (13.9% ABV, 100% Grüner Veltliner) – fresh undertones of grass, Meyer lemon, bright, crisp acidity – a perfect sip for the summer day.

Two of the Martinelli wines joined the party. Martinelli is most famous as the grape growers, however, they also produced a number of wines under their own name, albeit those are rare. First, we had 2009 Martinelli Syrah Zio Tony Ranch “Gianna Marie” Russian River Valley (15.4% ABV), which took a bit of time to open up into the a delicious, blackberries and pepper concoction, firm and supple.

I only had two bottles of Martinelli so I had no plans to open both on the same occasion. However, when my oldest daughter came and said “Dad, I can have a glass of wine over the next two hours and I want California Pinot Noir” (she has medical condition which generally prevents her from enjoying any type of alcohol), the only wine my brain could think of was 2010 Martinelli Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast (15.5% ABV), as I saw this bottle in the fridge the day before. This was a classic California Pinot Noir, which I generally describe as “plums and smoke” – soft, layered, good amount of fruit without going overboard, delicious long finish – an excellent example of the California Pinot Noir – and by the way, perfectly balanced – 15.5% ABV was absolutely unnoticeable.

The last wine I had high hopes for … well, didn’t work out. Back in 2012, I had 2004 Retro Petite Sirah, which was one of my top dozen wines of 2012. This time I opened 2007 Retro Petite Sirah Howell Mountain (14% ABV), hoping that 12 years is enough for this wine to at least start opening up. Nope, no such luck. The fruit was nowhere to be found, the wine mostly had sapidity, coffee and roasted meat notes on the first day, despite being decanted. It slowly improved day by day and showed some glimpses of the fruit on the third day, but still, it didn’t deliver the pleasure I was hoping for.

Well, let’s stop here. I will tell you about the rest of June in the next post – with lots (lots!) more pictures.

To be continued…

Travel Diaries: Two Days in New York, or Pleasures of Being a Tourist

April 24, 2019 4 comments

I live in close proximity of New York – 45 minutes by train – and I almost call it my “home town”. Each year, I get to visit the City, as it is typically called by locals (and to the best of my knowledge, “The City” primarily refers to Manhattan – New Yorkers, feel free to correct me) numerous number of times – business meetings, dinners, Broadway shows, wines tastings – you name it. But every one of those visits is purpose-driven – get in, do your thing, get out. Yes, I get to walk the streets, which I enjoy immensely and snap a few pictures, but still – the mind is set on “in and out”. “Can I sit on this bench for another ten minutes? No, because then you will miss the train. Get up and get going”.

To tell you the truth, the idea of staying in New York for a night was on my mind for a long time. Last week was a school break, for which we had no opportunity to make any plans. I looked around for a short notice vacation – flying would cost a fortune and would be mentally exhaustive (don’t get me going on my travel luck lately). Driving long distance with a rainy forecast for most of the East Coast didn’t look attractive even for a bit. And then the thought came – what about New York? My wife and our youngest daughter quickly agreed (older kids had no vacation that week anyway); we got lucky finding the room at Marriott Marquis, right in the middle of the Times Square – and with my Marriott status we even scored an upgrade, so we were definitely all set for a short New York getaway.

We decided to come over by train so we will not have to deal with the parking. After some deliberations, we decided to skip the most touristy things – city tour and the Broadway show, and just enjoy the City for what it is. Our mandatory program was short – Times Square, 9/11 Memorial, Jewish Heritage Musem and Central Park. Natural History Museum was also on the list, but with a bit of a lesser priority. With the hotel located right on the Times Square, the first requirement was easy – plus our upgraded room exceeded our expectations – we had the full view of the Times Square from the 45th floor, any second we wanted to see it – that alone made our vacation perfect.

Despite the gloomy forecast, I have to say that the weather cooperated with us very well. The view of the World Trade Center building covered in the fog was rather unique, and overall gray weather was perfectly appropriate for the solemn mood of the 9/11 memorial and even Jewish Heritage Museum. And for the next day’s walk through Central Park we even had the sun coming out instead of the expected rain, so we really can’t complain about the weather at all. By the way – we made it to the Natural History Museum, but it seems that there were a lot (way too many) dinosaur fans in New York that day – the line to get into the museum to see T.Rex exhibition was stretching over the few of the neighboring streets, so we really decided to call it a day.

The fact that we stayed overnight in New York really changed the impression and perception of this vacation. Instead of fighting the traffic and crowds to get back home after dinner, the leisurely walk back to the hotel created a feeling of a real vacation, when you immerse into the life around you and lose the feeling of time. There was no feeling of the day trip, no feeling of being close to home – it was a real vacation, just somewhere in the world, in a place where time doesn’t exist and you don’t need to care about anything. We all really loved the experience of being a tourist almost in your hometown and will be looking forward to doing this again – in New York and not.

The only way I can share this experience with you is through the pictures. As I never know when to stop, here are some many pictures for you – definitely more than a few, but I’m only trying to share some of the moments of our [short] vacation. Hope you will enjoy them as much as I did while taking them. Cheers!

Lower Manhattan – The World Trade Center and around:

Somewhere in New York:

Times Square – day, night, and around:

Central Park:

Valentine’s Day Experiences

March 1, 2019 2 comments

Valentine's Day RosesCooking is the ultimate expression of love. This is always true, but even more though on Valentine’s Day, as the whole holiday is all about love – the holiday which exists since about the 5th century – it is really fun to celebrate something so deeply rooted in history.

Our personal love story was simple – yet, probably, equally uncommon – the love at first sight. It took three days since the moment we saw each other for the first time until everything was decided. So you can imagine that Valentine’s Day was always an important holiday for us. At first, we tried to follow to common path, working hard to score coveted restaurant reservation – until the dinner at one of the most expensive, and supposedly, best Italian restaurants in Connecticut, which we left asking each other “what was that???”. That was the end of our “eating out” Valentine’s Day celebrations, and the beginning of the “eat in” tradition.

One of the advantages of “eat in” celebrations is a much better wine program. You don’t need to desperately comb through the pages of the wine list, finding that you can’t afford any of the wines by the bottle you want to drink, and common sense preventing you from getting any of the wines by the glass which can be classified as a “seemingly affordable rip off”. Instead, you can spend hours combing through your own wine shelves, looking for the bottles which you will deem worthy of a special celebration –  and which will also work with the menu you have in mind.

Valentiens Day wines

Martinelli Syrah which you see in the picture was a backup wine in case anything will be wrong with the Pinot. Now it is back in the cellar, waiting for its turn.

Last year’s celebration was about steak and Cab – obviously, I couldn’t repeat myself, so the search was on to find an appropriate protein replacement. Somehow that resulted in the duck breast – and what wine does the duck breast call for? Of course, the Pinot Noir!

Before we talk Pinot we need to talk bubbles. Bubbles don’t have to exclusively narrow down to Champagne. Champagne is a wonderful sparkling wine, perfectly appropriate for any celebration – but the world of wine moved up tremendously over the past 15-20 years. I don’t have any stats to prove this objectively, but I have a feeling in the USA at least a third of all wineries if not half of them produce sparkling wine – if not for the wide distribution, then at least for the wine clubs and tasting room visitors.

I also have to say that ever since I visited the Franciacorta region in Lombardy, Italy, Franciacorta sparkling wines became my go-to choice of bubbles for any special celebrations. In my mind, Franciacorta wines are very consistent, and today, as they honed their production methods to perfection, this translates into the “you can’t go wrong with” Franciacorta wines in general. La Valle was one of my top highlights of that Franciacorta trip and the La Valle Rosé really hit the cord then – and it continues to do now. This 2011 La Valle Brut Rosé Franciacorta was superb – fine mousse, delicious strawberries on the nose with the hint of the toasted bread, and more strawberries on the palate – a perfect opener for our evening.

Now, the Pinot time. Similar to the bubbles, Pinot Noir also enjoys quite a universal appeal around the world nowadays. There some regions, however, which do a better job than the others – and California Russain River Valley is definitely one of them. I tried 2007 Charles Mara Pinot Noir for the first time back in 2010. It was silky smooth and powerful at the same time. I was so impressed with this wine that it became the top wine of the inaugural Talk-a-Vino Top Dozen Wines list. I still had a bottle of 2007, and I decided that it would be a perfect choice for our Valentine’s Day dinner – and the wine didn’t disappoint. Now, 9 years later, this 2007 Mara Laughlin Road Ranch Pinot Noir Russian River Valley became even more round and less “in your face”. Characteristic California Pinot plums and smoke on the nose, succulent dark fruit on the palate with a hint of violets, perfect acidity, perfect balance, lots and lots of pleasure. And it also worked perfectly with the duck.

Let’s talk about the duck. I had it a number of times before, either made by friends or at the restaurant – but duck is rarely my go-to dish. The form of duck I cooked before was either duck legs as part of the Cassoulet or the whole duck as part of the Turducken. I never attempted cooking the duck breast before, so obviously was concerned with the outcome. After studying a number of recipes, I was concerned even more, as a number of commentators complained about rendering duck inedible even after repeated attempts, so I was really not sure about my own success.

I don’t know if it was a quality of the ingredient, Moulard Duck Magret, which I got at our local Fairway Market, or the cast iron pan, a combination of the above, or the beginner’s luck, but the duck breast came out perfectly. I also made a Port (you saw it in the picture above) and berries reduction, which elevated the nicely gamey taste of the duck breast and was a bridge to connect it all to Mara Pinot Noir – all in all, a delicious dinner. Nevermind the paper plate in the picture – everything in life has a story, but this is not the story for this blog post.

There you go, my friends – not a timely share, but still an experience worth sharing. If you still remember, I’m curious to know how was your Valentine’s Day dinner. Cheers!

 

 

For The Love of Chowder – 2018 Edition

October 30, 2018 1 comment

Blogging is all (mostly?) about traditions, isn’t it? I’m talking about topics, things or experiences we like to write about. If you blog for a while, you have a number of posts which can be called traditional, as they cover the same subject – yearly, monthly, weekly, daily? (ouch!). For sure it works this way for me – there is a number of experiences I like to talk about on the regular basis – as those experiences take place.

One of such experiences is the Chowdafest, a fall event dedicated to the humble (or not) soup, generally known as Chowder – if you want a bit of an education on what the chowder is, I can offer you the post I wrote after attending my first Chowdafest back in 2015, which provides a few details on the different types of chowders.

The 2018 event took place at around the usual time (Sunday, September 30th), at the usual place – Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, Connecticut. Even the weather was the usual – sunny, bright and not too cold. However, the summer and early fall in New England saw an incredible amount of rain, so the grounds were unusually wet and people had to be careful walking around.

As we entered, all visitors were given a ballot and a pencil, to mark down their favorites. The back side of the ballot had a map of the event, as in addition to all the competitors, there were lots of vendors (sponsors) offering other tasty treats, so one didn’t have to survive on the chowder alone. Cabot Creamery, Harney & Sons Tea, Ocean Spray, Stop & Shop, Polar Beverages, and many others were serving Mexican and Italian food, ice cream, juice, tea, coffee, sparkling water – you had a lot of fun food options beyond chowder.

 

Same as last year, there were 5 categories were participants were competing for the title of “the best” – Classic New England Clam Chowder, Traditional Chowders (Manhattan/Rhode Island’s), Creative Chowder, Soup/Bisque, and Vegetarian. The participating restaurants this year represented states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

Obviously, I’m not going to give you much of a detailed report here about all the chowders I tasted, so here are my overall impressions:

  • For the 4 years that I’m attending the event, I’m happy with the overall quality and variety. It is not boring and once I get out of the food coma at the end of the event, I’m instantly happy to think about next year’s Chowdafest.
  • The overall level of booth decorations in 2018 was less than in the previous years. Many places would just have a serving station and maybe a recipe. It takes away a bit from the “Fest[ival]” experience. Hopefully, in 2019, we can go back to more festive booth settings.
  • A few vendors run out of chowder/soup in the middle of the day. I saw one just pack up and leave, and another one saying “more soup is coming in 30 minutes” – not good for visitors, and really a bad plan for competitors – you can’t win by serving only half of the visitors.
  • I’m still puzzled how Pike’s Place from Seattle always wins the New England Clam Chowder category – I think it is a combination of service – they carry their chowder around so people don’t have to wait in line, and intimidation – they display all their trophies from the past years, and people automatically think “ahh, they must be the best with so many awards” (works the same way as multiple medal pictures on the wine bottles). To me, their chowder is not bad, but for instance, I preferred the one from 250 Market far more than Pike’s Place. Oh well, the people have spoken…
  • I’m happy that at least in one category – Vegetarian – my top choice matched the people’s choice. Truffle Mushroom Bisque from Old Post Tavern in Fairfield, CT was delicious, and it won the category.
  • I’m also happy that Drunkin Pumpkin Seafood Chowder from Our House Bistro in Winooski VT took the top spot in Creative Chowder category – their soups are always good, the presentation is excellent with lots of “self-serve” condiments, and the booth is always a pleasure to look at.
  • For the first time, I saw the competition trophies. At first, I didn’t understand the collection of the old ship memorabilia in a middle of the field – until the later when I saw the plaques and realized that those were actually the trophies.
  • Believe it or not, but in the Chowdafest 2018, my favorite soup was not really a chowder at all – it was a Curried Chicken Chowder from Hale & Hearty from Boston, MA – the only soup I gave the top 10.5 rating.

Here is the list of winners in the 5 categories we mentioned before (Classic New England Clam Chowder, Traditional Chowders (Manhattan/Rhode Island’s), Creative Chowder, Soup/Bisque, Vegetarian). For the more detailed list, which includes 2nd and 3rd place winners, please use this link.

Pike Place Chowder
Our House Bistro
Geronimo Tequila Bar & Southwest Grill
Dunville’s
Old Post Tavern

As usual, let me leave you with a copy of my ballot – just to prove that I take the Chowdafest competition very seriously 🙂

You can already mark your calendars for Sunday, October 6th, 2019 – the 12th annual Chowdafest competition.

Before we part, you might want to check out Chowdafest’s sister event – the Great Mac & Chili Challenge, taking place this Sunday, November 4th at 11 AM at the same Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, CT. The weather should be great! Cheers!

WBC18: Merlot Deep Dive with Masters of Merlot

October 18, 2018 2 comments

I remember my first “deep dive” into the Washington wines at the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery a few years ago, where I was told about the power of Washington Merlot. The explanation was given on the example of a group visiting Chateau Ste. Michelle from California, who were complaining that Washington Cabernet Sauvignon was too soft and mild as opposed to the Cabernet Sauvignon from California. The group was offered to taste the Washington Merlot wines next, and this is where they found the right amount of “power” they were looking for (or maybe even a bit more).

WBC18 Masters of Merlot tasting

While attending Wine Bloggers Conference 2017, I was able to start the conference experience on a very high note with the deep dive pre-conference session on the California Cabernet Sauvignon, where we learned about one of the most classic California Cabs you can find – Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon. This year, at WBC18, we started on the equal, or maybe even higher note with the pre-conference session on Merlot. Very appropriately for being in Washington, and for the October being the #MerlotMe month, we were able not only taste a line of Merlot wines but to compare side by side the wines made by two of the Merlot pioneers and, unquestionably, the Masters – Duckhorn Vineyards from Napa Valley and L’Ecole No 41 from Walla Walla Valley.

Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot

Dan and Margaret Duckhorn started Duckhorn Vineyards back in 1976, becoming one of the first 40 Napa Valley wineries. Even in those early days, it was clear that Cabernet Sauvignon was The Grape everybody wanted to work with. At that time, Dan and Margaret decided to proceed in their own way, and instead of joining the Cabernet Sauvignon movement, be unique and different and embrace the Merlot. Ever since their inaugural vintage in 1978, they never looked back and became known as Napa Valley Merlot pioneers and one of the best Merlot producers in the world, starting with their first release of Napa Valley Merlot in 1979. Today, Duckhorn Vineyards expanded dramatically and now comprise multiple wineries and brands around the USA – however, Merlot is the heart and soul of Duckhorn wines, and it is not surprising that 2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Three Palms Vineyard Merlot was the Wine Spectator’s 2017 Top 100 Wine of the Year.

L'Ecole No41 Merlot

L’Ecole No 41 was founded by Baker and Jean Ferguson in 1983 when it became 3rd winery in Walla Walla, and 20th winery in the Washington state. Today the winery is run by the 3rd generation of the family, and sustainably farms estate Seven Hills and Ferguson vineyards. Merlot is the king in Washington, so it is not surprising that the L’Ecole crafts some of the best Merlot wines in Washington – however, their Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Bordeaux-style blends are equally world-famous.

Now that you know the bit of the history, let’s talk about our tasting. In our Masters of Merlot session, we had an opportunity to taste side by side Duckhorn Vineyards and L’Ecole No 41 Merlot from 2008, 2012 and 2015 vintages, plus a cherry on top (thank you, Duckhorn Vineyards) – 2015 Three Palms Merlot. Before I will leave you with the tasting notes for these beautiful Merlot wines, I just want to share some general observations. The three vintages of Duckhorn Merlot we were comparing had a different grape composition between the vintages while maintaining the same oak treatment for all the wines. As I mentioned in my summary post about WBC18 experiences, Washington weather is very consistent, so L’Ecole No 41 maintained the same grape percentages between the vintages and the same oak regimen – the changing parameters were only harvest dates and the vineyard source composition, which gradually shifted from solely a  Seven Hills vineyard in 2008 to the 50/50 share between Seven Hills and Ferguson vineyards in 2015 (L’Ecole folks are ecstatic about the potential of the Ferguson Vineyard, now introducing more and more single vineyard wines from it).

Masters of Merlot tasting WBC18

Now, it is (finally!) time to talk about the wines. Here we go, in the tasting order:

2008 L’Ecole No 41 Estate Merlot Seven Hills Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (14.5% ABV, $?, 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 18 months in French oak)
Rutherford dust on the nose, chewy, dense, tart cherries, needs time! I want more fruit! Would love to try it in 5-8 years.

2008 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $70, 86% Merlot, 9.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3.5% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc, 16 months in French oak)
Raisins on the nose, very explicit, beautifully dry on the palate, sage, anise, tart, showed a bit of Rutherford dust after swirling, great acidity. Amarone! I want to drink it NOW!

2012 L’Ecole No 41 Estate Merlot Walla Walla Valley (14.5% ABV, $30, 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 76% Seven Hills Vineyard, 24% Ferguson Vineyard, 18 months in French oak)
Espresso, Rutherford dust (a bit less explicit than 2008). More fruit on the palate, bright, beautiful.

2012 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $65, 88% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Malbec, 16 months in French oak)
Delicate, fresh plums, a touch of truffle notes, plums and lavender on the palate, delicate, fresh, round.

2015 L’Ecole No 41 Estate Merlot Walla Walla Valley (14.5% ABV, $36, 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 50% Seven Hills Vineyard, 50% Ferguson Vineyard, 18 months in French oak)
Dark fruit, Rutherford dust, dark berries, a bit of bell pepper on the palate, plums, sapidity, interesting minerality. Needs time.

2015 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $56, 85% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot, 16 months in French Oak)
Closed nose, a touch of mint, however – palate is beautifully ripe, open, clean, fresh fruit.

2015 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Three Palms Vineyard Napa Valley (14.7% ABV, $98, 91% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.5% Petit Verdot, 0.5% Cabernet Franc, 18 months in French Oak)
Rich, opulent, caramel, anise, sage, on the palate coffee, ripe fruit, mocha, dark chocolate. Big and delicious.

Masters of Merlot tasting

Were these wines similar, even between the different wineries? Of course. I love the presence of the Rutherford dust on many of the wines we tasted – after tasting best of the best in Rutherford in Napa Valley – the BV wines, I picked up that term and I always use it describe the perceived dusty impression of the wine’s aroma. L’Ecole Merlot was a lot more structured and minerally-driven. I would safely say that 2-3 hours in the decanter would help those wines a lot. The Duckhorn Merlot were a lot more fruit driven but offered an impeccable balance with that fruit. If I have to pick the favorite, it would be between 2008 Duckhorn (ahh, that Amarone-like beauty) and 2015 Duckhorn Three Palms, but there were really no bad wines in this tasting.

There you have it, my friends. Beautiful Merlot wines, easy to love and appreciate, and most importantly, offering lots of pleasure. How is your Merlot Me month going? What are your discoveries or the old favorites?

I have to say special thank you to Constance Savage of L’Ecole No 41 and Kay Malaske of Duckhorn Vineyards for offering this special tasting to the wine bloggers! Cheers!

CLASSIFIED Brunch

October 15, 2018 9 comments

 

United CLASSIFIEDHow many emails do you get per day? I would safely bet that we all get at least 50 emails per day (don’t laugh too hard out there, please – of course, it is on a slow, really slow day).

The real question is – how many of those emails do you open? Speaking for myself, I delete at least 90% of all the emails after just glancing at the subject line and the source. For the rest, I would open them to read at least the first couple of lines and then decide what to do with it. Okay, bear with me, please – it all will make sense in a second.

I’m a frequent flyer with United, so of course, I get emails from them. Most of those emails are deleted right after reading the subject line (sorry, United). When I received the email from United with the subject line “Your invitation to CLASSIFIED”, the mouse pointer quickly advanced toward the “delete” symbol. However, something prompted me to open the email and read through at least a few lines.

The email was inviting me to experience the new secret (!) restaurant in the Newark airport, called CLASSIFIED. Secret restaurant? In Newark? I fly from that airport all the time, and I know of all the restaurants there, I never saw anything called “CLASSIFIED”. “It must be a scam” my thought continued as my hand was directing the pointer towards the big X. Again, something prompted me to stop and do a bit of a research on the internet – and it appeared that yes, there is a secret (semi-secret) restaurant in the Newark airport, which a number of people already visited and wrote about.

I was still puzzled as to what was the criteria for United to send me this invitation – I don’t have such a high status with them – I struggle to make to the “gold” every year, I’m not a million miles flyer, it was really a puzzle. But hey, I’m a foodie, so if you tell me “new restaurant”, “unusual experience” – you definitely got my ear.

So once you are invited, you need to make a reservation. I had to wait a bit to find a good occasion to make a reservation, as I wouldn’t want to come much earlier to the airport if I don’t have to, and if we are talking about the “experience”, I need to allow the sufficient time for a restaurant visit. The opportunity presented itself as I was connecting in Newark and had 5 hours to kill between my flights this past Saturday. I logged into United with my invitation, got to the restaurant website, and after browsing the menus, made the reservation for Saturday brunch. I got the confirmation email which stated the following:

When you arrive at the airport, please make your way to Saison, a restaurant located in Terminal C near Gate C120. After you let the host know that you’re dining at CLASSIFIED, you’ll be escorted to a private entrance and seated at your table. 

After arriving at the Newark airport on a beautiful day

Newark Airport

I did exactly as I was told, and was quickly escorted to an indiscreet section of the wall in the far back corner of the Saison restaurant, which simply happened to be a door. After a short walk in the dimly lit corridor, I entered the small dining room – the CLASSIFIED restaurant.

As I got situated at my table, my excitement started dissipating as soon as I saw the familiar iPad screens, used for food ordering everywhere throughout Terminal C. The waiter confirmed my suspicion when he asked if I know how to use those iPads, which I confirmed with the sigh. Considering that food at CLASSIFIED is priced at the level of New York’s fine dining establishments, I was expecting the real menu. Oh well, the iPad ordering it is.

Just to set your expectations right, this was the last “low-down” I experienced during the brunch.

First, the Rosé arrived – the Juliette Rosé from Provence, which was delicious, perfect acidity, slightly bigger body than a typical Provence Rosé with a touch of residual sugar – very enjoyable, and a great value at $11. It even arrived with a little extra, courtesy of the restaurant.

The next surprise was the appearance of the Amuse Bouche – a White Bean and Tomato Bisque, which was superb – good texture, nice and warming, good seasoning – really a great start.

Then my main brunch dish arrived – Salmon Eggs Benedict with Home Fried Potatoes and  the side of Chanterelle Mushrooms:

CLASSIFIED Eggs Benedict

The eggs Benedict were cooked perfectly – runny yolk, delicious hollandaise with just the right amount of acidity, generous amount of smoked salmon – one of the very best I ever had. Home fried potatoes with some fried onions were outstanding. And chanterelles… I really have no comments – simply outstanding, just the right amount of seasoning, just the right crunch, a mushroom orgasm on the plate (hope you can relate). CLASSIFIED Nice Touch

I was too full to have any dessert, but still, the little box appeared on the table, containing a set of chocolates. Yet another nice touch, which all together, one little detail after another, adds up to what we call “the experience”. A fine dining experience at the Newark airport. Thank you, United, for making flying something you can look forward to.

Note to self – sometimes, it makes sense to read the emails. Cheers!

WBC18: Like A Kid In The Candy Store – Again, or 4 Days in Walla Walla

October 13, 2018 11 comments

walla walla welcome signBack in 2014, I was visiting the state of Washington on business, and my obsession with local wines led me to the small town of Woodinville, about an hour northeast of Seattle. As I parked next to the industrial building and started going door to door, visiting one artisanal winery after another, I really felt like a kid in the candy store – the wines were delicious, and conversations with winemakers and not were even better than the wines – what else the wine lover needs? I was so impressed with that visit that my enthusiasm showed in the blog post, which won one of the Monthly Wine Writing Challenges (we called them MWWC) with the theme “local”.

The timing for the Wine Bloggers Conference 2018 (WBC18) was a little strange – for the most of the time, the conferences took place in August, and October is definitely not the ideal month to take time off (I know that many of the regulars couldn’t attend due to the timing). However, my high opinion of the Washington wines and the memories of visiting the Woodinville became the deciding factor, so I was able to find the time for this trip to Walla Walla in Washington.

Boy, was I not disappointed. After a beautiful ride from the Portland airport along the Columbia River (I wish I would record a little video – the amazing scenery must be shared), I arrived at the Walla Walla. Walla Walla is a home to about 30,000 residents, but it is hard to tell from the tiny downtown. However, when it comes to wine, don’t let the small size to full you – Walla Walla downtown hosts 30 something tasting rooms, plus a number of full working wineries located within the city limits (there are 120 wineries in the Walla Walla Valley overall) – it is definitely a destination for any wine lover out there.

As it always happened so far (this was my fourth WBC), the 4 days of the Wine Bloggers Conference became a non-stop adventure of sipping, spitting and learning, and most importantly, spending time with the fellow bloggers. I can’t tell you how many wines were tasted during these four days – whatever happens at WBC, stays at WBC. But – I will be happy to share with you main takeaways from these 4 days. Here we go:

  1. Washington State produces some magnificent wines (duh) – at least on par with Napa, and often far exceeding the Napa offerings in terms of QPR – and they are predominantly red. All six Bordeaux varieties are doing quite well in Washington, both in the form of the Bordeaux blend and on its own. Merlot might be a king of Washington, but Cabernet Sauvignon can often fight for that royal crown, and quite successfully. The Syrah is definitely a queen, well deserving your attention, following by the other Mediterranean breeds, such as Grenache and even Tempranillo.
  2. Washington whites are much rarer find – but they can be equally delightful as the reds. Rhone varieties do particularly well (Marsanne, Roussanne), but Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and even Albarino can deliver a happy surprise. An important reminder – please, please drink Rhone whites at the cool room temperature – they really taste better like that. Make them too cold, and they become indistinguishable and boring.
  3. Unlike California, where you can find 100+ years old [continuously farmed] vineyards, such as Bechtold in Lodi (farmed since 1886), and 150 years old continuously producing wineries, Washington wine industry didn’t survive the prohibition. What was striving in the 1860s, was completely destroyed in 1920s, and had to be rebuilt in 1960s. This information actually doesn’t have any deep meaning outside of being an interesting (and unfortunate) fact.
  4. I don’t believe you need to pay attention to the vintages for Washington wines, unless something ultra-bad happens, like out of blue frost in May. The temperatures are consistent, and so are the general climate conditions – too hot of a summer can be compensated by harvesting earlier. Well, the summers are typically hot, so the “canopy management” is a hot subject in winemaking circles. If the vineyard is managed properly, and winemaker does the job right, there is a good chance for consistency. In other words, don’t ask “how was that vintage”, just get the wine you want to drink. But – the way a lot of wines in Washington are made, especially coming from the small wineries – with utmost respect to the product at all stages – guarantees that the wines will age well. Give them some time, and prepare to be amazed.

I can probably think of more conclusions, but instead, I really want to tell you how my four days unfolded – just in case you wonder what one does at the Wine Bloggers Conference. Look at it more like the set of highlights as opposed to the detailed report. And then my plan is to convert many of this mentions below into the separate posts, to make my report more detailed – oh well, will see how that will work.

Day 1: After the beautiful ride along the Columbia River from Portland, I checked into the hotel, and then my next immediate stop was a tasting at the Seven Hills Winery, located right next to the conference hotel. After tasting at Seven Hills, next stop was the tasting at the Gård Vintners – with lots of delicious surprises. That tasting was followed with a very short walk back to the hotel to attend the Masters of Merlot session (now part of the official WBC program), presented by two of the Merlot Greats – Duckhorn and L’Ecole No 41 (very appropriate for the October, the #MerlotMe month).

Next was the mingling with the fellow bloggers around so-called Expo, where WBC sponsors poured their wines and offered their products. My last activity for the day was a superb, mind-blowing tasting at the Eternal Wines (more later) in lieu of group dinner. I also skipped all after-hours activities – that was enough for the first day.

WBC18 Walla Walla winemakers panel

WBC18wine influencers panel

Day 2: The actual conference program started. One of the main morning highlights was the panel discussion by the 4 of the Walla Walla winemakers, talking about terroir, canopy management, and stories, their personal, real life stories. I also liked the panel of wine influencers, talking about the wine industry, wine writing, and Dos and Don’ts of wine blogging. During lunch, we had an opportunity to taste wines from the Cascade Valley Wine Country, where one particular wine, WineGirl Wines Red blend left a mark with me – a standout, flawless, round, and beautiful.

After lunch, I went with a group of friends to taste delicious Oregon non-Pinot wines from Troon Vineyards Applegate Valley, as presented by WBC veteran, Craig Camp (I believe Craig didn’t miss a single WBC event). We got back to listen to the keynote by Lewis Perdue, the founder of Wine Industry Insight publication, who was focusing on a seemingly simple concept – Trust – and the tenets of good writing.

Next session was one of my traditional favorites – Live Wine Blogging for red wines, and once that was over, we all left for the dinners at mystery wineries (nobody knew where they are going), with our mystery winery being Canoe Ridge. Do you think this was enough for a day? Wrong. It is never enough – the last part of the program was so-called “after party”, where we tasted lots more wines (attendees are invited to bring wines to share with the others for this late night session). My highlights from this late-night tasting were Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from Smith-Madrone and iOTA Cellars Oregon Pinot Noir vertical (2013, 2014, 2015). Whew, time to sleep.

Maryhill vineyards

Mary Hill winery - soil sample and peach trees

Day 3: The day started from learning about the location of the Wine Bloggers Conference 2019 – Hunter Valley in Australia, October 10-12, 2019. This sounds ultra-attractive – and equally impossible (in my own world). After a few of the breakout session, we went out for lunch at the Walla Walla tasting rooms which we had an opportunity to select the day before – my choice was Otis Kenyon Winery. Next was the session called Bubbles and Bites, a sparkling wine and food pairing lesson presented by Gloria Ferrer. Right after that, we had an in-depth lesson about European Cheeses. Up next was the “Lightning talks” session – 5 minutes presentations by the fellow bloggers with the slides rotating every 15 seconds. Wine Live Blogging session for whites and Rosé closed the main conference activities – which left us with the wine dinner with the vintners from Walla Walla. At the dinner, I fell in love with the wines from Revelry Vintners, which were simply stunning, and also enjoyed a few wines from Bergevin Lane. And then … yes, of course, another late night session (someone had to drink all that wine, right?)

fall in Mary Hill vineyards

view from Cathedral Ridge winery

Day 4: The conference was officially closed, but – there were post-conference excursions. I visited Maryhill Winery in Walla Walla, and Cathedral Ridge Winery in Oregon, both offering spectacular views and delicious wines.

The End.

Here it is – my abbreviated report of the WBC18 activities. Speaking strictly for myself, I greatly enjoyed the conference – the place, the wines, people and conversations – everything work together very well to create a memorable experience. If you never attended the conference – do you want to attend one now, after reading my report? If you are a “regular”, what are your thoughts about WBC18 and will we see each other in Australia? Cheers!

Perfection, or When Everything Works Together…

October 1, 2018 12 comments

Il Poggione Rosso and EVOOIf you are into the wine and food (or food and wine, whatever your preferences are), I can safely bet you were looking for that climactic moment of combining the food and wine to reach the new, higher level of pleasure. Yes, I’m talking about that “oh my God” moment when your taste buds experienced that already exceptional bite of food becoming something beyond exceptional in combination with the sip of the wine. By the same token, if you were looking for that moment, I’m sure that more often than not (actually, a lot more often than not) you couldn’t find it – those beautiful pairings are often equally evasive.

Here I want to share with you my account of recent encounter with perfection, that climatic experience if you will.

A few months ago I got a box in the mail (one of the little perks of the wine blogger). Inside, there were a bottle of wine, a bottle of olive oil, a jar of sea salt and a recipe – for Bistecca alla Fiorentina.

Bistecca all Fiorentina is a dish coming from the Tuscany (Florence) and depending on the historical account, it traces its origins either to the 16th or the 19th century – well, the history of Bistecca all Fiorentina is definitely not something we will be talking about here, so let’s move on. I’m sure you understand that “Bistecca” simply stands for the “beef steak”. However, the recipe calls not for any steak, but specifically for the porterhouse or T-bone steak, which should be simply prepared rare or medium-rare over the charcoal. As the recipe is very simple, here it is in its entirety:

Ingredients (serves 4):
2 (1.5″ thick) bone-in porterhouse steaks (3.5 lb)
1/4 cup Il Poggione EVOO
Tuscan sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 sprigs rosemary

Get the charcoal ready. The distance between the hot charcoal and steak should be about 4 inches (10 cm). The steak should be at the room temperature before you start grilling (it should be out of the fridge for about 10 hours to get to the room temperature). Grill steak on one side for 5-8 minutes, flip it with tongs (no forks of any kind!), salt the top surface with Tuscan sea salt and pour some olive oil. Cook for another 5-8 minutes, then stand the steaks on the bone and cook for another 5 minutes. Take it off the heat, put it down to rest, salt the other side and put some olive oil on it. After 5 minutes of rest, you can slice and serve your steak. See, can it get any simpler?

Now, it is time to talk about the perfection.

First, the perfection started from the exceptional meat. In addition to what I already described, the box contained a gift card for Pat LaFrieda. The story of Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors started at the beginning of the 20th century when Anthony LaFrieda arrived at the USA and opened his first butchery – you can read the rest of the story on Pat LaFrieda website. Whatever the story is, the proof is always in the pudding – or on the fork in this case. I have to honestly tell you that I never had a better a steak than this – the meat was sublime and was simply melting in the mouth – a good start for the perfect experience.

The second element of the perfection was, of course, the wine – 2016 Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino (14% ABV, $27, 12 month in large oak barrels). Tenuta Il Poggione is one of the oldest producers in the Montalcino area, started to make Sangiovese wines – now known as Brunello – at the beginning of the 1900s. Today, it is one of the largest wineries in Montalcino, with 1500 acres, out of which more than 300 acres are under vines and 170 acres planted with olive trees (that Il Poggione EVOO in the package was superb).

The wine actually happened to be one of the best Rosso di Montalcino wines I tasted in a long time. The key word to describe this wine is finesse – it had a welcoming nose of the tart cherries, medium intensity, and a hint of the herbs. That profile perfectly continued on the palate, where delicate fresh cherries were joined by sage and rosemary, with clean acidity and excellent balance. Definitely one lip-smacking, delicious wine (8+).

Let’s not miss any details – we are talking about perfect pairing here. As the devil is in the detail, there was one more element  – little, but essential – to this amazing pairing, besides superb meat and outstanding wine. The last element? Tuscan sea salt. This was not some random sea salt – this one was Tuscan Sea Salt from AG Ferrari, listing the following ingredients: “Italian sea salt, fresh rosemary, fresh garlic, sugar, fresh sage, ground black pepper” – this Tuscan Sea Salt became the bridge which connected the flavor of the seasoned meat with the perfectly aligned flavor profile of the Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino, delivering the genius pairing and an amazing experience.

I have to honestly tell you – I tried to replicate this experience two days ago – and failed. I used the same Tuscan Sea Salt, but I had a steak from the local supermarket butcher shop (1/3 of a price compare to Pat LaFrieda), and the wine was 2015 Collosorbo Rosso di Montalcino. The steak was simply not good (happy to be blamed for it as a cook – but I cooked the one from Pat LaFrieda too). The wine was okay, but a lot fruitier than Il Poggione, thus the pairing simply didn’t work. Which once again proves my point about the evasive nature of a great wine pairing.

Did you have any climactic food and wine pairing experiences you care to share with the world? Or maybe you want to recount the worst moments? Will be happy to hear about it either way. Cheers!

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