Remembering Koerner Rombauer

We mourn the passing on May 10, 2018 of Napa Valley wine icon Koerner Rombauer, founder of Rombauer Vineyards, and also celebrate a life steeped in family, philanthropy, mentoring others, and the joy of wine and food.

My husband John and I first met Koerner while he was doing something he did a lot: raising money for worthy causes. We had been invited to co-host a luncheon at the Naples Winter Wine Festival, an annual wine auction event that raises millions of dollars for local community charities. I was the guest sommelier, helping serve and speak about the wines of Rombauer and D.R. Stephens, both of which were new to me at the time. Koerner was mild-mannered and humble about his wines, which had begun to take off in the marketplace, thanks in no small part to their signature opulent barrel-fermented style of Chardonnay that to this day enjoys legions of fans, me among them.

At the time of that luncheon, I could never have imagined that just a few short years later, John and I would be literally neighbors to Rombauer on the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley, seeing first-hand the family’s commitment to supporting the local community, from Little League to the massively impactful Auction Napa Valley, which the family chaired in 2011.

One of my favorite stories about Koerner is one I heard just recently. We this week celebrated the 25th Anniversary of Frank Family Winery with founder Rich Frank and his wife Leslie, at an amazing vertical tasting back to 1999 of their signature Winston Hill Cabernet-based blend. Rich had met Koerner on weekend visits to the Napa Valley in the early 1990s, and it was a call from Koerner about the bank sale of the historic Larkmead winery in Calistoga, that prompted Rich to put in a lowball offer. Days later came the follow-up call from Koerner saying, “Rich, you’re the proud owner of a winery.” Their friendship endured ever since.

Now, the 2nd and 3rd generation of Rombauers runs the winery, with Koerner’s son K.R. Rombauer at the helm. John and I got to know K.R. first at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine event, and were excited to have the chance to visit with and interview him for our Facebook Live series, which you can view here:

In addition to talking about Rombauer’s history and way forward, K.R. handily and definitively answered the question of whether the Rombauer style of Chardonnay ages well, by letting us taste a surprise vertical from the family’s cellar that included 1988 Reserve and 1989 (both made in the old style with less barrel fermentation and only partial malolactic conversion), followed by the full barrel, full malo style 1991, 1994, 1997 and 2009. They were amazing! Be sure to pop a bottle of Rombauer Chardonnay (2016 – the current vintage – is delicious but if you’ve got an older one in your cellar, even better!) while you watch the video, and toast to Koerner and the Joy of Wine.

Perfect Wine and Food Pairing: Basil Pesto and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Hooray! Basil is in season and that makes summertime Napa Valley Cabernet season. You might think the warming temperatures make it Riesling and Rose season, and I can’t fault your logic or good taste. But, when a profusion of summertime basil hits your farmers market or supermarket, you need to revisit Nap Cab, because it is the THE most awesome pairing if that basil is turned into the classic basil pesto sauce.

Why does this pairing work so beautifully?  Let’s break it down:

1-The sweet anise-herbal notes of the basil in the pesto pick up the licorice/cedar/herbal notes in the scent and flavor of the wine.

2-The pesto’s parmesan and olive oil richness and fat tame the tannins in the wine, allowing the fruit flavor to pop.

3-The wine’s tannin and acidity cut through the fatty richness of the pesto.

I kept it simple and tossed my freshly-made pesto with pasta, but you can mix it into mashed potatoes, toss it with gnocchi, fold it into an omelet, brush it onto fish fillets or chicken breasts or brochettes, or just make a crostini on crispy toast. Easy, and awesome.  No steak needed. This Groth Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 is drinking beautifully with the basil pesto pasta.

Here’s a quick pesto primer: Use a food processor.  Process one peeled and trimmed garlic clove with 3 oz cubed parmesan until the texture of panko breadcrumbs. Add 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves and process to shred the leaves.  Add 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, a pinch of salt and 6 grinds of freshly cracked black pepper.  Turn on the processor and drizzle in olive oil in a thin stream until you have an emerald green, smooth but not too oily sauce.  Taste and adjust seasoning, then use it right up before the green color oxidizes.  (It still tastes great after this happens so you can use up the rest of the sauce up to 3 days after making it). Enjoy!

Truffle Toast: The Perfect Pairing for A Great Wine

Roasted garlic is an anchor for many a great wine-friendly dish. Truffles are even more so, at least in my book. So, putting them together, especially in this very simple preparation that we call truffle toast, naturally adds up to pairing Nirvana. With which wine, you ask? I can think of no wine type that doesn’t pair marvelously with this dish so you could say “anything goes” but instead I say “the sky’s the limit”, or at least it should be. The reason is that a really great wine deserves an excellent food partner, and this combination of truffly-earthy flavor and silky-crunchy texture fits that bill perfectly, with minimal hassle and less expense than a blow-out meal. In fact, you could round out the plate of toasts with a simple side of braised savoy cabbage or roasted root veggies, and have a truly great, and cost-effective, wine-focused dinner. I’ve explained below how to make the dish, and for more on the wine pairings, you can watch this live video where we blind taste two wines that are great partners with truffle toast:

The plan-ahead aspect of this dish is roasting the garlic for a little over an hour in a 350-degree oven. To do so, cut off about the top third of a whole unpeeled head of garlic and drizzle the exposed cloves with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and wrap in foil before placing in the preheated oven. The finished garlic will be soft, caramelized and sweet, and your house will smell great.

For the toast, slice your favorite rustic, crusty bread thick or thin as you prefer and toast in a panini press or toaster until lightly golden.  (We use sourdough because we think the slight acidic tang enhances the match.) Spread the toasts with a thin layer of roasted garlic. The cloves will spread like jam – 2 cloves per slice should do it. The truffled cheese is next. We use a spreadable truffled Brie but thin slices or shavings of truffled pecorino also work just fine. If you used a spreadable cheese like Brie, grate a little parmesan on top to kick up the umami, and serve.

I was serious that anything goes when it comes to finding the right wine to pair, but my uber-favorite matches have been old world selections, and wines with bottle age. Both wine types love up on the earthiness of this dish, while having their complexities unleashed by the umami, the caramelization of the garlic and toasted bread and the subtly bewitching truffliness. Try a yeasty French Champagne, a bottle-aged German or Alsace Riesling or French Chablis, or any of the killer Bs: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Brunello. I would love to hear what you think, and what you paired. If you are a dessert wine fan, don’t be afraid to give that a try too. Enjoy!


Matchmaker Pairings for Valentine’s Day

I have spent many a Valentine’s Day playing matchmaker – not matching the dates, but the plates. My historic home restaurant Windows on the World, which many remember fondly atop the World Trade Center before 9/11, played host to countless romantic trysts where I was responsible for at least the flavor fireworks–the rest being up to the romantic instincts of the couple. Naturally I wanted  their memories of our night together to be perfect, at least from a pairing perspective, so I had my go-tos which I will share with you now. You don’t have to go out to a fancy restaurant to make them happen and let’s be honest, staying home has its advantages (if you know what I mean). So here they are, just in time for Valentine’s Day:

Bubbles and bivalves – Oysters in particular are known as aphrodisiacs, and since they are at home with the foam of the ocean as I like to say, you should pair them with bubbles–sparkling wine or Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) Champagne, depending on your budget. Raw on the half-shell is my favorite way to indulge, but another delicious option is to top them with a mix of panko breadcrumbs, butter and parmesan, run under the broiler until the topping is light golden. A Prosecco such as Mionetto makes a great budget option, or go with a Chardonnay-based Champagne such as Ruinart Blanc de Blancs.

Rose and artichokes – Artichokes are notoriously nasty wine partners, but I don’t buy all the bad-mouthing. You just need the right wine, and that is dry rose. Make it a love-fest by eating the artichokes grilled or roasted with olive oil, sprinkled with a little Asiago or Parmigiano cheese for extra umami. The spice in the rose stands up to the peppery/metallic notes in the artichokes, and cuts right through the saltiness of the cheese. I suggest Chateau d’Aqueria rose, or Chateau d’Esclans Whispering Angel.

Malmsey Madeira and dark chocolate – YOU MUST TRY THIS. Warm flourless chocolate cake is the killer pairing because of the added temperature (warm chocolate) and texture (runny chocolate) dynamics, but a simply decadent chocolate bar such as as Lindt Excellence 90% cacao is also a knee-buckling great option. Try Broadbent, or Blandy’s 10 year old Malmsey Madeira, and know that it will hold up great for a week or two after opening, so you can come back to this pairing. Trust me, you’ll want to!

As always I would love to hear what you think!

Super Bowl 2018 Wine Pairings

Even if you’re not an Eagles or Patriots fan, or just an NFL geek like my whole family, there’s a lot to love about Super Bowl Sunday: the commercials, the halftime show, and of course the food. This year like every year I will be pairing our gridiron grub with wine, and thought I’d share my winning match-ups with you. So here goes:

2017 Review – The Year in Wine

To reflect on the 2017 year in wine is to contemplate fires and fizz, roses and red blends, cans and consolidation.  As we dive into 2018, here’s my take on some of the most significant wine world happenings of 2017.

White Christmas: Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay with Lobster-Vanilla Pasta

Among the pulled corks of special bottles lining the path to our traditional Christmas dinner pairing of red Burgundy and duck breast, is always a decadent barrel-fermented Chardonnay to accompany one of my favorite date-night dishes: John’s Lobster Pasta with Vanilla Bean Beurre Blanc. Tonight’s the night! Once you’ve tried it, you’ll be dreaming of this white Christmas pairing any time you have access to lobster. We use thawed frozen lobster tails and it works beautifully, and have also substituted Dungeness crab and seared scallops for the lobster with great results. We  paired ours with Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay, a truly great buttery Chardonnay for the price and a great way to dollar-cost-average your pairing against the pricey lobster.

In fact, you could even skip the seafood and just enjoy the pasta pairing, because it’s the butter sauce that really drives the match.  It’s not a traditional beurre blanc, but rather uses sweet butter and some of the pasta cooking water to make a hedonistic, clingy robe for the pasta that’s a perfect foil for Chardonnays with a buttery-tropical bent. A scraped vanilla bean yields flavor flecks throughout the dish that pick up the vanillin notes imparted by oak barrel fermentation and aging. Here’s how to do the pasta and sauce:

Cook some fettuccine according to the package directions. While the pasta is cooking, mince a shallot and sweat it in a wide skillet over low heat in several tablespoons of butter, until soft and translucent. Finely chop some parsley and reserve. With a paring knife, split a vanilla bean pod and scrape out the seeds. They will be sticking to your knife, so cut another knob of butter and scrape the vanilla bean pods onto the butter so they stick to that instead. When the pasta is done, use tongs to add it to the skillet with some of the water that clings to the pasta.  Increase the heat to medium and add the vanilla bean butter, mixing with tongs to melt the butter and thicken the sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste, garnish with chunks of cooked lobster or other seafood if desired, sprinkle with parsley, and serve with your barrel-fermented Chardonnay. Enjoy!

The First Date of Christmas – Labor-of-Love Black Beans and Pork Tenderloin

If a dish is a labor of love does that qualify it as date-night food? In my book, yes–and my husband John’s lovingly flavor-layered black beans are exactly that.

And of course tenderloin is just plain sexy in both name, and in nummy-ness, when he prepares it this way: the loin is split and scored to create nooks and crannys that take up the seasoning and increase the surface area available for the char imparted on a white-hot grill.

Paired with a very singular wine – a Barboursville Vineyards Reserve Nebbiolo 2012 from Virginia – it makes for a memorable first-date-of-Christmas meal. Why the Nebbiolo? Well, it has the bewitching earth-tobacco-gamy savor of great Nebbiolo (think Barbaresco from Italy) that’s perfect with the lusty earthiness of the beans and the crunchy-silky tenderloin. And, it’s from Enoteca Wine Shop in Calistoga, where the great wine merchant Margaux Singleton’s sublime tastes and discovery talents have made her selections frequent features on our date nights. The wine’s spice notes perfectly parallel the spices in the dry rub John uses on the pork…

… (and another John tip: season with smoked salt to further enhance the wine affinity), and its bracing acidity helps to pop the flavors in the rub, as well as the bacon-y-earthiness of the beans. Because it’s tenderloin, a hot, quick fire is key to wrapping the meat’s interior tenderness in a crunchy-smoky char. It all adds up to a heavenly marriage between the plate, the glass, and the couple. Here’s to a lusty first date of Christmas (and hopefully, many more to come–the kids’ activities make it a busy time of year so we’ll squeeze in as many “dates of Christmas” as we can!)

A perfect wine and cheese pairing for holiday gifting.

Whether there’s a wine and cheese lover on your gift list, a gourmand, a boss for whom you never know what to buy, or you’re invited and want to show up with something thoughtful and festive for the host, I have the perfect pairing for you–Pinot Noir and Comte cheese. I discovered this pairing on our recent trip to Burgundy for the Hospice de Beaune wine auction. It was four days of vineyard visits, tastings and meals that always, always ended the deliciously traditional way–with a course of local cheeses as the last pairing for the marquee wine of the meal, a French red Burgundy which is of course, Pinot Noir at its ultimate. This mind-blowing pairing defines synergistic, teasing more from both the wine and the cheese than either reveals on its own–and given the legendary complexity of Burgundy and the flavor-packed Comte, that’s saying something. Here’s the lowdown on both the cheese and the wine:

Pinot Noir – Make it a French red Burgundy if you can because the subtlety and firm acidity make Burgundy the perfect Pinot choice for this match. I chose Jean Bouchard Santenay for this pairing because it’s fairly broadly available and doesn’t break the bank the way Burgundy can, and if you do want to splurge on the wine, Burgundy is a pairing that will make the most of it. As a backup plan to Burgundy, a structured and subtle Oregon Pinot Noir such as Sokol-Blosser would be perfect. Either way, you’ll get abundant sour cherry, red currant and pomegranate fruit, and subtle sweet spice and mushroomy earthiness, all of which scream, “Pair me!”

Comte cheese – Also called Gruyere de Comte, this protected-origin cow’s milk cheese comes from the Franche-Comte region of France. It is a firm, pressed cheese with a brushed natural, inedible rind. Eaten straight as a partner to the wine (with a hunk of crusty bread if you like), the cheese smells both nutty and a little tangy like buttermilk. The crystals crunch gently in the mouth and then the cheese melts and spreads as you chew, tasting at once nutty, mushroomey, and buttery-sweet. (Yes, please!)

During the Hospice festivities I also had the chance to taste Comte paired with Burgundy’s benchmark Chardonnays – both a powerful barrel-fermented Albert Bichot Corton-Charlemagne, and the more elegant Long-Depaquit Chablis Grand Cru. Both were marvelous matches with the Comte, and worth the splurge. I hope you enjoy this wine and cheese pairing, and I look forward to hearing what you think!

My Napa: Visit some of my favorite wine country stops this holiday season.


As a Napa Valley local, I am always proud to show off our beautiful home to visitors. Any time is a great time to be here, but this season is especially nice because the valley is beautiful, wineries have decked the walls with festive lights and greenery, and many are donating tasting room fees to fire recovery–a way for you to help!