The Fifth Date of Christmas: Five (million) Golden Bubbles

On the Fifth Date of Christmas, my true love brought to me…not five golden rings, but a bottle of five million (give or take) golden bubbles–Champagne Krug Grande Cuvee.  Krug is better than bling, at least to me. It’s a special-occasion wine.  Or, it is the occasion. It’s sommelier catnip–we can’t resist it, we want to bathe in it, and we’d drink it anyway rather than drain the tub afterwards.

What makes it so special? For one, Krug barrel ages some of the base wines in the blend (a real rarity in the Champagne region), which gives the wine a signature brioche-y richness. Krug also holds back reserve wines for years to enhance its cuvee or final blend–something all Champagne houses do, but not to the extent of Krug, a bottle of which includes reserve wines that may be decades old. The resulting complexity of the wine is legendary, and quite bewitching.

So the bottle alone is major date material with no other enhancements. But, we have lots to celebrate this holiday season, and this Fifth Date of Christmas: family arriving from out of town, and a new huge screen with 3-D (remember, this date of course includes my husband John). So there will be the perfect hedonistic pairings for Krug: Ewephoria aged sheeps milk Gouda cheese, and truffled popcorn. (With the fruit in the wine, that’s all the food groups, right? C’mon work with me, it’s the holidays!)

In this video, visit Krug with me for a Master Class tasting with Maggie Henriquez, the Prez of Krug herself.

And whether it’s bling or bubbles you prefer, here’s hoping your Fifth Date of Christmas shines, too!

The 4th “Date” of Christmas: Rutherford Grill in the Napa Valley

On the Fourth Date of Christmas my true love brought to me…a lovely early motherhood memory.

It was such a warm sunny day today in Napa Valley that you could have eaten lunch outside on the patio at Rutherford Grill, one of our favorite restaurants here because the food is so satisfying, the people are nice, the prices are great and maybe the best part whether you’re a local or a visitor–no corkage if you bring your own wine. That’s both customer-friendly, and a lovely gesture of support to the local winery community. Since the kids are on the holiday break from school, my husband John took them there for lunch and then brought home one of my favorite menu items–their rotisserie chicken is the best I have ever had outside of Europe.

So it’s a “kid date” for us at home tonight, with rotisserie chicken, mashed potatoes drizzled with the chicken jus and a great wine from John’s cellar–the only other place in Napa Valley that I know of with no corkage fee. And instead of cozying up in one of the Rutherford Grill’s Hollywood booths (which were plenty roomy for our kids’ infant carrier seats when they were tiny), we’ll be cozying up in front of the fire at home.  I remember it as though it were yesterday, and that’s really lovely.

The Third Date of Christmas: Pizza–perfected?

On the Third Date of Christmas we got silly–as we always do–with gifts. We get so excited about some of them that we end up busting one or two out per night, well before the big day.  More time to enjoy them, right? This time it’s a Breville pizza maker raving all over its box about the crispy crust you’ll get. We’ve tried everything else (green egg, stone, grill) short of building a pizza oven outdoors. (The folks we know who have them say don’t bother since it takes the entire day to heat. So John has turned his attention to the notion of an outdoor paella pit. Problem is we don’t have enough friends for one of those:)

Will we achieve my idea of pizza perfection, which is Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles? Doubtful. They’ve got the water, flour and method of pizza in Naples, Italy, perfectly reverse-engineered.  The crust is amazing.  The toppings whether traditional or creative are pristine. My favorite, fennel pollen, is a summertime thing so I’m praying for a passable home version of this crusty perfection so we can do a Napa-litan pizza that would do Mozza Pizzeria’s chef-partner Nancy Silverton and all the pizzaioli in Italy proud.

The pairing? Rose, or shall I say rosato, and beer/birra. I personally love rosatos from Sicily and IPA (India Pale Ale-style beers) with pizza. Buon Natale!


The Second Date of Christmas – Sipping Rose (and Remembering Rose Weather!)

On the second date of Christmas, my true love brought to me–a glass of rose and a warm memory. We love classic rose and like most wine lovers, sip and serve it a lot during warm summer weather. But when Napa wine country cools down to Christmastime temperatures, we find ourselves scrounging in the cellar for the last few of the summer season’s bottles. For one, it’s a great way to finish them up–most northern hemisphere dry roses should be consumed the summer following their harvest date. Fine with us! But even better, returning to rose brings back those warm-weather memories, with a bonus: dry rose is an amazing match with something we’d never be able to enjoy in summer: Dungeness crab.

I’d never even have tried it if not for one of our greatest summertime-in-winter “date” memories–Michy’s restaurant in Miami. I wrote in The First Date of Christmas about Chef Linton Hopkins, who just joined the Delta culinary “dream team.” Michy’s Chef/Owner Michelle Bernstein was the original culinary goddess for Delta, and someone I considered a culinary national treasure even before Delta gave me the chance to work with her, which I treasure. Remember the old Food Network–back when real chefs cooked on it? Remember the show Melting Pot? That was Michelle.  (Okay, Bobby Flay, Alton Brown and the Iron Chefs are real culinary pros still on today’s Food Network but otherwise…)

But I digress, when we were busy tasting rose and Dungeness crab–ummm! No, Michelle was not serving Dungeness crab in Miami. That would just be dumb when she has access to the stone crab season and, huh-LO!–conch.  The joy of eating her conch lollipops absolutely dwarfed the most childhood pleasure I have possibly ever taken from a holiday candy cane. Michelle’s husband David Silverman does the wine selections and is a rockstar at it. The delicious roses he served us were a Spanish and a Napa Valley–two totally different taste experiences.  Ours tonight is Pret a Boire (that means “ready to drink” in French) also from Napa, made by the wine goddess Heidi Barrett.

Enjoy this little bit of inspiration to sip the last of your 2012 roses this holiday season–a great pick if you do the traditional (to Italians, at least) Christmas Eve meal of all seafood. You’ve heard of Christmas in July–so how about summer time at Christmas! Then afterwards you can cozy up by the fire with a glass of Port like we did with our Michy’s dessert, and get the best of both seasons.

The Twelve Dates of Christmas 2013, The First Date: Re-living Restaurant Eugene

On the First Date of Christmas, my true love (my husband John) gave to me:  a memory of a wonderful “date” at Restaurant Eugene.  Actually my whole family, and Restaurant Eugene’s Chef/Owner Linton Hopkins whom we both adore, have been in on it. What you see in the video obviously wasn’t a “date” – having cameras film your every move is no one’s idea of a real date. But the dining experience at Restaurant Eugene is magical. It is worth the trip (preferably without the cameras:).

We recently returned to Atlanta and…did not do that. Everything is different with kids.  Wonderful, but different.  My husband John loves to relive his kid-less Buckhead days on our (fairly frequent due to my work with Delta Air Lines) trips to Atlanta–lucky me because as an ATL expert he makes it super-fun.  So he will invariably finagle a great rate at the Ritz-Carlton or Mandarin Oriental, but of course things are way-different when you are booking a two-queen room, packing tot-sized roller-boards and Crest kids toothpaste.

So, no Restaurant Eugene–not because my kids are not foodies, they are, but Chef Hopkins’ newer place Holeman & Finch was more the ticket.  Still there is date material: at either Restaurant Eugene or H&F you must have some form of fried crustacean–might be a clam like in the picture at RE.  It was crispy oysters at H&F. Both are of course aphrodisiacs and so indeed the affable, capable and incredibly knowledgeable staff will bring you a bubbly glass in your price range to clinch the deal should you last past story time and bedtime :).

Being a Delta team member (I pick the Business Elite wines) I am kinda ridiculously proud that Chef Hopkins has joined that team–after a hard-fought Cabin Pressure Cookoff –you must watch! But I’ll remember both our RE date and our H&F “family date” fondly for the rest of my life.  Here’s to the First Date of Christmas!

Andrea’s Best Gifts for Wine Lovers

I think that the best gifts for wine lovers are an experience–preferably one they can share with friends and loved ones because that’s what wine is about!  So here are my picks for the best, most shareable wine gift “experiences”:

  • Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto sparkling with dark chocolate.  The bottle is beautiful and so is the wine: rose petals and raspberries in the glass. Slip the bottle and a bar of dark chocolate into a little wine gift bag and you’ve got the most delicious, festive, unique gift.  My favorite chocolate pairings with this wine are the Godiva 85% Santo Domingo bar, Vosges Moe’s Bar (with bacon), and Lindt Excellence 90% Cacao–super-dark and intense.  Check out the fun Rosa Regale video tasting note that I did with Banfi’s proprietress, Cristina Mariani-May when the wine launched as one of my selections on Delta Air Lines.
  • Rioja Reserva and Spanish Manchego cheese. Really any quality Rioja Reserva will make a lusty, savory match with Manchego, a firm sheep’s milk cheese that in my experience never met a wine it didn’t love, but of course loves its own kind – Spanish reds – the most.  Some great Rioja Reservas to look for: El Coto de Imaz, Marques de Riscal, Muga, and La Rioja Alta.
  • Krug Grande Cuvee Champagne and popcorn. Feeling flush? This is the Champagne that lured me off Wall Street and into wine. You need a Wall Street salary to drink it often, but as a special-occasion/special-gift wine this is really unbeatable.  I adore it.  For this reason my husband John calls it his “dog house” wine meaning that if he’s in there, a bottle of this will get him out:) At least you can dollar-cost-average with the popcorn!

Every one of these wines of course deserves a great glass to make the most of the experience. In this video I share with you a section from my video wine course on what makes a great wine glass.  Speaking of gifts, you can enjoy special holiday savings on video wine course subscriptions through December 31, 2013.  Cheers to that!

Mondavi: Napa’s First Family of Wine Reunites at Thanksgiving

As we sit down to the Thanksgiving table today with our families, I want to share a new story of a family near and dear to all wine lovers, the Mondavis of Napa Valley.

It’s a lot to be thankful for: The 99th birthday of Peter Mondavi, Sr., the brother of Robert, who would have been 100 this past June.  The opening of the beautifully-renovated historic redwood cellar at Charles Krug, the original Mondavi family Napa winery. A new winery–Tim Mondavi’s showstopper Continuum project with his sister Marcia Mondavi Borger, and Robert’s widow Margrit Mondavi.

As you might imagine, each line of this new story is inked in world-class Cabernets, poured throughout a special weekend shared by these legends and their equally-famous contemporaries (Zelma Long, Molly Chappelet, Warren Winiarski, to name a few), and their children and grandchildren.  First there was the Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1974–the last wine that Robert’s sons Michael and Tim made together.  It was served from a rare double-magnum, and stellar–still loads of fruit and dark cherry density, with sweet tobacco, sweet spices, and rich glycerin-y, meaty notes.  I also tasted the 1965 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon–the last wine that brothers Peter and Robert made together before Bob set out on his own to launch the Robert Mondavi winery.  It, too was still exciting to behold, rich with mushroom, duck stock and potpourri notes, and utterly sleek-textured. Watch my short video for a special moment in time with Michael and these wines.

The young wines served – Continuum, and M by Michael Mondavi – represent new Napa frontiers for Tim and Michael, for whom a new chapter has been renewing.  Succeeding their dad Robert at his eponymous winery led to a wrenching ride to sort out leadership and winemaking style. Then the company was taken public, turning the name Robert Mondavi into a corporate asset, overseen by corporate decision-makers with a fiduciary duty to show quarterly earnings growth rather than the vision of  a man like Bob.

As for the Napa frontiers, Tim’s Continuum project is on the legendary Pritchard Hill.  It shows incredible density, detail, structure, and a dark and tarry salinity that practically vibrates in the finish.  Michael’s M fruit comes from the far-flung and historic Atlas Peak sub-district of Napa Valley.  It is luscious with red licorice, kirsch, sweet spices, and a texture that cloaks the palate in velvet. My short video from the gathering at Michael’s home in the heart of the Napa Valley is a precious moment, that I hope you will savor as much as I did.

The generous hospitality shown by these reunited families throughout the weekend was typical of their long history of embodying Napa Valley’s warm and deeply authentic welcome to any who wish to come and share and behold this magical place.  Thanks to brothers Peter and Marc Mondavi, that welcome is within reach to all visitors, in the newly-renovated redwood cellar of historic Charles Krug winery.  That old cellar is where Italian emigres Rosa and Cesare Mondavi raised their boys Peter and Michael, and helped give birth to the Napa that would become legendary in the wine world.

May your Thanksgiving be blessed by family, memories, renewal, delicious food and wine, and a bright look toward a future filled with love and harmony.

Secrets of Blind Wine Tasting from New York City Wine and Food Festival’s “Top Tasters”

Are you smarter than a would-be Master Sommelier? Win The ONE stemware!

Read the tasting clues in this post and take the Quiz to see if you can guess the wines we served based on our pro challengers’ descriptions.  The winner will get a prize set of The ONE wine glasses.  (To store your score for prize eligibility, you’ll need to create a free profile.)  If there are multiple top-scorers, I’ll draw a final winner from that group.  (Enter by midnight Pacific Standard Time on November 15, 2013 to be eligible for the prize.)  Good luck!

The Top Taster New York City blind wine challenge winner is Joshua Nadel from Andrew Carmellini’s Lafayette Restaurant.  Both Joshua and the restaurant displayed tour de force performances during the New York City Wine and Food Festival—worthy of a future blog post.

But read on, blind taster for your chance to win some snazzy stemware:  Top Taster is a blind wine tasting challenge that showcases the city’s top Sommelier talent – including some of my Master Sommelier colleagues – and gives consumer attendees a fascinating window into the mysteries of blind tasting 6 world class wines.  Actually, it is seven wines counting a “warm-up wine” served to prep the pro challengers for the task of identifying 6 wines blind in 25 minutes, and to give the ticketed guests a mini-lesson into how blind-tasting is done.  The stakes? Two round-trip business/first class tickets anywhere in the Lower 48 courtesy of NYCWFF sponsor Delta Air Lines.  (I’m proud to choose the wines for Delta’s Business Elite service, and even prouder that at a festival full of events devoted to celebrity chefs and winemakers, they sponsor this celebration of sommeliers.)  The consumer bracket was also eligible for air tickets—two for the winner with the most correct guesses for the grape and country of each wine, and two more for a “lucky loser” selected by a random drawing from all the consumer answer sheets.  With the great wines (read on for the descriptions, and a taste of how the somm’s figured it out), the chance to rub elbows with top sommeliers, and the chance for tickets, it’s no surprise every one of the 60 available seats was sold out.

My co-hosts for the panel were three of New York City’s newest Master Sommeliers—Laura Maniec from Corkbuzz Wine Studio (a great wine bar and great place to practice your blind tasting with all of their selections by the glass) and Laura Williamson from Restaurant Jean-Georges, plus our token male John Ragan from Union Square Hospitality Group.  (Dustin Wilson from Eleven Madison Park couldn’t make it thanks to a bum leg and a packed schedule.)

The ten Advanced Sommeliers tee’d up for the professional challenge are just that—having passed their Advanced-level exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers they are all intensely training to take the next and top level, the Master Sommelier Diploma exam.  Consequently, they are just amazing blind-tasters.  They are also great teachers and showmen, as the “warm-up” wine tasting revealed.  With my panel introduced, Laura Maniec took charge, calling on three of the pros seated in the front row in rapid succession to analyze the wine—sight, scent, taste, initial and final conclusion of the grape, region, quality level and vintage—live, in front of the dumbstruck consumer crowd.  That might seem like a dirty trick designed to create reality TV-style drama and stress.  But in fact, Master Sommelier candidates are quite used to this.  All three parts of the Master Sommelier test—theory, service and blind tasting–are oral, a format that ably tests a candidate’s depth of knowledge and grace under pressure and thus is perfect for a professional whose job puts them on their feet and on-stage all the time.

Before starting off with the practice wine (a red), Joshua set the mood for the whole event, displaying for all his formidable schnozz in profile. Obviously it served him well, and set the crowd up for a fun romp of an afternoon rather than a snobby and stiff tasting.  The pros were unfazed by the rowdiness and dug right in to the warm-up wine.   The visual analysis: transparent ruby color with a pink rim and moderate viscosity based on the speed of the “legs” trailing down the sides of the glass suggested a thin-skinned varietal.  The nose and palate of red fruits in the under-ripe family such as red currants and cranberries, and snappy acidity, gentle tannic tug and hint of earth, suggested Pinot Noir from a cooler terroir and a subtle approach—old world or new?  Morgan Harris from CorkBuzz took it home—positing a young Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley from the 2011 vintage.  It was a French red Burgundy, Bouchard’s Beaune-Greves 2010, making Morgan’s guess of the cool Willamette Valley a laudable miss.

Now we were ready to start the six-wine blind challenge.

I decided to cut the time from 25 minutes to 20, to amp the challenge for the pros and give us more time for the analysis and reveal of the wines.  Ready to taste along?

White Wine 1 – Laura Maniec called this one “tricky” and she was right.  Pale straw yellow and moderate viscosity could be a host of young wines, so going straight to the nose, the citrus, apple, stony minerality and low-moderate influence of new oak seemed to eliminate aromatic varietals, subtler old world grapes, and “big” new world whites—yay!  Or did it?  The palate had unexpected richness—old world or new? A subtle but long finish suggested fine quality but where to settle? A classic grape or an outlier?  Every pro challenger got the grape right, and nearly all of them the region.   Will you?

White Wine 2 – John Ragan, MS took over here.  This was a tough-y, especially since for the pros in my after-kids-bedtime haze of creating the tasting sheets I left off the right grape from the choices–aack!  “Just don’t count it” in the scoring was John’s on-the-fly advice, and we didn’t.  Still, many of the pros got it based on its classical profile:  straw yellow color with some gold glints, moderate-plus viscosity.  Moderate-plus body and acidity, with ripe pear, a hint of honey, some subtly savory celery-lentil notes, and a clean wet-rocks minerality.  No obvious oak presence, neutral barrels if any. Good luck!

White Wine 3 – Lots of sighs of relief for this “banker” wine that a lot of the consumers guessed correctly as well.  Pale watery-straw color, intense green apple and lime with notes of passion fruit and grassiness, and no evidence of oak. It could only be…

Red Wine 1 – Hello, deep purple! With a fuschia-pink rim and moderate-plus viscosity in the purple-stained tears clinging to the sides of the glass.  Very forward sweet dark raspberry fruit, eucalyptus and coconut notes (from oak?), plush integrated tannins.  Another banker based on the fact that every pro taster guessed it right.  Can you?

Laura Williamson, MS coached the group on these last two, pushing for discipline and speed in their oral analysis.  The candidates were slowing down and ruminating for too long–something you can’t afford to do in the real Masters blind taste test.

Red Wine 2 – The dark-centered ruby with garnet-brick glints at the rim indicated bottle age.  Toffee, Bourbon-barrel and sweet spice scents suggested American oak; sweet tobacco and leather on the mouth-filling palate confirmed a style of wine aged in barrel and bottle.  Although there was still lots of dark fruit, the scents of turned earth on the nose, palate and finish sealed it as…what do you think?

Red Wine 3 – A classically paradoxical wine—you can see through it, and there is a yellowish brick-tinged rim, but the bruised plum fruit and sweet balsamic flavors come wrapped in gripping, tarry tannins.  Medium-plus body, long truffly earthy finish; it’s a classic example of…

How did our consumer tasters do?  The winner Cathy Callahan, a Manhattan banker, got 6 wines out of 6 correct.  With that palate, I guess she could do what I did and quit her finance job for a wine career.  My husband John got five out of six correct fair and square; I don’t tell him what the wines are, of course.  For him that was a slightly off day as he frequently gets them all!

Want to test your skills as a Top Taster?  Our next challenge will take place at Flavor! Napa Valley on Friday, November 22, 2013.Click here for info/tickets.

A great Paris wine bar for Bordeaux lovers: L’Ecluse.

Catching up with James Sichel in Paris over a glass of Chateau Palmer 2001–just now ready to drink. Elegant! I was looking for the perfect Parisian place to film the next installment of my Deltavideo tasting notes, and James suggested L’Ecluse. There are actually five l’Ecluse locations in Paris featuring dozens of Bordeaux including classified growths, by the glass. The only problem is the glasses. You will want to request a better stem than the standard-issue. They have them at the bar. No they do not have Chateau Palmer 2001 by the glass that was brought special for me because I worked the harvest there in 1990 and am convinced my blood sweat and tears are now part of the terroir expression of the wine:). No blood and sweat in the bouquet–red cherries, violets, smoky autumn leaf pile, sweet tobacco. Bewitching!

New York City Wine and Food Festival

New York is a great city for foodies.

When my husband John and I did our food, wine and travel show Local Flavor, we had the chance to eat in great restaurants all over the world.  Of course, I am perhaps a little biased having worked in top New York restaurants for years, but with so many datapoints (and calories) from great foodie cities, I can say New York is still one of the world’s greatest restaurant and wine cities.

Aside from the amazing restaurants, world-class chefs and sommeliers, and fantastic wine bars, New York has one of the top Food and Wine Festivals, the Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival—and I’m on my way there this coming week!

I’ll be hosting the Top Taster blind wine challenge, presented by my partner Delta Air Lines and co-hosted my fellow Master Sommeliers Laura Maniec, Laura Williamson and John Ragan.  At that event you get a backstage pass to the mysteries of blind tasting done the Master Sommelier way, a tasting of 6 great wines, and the chance to win round-trip tickets on Delta (whether you “win” the blind wine challenge or not:).

I’m also co-hosting “Date Night Food and Wine Pairings,” a delicious pairing seminar with Chef Carmen Quagliata of Union Square Café— a classic, and New York’s most beloved restaurant, to be sure.  On the subject of New York classics, check out this video on CraftSteak, and their unique approach to a classic New York Steak.

I hope you too will have a chance to enjoy the New York Wine and Food Festival.  Please stop by the Delta Air Lines lounge at the Grand Tasting, where I’ll be presenting some complimentary pairing seminars—wine, chocolate and cheese, anyone?  See you there!