Archive for the ‘Pairings’ Category

Last summer while visiting family back east, I got a little push-back from my nearest and dearest when I mentioned having recently interviewed a famous cheese writer. Apparently famous, cheese, and writer just aren’t words you hear right in a row like that—at least not in any state outside of California and, possibly, Wisconsin.

But here in the Bay Area, we actually have so many famous cheese writers that there’s now a hugely popular annual festival showcasing their talents. Theirs, along with the talents of those who inspire them: local cheesemakers, chefs, and winemakers.

The 5th annual California’s Artisan Cheese Festival runs Friday, March 25, through Monday, March 28, at the Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma. It once again features seminars, cheesemaking workshops, chef demonstrations, and samples of new cheeses, wines, and brews under the Sunday Marketplace tent. And yes, that famous cheese writer I interviewed last summer, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Janet Fletcher, will be there—although sadly Fletcher’s seminar, “You Be the Judge: Learning to Evaluate Cheese Like a Pro,” is already sold out.

There are still opportunities to educate yourself on other cheesy topics, however; these range from how to become a cheesemaker and discovering California’s hidden cheeses to the use of mold in cheesemaking and the art of cheese and wine pairing.

Saturday night’s main event is a dinner featuring cheesemakers, chefs, and vintners called “Curds, Cooks, and Cuvees.” Wineries in attendance will include Fortress Vineyards, Handley Cellars, Keller Estate WineryKokomo Winery, Paul Matthew Vineyards, and Sonoma Portworks.

To buy tickets and view a full schedule of the weekend’s events, visit www.artisancheesefestival.com.

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Last Saturday we enjoyed a lovely Rhône red at Le Garage in Sausalito. A crowd pleaser for sure, but selecting the 2007 Vacqueyras Clefs des Murailles Rhône was no easy task—what with 10 of us around the table, ordering entrées that ranged from lamb daube and rainbow trout to New York strip steak and mushroom risotto.

Peter did the picking; here are the key points he kept in mind as he perused Le Garage’s extensive wine list.

Price. Bottles on the list ranged from $24 to $155, so at $42, the Clefs des Murailles was a relative bargain. One of our favorite wine merchants is selling it for $17.99.

Versatile varietal. Pinot Noir is a popular group dinner choice, but a southern Rhône red often does the job just as well: medium-bodied, full of fruit, not-too-high alcohol, easy to drink. The dominant grapes in southern Rhône red blends are usually Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. The rules governing the Vacqueyras appellation (see next tip) dictate that at least half the grapes in this region’s red wine are Grenache.

Controlled appellation. Many countries, including the U.S., Italy, Portugal, and Spain, have a labeling system based on France’s appellation contrôlée. France’s system, however, is by far the most, well, controlling. A governing body in Paris dictates everything about a particular region’s oenological output, from percentage of grape varieties used to exact winemaking techniques.

Critics charge that these constraints limit creativity and innovation in winemaking, but they do help take the guesswork out of picking a wine from a list of unfamiliars. If you know and trust wines from a French region listed, you can usually consider them a safe bet. The same holds true for Spanish and Portuguese wines, while Italy’s DOC system has not been perceived as a good indicator of quality. And there isn’t even a pretense that our own, distinctly American AVA system has anything to do with quality—it’s mainly concerned with truth in advertising regarding where the grapes in a particular wine are grown.

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I’m sure we all have one: a Worst Valentine’s Day Ever. Mine involved teddy bears holding Mylar balloons, and I’m sure it’s partly to blame for the little shiver I get every time I’m sent a heart-sprinkled press release advertising a Valentine’s special. So I was relieved to see that instead of doing something schmaltzy on February 14, Napa’s Ehlers Estate winery is doing something classy on February 4.

To honor National Heart Month, winemaker Kevin Morrisey will preside over a tasting party from 6 to 8 p.m. at MO Bar in San Francisco’s Mandarin Oriental hotel. For the $30 price of admission, guests will enjoy appetizers paired with several Ehlers Estate wines, including the winery’s signature “One Twenty Over Eighty” Cab blend. Proceeds from the event will go toward a gift to the San Francisco Chapter of the American Heart Association.

This pairing between winery and cause is much more than a well-timed marketing campaign; all year long, 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of Ehlers Estate wines goes to the Leducq Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to international cardiovascular research. For more information, visit fondationleducq.org.

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My sister lived in Bolivia for a time, and she used to rave about the Pisco Sours she enjoyed there, even if they’re more closely associated with neighboring Chile and Peru. When I went to visit I tried the cocktail, and it didn’t really take — but I gave it a second chance a couple of weeks ago, at San Francisco’s La Mar restaurant, and now I’m sold. The Pisco (Peruvian brandy), lime juice, simple syrup, bitters, and egg white froth all came together in a not-too-tart, not-too-sweet form of poetry.

I realize this makes me sound a little bit Ugly American – like the kind of person who wishes aloud that the food in China tasted more like Panda Express. But La Mar is no Panda Express. Following that pitch-perfect cocktail, my friends and I enjoyed traditional Peruvian causas and ceviches and a bottle of 2007 Kingston Cariblanco Sauvignon Blanc from Chile’s coastal Casablanca Valley — and the gushing never ceased.

With South America on the brain, a few days later, Peter and I opened a bottle of 2008 Carmenere from Casa Silva winery, located in Chile’s Colchagua Valley. Although I wouldn’t call it pitch-perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed its blackberry aroma and bold, tannic mouthfeel. Not food-friendly, but a nice, inexpensive ($12 a bottle) wine to drink on its own in the wintry months. I looked for Casa Silva’s wines in the Guía de Vinos de Chile, the country’s much-revered annual wine guide, and found that the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc actually earned a top-ten spot in the by-varietal category, as did the winery’s higher-end Gran Reserva Carmenere.

But back to that Pisco Sour. Something else was happening the night I sipped my new favorite cocktail in La Mar’s spacious bar: the San Francisco Giants were about to beat the Philadelphia Phillies in Game 4 of the National League Championship. Me then: sighing heavily, my back to the TV screen, as my companions insisted that we wait and see the final outcome instead of moving to our table when the game was tied 5-5 in the 9th inning. (Who was that woman?? Can Pisco Sours really change a person that much?) Cut to me last night: glued to the couch for the third straight night until I had to join the rest of the Bay Area in the collective screaming frenzy that came after the strike that won the Series.

Another fine argument for giving things a second chance.

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I have to admit that when I stopped writing my newspaper column on ‘value’ wines, I looked forward to a break from tasting inexpensive wines produced by beverage-industry behemoths. It’s not that I think price always reflects quality—years of tasting several wines a month priced under $10 actually convinced me that often enough, the opposite is true. It’s just that for every low-priced gem I discovered, I suffered through two or three wines that weren’t worth the $9.99 (or $4.99, or sometimes $1.99!) I had paid for them.

Then one night last week, I was really craving a glass of Pinot Noir, and there was only one in my wine fridge: the 2008 North Coast Pinot Noir from Clos Du Bois ($15). Now it’s true that Clos Du Bois is a very recognizable supermarket brand owned by Constellation, the world’s biggest wine company. But this lovely wine was a valuable reminder that, just as pricey doesn’t always mean good, big doesn’t always mean bad. This smooth sipper bursting with red fruit was a little fuller-bodied than is characteristic of its varietal, but it was satisfying nonetheless. While warm summer days are still with us, try it with grilled chicken.

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Last week I interviewed Doug and Janet Fletcher about the role that food and wine have played in their relationship. The short answer is “a big one”—no surprise given that Doug is a vice president at Terlato Wine Group, overseeing winemaking at Terlato’s wineries in Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Barbara, and Janet is a prominent food writer who pens the cheese column for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written award-winning cookbooks.

I’ll save the juiciest bits from the interview for my upcoming Marin Magazine article featuring the Fletchers, but let me share this: the couple has invented a Friday night cocktail. It’s called a Rosebud, made with four ounces white wine to one ounce Campari—shaken and served up, with an orange peel twist. “It’s fresh and a little bitter, which Janet and I both like,” says Doug. Sounds delicious, and I can’t wait to sub it for my usual Friday night cocktail, a traditional gin martini (Bombay Sapphire, shaken, served up with three olives if I make it, two if my husband does).

I must have had aperitifs on the brain after this interview, because while eating at the Front Porch in Bernal Heights on Saturday, I scanned the “bevies” menu and was immediately drawn to something called Tha Dirty South: amontillado sherry shaken with ice and served up, with an olive. Oh wait, does that sound familiar? Yes, it’s basically a sherry martini, but drinking it I somehow felt a little more… genteel, I guess you could say. Goes great with crab fritters.

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Yesterday when Peter mentioned our plans to have a barbecue this afternoon, I had to correct him: not a barbecue, a cookout. It’s a Southern distinction—and one about which I, despite being the daughter of a Southerner, remained unaware until our friend Steele recently explained it. Turns out that, common usage notwithstanding, the word barbecue doesn’t mean grilling, or have anything to do with hotdogs and hamburgers—it means smoking meat slowly at a low temperature, in a closed chamber, over wood coals.

True barbecue: photo and ribs by Steele Douglas

Steele had a true barbecue the other week—St. Louis-style spice-rubbed pork ribs smoked over hickory for four-and-a-half hours; beans baked with bacon, dark beer, and molasses; cornbread cooked in a cast-iron skillet; and for dessert berry tarts served with grappa. Perhaps that’s not a food-and-wine pairing that would have occurred to you, but the grappa’s high-alcohol, clean, and subtly fruity taste actually made it the perfect digestif to complement the meal’s hearty flavors.

The grappa we enjoyed that night had a story to go with it. Grappa is a byproduct of winemaking, and Peter made this particular bottle in a still years ago while living in Fiddletown, a vineyard-speckled hamlet in the Sierra Foothills. He took the lees, or tank sediment, from Amador County Zinfandel grapes and extracted the alcohol so that the spirit came out of the still clear and 89 percent alcohol. (He then added water, to bring it down to a more-manageable 90 proof.) Not entirely legal, but as Peter likes to say, nothing’s illegal in Fiddletown until you get caught…

Homemade grappa from Fiddletown

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Last night, for the first time in ages (blame rookie motherhood), I cooked from what used to be my go-to cookbook: Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison, the founding chef of Greens in San Francisco. Madison’s book is so well-organized and beautifully laid out, and turning back to it allowed me to stumble upon its charming section on wine pairing.

Finding the right wine to pair with a particular meal or type of cuisine is a very technology-friendly undertaking—which is why there are about a zillion apps for that. But when you want to spend more than a millisecond choosing wine to go with Sunday dinner—when you want to understand why eggplant calls for Chenin Blanc or olives for Chianti—consider looking in one of your favorite cookbooks. Or wine books, for that matter—I also love Karen MacNeil‘s treatment of this issue in her Wine Bible. Among Karen’s recommendations: “Pair great with great, humble with humble” (so no In-N-Out with that Chateau Margaux), and salt (think soy-flavored Asian dishes, Stilton cheese) plus sweet (Riesling, Port) equals stunning.

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One of the great joys of being into food and wine in a place like Marin County is the ability to put blind faith in local food-and-wine purveyors and see where that faith leads you. I did just that last weekend, as more than an journalistic exercise.

It was my husband’s birthday on Saturday, and with a new baby in the house, we were grounded, so I thought take-out Indian from Avatar in Sausalito and some special wine to go with it would be appropriately festive. First stop: Vintage Wine and Spirits in Mill Valley, where I asked for two recommendations. I needed a great Barolo (this was the only gift Peter had asked for), which we’d stash in the wine fridge to drink later, and something that could stand up to Indian cuisine’s strong flavors. I left with an ’04 Mauro Molino Barolo, an ’07 Kuentz-Bas Pinot Blanc, and a nonvintage Tio Pepe Palomino Fino Sherry, and headed straight to Avatar, where I plead my case to Ashok, the restaurant’s owner and chef. He didn’t even take an order—just noted our likes and dislikes and told me to return at 5 on Saturday for pickup.

Come Saturday night, Peter chose the sherry over the Pinot and we sat down to our feast of samosas, blackened chicken and vegetables, and pumpkin enchiladas, with generous sides of naan and papadum. Hard as it was, we managed to save room for dessert from yet another local proprieter: Mill Valley’s Frosting Bake Shop. At the bake shop, I didn’t ask any questions—I just ordered what the kid in front of me ordered. One Chocolate Obsession cupcake later, I can assure you that’s a fine strategy in its own right.

(For the record, Peter’s not sold on the sherry-Indian combo, but I liked the way the light, dry fortified wine cut through the sweet and smoky flavors. I’ll report back on that Barolo.)

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