Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Organic Wine meets art on the Carmel Valley Road

by Dwight Casimere

“Magical Wines That Dance On Your Palate” is the motto that graces the label of every wine that comes out of Heller Estate Organic Vineyards in the Carmel Valley of the Monterey wine growing region in California. Besides being a multiple Gold Medal winner for its organic wines that include Dancer’s Meritage, Estate Merlot, a screamin’ Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery is distinguished by its sculpture garden, containing the works of internationally acclaimed artist Toby Heller, who, along with husband Gilbert, are the owners of Heller Estate.

Besides being USDA Organic Certified, the winery scored medals in every category at the First International Green Wine Competition in Santa Rosa, California in 2008 and was selected in the Top 5 U.S. Chardonnays by The Wall Street Journal in June 2009.

Heller Estate is the leader in organic wine-grape farming in Monterey County. The winery has eliminated the use of fossil fuels in their farming practices and has adopted the use of 100% plant-based biodiesel.

The tasting room at the mouth of the rustic Carmel Village, nestled at the base of the mountains that encircle the Carmel Valley off Carmel Valley Road, provides a tranquil setting for sampling the great wines, along with the many handmade, gourmet delicacies available in the tasting room.

Both Gilbert and Toby Heller were on hand, along with winemaker Rich Tanguay, for an exclusive tasting of their new releases.

Tasting Heller Estate wines quickly dispels the myth that organic wines lack character. These wines are big and bright, with intense fruit and a pleasant finish that puts a smile on your face.

The first California wine I ever had was a Chenin Blanc from Wente when I first moved to San Francisco in the mid ‘70s. I’ll never forget it. I had just sat with the legendary Lawrence Ferlinghetti, San Francisco’s poet laureate, now 90 years old, at his famed City Lights Book store, where he reminisced about the days of the Dharma Bums of the Beat Generation, immortalized by his best friend, Jack Kerouac. I walked across the street to the North Beach Restaurant and was introduced to that local culinary delight Cioppino, a hearty Sicilian shellfish stew redolent with local crab, shrimp, clams, scallops and mussels in a garlicky, tomato sauce. The wine was a Chenin Blanc from Wente Family Estates. It was a crisp, fruity accompaniment to the briny shellfish with enough acid to stand up against the somewhat astringent tomato sauce. I’ll never forget that meal. Stepping into the fog-tinged evening and walking up the winding cobblestone street to my flat on Coit Tower, I was lost in the magic of the moment.

Fast forward to the Heller Estate tasting room in Carmel Valley where winemaker Rich Tanguay pours a copious glass of crisp, 2007 Chenin Blanc. The wine sells in the $20-$25 range and has a composition of 89% Chenin Blanc and 11% Johannesburg Riesling. The wine presents itself with bright green apples in the mouth and a luscious, lingering finish. I had forgotten what a treat Chining Blanc is. With the culinary switch now to Asian fusion, Thai and ‘new wave’ Latin cuisine, this old flame is now reemerging as a hot, new romance!

I moved on to the 2007 Chardonnay and would have bought a bottle (at a reasonable $24, $20 for wine club members and ‘special guests’, hint, hint!) and hidden in a corner of the sculpture garden with it, if I hadn’t run into the artist, Toby Heller. She gave me a personal tour of the garden and explained her beautiful art work to me as we sipped this pleasant, light wine. Heller Chardonnay has a lovely, smooth mouth feel and a delightfully crisp, citrus flavor and a clean finish. It’s just the wine to have while strolling through the garden. Its flavor seemed to be enhanced while viewing art.

Heller’s 2004 Estate Merlot ($35) and Cabernet ($38) are excellent standard-bearers for their respective varieties. The Merlot is big and fruity with under ‘currants’ (get the pun?) of blackberry, dark chocolate and cedar. The undertones of lavender and rosemary give one a real feeling for the ‘terroir’ from which it is derived. It’s like taking a walk through the vineyards. The Cabernet is all toasty oak, black fruit and savory herbs with a backbeat of vanilla. This is the one to have if someone snags a local pheasant or if you decide to blow your Christmas bonus on a couple of pounds of prime, aged, grass-fed Filet Mignon. This one took a Silver Medal at the 2009 San Francisco International Wine Competition. I can see how Harvey Steiman and the rest of his tasting panel decided to heap the accolade on this one.

Heller Estate is just one of the many pleasures to be found along the Carmel Valley Road. I heard quite a few stories from people who say they came here for a visit and never left. A few of them even became winemakers. More on that another time!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

13th Annual Monterey Great Wine Escape Weekend-Lunch with the “Kings” of Pinot Noir

by Dwight Casimere

Carmel Valley, Arroyo Seco, Santa Lucia Highlands, Chalone and the Monterey American Viticultural Areas of California are the prized Pinot Noir Terroirs of Monterey County.

The Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association presented a Literary & Agricultural Tour of Steinbeck’s Wine Country hosted by Ag Venture Tours owner Evan Oakes with transportation provided by CCM&E Destination Services.

The highlight of the day was a lunch hosted by Andy Boy Executive VP of Sales and Marketing, Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin at the produce producers elegant headquarters in Spreckles, California, in the heart of Monterey’s agricultural belt.

The focal point of the day was a luncheon featuring the local “Kings” of Pinot Noir. Karl Wente, Fifth Generation Winemaker; Wente Family Estates, gave the keynote, followed by a luncheon by Chef Todd Fischer that showcased the exceptional local produce of the region paired with the wines of Tames Estates and their 2008 Pinot Grigio with a Caesar Salad made with Andy Boy Romaine Hearts, their most popular national export, Nth Degree 2007 Pinot Noir with Colored Cauliflower Enchiladas, Wente 2006 Small Lot Syrah (my personal favorite) paired with Broccoli Rabe & Carne Asada Tacos, Wente 2008 Riverbank Riesling with Prickly Pear Sorbet and, a special treat, Prickly Pear Lemonade.

The luncheon was preceded by a tour of Andy Boy’s expansive farms featuring thousands of acres of strawberries, broccoli rabe, romaine and a special stop at the Prickly Pear fields. Prickly Pear is a favorite with Hispanic households, but it is quickly garnering local acceptance on dining tables across the cultural spectrum in increasing numbers due to its uniqueness and versatility.

Monterey County is the nation’s leading producer and exporter of Leaf Lettuce, Strawberries, Iceberg Lettuce, Spinach, Celery, Broccoli, Grapes and almost every other category of fruit and vegetable to be found in supermarkets around the country. The area is also the producer of more than 18 thousand acres of Organic crops valued at nearly $200 million and is a pioneer in the commercial development of the organic produce industry.

The luncheon was a perfect ending to a day that began with a tour of Castle Rock State Park with its distinctive and commanding mountain-top natural rock formation, which resembles a Spanish Castle and a tour of the Salinas Valley where local celebrity author John Steinbeck toiled in the fields while writing some of his seminal works, all based on his real life experience, including East of Eden and Of Mice and Men. If he was also drinking local Pinot Noir, it’s easy to see how he became so inspired!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Monterey Bay Aquarium and Estania Wines- pairing of two landmarks

by Dwight Casimere

Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the landmark attractions of the 
Monterey Peninsula, which sits as a commanding presence at the foot of historic Cannery Row. Likewise, Estancia (Spanish for ‘estate’) is one of the premiere wineries of the Monterey Peninsula, capturing the essence of this rich and agriculturally diverse region. Estancia’s General Manager and Director of Winemaking, Scott Kelley, teamed with the Aquarium’s Portola Restaurant Executive Chef, David Anderson, to create an unforgettable wine tasting dinner in the Aquarium’s Kelp Forest.

A walk-around tasting afforded sampling of the Estancia’s award-winning wines, including Estancia Reserve Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meritage and Riesling, which were later paired with Chef Anderson’s creations. About a hundred gourmands who attended the dinner, which was the premiere opening night event to the 13th Annual Great Wine Escape Weekend sponsored by the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association in conjunction with Wine Enthusiast Magazine, had an opportunity stroll the galleries and exhibits of the Aquarium while tasting Estancia’s exquisite wines.

More than 30,000 sea animals were on display with tasting tables interspersed among the galleries. Guests drank Estancia Pinot Grigio ($15) as they were served passed hors d’oveuvres of crab cakes, seared scallops and tuna tartar. Passing by the bat ray ‘petting pool’, one of the little critters must have figured something was up, because he surfaced from the water as he approached me, perhaps hoping to snag a tidbit of Chef Anderson’s tasty fare!

At another aquatic gallery, a giant octopus turned a deep coral/crimson color as it scurried from one end to the other, displaying its massive tentacles. “Its really unusual for her to come out like that before a crowd,” a nearby aquarium staff member told me, as guests flashed their cell phone and digital cameras at the fantastic display.

After that exhaustive photo session, it was time to refresh! Estancia’s superb Pinot Grigio, with its pale golden straw color, aromas of Golden Delicious apples and jasmine and distinct flavors of melon and citrus was the perfect refuge. It also provided an excellent accompaniment to the menu sampling.

Estancia’s General Manager Wine Director Scott Kelley was the gracious host, introducing the wines as they were poured, including Estancia Reserve 2007 Chardonnay(around $20, if you can find it!) paired with Spanish almond soup, wild Oregon pink shrimp, garlic chips and Carmel Valley olive oil.

“Chef Anderson and I thought it would be a good idea to use this dinner to not only showcase the wine, but to highlight the terrific produce, farm products and other regional delicacies like our olive oil and, of course, the bounty from the sea around us,” Kelley said.

Estancia’s marvelous Reserve 2007 Pinot Noir ($32) paired perfectly with the farmed arctic char blanquette crepe with pinot noir gastrique and gremolata as we dined under the watchful eye of a shark, swimming in concentric circles around the towering glass tank. Schools of fish huddled above as if seeking refuge near the surface. They looked like a shimmering blanket of stars above the sinister waters below.

Braised beef short rib with red wine risotto was the entrée’ and centerpiece of the evening. It was paired with Estancia Reserve 2006 Meritage ($29.99) from the famed Paso Robles region.“This is our pride and joy,” Kelley said, his chest swelling.

“We’ve also been making premium Pinot Noir long before the movie ‘Sideways.’ Its nice to know that the public is finally realizing what we’ve known at the winery and in this region all along. It’s a wine presented in a true Burgundian style with deep garnet color and ripe berries and a creamy mouth feel and long, smooth finish. The wine is aged in new French oak, but not so much that you feel like you’re chewing on it. We went for a lighter style that would pair well with a meal.”

From the taste of things, he was spot on!

All of the flavor ‘sign posts’ were in place, pointing toward a great wine drinking experience. The lingering taste of black cherries and the hint of vanilla confirmed the wine’s pedigree.

A rustic fig-almond tart with cinnamon, crème fraiche, caramel sauce and brandied cranberries heralded a return tasting of Estancia’s 2008 Riesling (a steal at $15). It rounded out a spectacular evening. Normally, I’m not a big Riesling fan. I used to enjoy German Kabinett Riesling’s when I was a young, upstart NBC news writer living at Carl Sandburg Village in what was then, Chicago’s swinging Rush Street area. I liked crisp, slightly sweet white wines then and I served them with almost everything, from an appetizer of Shrimp De Johnge (a Chicago mainstay) to Steak Diane (another Old School dining favorite) and Cherries Jubillee (am I dating myself?) It was nice to see how Kelley presented the idea of a similar semi-dry wine that preserved the essential sweetness of the fruit without sacrificing the integrity of the wine. It made for a well-rounded taste experience.

Estancia’s wines are exceptional in both character and taste. They are also an exceptional value. They can be found at almost any wine shop or supermarket where wine is sold and the price is surprisingly affordable. You could easily serve these wines decanted to some of your wine snob friends and they’ll swear that you are pouring them some of the more expensive French stuff.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A bubbly for every taste and wallet

by Dwight Casimere

‘Tis the season to drink bubbly and there’s plenty in store of every taste profile and price range. That fact was brought out with the utmost clarity at a series of tastings around the Chicago area, conducted by Binny’s at their various locations.

A tasting of a hundred champagne and sparkling wines at Binny’s South Loop location proved just how varied the selection is and how price does not dictate taste and quality. In fact, you can find a champagne or sparkling wine that you like at almost any price point. Its just a matter of being adventurous and willing to explore some different alternatives to find what you want. The Binnys tastings provided opportunities to taste, literally, around the world and come up with a list of favorites that fit my taste buds and my budget.

Champagne is the exclusive provenance of France. In fact, no other sparkling wine can be called ‘champagne’ unless it comes from the Champagne region of France. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of sparklers out there that can hold their own against the ‘king of wines.’

There are some terrific sparkling wines coming out of countries such as Spain, New Zealand, Australia and the United States. In fact, Gruet in New Mexico puts one of the best stateside sparklers out. Gruet Brut Blanc de Blanc sells for under $15 a bottle and if you were to serve it in a blind tasting, your guests might mistake it for something much more expensive. You might not think of New Mexico as an ideal place for growing grapes, but, the facts prove otherwise and founder Gilbert Gruet, who was born in France and has been making quality Champagne there since 1967, decided to set up an experimental vineyard after traveling through the southwest. His children, winemaker Laurent and daughter Nathalie, and family friend Farid Himeur relocated to the great state of New Mexico in the late ‘80s to begin their American wine making adventure and the rest, as they say, is history. Gruet has elegant accents of toasted almonds and minerality so characteristic to fine Champagne. It also has light notes of pear, apple and a touch of citrus and honey that makes it imminently drinkable. You’ll want a case of this one!

Another ‘American Beauty’ is the Roederer Estate Brut, Anderson Valley, California that sells for around $20.I just had the privilege of having this beauty in their tasting room, just at the entrance to the Napa Valley, on a recent trip to California. Again, the flavors of citrus, green apple and pear make this a true rock-star at a rock-bottom price. Their French label is the champagne of choice for the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith. The label on the California version looks just as impressive as their flagship Cristal edition from France. No one on your holiday guest list will be the wiser.

Prosecco’s are the Italian version of Champagne and Cava’s are the same idea from Spain. There are a heck of a lot of great ones out there and most hover in the $10 to $15 dollar range. This is the year to stock up on these babies because once they get ‘discovered’; the prices will start to creep up. Its already starting to happen to some of the brands that have been around for awhile. You probably already know the names Freixenet and Codorniu. Their Cavas are made in the same methode champagnois method as French Champagne. Until recently, they were a fraction of the price. That’s starting to change. Also, both labels now offer vintage and reserve Cavas that can hold their own against any Champagne. Expect to pay a bit more than the non-vintage stuff, but still not as much as for Champagne.

Finally, surprise, surprise, Australia is throwing its outback hat into the ring as a premium producer of sparkling wines. One of the best I’ve ever had is a sparkling Pinot Noir from Barossa Valley vineyards. I tasted the current vintage with winemaker Stuart Bourne at the tasting room in Tanunda, Australia near Adelaide. For you guys out there, looking for just the right gift for your favorite girl, Stuart called his sparkling pinot the “p….ty remover”. That just about says it all. It’s a bit pricey at $54 the bottle but, Stuey, an avid Chicago Blackhawks fan, says results are guaranteed! Anybody who loves the Hawks is an automatic friend of my and I trust their judgment implicitly. Cheers!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Monterey stars shine brightly in the wine fermament

by Dwight Casimere

The eve of the 13th Annual Monterey Great Wine Escape Weekend began with a rather auspicious sign, the most incredible star-filled clear night of the fall season. The stars shone in all their glory. They shimmered in stark relief against the nighttime sky over Monterey Bay. Orion was visible with his belt and sword on full display--a rare astrological experience. The abundance of stars was a prelude to the multiplicity of wine ‘stars’ that would reveal themselves over the next few days.

A behind the scenes look reveals that Monterey is the heart and soul of America’s wine industry, with an ideal grape growing climate and a stellar array or award-winning wines.

Over the course of the next three days, the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association created a series of experiences that allowed the wines to show themselves in all their glory against the panoramic backdrop of Monterey Bay and the Carmel and Salinas Valleys. The total wine experience was akin to that of watching the stars shimmer in the nighttime sky.

A tour of Salinas Valley, conducted by D’Arrigo Brothers Andy Boy vegetable producers, led by Owners Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin and her father, John D’Arrigo meandered through the lush Salinas Valley, the literal market basket of the entire nation. Expansive fields of Broccoli, Broccoli Rabe, Cauliflower, Fennel, Romaine Hearts, Strawberries and a relative newcomer, Cactus, a staple on most Mexican American tables that is quickly gaining grown as a new gourmet discovery in specialty markets and kitchens around the country. “We’re starting to produce wine grapes on the slopes alongside our vegetables and we plan to release a vintage within the next year or two,” D’Arrigo-Martin told our group. “It will be interesting to see the reaction to our expansion into the wine making area. It just seems to us to be a logical extension to what we do here.”

The following day’s tour of Carmel Valley brought the entire experience into full perspective. Salina is the vegetable basket of the entire country. The valley and its surrounding hills are among the most picturesque locals in the world, rivaling the south of France and the rolling hills of Tuscany. It is home to a number of venerable Hollywood celebrities like Doris Day and Clint Eastwood. It is also home to many of the wine world’s biggest stars as well. Driving through the Carmel Valley, the names on the signposts roll off the tongue, Mondavi, Chalone, Morgan, Hahn, Estancia, Talbott. A visit to the tasting rooms nestled along the quaint streets of Carmel Village was a highlight of the weekend and a life-changing experience that will live long in memory, even as the taste of the superior wines lingers on my mental palette.

A fabulous luncheon hosted by owners Bob and Patti Brower at the Petite Chateau, Château Julien Estate, showcased their wines along with those of Jack Galante and Dawn White of Galante Vineyards and Cima Collina wines. “We created Chateau Julien 28 years ago when we moved from the East Coast to the Carmel Valley to follow our dream,” Brower told me, over a glass of his spectacular Private Reserve Chardonnay, while standing on the terrace with its expansive view of the vineyards and surrounding foothills. There were only 10 wineries here at the time, but now its grown to become one of the largest grape growing areas in California. More than 40 thousand acres of wine grapes are now grown here.

“Our winemaker, Bill Anderson, has been with us from day one. We enjoy what we do here and plan to stay for a very long time.”

The winery is very visible off Carmel Road and is marked by its distinctive buildings, which are right out of a picture book of the French countryside.

“’Chateau’ is what we’re all about,” Brower said emphatically. “Julien is the name that we liked for a son, at the time. So the idea is that this is our ‘baby’, our project.”

The Reserve Chardonnay is the most outstanding and award-winning wine to come out of Chateau Julien. “Our Reserve Chardonnay is stirred ‘sur lies’’ (A French wine term which means, literally, on the lees—wine that is allowed to ferment and age in contact with the dead yeast cells that remain after initial fermentation along with contact with the leaves and stems. It adds additional character and a toasty quality to the wine and is similar to the effect steeping tea).

“We started it as a project in ’89 or stirring the wine in the barrels. It gives a creaminess to the wine and yet, we are not letting the wine undergo malelactic fermentation. The result is that it gives a really lovely, light elegant character to the wine. Then we moved on to our ‘la conviviance’ program, which is the hallmark of what we do at Chateau Julien. La Conviviance in French means ‘enjoying the good life.’There is nothing more that we do in the wine business than enjoy the good life; good wine, good food, good people. That’s exactly what we’re all about here at Chateau Julien and this wine celebrates that.”

Chateau Julien wines are readily available at most stores that sell wine and specialty wine shops. There are several levels of offerings that are available at every price-point, making the wines approachable and a comfortable fit for consumers with an eye toward value. Vintner’s Collection and Private Reserve labels cater more to the discriminating palate of serious collectors and wine connoisseurs while the Estate Vineyard bottlings highlight more single vineyard characteristics that make them the perfect wine for dinner.

Château Julien's Estate Vineyard wines were released in Spring 2001, with the first harvest from the winery's vineyard in Lockwood Valley. Produced from low yield vines within various lots throughout the vineyard, these wines have been overseen by the winemaker since the vines were planted in 1996. Each varietal is aged in the winery's "Chai" (barrel room) in new and one year old French and American oak barrels, and produced in limited quantities to maintain the quality and true varietal character representative of the vineyard. Varietals include: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Syrah.

Barrel Selected wines are produced from grapes grown on the estate and in the Carmel Valley. The wines are carefully managed to give consistency and value. Aged one to three years in French and American oak, they have won numerous accolades over the years for their mild tannins and forward fruit. They are wines that are extremely food friendly and approachable for the budget conscious who still want a great bottle of wine.

The winery also owns the Emerald Bay label, which is an exceptional value-priced wine for everyday consumption. There’s no ‘shame in its game’ with its bright fruit flavor from stainless steel fermentation and a hint of barrel agiing through blending. Available in Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot and White Zinfandel, it’s a terrific ‘go to’ wine for all occasions.

A quick swirl in the glass and a hearty taste confirmed everything that was said by the owners about their wines. Bon Conviviance!

Next week: “Tie-ing’ one on in Carmel Village!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Passport to France-the Holidays are here!

by Dwight Casimere

Francophiles entering the chandeliered Grand Salon of the elegant Union League Club were handed a souvenir glass and a dark brown ‘passport’ document, their official entry to the 25th Annual Passport to France. Each year, the French-American Chamber of Commerce celebrates the arrival of the 2009 harvest of Beaujolais Nouveau.

Sponsored by Deloitte, Veolia Environment, First American Bank, Fragomen and Schneider Electric the event is one of two annual fundraisers for the FACC-Chicago. Its an opportunity to showcase the bounty of the season for wine lovers and for Featured Restaurants to shine.

Wine selections included the star of the evening, 2009 George Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, provided by W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Ltd. This year’s vintage is among the best in recent memory. The wine has a fuller expression of the grape varietal, with top notes of raspberries and a bit of spice on the nose. When paired with a number of the excellent and substantial dishes presented by the chefs, it held up surprisingly well and showed itself to be an excellent accompaniment to flavorful meats such as veal and short ribs of beef. Additional wine selections included a superb 2005 Chateau La Tonnelle provided by H2Vino. The ’05 was a superlative vintage year and this wine captured the essence of its greatness. With just a touch of oak to give it body and structure, it had a smooth, mellow, round feel in the mouth.

Chef Dominique Tougne stole the culinary show with his Blanquette of Veal Cheek and Wild Rice. The dish, flavored with a bit of cognac, melted in your mouth and had that homey, yummy mouth feel that the Japanese call umami. It creates a phenomenon where you keep on eating the dish even though you’re full to the gills. I’ll have to visit Bistro 110 to sample this one up close and personal Chef Dominque just gave a sly grin when asked to divulge the recipe!

Close behind were the Grilled Cheese sandwiches offered by Chef Martial Noguier of Café des Architectes. These were not your school cafeteria’s grilled cheese. Instead they were composed of Brie cheese on freshly made brioche bread with truffle butter and roasted hazelnuts. I had a least a half dozen slices of this sinful concoction and made my own version at home the next day. Hats off to Chef Noguier for an original spin on a timeworn classic.

The Union League Club of Chicago came through with a solid rendition of an old-reliable that has quickly become a holiday staple, Braised Short Ribs of Beef with Mashed Parsnips, Natural Jus and Crisp Onions. I snagged a glass of Bodega Monteviejo Festiva Malbec from Rougefort (Vignobles Pere-Verge
) and Bob Bofman Selections. The hefty Malbec was the perfect partner to tackle the flavorful short ribs. He finished things off with arguably the best hand-made chocolates on earth from Visages Haut-Chocolate. I was delighted to see my old friend Nikolina, who I remembered from the store’s original location on Armitage in Lincoln Park near the DePaul campus. “We‘re still there,” she told me in her lilting voice. There’s also now a location on the Magnificent Mile. As Michael Jackson would have said, “I’ll Be There!”

A final glass of 2007 Helfrich Riesling from Underdog Wine Merchants, one of my old standbys when I was a young club-hopper living at Sandburg Village in the go-go ‘70s and I was out into the night and an evening concert of Brahms at the CSO. A little German wine, a little German night music. Not exactly French, but Wundebar non-the-less!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

La Fete du Bordeaux at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago

by Dwight Casimere

For a single night, Chicago was the heart of Bordeaux, France. The Chicago Wine Company introduced the 2007 Bordeaux Vintage in an exclusive event at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Chicago.

An exclusive reception and dinner created by Executive Chef Mark Payne, showcased hand-picked selection of 14 of the best Grand Cru wines of Bordeaux, including 2007, 2000 and 1990 Chateau Lynch Bages, from Pauillac 2007, 2000 Chateau Montrose, from St. Estephe, 2007, 1990 Chateau Leoville Barton, from St. Julien and, a special dessert treat, 1999 Chateau Suduiraut, Sauternes.

Guests of Honor included Anthony Barton, President of Ch. Leoville Barton and Ch. Langoa Barton, Jean-Charles Cazes, Managing Director of Ch. Lynch Bages and Ch. Les Ormes de Pez and Nicolas Glumineau of Ch. Montrose and Ch. Tronquoy Lalande and Devon Warner, President of The Chicago Wine Company.

Over a glass of Champagne Duval-Leroy, Cuvee Paris, the Guests of Honors discussed the importance of this premiere event, which as been held in Chicago for the past 18 years, attracting Bordeaux lovers from throughout the Mid-West area.

“ Wine is Bordeaux. Bordeaux is Wine!” declared Anthony Barton, who at 80 years old describes himself as “theoretically retired, but still very involved with the company in one capacity or another.

“This is an annual event in which we present the most recent vintage that we’ve bottled. We’re encouraging people to not only buy the wine, but to drink it and enjoy it,” Barton continued. “So far its been shown that there’s still a demand for expensive wines. There are a number of people that if they put their money in wines that they love, its better than putting it in the bank. They figure its safer putting their money into wines that it is putting it in the bank. I don’t know another investment where, even if it goes down, you can drink and enjoy it!”

“While our focus is on the 2007, we also use this opportunity to showcase some of our older vintages,” according to Jean-Charles Cazes of Chateau Lynch Bages. “The 2000 vintage is considered one of the best vintages ever. That makes this event a real attraction for wine lovers. Also, we’re presenting the 1990 vintage, which is also considered one of the most outstanding from the Bordeaux. Last year, we were here in October, right at the beginning of the world economic crisis. We had a good turnout then and we have an even better turnout this year. There’s still a lot of interest in fine wine, in spite of the economy.”

Cazes’ assertion was borne out by the capacity crowd of diners who attended the event. The Wine Doctor spoke with one couple that has been coming to the event every year from St. Louis from its inception.

“This has been a long-term relationship for us,” said Devon Warner of The Chicago Wine Company. “The tickets to this event practically sell themselves because these are wines which have names that are known by everyone who is seriously into wines and in many ways, the names are legendary. Even in these economic times, the demand for these wines is still unabated.”

Chef Payne’s menu focused on the unique characteristics of Bordeaux wines, from its bright floral nose to its complex flavors with hints of berries and dried fruit and hints of tobacco and truffle on the finish. Rabbit Cassoulet with Pumpkin and Matsutake Mushrooms and the following course of Herb Marinated Rack of Lamb Chop with Yukon Gold and Black Truffle Shepherd’s Pie showcased the wines and their elegant character beautifully.

A key element that contributes to the unique flavor of Bordeaux wines is their complex character, which is almost unequaled in any other wine. “This unique character comes from the soil, or ‘terroir,’” declared Anthony Barton. “The Bordeaux has a complexity of soil types and minerality that is unlike anywhere else. That’s what makes the wines so distinct and so sought after.” One taste of his 2007 Chateau Montrose, St. Estephe, was all it took to prove the point. It was light and easy to drink with a well-balanced structure. It also had enough backbone that it lingered long on the palette for a long, smooth finish. These wines can be pricey, but for a special occasion, that perfect Holiday meal or a special gift to someone you know who appreciates the finer things of life, there’s nothing quite like the great wines of Bordeaux.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New York Wine Experience 2009-A night at the wine 'Oscars'

by Dwight Casimere

It was the Academy Awards of wine, the “Critics Choice” Grand Tasting of the 2009 New York Wine Experience, held at the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square.

The international wine tasting marked the 29th annual Wine Experience and, as always, Wine Spectator’s distinguished Board of Senior Editors chose the finest wine producers from the world’s great winegrowing regions to participate in the Grand Tasting.

There should have been a Red Carpet upon which to assemble the stellar assemblage of the world’s premiere winemakers; Clovis Taittinger of his namesake Champagne Taittinger, Timothy Mondavi from his late father’s Robert Mondavi Winery, Jean-Bernard Delmas of Chateau Montrose to name but a few of the nearly 300 creators of premium vintages, rated 90 points or higher by Wine Spectator.

The owners and winemakers were on hand to personally pour their wines and a sumptuous grand tasting of charcuterie, hot and the Marriott Marquis staff prepared cold cuisine and desserts. The presentation would rival anything prepared by Wolfgang Puck for the Green Room behind the Kodak Theatre on Oscar Night.

“Critics Choice” Grand Tastings are sponsored by the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, which awards grants to students pursuing careers in oenology and viticulture, wine service and related fields.

Marvin R. Shanken, Editor and Publisher of Wine Spectator, presided over the event, circulating amongst the wine pouring tables, greeting old friends and generally being the affable host of a fantastic evening.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Italian (wine) job

by Dwight Casimere

The 7th edition of Vinitaly US Tour segued into Chicago’s Intercontinental Hotel before moving on to San Francisco and New York. The cities chosen for the second stage of the 2009 edition represent a full-fledged assault on the markets that are key to the preeminence of Italian wines in the consumer market.

Last February, Dwight The Wine Doctor attended the first stage of the Vinitaly US Tour at Miami’s sumptuous Biltmore in Coral Gables and the Hilton Bentley in ultra-chic South Beach.

The Chicago event kicked off with a wide-ranging seminar coordinated by Paul Wagner, Professor of the Napa Valley Faculty of Wine Growing and Oenology and a member of the nomination committee of the Culinary Institute of America. The discussion, “Italian Wines for America Today” featured a distinguished panel including Nicola Moscardo of the Veronafiere Board, which organizes Vinitaly, the world’s largest wine fair, in Verona, Italy. Last year, Vinitaly broke all records with 4,200 exhibitors and 150,000 participants. Nearly a third of them came from North America and more than a hundred countries had representatives in attendance. Dwight The Wine Doctor was among those who opted for the cable car as a method of transportation around the massive exhibit halls, which covered four McCormick Place sized buildings spread over a hundred acre area.

“We’ve got a new generation of wine drinkers developing,” Chicago journalist, author and wine educator Tom Hyland told the capacity audience. “They’ll comprise the largest group of wine drinkers in history. We’ve got to make wine more approachable so these ‘Millennials’ aren’t afraid of wine or put off by the way we present it.

“What do American wine drinkers want?” he asked rhetorically. They certainly don’t want a lesson in chemistry. Their eyes start to glaze over when you start talking about brix and malalactic fermentation and indigenous yeast. They want to hear stories that relate the human factor. They want romance. They want to capture a place and a time and there’s no country better positioned to do that than Italy.”

At the walk around wine tasting for trade operators, importers, distributors, retailers, caterers, trendsetters and the media, the romance and legacy of Italian wines were uppermost on everyone’s mind. The Intercontinental’s catering staff provided a delicious array of Italian cheeses, sliced meats, olives and sliced mushroom and colorful sweet peppers in a light olive oil and balsamic drizzle.

Prosecco, the indigenous Italian sparking wine, garnered the most attention, with offerings from Piera Martellozzo of Friuli Venezia, Fiulia, Italy.

Export Manager Patrick Cappellini poured a delicious glass of sparkling Prosecco Spumante as he rhapsodized about the 2008 vintage.

“Prosecco is unique to Italy and unique among sparkling wines. Its light, fruity and easy to drink. That makes it extremely popular, not just in Italy, but across Europe and the United States, as well.

“Especially with the tough economic times around the world, people are looking for affordable sparking wine and Prosecco fills the bill. Its one of the greatest values out there.”

Among the truly outstanding offerings were the wines of La Togata, Brunello di Montalcino, whose 2004 vintages received ratings above 90 points in all of the major wine publications. One cannot attend a wine tasting of this magnitude and not encounter a Chianti Classico of outstanding characteristic. Dievole Chianti Classico “La Vendemmia” D.O.C.G. 2007 fulfilled all of the right flavor profiles associated with great Chiantis; rich, robust with bright fruit and a smooth, roundness in the mouth. This is the perfect wine for a terrific aged steak or a richly flavored cheese.

The wines of Sicily were represented as well and quite elegantly by Donnafugata, among the ten producers represented on the tour. The Wine Doctor visited with Giacomo Rallo and his wife Gabriella at Vinitaly in Verona earlier this year and was pleasantly reminded of the vineyards of Contessa Entellina that had been so beautifully photographed by Chicago wine photojournalist, author and lecturer Anna Pakula, who was also in attendance at the Vinitaly Chicago event.

Kalura Nero d’Avola 2007, IGT Sicilia from Cantina Birgi garnered a great deal of buzz and a lingering throng at their tasting table.

Clever use of a camera made it possible to edge into a prominent place at the tasting table for a healthy pour of the velvety rich, red gold. For more on the exciting wines of Italy, visit,

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Trump International Chicago luxuriates in Champagne, Champagne, Champagne

Trump International Chicago luxuriates in Champagne, Champagne, Champagne

by Dwight Casimere

“I really want to promote Champagne as a drink for every occasion and everyday life, not just special occasions.” Those were the words of Trump International Hotel & Tower Sixteen Restaurant Wine Director Steven Lee, as he relaxed in Rebar Lounge on the mezzanine level after one of his champagne tasting excursions.

“What most people don’t realize is how versatile champagne is. It can be served before the meal as an aperitif and then carry you right on through the meal and still be had either along with the dessert or by itself as an after-dinner treat.”

Lee illustrated his point with a stunning, diverse array of Brut Rose Champagnes; Duval Leroy e Seignee NV (non-vintage), Michel Arnould et Fils Brut Rose Grand Cru, NV, Ruinart Burt Rose NV and the piece de resistance, Marguet et Fils, Brut Rose Grand Cru NV. The tasting was accompanied by a mouthwatering sampling of cuisine from Sixteen Restaurant Executive Chef Frank Brunacci, which included a mouthwatering slice of fresh Hamachi (yellow tail Tuna), drenched in a piquant citrus glaze and a flavorful slice of ripe Roblichon fromage from France.

“Most people never think of rose Champagnes as being interesting or challenging. They’re so used to having the syrupy sweet sparklers. What we’ve set out to do here is show an array of Brut Rose Champagnes that can be served from the aperitif right on through the meal to dessert. The Duval Leroy is light on the palate with a touch of sweetness. Its perfect with sushi, sashimi or light appetizers. Things get a little more complex with the Michel Arnould. You’re starting to get into some of that heavy fruit and a bit of the terroir that Champagne is famous for. You’re getting into fruit that gets exposure to intense sun at the higher elevations, and then gets cooled off at night to give the fruit some depth.

“Then comes my personal favorite, Ruinart Brut Rose. This is champagne making elevated to high art.

“Ruinart is one of the prestige cuvées, Dom Ruinart is a true blanc de blancs, made entirely of Chardonnay. The Dom Ruinart Rosé, first released in 1962, resembles the Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs with the addition of 15% vinified red Pinot Noir, giving it its distinct color.

“ What makes Ruinart so special? There’s the full expression of that flinty aftertaste of the limestone soil, called ‘terroir’, that is so prized by true Champagne lovers. It comes from the rocky, mineral-rich soil that stresses the vines and gives the fruit and the champagne a unique flavor,” Lee said with obvious relish. “There’s nothing quite like!”

Surprisingly, Lee’s favorite bubbly is an American sparkling wine from Oregon. “It’s called Soter, from the Yamhill District of Willamette Valley. Tony Soter has made his life’s work the study of viticulture and biodynamic winemaking. Their property is a haven for exceptional Pinot Noir grapes and his winemaker, James Cahill, makes superb sparkling wines. Its totally sold out. I was able to get a few cases. We have it on the wine list at $125 a bottle. At that price, it’s a real bargain, since you can’t get it anywhere else.”

On Wednesday evenings, Sommelier Steven Lee hosts the “Champagne Table” in Rebar’s exclusive VIP area from 5:30-7 p.m. “Sometimes, the evenings are like a formal wine tasting, with me pouring and giving a presentation on the wines. Sometimes, it winds up almost like a casual house party; with me circulating amongst the tables and everybody busy having conversations and enjoying the wines. After a hard day at work, I sometimes just let the participants enjoy the wines. After all, that’s what its really about!”

These spirited, after-work social hours allow guests to sample bubbles from a monthly featured Champagne house, as well enjoy hors d'oeuvres and the stunning views of the Chicago River and the bustling activity on the Michigan Avenue bridge. The cost to attend is $25 per person, exclusive of gratuity. Go to for more information on future tasting dates.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

When lavender last in the vineyard grew

Dwight The Wine Doctor: MatanzasCreek Winery, "When Lavender, last in the vineyard grew"-by Dwight Casimere
Lavender, as far as the eye can see, is the first thing that strikes your eye and your senses as you approach the mountain retreat tasting room of Matanzas Creek winery in Sonoma’s rustic and secluded Bennett Valley. Lavender is one of the most aromatic and diverse flowering plants in the world. Its uses range from culinary to medicinal and cosmetic. In France, it is ubiquitous, appearing as a decorative adorment, a room deoderizer and as a featured component in bath, body and beauty products.
In France, as at Matanzas Creek winery, Lavender is in full bloom everywhere. The sight and smell is as prevalent as the vineyards that blanket the countryside. In many ways, Matanzas Creek mirrors the topography and ambiance of the French countryside, so it is no surprise that the winemaker, Francois Cordesse, is a native of Languedoc France.
"Wine is very much a product of the senses," Cordesse told The Wine Doctor at a recent lunch in the vineyards during the recent Sonoma Wine Country Weekend. "You smell, you drink, you taste. It is something very sensual.
" Wine is full of symbolism and archetype. Its very, very complex. We try to produce wine that is bold, fleshy and very aromatic. It is both a product of nature and a product of the art of the winemaker. "
The owners of Matanzas Creek became aware of Cordesse while he was head winemaker at Domaine Saint Hilaire in his native Languedoc. While at Saint Hilaire, his Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were awarded double gold at the Grand prix d’excellence des Vinalies, a renowned international wine competition sponsored by the French Oneologist Union. This accomplishment brought François to the attention of wine producers around the world, and in 2001, he joined the team at Matanzas Creek Winery and became Winemaker in 2005.
"Matanzas Creek is truly a Grand Dame estate of California. I am honored to be a part of this special place. "
Cordesse feels he was ordained from birth to create great wine. "My mother was a teacher at the French Culinary Institute. She taught me that if you pay attention to detail, but are willing to take some risks, you will be rewarded."
The Matanzas Creek luncheon was a showcase for a selection of the winery’s current releases: 2008 Matanzas Creek Bennett Valley Rose, paired with a watermelon and calamari salad, 2005 Jackson Park Merlot with grilled skirt steak, fingerling potatoes and Sausalito Springs watercress and 2007 L’Ultime Red Dessert Wine.
"When you are in California wine country, you are surrounded by flagrance. When you walk through the fields, you are surrounded by smells. When you touch a tree, you have the smell of bark and certainly, when you approach the vineyards, your senses are filled with the promise of the new wine yet to come. Our wine is aromatic and bold. Its what we try to capture here at Matanzas Creek. We just try to preserve what Mother Nature provides to us year after year.
"Here in the Bennet Valley, we are blessed by the God of Wine. We have three mountains here. When it is hot, the warm air goes up inside the valley. The mountains then act like a vacuum that sucks the cold air inland where it will be trapped here in the valley , which is a closed environment.
Our fruit also has an eastern exposure. The combination of cold air and warm ground creates some intensity in the grapes. The sun then dissipates the fog, which makes for some very intense fruit."
Francois also says the soil, or ‘terroir’ has a great deal to do with the complex flavors of his wine. " Here in Jackson Park, we have at least six different kinds of soil, so that gives the grapes a great deal of complexity. The combination is perfect; correct exposure, fog in the morning, very cold at night with oxidized clay. That makes the wine extra interesting and exciting."
The vineyard luncheon provided a format to showcase the full spectrum of Matanzas Creek’s award winning wines. "The Bennett Valley Rose is something new for us. It is a summertime wine, light, fun, yet complete. It has a crispness and fruitiness that lets it stand on its own, yet, it can hold up to food, especially seafood. We chose the Calamari salad to give expression to the bright fruit of the wine combined with its ability to stand up to a fish with a strong, oily back note."

Matanzas Creek Merlot has a distinctive flavor profile that makes it one of the most sought after Merlots in the Sonoma Valley. "Our blending technique at Matanzas Creek produces something that is velvety and fleshy but with a good tannic structure. It also has a dark profile that comes from the vineyard floor. We are also looking for something more mineral from our premium wine. It will be easier to match food and wine when you get that minerality. We temper the wine with a bit of Cabernet from Knight’s Valley, which is warm. We produce something that is extremely aromatic that is able to age.
"When you go back and record the history of Matanzas Creek, you will see a hint of botrytis in each of the vintages that adds to its complexity. In its younger days, Chardonnay should have flavors of white peach, green pear and a hint of honey. Then later on, it should start to develop some minerality, which makes it perfect with food. We here at Matanzas Creek make wine for food. The two should have a good synergy."
Back at the tasting room, there were a wide variety of new wine releases to sample and an opportunity to load up on gift boxes of the precious, aromatic lavender for cooking and for spreading around the house for an aromatic lift. A dizzying selection of bath and fragrance products also made for a terrific shopping experience. Combined with a few bottles of wine, the assorted bath and beauty products will make for great gift baskets during the Holidays.
I have a favorite recipe for roast duck for the Holidays. At the very end of the cooking process, I heat the oven to 500 degrees and return the fully roasted duck to the oven for ten minutes after covering the skin with a dusting of dried lavender. It not only tastes great, but gives the whole house a fantastic aroma that greats your guests, guaranteed to put them in the Holiday spirit.