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!