Spotlight on Food and Wine

Eating a tomato keftede.

Cooking and Tasting in Santorini

Santorini is a beautiful island. Everything that you have likely heard about ...
Christmas Eve fire

Today’s Selection: Love in the Afternoon…on Christmas Eve

The weeks before the holidays had kept me very busy with the ...
Stop calling this lovely wine cougar juice!

Quack’in Malbec

I was powering through Costco on Christmas Eve and stopped to admire ...

Latest Stops on the Journey

Fired Up For Solvang and #WBC14!

Off Cali’s beaten path

Pass up familiar and take road less traveled to San Luis Obispo wines

Edna Vallery Winery                                            Edna Valley Winery, Central Coast, California.                                                 (Steven Morris Photography/Getty Images / January 3, 2014)
 By Bill St. John, Special to Tribune Newspapers
One of the more oft-quoted sayings of the English essayist Francis Bacon is “Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.”

Works with wine too. For instance, if you’re going to fully experience California wine, it helps to travel away from the familiar in order to taste wines that, as Bacon might add, are “sequestered from the company” of the already known. That would mean getting out of Napa or Sonoma and turning the corkscrew into a bottle or two of wine from places such as San Luis Obispo.

Wha’? Where?

In California’s Central Coast area, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, lies San Luis Obispo, where wine grapes grow on average a mere 5 miles from the Pacific and its salvific, tempering, cooling breezes. Winemakers do well with cool-climate grapes here, pinot noir and chardonnay especially, but also with syrah; California’s forte, zinfandel; a raft of Bordeaux varieties; and — incoming! — many of the European grapes we’re currently trying our hand at, such as gruner veltliner, albarino, viognier and grenache blanc.

SLO, for short and, yes, pronounced “slow” is pinpoint perfect California wine country, no less blessed — some might say more so — than Napa or Sonoma with that felicitous grape-growing and winemaking amalgam of sunny, warm days; cool, crisp nights; diverse soil profiles; and talented, on-trend winemakers.

SLO sports two appellations that your taste buds would be wise to travel to, if only by the glass: Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley. Each is dotted with killer vineyards and wineries, some of which have been making delicious wine for years, and several at fine prices relative to those charged further north.

Here are some highly recommended wines from both appellations, whites first, then reds. Don’t miss reading the sidebar on the chardonnays of Talley Vineyards, fine examples of ageable whites.

Edna Valley

2012 Tangent Winery Albarino Paragon Vineyard Edna Valley: A dead ringer for a Spanish Rias Baixas albarino, all green apple and citrus and a slightly saline snap-to. $17

2011 Edna Valley Vineyard Chardonnay “Fleur de Edna”: Here’s the butter, yellow peach and lees-y aromas and flavors — and heft — you buy from regions north for twice the charge; wonderful stand-alone chardonnay. $27

2010 Center of Effort Chardonnay Edna Valley: Burgundy’s famed Domaine Des Comtes Lafon makes Macons like this, lined with citrus, mineral and verve but chin-dripping juicy with fruit. $30

2009 Kynsi Winery Syrah Edna Valley: Cool-climate syrah; red fruits with notes of blue fruit and furry, round-the-mouth tannin of the sort in walnut skin. $28

Arroyo Grande Valley

The issue with red Burgundy isn’t its effulgent aroma, never-ending layers of flavors or impeccable transference of place into wine; it’s paying for those.

But you can “get” the Burgundian experience, slightly attenuated, by putting side-by-side the 2010 Laetitia Vineyard & Winery Pinot Noir “La Colline” Arroyo Grande Valley and a sibling wine, the 2010 Laetitia Vineyard & Winery Pinot Noir “Les Galets” Arroyo Grande Valley, both $60 a bottle.

La Colline comes from a hillside vineyard; Les Galets from a low-yielding rocky one (as both names translated suggest). The different terroirs render two very different but equally lovely wines; La Colline, fresher, more refined, presently more open than its more rough-and-tumble, darker-fruited, slightly tannic brother.

2010 Saucelito Canyon Red Blend “Sauvage” Arroyo Grande Valley: Another spot-on SLO version of a French song sung by California; a three-way Bordeaux blend that reprises all the Medoc could do with the same, but at far less the cost. $34

If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.

Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.

Talley Vineyards chardonnay

The Talley family has farmed the Arroyo Grande Valley since the 1940s and remains strong in produce. In the early 1980s, the family added wine grapes to its crops; shortly after, wine was in the making.

Talley Vineyards specializes in cool-climate wine grapes such as pinot noir and chardonnay. Over the past year, I’ve tasted through a dozen Talley chardonnays from vintages dating back to 1991. My major takeaway is that, given a certain makeup, a California chardonnay can age spectacularly well.

The Talley chardonnay speaks of its place; from its Rincon Vineyard, for example, it is peach-y and mineral-laden; from Rosemary’s Vineyard, named after the clan’s matriarch, the chardonnay is elegant, fine, piercing; Oliver’s Vineyard gives chardonnay that’s Cali-plush.

All of them are shot through with the acidity that only a cool climate sends into a wine — and that is the key to their aging. A 1997 Rincon, a 1995 Rosemary’s and a 2004 Rosemary’s all had burnished into their aromas and tastes those notes of nuts, melted honey, toasted marshmallow and caramelized sugar that make older chardonnay so captivating.

You can get a head start on that history by tasting a prequel, as it were, in the 2010 Talley Chardonnay Estate Vineyard Arroyo Grande Valley ($26), all green apples and lemon cream with a splash of white rock minerals.

Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

You Can Take the Girl Outta Indiana, But Not the Hoosier Outta the Girl

One of the MANY things @ScottNations and I mock @EnjoyJourney for is her voracious coupon clipping.

Save $1.00 off five Lean Cuisine?  Score!

Save $1.00 off five Lean Cuisines? Score!

When we spend the weekend at the Messner/Caruso estate, Karen always dives for the “circular” section of the Chicago Tribune so that no one can ruffle the pristine pages of of her coupon friends, Smart Source and Sunday Saver. You’ll likely lose a limb if you get anywhere near them before she does!!

A Secret…Until Now.

But, my mocking is more than somewhat hypocritical.  Not only do I still “clip coupons”, as grandma would say, but for years I went online Dominick’s For You (may they rest in peace) once a week to load up deals on my Dominick’s Card.

I bought the Executive Costco membership because it provides lots of great benefits like money back and also, gleefully, coupons at check-out without the clipping.  Heaven!

Enjoying Executive membership since 2005.

Enjoying Executive membership since 2005.

And I regularly cruise the websites like http://www.coupons.com and http://www.shopathome.com, always hunting for the big game…save $2.00 or more.

Thrill of the Chase?

Why do I do it?  Do I really need to save $.25 on Progresso Panko Crispy Bread Crumbs?  I’ll leave the “shrinking” to Dr. Karen Caruso (maybe she can figure out her own self, too.  Ha!).

Scott argues that the time I spend isn’t worth the money saved, but I say why not save $.25 on an item I already have on the grocery list.  It’s 25 cents we can put toward that Caribbean vacation we’re taking in February (that can’t get here soon enough!).

Hey, if you find a coupon for Hendrick’s gin, please let me know.  :-)

Cooking and Tasting in Santorini

Santorini is a beautiful island. Everything that you have likely heard about Santorini is true. It is amazing and it is touristy! Santorini is in the southern Aegean Sea and is part of the southern Cyclades group of islands.

View from Thira

View from Thira

The island is home to a flourishing wine industry primarily driven by the indigenous grape varietal of Assyrtiko, along with 2 other Aegean varietals Athiri and Aidani. The grapes grow in well-drained, volcanic soil and you taste that in the wines of Santorini.

If you are stopping in Santorini while on a cruise, I would highly recommend that you schedule a tour with Santorini Wine Tours. The tour will take up part of your day, giving you time to stroll the streets, eat some street food, and admire the gorgeous views. One piece of advice – stay away from the donkeys.

We had previously taken the Wine Roads tour offered by Santorini Wine Tours and it was fabulous so we signed on for the Cooking and Tasting tour during our recent trip. A newly wed couple joined us on our excursion.

The trip started at the island’s wine museum. Wine Museum Koutsoyannopoulos features a self-guided tour complete with headphones and recording devices like in any museum, a nice shop and tasting room, and beautiful grounds that can be rented for events. The self-guided tour can take up to an hour if you stop at every exhibit but we opted for the ‘short’ version. Some of the exhibits included mechanical scenes, paper mache figures that were triggered by motion sensors, that were a bit scary but meant to provide a history of wine making in Santorini.

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At the end of our ‘quick’ tour we enjoyed a tasting of local wines. The first wine that we tasted was a young and fruity Assyrtiko. This wine was very aromatic, easy drinking, and not meant to be aged. Next, we tasted a red wine called Ampelones, 2009. The wine is made from three local grape varietals: Mantilaria, Mavrathiro and Mavrotragano. Finally, we tasted one of their sweet wines, a limited production Kamaritis. This dessert wine is made from 6 indigenous grapes and aged in oak for 10 years before bottling. While I was not a fan, a bottle did end up coming back home with Doug.

After wine tasting we strolled through the village of Vothanos to a taverna in nearby Megalochori where we would participate in a hands-on cooking class.  The class took place outdoors on the covered patio of Raki Restaurant. It was a very warm day so I think they tried to keep us cool by offering an endless pitcher of local white wine.

We made 4 dishes in the cooking class:

  1. Santorinian Fava – cooked and seasoned yellow lentils served as a dip.
  2. Horiatiki Salad – traditional Greek salad with fresh tomatoes, onions, olives, peppers, herbs, cucumber and feta.
  3. Tomato Keftedes – fried tomato balls or fritters
  4. Pork with Wine and Feta Sauce

All 4 were fresh and delicious but we especially enjoyed the tomato keftedes as they took advantage of the ripe tomatoes and were fried! After chopping, stirring and frying we sat down to lunch with our new friends and enjoyed the shade of the patio. Lunch ended with a platter of local desserts, including Greek yogurt with honey and a variety of cakes (thankfully, not prepared by us).

The tour took up a good part of our day but allowed us time for a nap before heading back out for a sunset dinner.  I would say this is a ‘must do’ if you have a day in Santorini! Vaios Panagiotoulas, the proprietor, also offers a variety of food and wine tours across Greece.  Check them out at Grand Reserve Travel.

 

Starting 2014. With Chardonnay.

New Year’s Day 2014 in sweet home Chicago.  It hasn’t quit snowing all day.  It’s cold and forecasted to get colder.  There’s nothing new on TV.  The holidays are behind us, including the elaborate meals packed with gazillions of calories and a few too many nights out on the town.

It's not like we can use the outdoor kitchen!

It’s not like we can use the outdoor kitchen!

So, what should we do while waiting for Sunday and the premiere of “Downton Abbey”, season four?  A simple dinner and a casual wine seem to be required at the end of what has been a lovely and relaxing day.

Will Lady Mary sack Mrs. Patmore for making a shrimp pasta?

Would Lady Mary sack Mrs. Patmore for making a shrimp pasta?

I’m making a small salad, shrimp pasta with pesto made of basil from my own herb garden, and garlic bread.  I’m steaming the shrimp in Edna Valley Vineyards 2011 Chardonnay.

We stocked up on the Edna Valley Chardonnay in preparation for our holiday visitors.  Scott sashayed over to the neighborhood Binny’s and asked for a less-than-$20 bottle, and we got this solid Chardonnay for $15.

Here’s what their website says about the 2011 Chardonnay:  Our Edna Valley Vineyard 2011 Chardonnay displays an attractive bouquet of quince, pear, ripe apple, apricot and light pineapple, with underlying brown spice notes of cinnamon and clove. A fresh mouthfeel, hints of vanilla and a bright acidity combine to form a long, pleasing finish in this medium-bodied wine.

A great way to start the new year.

A great way to start the new year.

Or, in my words, a value “yum”!

Enjoy the Journey Wine Rating: More, Please

Today’s Selection: Love in the Afternoon…on Christmas Eve

The weeks before the holidays had kept me very busy with the usual holiday craze.  At the same time, I had embarked upon a cleanse diet in order to prepare for the inevitable indulging that would be forthcoming.

Miss Wendi and Scott were to be joining us for Christmas Even dinner. As I prepared for their arrival, I arranged myself a light lunch that would create the mood of the day. Without any planning, I created a perfect pairing.

Xmas Eve Lunch - Le Delice de Bourgogne

Xmas Eve Lunch – Le Delice de Bourgogne

The pairing consisted up Trader Joe’s Le Delice de Bourgogne and Ancien Pinot Gris 2012 from the Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros. The cheese was selected because it looked delightful when I picked it up at my local TJoes. Le Delice de Bourgogne is a triple cream cow’s milk cheese from the Burgundy region of France. It is light in color, mildly stinky and possesses a texture than can only be described as seductive.

Ancien Pinot Gris 2012 Carneros Sangiacomo Vineyard

Ancien Pinot Gris 2012 Carneros Sangiacomo Vineyard

I was introduced to Ancien wines about 5 years ago from Vintner’s Collective in Napa. As a wine club member, I frequently receive wines from Ancien and have grown to love their small production Pinot Noir. This bottle of Pinot Gris arrived and went into the chiller. I selected it in an effort to try something new for the holiday.

The wine is bright on the palate with a lingering finish. I tasted crisp pear, Meyer lemon and some warm spices. The wine has a moderate level of acidity and a fair amount of structure so it paired well with the fattiness and mild earthiness of the cheese.  The cheese, the wine and a chewy baguette truly made for a memorable lunch.

The wine is not widely distributed but can be purchased online from Ancien Wines or Vintner’s Collective. I would encourage you to give it a try when you are planning your next wine and cheese event!

Enjoy the Journey Wine Rating: More, Please

Quack’in Malbec

I was powering through Costco on Christmas Eve and stopped to admire their thorough selection of red wines, hunting for a deserving Cabernet Sauvignon to serve with the beef rib roast I fought the shopping hordes to acquire and planned to prepare for Christmas dinner.

Costco, the largest wine retailer in the U.S., almost never disappoints when it comes to new producers of wine I like:  Zin, Chardonnay, Cab, Pinot Gris, etc.

Stop calling this lovely wine cougar juice!

Stop calling this lovely wine “cougar juice”! Stop it right now!

Bias alert:  I’m not unadventurous when it comes to wine, but I do tend to steer clear of Malbec because I HATE its designation as “cougar juice.”  Possibly unfair, but there it is.

However, I was intrigued by the prominently displayed Wine Spectator rating of 92 points and the claim that the Susana Balbo Malbec 2011 “pairs well with duck breast.”  Not to mention the under $20 per bottle price.  As a huge fan of the canard, I found that claim quite seductive.  So, several bottles ended up in my ginormous shopping cart de Costco.

Last night, I cracked open Ted Allen’s The Food You Want To Eat: 100 Smart, Simple Recipes and fried up his amazing, quite simple, and tasty duck breast recipe.  And guess what??  Costco, and Wine Spectator are right…the Susana Balbo Malbec 2011 doesn’t just “pair well” with duck breast.  It added a complex dimension to the dish that MANY Cabernet sauvingons have failed to do in the past.

If you want to savor a wonderful duck breast for dinner, make sure that you pick up some Susana Balbo Malbec 2011 to complete and enhance your experience.

“Too Many Shades of Marketing” : Officially Violating My Personal Rule

I admit it: I’m officially violating my rule of not reviewing and/or criticizing something that I haven’t tried or experienced.

But I must.  I’m getting most (all) of my news these days from Captivate, the Gannett-owned, elevator video service that I view multiple times a day, going up and down the Aon Building, while I work insane hours that appear to not have an end.

50 shades wine

Is this wine punishing?

I sashayed on to the elevator today and here’s what I saw:  “Fans of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” take note. Beginning Monday, you’ll be able to sip wines inspired by the series’ three novels while you flip through the pages. Yes, author E. L. James is selling wines dubbed “Red Satin” and “White Silk,” which she helped California winemakers produce.”

WHAT???  E.L. James helped California wine makers produce a wine??

I hope she did a better job of making wine than she did of writing a book I could read beyond page 16.

A Bacchanal of Prosecco

Enjoy the Journey's "Patio Wine" 2013 winner!

Enjoy the Journey’s 2013 “Patio Wine” winner!

It’s become a tradition…a “patio wine” tasting in the Western suburbs with @EnjoyJourney, @DougMessner, @ScottNations and, yours truly, @WendionWine.

Yesterday, our merry band of wine lovers savored Prosecco as our patio wine pick for the 2013 season.

What’s Prosecco?

Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine made from Glera grapes. It’s produced  in the regions of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia in Italy, and traditionally mainly in the areas near Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, in the hills north of Treviso.

Although it’s considered by aficionados to be a worthy alternative to the better known and more expensive French champagnes and California sparkling wines, Prosecco is still not widely considered by the mass market purchaser.  In fact, the good folks at Binny’s always look puzzled and slightly amused when we ask for a Prosecco by name.

The good, the really good, and the really not good

Rustica Nino Franco.  This Prosecco is a solid hot weather choice.  I don’t think it would pair well with dinner, but it’s a wonderful pairing with a fruit salad or cheese and fruit appetizers.  It’s not as sweet as some other Proseccos, but it IS light and refreshing.  At approximately $17, this one is a crowd pleaser. – First Base

Bisol Crede Valdobbiadene.  The BEST.  Straw colored, light, refreshing, not too sweet, with a slightly creamy finish.  Has a little bit of citrus intensity which makes it more complex and interesting than the Rustica Nino Franco.  Two bottles were not enough!  About $24 at Binny’s. – More, Please

Santa Margherita Valdobbiadene.  I wanted to like this Prosecco.  It gets good online reviews on amazon.com and wine.com.  But none of us were feeling the love.  It has slightly more taste and fizz than Perrier.  That’s really all I can say in review except that in a group that ALWAYS finishes the bottle, this one went down the sink. About $20. – Take A Pass

Discovering Cinque Terre

On our recent Mediterranean Island journey, my husband and I spent a day visiting the Cinque Terre, on the Ligurian Coast of Italy. Cinque Terre refers to 5 lands and is made up of 5 seaside villages just north of the Gulf of Spezia. We visited 4 of the 5 villages during our day long trip (which was not near enough time) – not making it to Corniglia as it is the most difficult to reach – and apparently perched above a beach that is primarily visited by nudists….

Upon our arrival, I was completely mesmerized by the beauty of the cliffs and the sea. One immediately becomes aware of the unique lifestyle of those who live in this hard to reach little piece of heaven. The villages are perched on sheer cliffs primarily accessible via boat or train, although you can certainly walk between them. Residents typically get around on foot and car owners park their cars in community car parks – only retrieving them when leaving the area.

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The views and vibe of the villages is complemented by the food and local wine. Dining is casual and dominated by seafood prepared in every way from crudo to fried. Acciughe (anchovies) is the local specialty – sold fried on the street in paper cones with tiny little forks. Handmade pasta featured pesto made from Ligurian olive oil and is to die for…

Cinque Terre is a DOC white wine region. The DOC was granted in 1973 and production is limited to the specific region. Traveling within and between villages, we were surrounded by vineyards and the scent of the sea. Vines are planted on steep terraces carved into the hillsides and are lightly sprayed by the mist of the sea below. Most vineyard work is done manually. At harvest time, recently installed monorails are used to bring down baskets of grapes.

The vineyards of Cinque Terre produce two types of wine…and that is basically what is available (other than grappa) to drink in the local establishments. I love it – this is what we produce here so this is what we drink. They produce a white ‘table wine’ that is simply called Cinque Terre. It is a dry wine that smells a bit salty and pairs well with the local foods. The wine is produced primarily from Bosco (minimum of 40% according to DOC standards), Albarola and Vermentino.

Sciacchetra is a dessert wine (similar to Vinsanto) that is made from the same grapes. Winemakers select the best grapes from the harvest and put them out to dry on mats. The result is a unique, amber colored, viscous, high alcohol (typically 18%) wine that is only available in the region. As a result, prices are high and it is considered a treat – even for the locals.

Should you search out the wine? No – you must visit and experience it.

Have you visited Cinque Terre? If so, please share your thoughts and recommendations.

8 Telephone Poles Past Deer Park or How to Find Titus Vineyards

The Thanksgiving holiday week in Napa Valley is not a tough tour of duty.  Not tough at all especially when you can get a personal wine tasting from Christophe Smith, Director of Sales and Marketing, at Titus Vineyards.

The sales and marketing bit is the formal stuff.  @EnjoyJourney and I know Christophe (@cork_dork) as our stand up paddleboarding pal from Hood River and #WBC12.  And that tenuous connection, as well as a Facebook-friending, was really the only invitation we needed to climb aboard the rented truckster with our long-suffering mates, and barrel up the Silverado Trail to give some good Cab and Zin a swirl.

Cheers! Chistophe Smith

Cheers! Chistophe Smith

Despite Christophe’s precise directions, we sped right past Titus.  Oh, well.  We were early and it’s Napa, there’s always another good wine to taste around the bend, so we kept going to Duckhorn Vineyards.  My standout favorite from that tasting is Duckhorn’s 2008 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.  Those Howell Mountain grapes really deliver rich, red flavors of blackberry, black cherry, and currant with some salty, earthy hints of leather and rich, dark chocolate.  Here’s my high-brow, sophisticated review: it’s yummy!

Enjoy the Journey Wine Rating: More, Please

But Christophe was waiting, so we hustled next door to Titus, once again missing the turn-in, this time because the sign is visible only when you’re traveling north on Silverado Trail.  I don’t know…seems like something a sales and marketing type might want to fix??  :)

For those who believe that impressive/majestic/expensive property = great wine (think Opus One), Titus is NOT for you.  It’s a charming, quirky property with a winding, gravel drive, there’s a sign about “children playing”, and the cottage Dr. Titus purchased in 1969 is an untouched, country farmhouse.  Christophe greeted us from the porch with his puppy, Twenty-nine.

Karen, Christophe and 29 - the little girl left along Highway 29.

Karen, Christophe and 29 – the little girl left along Highway 29.

We (Karen and I) squealed.  We hugged.  And we got down to tasting business.  On the picnic tables, with the long-suffering spouses, Doug and Scott, by our sides, we sat under the “Frankenstein” walnut tree, overlooking the Titus vineyards, and started slurping some damn fine wine.

As a HUMONGOUS Zin fan, that’s how I came to know Titus…through a Binny’s tasting long ago.  However, Christophe re-educated me that, while the Zin is in broad distribution, at least in big markets like Chicago,  their Cab is the Titus flagship wine.

Here’s my October (ok, October-ish) surprise: the star of my Titus show wasn’t Cab or Zin…it is the 2007 Petite Sirah!  I think this is the first vintage from their own vines, so really good freshman effort.  It’s fruit forward, but has some notes of spice that really enrich it.  I don’t often call wine “versatile”, but I think this one is.

Enjoy the Journey Wine Rating: More, Please

Christophe, get my case to UPS quickly, please!!

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