Sunday, October 6, 2013

Farm to fingers - visit to Carlingford Oyster Farm

Everyone knows that the shorter the distance food travels, the fresher it is when you take a bite. My visit to Carlingford Oyster Farm gave me a rare treat of dining on oysters just pulled from salt water. 

The visit was arranged by Failte Ireland for a dozen bloggers who had been in the country for TBEX. As we gazed out on an inlet at low tide, the water dark on the slick gray sandbanks, we were welcomed by the farm's co-director, Kian Louet-Feisser.  The oyster farm is in northeast Ireland in the compact village of Carlingford, which boasts an 800 year old Norman castle, some very cute pubs, and a lovely Georgian inn and restaurant, the Ghan house.  Kian - a tall, affable man with zero pretension - explained that they purchase young Pacific oysters (faster growing and more disease-resistant than Atlantic ones) from a hatchery in Normandy, France. The French merchant was there on the day of our visit. "Go on, ask him something," Kian encouraged our group of mostly North Americans. "He's got a lovely accent," completely unaware of how charming we found his brogue.  Kian scooped a handful of baby oysters out of a flat black mesh bag and passed them around. At four months, they were slightly smaller than dimes.  The farm was started by Kian's father, who, now in his 70s, has begun a new project of raising oysters from 20 day old larvae.  They are so small at that stage that a million fit into a tablespoon. We saw them at one month - specks as small as a newborn's fingernail- resting on black rubber disks.  Kian waved a long arm at his dad, who was standing on the back of a flatbed truck, "Keeps him out of trouble." The patriarch laughed, his wildly curling gray hair a testament to a life lived in the winds of the coast.

These bivalves grow at different rates- it takes between 2-5 years for them to mature- so the same age oysters will range in size.  Therefore, much of the work at the farm involves "grading" the oysters - sizing them with a mechanical sieve. Those large enough are stored on land in saltwater tanks, the rest go back in the inlet. Kian explained, "It takes a year to grade all the oysters we have. It's like painting one of those large American bridges - by the time you're finished you have to start again." When they reach the weight of 80-100 grams, they're ready for market. He then led us to the cement building where mature oysters were resting in tanks of flowing salt water.  Kian pulled out a shallow plastic bin with lumpy shells that held the promise of an early evening snack. 

We followed him to the gravel outside and huddled closely to watch him demonstrate proper opening technique - moving the knife gently back and forth until the hinge clicked open and then wiggling the blade up the side of the shell. Then he cut the meat away from the underside and began handing them out.  We took the shells eagerly in hand, upending them to slurp the oysters, salt water running off our chins and fingers. Around that time, Kian's wife Mary strode forth, her light blond hair stirring in the breeze as she set a picnic basket of Prosecco on quickly-created table of crates.  She passed out glasses of Italian sparkling wine, the bubbles delightfully washing down the salt water-washed flesh of generously sized oysters.

The darkening sky signaled it was time for our visit to end.  We toasted to the generosity of Kian and Mary and to the pleasure of farm to finger dining on the shores of Carlingford, Ireland. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Croatia's De Gotho Grasevina a Tropical Treat

My journey to Croatia to speak at the International Wine Tourism Conference was a lovely first trip to this Balkan land.  Seeing the old Hapsburg-influenced capital in snow was among the memories I treasure, as was staying in the Regent Esplanade Zagreb, a historic luxury hotel built solely to provide

 accommodation for travelers on the famed Orient Express.

But one treat that I didn't have enough of was drinking the local wines.  IWINETC is truly an international event, and there were wines from around the world to enjoy.  A snowstorm shut down our scheduled winery visit, so I left the country feeling like I wanted to learn - and taste - more of this land's vinous creations.

Luckily, I came home with a bottle of white Croatian wine - the 2012 De Gotho Grasevina.  Grasevina is the most planted white grape variety in Croatia.  It is the Croatian name for the same grape called Welschriesling in central Europe.

As soon as I pulled the cork, fruit aromas came wafting out of the neck when I lowered my nose to it. In the glass, the aromas of tropical fruits, including lychee and pineapple, were abundant.  The wine is a lovely light gold color, and the mouthfeel is medium weight.  I really enjoyed that - despite the plush tropical and citrus fruit on the palate - the wine has a zippy acidity.  This is a spunky wine that is enjoyable with many foods or on its own.  It paired perfectly with a chicken in a lemon parsley sauce that I picked up for dinner.

Next year's IWINETC is in Georgia, whose wines I already know offer many delights and surprises. As for me, I'll look for the opportunities to taste more Croatian wines here at home, as my bottle of Grasevina is almost gone.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A tale of two wine makers – Red Hook Winery

On one of summer’s last evenings, I took a quick ferry ride across the East River with dozens of travel bloggers on a #TravelMassive meetup and docked in Red Hook.  Yes, yet another up and coming Brooklyn neighborhood with "handcrafted this" and "analog that."  Just kidding, I do love this borough.

After a four minute stroll that took me next to crumbling parking lots and urban-renewal gardens, we entered Red Hook Winery.  This place – one of three Brooklyn wineries – had been on my list to visit for a while.

When you enter the cavernous space, you feel a warm and welcoming presence that includes both the exposed wood beams and clever light fixtures crafted from barrel staves and the attractive staff of very Brooklyn 30-somethings.

I was served by GM Darren, who gave me the lowdown on the winery.  The place is five years old, a working winery that only uses New York State grapes – lots of Long Island and Finger Lakes, too. But it gets more interesting.

There are two California winemakers responsible for the wines.  The pair split the grapes that come in and do what they want with them.  If you want to know whose wines you're tasting, Foley’s have labels with a small griffin on the label while Abe’s look like a geometry diagram that resembles a scallop shell. 

I tasted a straight-ahead Finger Lakes Riesling from Napa winemaker Robert Foley’s portfolio.  It was not the most thrilling of Rieslings – a bit short on the palate - and I’ve had many better from the region, but many of the guests at the event loved it, so there you go. 

Then, there were the wines from Abe Schoener. I was immediately fascinated when Darren told me, “This is an off dry Chardonnay Sauvignon Blanc blend.”  Wait a minute.  Who does that?  As it turns out the “off dry” part was not intentional. Abe uses native yeasts, and, finicky creatures that they are, they did not fully ferment the wine – therefore leaving some sugar in the wine.   Hearing Darren discuss Abe’s winemaking style, he seems to favor almost no intervention (no filtering, no racking), so this wine – which can never be replicated as it was a product of chance – was stuff that happens when you take a calculated risk like using native yeast instead of buying yeast which you know will go all the way.  Thing is – the wine was great.  The sugar was barely perceptible on the palate, but seemed to add a nice weight to the wine.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially with super selection of Stinky’s cheeses that were offered.  Abe’s red – Rebirth from the Sea – is a classic Bordeaux blend of 45 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 45 percent Merlot, and 10 percent Cabernet Franc.  I loved its savory notes, including the mushroomy aroma I sometimes perceive on Long Island Merlot.

New York City heavily subsidized ferry service to Red Hook to help the neighborhood recover after Sandy, which hit hard here.  While the service will discontinue for the winter season, right now it’s still a great way to come over to the area, which also boasts a chocolate factory, fun restaurants, galleries, and just a cool over-all vibe.  Tastings at Red Hook are $5 for three wines and $12 for six (including a dessert wine.)  Seems like a pretty fun neighborhood to spend the afternoon, and I’m looking forward to coming back.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Sushi Dai at Tsukiji Market Tokyo

The guidebooks tell you to get to Tsukiji fish market early.  What they don't tell you is to watch out for motorized carts whizzing past you from all directions at breakneck speeds.  So, step carefully when you go, but if you are in Tokyo, by all means - go.  
While we struck out trying to find the tuna auction - too intimidated by the traffic and chaos of the warehouse, we struck gold in the  market area when we chose to eat at Sushi Dai.
At about 7:20, I decided it was worth it to wait in one of the long lines for sushi breakfast.  My daughter had no choice but to follow suit.  
And then, we met the Canadians behind us, a father and teenage daughter from Toronto who would feel like old friends three hours later.  
The sun rises early in Tokyo, so by 7 am, it's as high as full noon back in New York, and it is merciless.  The Japanese custom of bringing umbrellas out in sunny weather made perfect sense to me now, as I felt the UV rays penetrating my wimpy Irish skin.  My daughter and I took turns exploring the shaded side alleyways of the market and bought three cold drinks during the wait.  She wasn't pleased, and wanted to bail.  So did the Canadian dad.  But the Canadian daughter and I wanted this experience.  Maybe waiting for the sushi place with the longest line makes you feel like you're accomplishing a great feat. Like climbing the mountain to meet the oracle. Or, in the words of Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own "it's the hard that makes it great." Actually, it's the fish that makes it great. The freshest sushi in the world. When we were in the final stretch of the very slow moving line, a petite Japanese woman with a small notepad stepped out to take our order - she offered us the 2900 yen meal and we upgraded to 3900 for both of us. Eighty dollars worth of the world's best sushi - bring it!
When it was finally our turn, we stepped into the tiny restaurant, where diners sat,  elbows touching, an L shaped counter with 12 small stools.  There were three sushi chefs behind a glass window of fresh fish. The reddest tuna I'd ever seen was behind the glass in front of where I sat.
"Where you from?" ask the chef closest to us. "New Jersey," I replied. "Ah, New Jersey, it's close to New York." "Yes," I nodded smiling.  "PGA is near there." "Oh, the golf, yes."  He smiled and nodded, all the while scooping warm rice and shaping it with his fingers, adding a smear of wasabi and placing a generous slice of fish on it.  Laying it onto the counter shelf in front of me, he pronounced: "Red snapper."  Thus began our sushi feast - "Horse mackerel."  My daughter and I exchange glances and dug in, using our chopsticks to shove pieces of raw fish as long as a finger into our mouths.  Next came glistening tuna, a luscious slice of spanish mackerel, fresh salmon roe that burst in our mouths as we bit them - "This is really good," declared my daughter munching on fish eggs.  The chef informs us, "These are fresh, most are frozen."  We nod and chew.  I tell him my daughter likes to draw Manga. He's delighted, "Which one?" I see she is too shy to speak up, so I offer, "Pokemon." He laughs heartily, "Oh Pokemon!"  We laugh, too.  He slaps a decapitated squid and puts it on rice, its tentacles curl back up as it sits in front of us.  Nothing is too weird for us to eat, and we pop it into our mouth, followed by creamy yellow sea urchin sushi.  Sea eel comes out, which has a surprisingly firm and unslimey texture "Tastes like chicken," my daughter decides - I don't concur, but it doesn't taste like the fish we've had so far. 
My daughter is getting full as tuna and cucumber sushi rolls are placed in front of us. It's no problem, as I can carry on for both of us.  The other diners who came in with us have finished, but with our upgrade, we get two more. I ask about a type of shrimp, and the second chef down pulls it up with legs and head still on - it's large and looks delicious and I nod.  A minute later, the raw shrimp is in front of my, its soft
body tastes clean and delicious on top of the warm rice with a small dip in soy sauce - which by the way, we are barely using. The fish tastes so fresh and clean and we appreciate it unadorned for the most part.  My daughter gets to chose a last piece, but she hands that honor over to me and I chose a final fatty tuna - a wonderful thick slice of rich fish.  And,  just like that, the best sushi meal of our life was over, and we were once again out in the hot Tokyo streets. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Toasting the Fourth with Ronco Blanchis Collio

Summer whites means more than shoes, dresses and bags. For wine lovers, summer is the time to pull out those well-chilled bottles for drinking solo or with seafood and other lighter fare.
This fourth of July weekend I scored an invite to a Brigantine shore house, and I brought a bottle of wine I had procured on my trip to Friuli with a contingent of bloggers from the International Wine Tourism Conference.  
I proved my merit as a house guest with a bottle of Ronco Blanchis Collio.  According to the winery's website, the wine is (in my translation of their Italian) "a harmonious blend of Friulano, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc... intensely perfumed with fruit and flowers... with structure and complexity." All true! 
On a warm July afternoon after a day at the beach, my first sip of Collio made me cock my head in interest.  I tasted tropical fruits like lychee as well as ripe peaches.  There was a rich mouthfeel and refreshing acidity as well.  I poured a glass for my wine loving friends, who enjoyed it as well.  We all toasted to a Happy Fourth of July, then sat to down a steaming bowl of paella, consumed on the second story deck with glasses of Collio.  Spanish food, Italian wine - it was an American melting pot of a feast, and a fitting finish to a perfect summer beach day. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

A well structured white for summer - Friuli's Ribolla Gialla

The wine region of Friuli in the northeast corner of Italy has a number of unique indigenous grapes.  As July begins to heat up, perhaps its the best time to cool off with the unique Friulian grape Ribolla Gialla.

When I attended the IWINETC blogger trip to Friuli, I visited a number of local wineries that grew the grape and fermented single varietal wines from it.  These medium bodied wines had flavors of both citrus and stone fruits, lively acidity, and very good length.  It could be consumed on its own, and it's weighty enough for grilled chicken, pork dishes, or served, as it often is in Friuli itself, with the heavenly (and local) San Daniela prosciutto.

One of my favorite Ribolla Giallas I tried in Italy was from the winery Zorzettig. We were hosted by the wonderful winery staff, who treated us to prosciutto, savory tarts, and cheeses, as we tried their Myo Ribolla Gialla.  This is a DOC wine from the sub region of Friuli Colli Orientale.  I was struck by the balance of the wine, and how wonderful all the local Friuian snacks tasted with it.  The line of wines that include Myo all include a natural creature under a wine glass on the label - a constant reminder that the winery regards its role as standing alongside the natural world.  They consider themselves guardians of their vineyard's lands, and seek to respect the native flora and fauna as they grow their grapes.

Friuli is a cool, wet climate, and white wines do very well here.  For summer fare, including seafood, light sauce pastas, cheese plates, and more, try a glass of this delicious wine that is distinctively Friulian.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

From Cheap & Cheerful to High End, Lambrusco Satisfies

Ruinite on ice. That's nice.
For a certain generation of Americans, the sweet fizz of Riunite was their first and often only exposure to Lambrusco, the sparkling red wine of Emilia Romagna.
Today the wine flies way under the radar of most consumers, and that's too bad because it's truly perfect on summer's hottest days.  That's because -- unlike most red wines -- this one is alway served cold.
For those who prefer all things red, Lambrusco is like a triple berry pie compared to the apple sorbet of Prosecco. Those ripe fruit flavors in the wine are the same that you'd bring home from the farmers market this time of year: black cherries, blueberries, and - in the case of rosata Lambrusco - raspberries. 
At the Mondo Lambrusco tasting in New York this week, it was clear that the fizzy delight had a bit of a double identity. While one speaker reminisced about when Lambrusco in a can was available, others touted the wine as serious. One speaker happily called it cheap, while another admonished him for using the word.  "Why?" he countered, "we think cheap is good." There were producers pouring single vineyard Lambruscos, along with the old American favorite - Riunite, but now the winery was showing a more sophisticated side with a range of quality wines.
Many of the wines had very little residual sugar and alcohol of around 10-11 percent. This is one of the surprises about this wine - how delicious the dry styles are.
So sweet or dry? Single vineyard or in a can? To my mind, a wide variety of Lambrusco is a good thing. At its essence it is an unpretentious wine that's perfect for sultry summer days.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Vino e Sapori site guides visitors to Friuli Italy

Italy is one of the world's most visited countries, but when tourists get tired of the Venice, Rome, Florence routine, they might consider traveling to a little known region in the far north east: Friuli Venezia Giulia.

This region, whose green landscape can be attributed to plentiful rainfall, is home to memorable medieval towns like the well-preserved Civedale, as well as a rewarding food and wine route that now has its own website in English - Strado del Vino e dei Sapori (wine and food routes)  The site has sections covering information along the routes, in the region, and events.   

One of the most helpful parts of the site for wine lovers is an up-to-date list of the wineries that are open to visitors with no appointment.  Friuli wanted to make wine tourism easier for consumers - especially those who are accustomed to visiting wineries without scheduling in advance. Americans are definitely in this category! Just search on the Wine and Food link and you can see which wineries are open this week - or a future week when you may be in the area. 

If you click on a specific winery (known as Cantina in Italian) link, you'll see detailed information about the winery, including the types of wines it makes, and even how many parking spots are available - for buses and cars!  

The Friuli wine tourism movement has put a lot of effort into making this site as easy to navigate as possible.  Venice is the closest major destination city, so travelers headed there may want to add a weekend in Friuli on their itinerary using the site as an easy guide.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Douro Wine Tourism Conference - Enotourism No Douro

The Douro Valley has a vision – a land of tourists enjoying their UNESCO World Heritage Site scenery, enriching the local economy, and adding to the revenue streams of local wineries.

The question in Douro – as it is in many less-established wine destinations – is how to make it happen.  That’s one of the reasons that organizers from Douro contacted me to speak at their first wine tourism conference.

My presentation, “The Wow Factor in Winery Visits,” was a photo-driven slide show that highlighted wonderful winery visits I have had in France, Spain, Austria, U.S., and the Republic of Georgia.  I hoped to inspire Douro winery owners to go beyond generic wine tours to offer a memorable visit.

Other presenters included my friend, Melba Allen, who gave a lively demonstration of her online Wine Profilers site.  I truly enjoyed her online wine tasting game, which Melba told winery owners could be used in group tastings and to help develop their brand.

Portuguese wine journalist Rui Falcao had practical advice, including, perhaps most importantly, the necessity of proper road signage.  During my weekend in the Douro, it did strike me that -- unlike in other wine regions --there was a lack of a demarcated wine route and even signs pointing which way to turn from the main road to access wineries.

I think that Douro offers wonderful wines.  We had the opportunity to taste many at the weekend event, Taste Douro, in Lamego.  The wines of Quinta do Crasto, were particularly outstanding at a value price. I found that their red wines had exceptionally ripe fruit, and smooth tannins, high acid, mouth-filling richness, and a long finish.  And that was at the low end of the range at about 10 euros. I also enjoyed the Nieport reds and the Quinta do Vallado red and whites.

When I had visited the Douro Valley in 2009 as a participant in the European Wine Bloggers Conference, it was still a relatively new venture to ferment still red wines for an international market.  I feel like the wines I tasted this weekend were uniformly better – some of the stalky bitterness had left and the fruit had a more plush, sweet cherry character.

Yet this weekend in Douro, I was most surprised by the high quality white wines I tried, especially those of Dona Berta. I tasted both unoaked whites, as well as whites that had oak that was beautifully integrated.  The Centenary Vine 2009 White Wine Reserve, made from grapes grown on 100 year old vines – had lime zest nose and limes and white peaches on the palate –  offering both refreshment and complexity.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Douro tasting without Port – and I ended each evening by indulging in my favorite, tawny ports.  There were a number of producers offering ten year old tawnies, which to me are always redolent of caramel.  Yet one of the best sweet wines I tried was a Fragulho 2008 Moscatel made in the same way as Port, i.e., with neutral spirit added to stop the fermentation.  This wine had a lighter mouthfeel, while still offering hard-candy sweetness.

During my time in the Douro, I stayed at the Hotel Rural Casa dos Viscondes da Varzea .  My room was a comfortable space, with sitting area and bathroom on the first floor, and two double beds with elegant linens in a loft area above.  But the main house was the star – with three spectacular livingrooms that all looked like they had been conjured from the pages of decorator magazines.  Yet even the chateau-like house played second fiddle to the rolling hills of vineyards and sweeping views of the grounds.

It is easy to imagine a wine trip to Douro that would use this hotel – which had a very good kitchen as well – as a base for area visits.  The only problem is the driving – as road to the wineries are often full of potholes and only wide enough for one car.  Imagining a foreign tourist--unfamiliar with the terrain, with a couple of glasses of wine in his or her system-- negotiating these poor roads is not a happy thought. 

I wish the Douro luck in its efforts to increase wine visitors.  The wineries themselves include both historic properties and modern wonders, such as the sleek and beautiful Quinta do Pessegueiro.  With an investment in better roadways and a bit of promotion, this region could just be the next great destination for wine travelers.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tasty Fun at New York Travel Festival

The first New York Travel Festival took place April 20-21 at Bohemian Hall in Manhattan. The event--which was aimed at younger, tech-savvy, immersive travelers--featured a host of renowned travel writers & personalities. Matt Gross, perhaps best known for his New York Times "frugal traveler" column, was on hand to discuss his new book, The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World. Jason Cochran, editor-in-chief of, Robert Reid from Lonely Planet fame, and a host of other travel writers, bloggers, and social media personalities were on hand, speaking at sessions and mixing with the crowd.
But the festival, which was the brainchild of travel writer/social media consultant Roni Weiss, didn't neglect one of the best parts of travel - eating and drinking. Imbibers were able to sample wines and spirits from the Hudson Valley, New York. Tousey and Millbrook wineries were pouring, as were Hudson Valley distilleries, Tuthilltown and Dutch Spirits. There was also a deluxe Tequila tasting bar, where experts talked attendees through flights of Mexico's most famous spirit, presented by Mexico Tourism Board, Cafe Frida, and Mezcal from Oaxaca.
NYC area travel lovers should keep an eye out for more tasty travel fun at next year's fest.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Perlae Naonis brings sparkle to Friuli

The world of sparkling wine is a big one, and more and more American wine lovers are discovering that it extends much farther than the word that was once synonymous with bubbles: Champagne.
In fact it's been a few years since Americans have discovered the more affordable and fruitier sparklers from Italy. While many wine folks conjure up the Veneto when it thinking of these, the green land of Friuli, on Italy’s Slovenian border, also produces effervescent wine.

On a trip to Friuli with a group of writers who attended the 2013 International Wine Tourism Conference, I tasted a delicious Italian sparkling wine made from all Chardonnay grapes: Perlae Naonis - Cuvée Blanc de Blanc from San Simone winery. 

We were at the final dinner of our eight day trip, so a celebration was in order. I was delighted with the sparkling wine.  The Perlae Naonis was refreshing, crisp, with streams of fast moving, pin sized bubbles racing from the bottom.  There were light notes of citrus, apple, brioche.  In fact , I could have drunk it with all the courses, instead of just the starter course.

Yet, almost as good as what was inside the bottle was the bottle itself.  The sensuously curving, dark glass was unique – making it a perfect bottle to present as a hostess gift, or just enjoy on a table at home.  

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Eat Up, Drink Up: Malt and Mold Turns One

I first visited Malt and Mold, a Lilliputian outpost of foodie, beery goodness on the Lower East Side, last summer.  I was stopping by to congratulate my friend, Kevin Heald, on his new store.  He proudly showed me his goods (food-wise), and cut me up some delicious salami, spread local butter on crusty bread for me, and gave me a little taste of what he had on tap.  Just because I'm an oenophile, doesn't mean I can't love beer, too.  And, I swear, I was going to blog about how cool it all was, but a year of life got in the way.
But lo and behold, that gave me the perfect opportunity to congratulate Kevin on his one year anniversary! So, I entreat you, dear readers, to head south to 221 East Broadway (at Clinton St.) for their one year anniversary/tasting extravaganza/live music-filled celebration Saturday.  It promises to be an afternoon of delicious fun, including Free Beer Tasting by Goose Island including:


Imperial India Pale Ale

Minx (Belgian India Pale Ale)

Matilda (Belgian Pale Ale)

Sofie (Belgian Farmhouse Ale - aged in wine barrels - a Malt & Mold customer favorite!)

Pere Jacques (Belgian Trappist style Ale)

Bourbon County Stout (Possibly the finest beer in America)

If you can't make it tomorrow, stop by any time for artisan cheeses, breads, spreads, salamis, and bring your growler to fill.  And, when you go, tell Kevin Diane sent you.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Woes of the Wineless Luggage

Easy come, easy go, so they say. On the other hand, parting is such sweet sorrow.

When I arrived at the Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Napa Valley’s lovely Meadowood Resort, I was pleased to find that each registrant was given a bottle of wine courtesy of the Napa Valley Vintners. My friend Jennifer and I drank her bottle the first night, glad that we weren’t tempted to open the mini-bar’s bottle of Matriarch at about $300.

But my bottle of Ackerman Cabernet Sauvignon was still intact on the date of my checkout. As was a bottle of Stony Hill Chardonnay, another gift from the NVV bestowed on writers who attended the premier party for their short promotional film “Napa Rocks.”

Curious about my loot, I researched the prices - $75 for the Cab, $42 for the Chardonnay. While traveling writers can’t always take back all the wine they acquire on trips, I figured these were worth schlepping back to New Jersey. Thanks to post-9/11 liquid restrictions, I’d need to check my bag – a $25 fee. Yet, purely on an economic level, I’d still come out $92 ahead. Besides, I looked forward to aging these wines, especially the Cabernet, to wait for them to show more character.

On my last day in San Francisco, I met my friend for lunch and we enjoyed sparkling rosé and a delicious plate of salumi and Cowgirl creamery cheese. We laughed and talked. And talked. A little too long.

By the time I returned to the hotel and loaded my rental car, I was a little behind my already tight schedule. Zooming down highway 101 past the exit for the airport stole another precious ten minutes.

Finally at the rental car drop off, I checked the extra charges – a $20 fee just to ride the airport shuttle to the car rental area? Fuming slightly at this unexpected charge, I settled up and rushed to the over-priced shuttle. As we chugged, chugged, chugged slowly past six other stops, I nervously checked my watch.

I leapt out at Terminal 3 and rushed to the United self service luggage check. It was 3:16 and my flight left at 3.50. “It is less than 45 before your flight. You cannot check your bag” a message on the screen read. I spoke to a check-in attendant who echoed what the machine said. She told me to talk to the curbside checkin. I raced outside. “You can’t check your bag, it’s less than 45 before you flight departs.” “Then why did the other person tell me to come out here?” She repeated, “You can’t check your bag, it’s less than 45 before you flight departs.” I said, “I know, but..” She told me to talk to another United check-in person.

I advanced to a new line and told another blue-uniformed matron of the air, “I am trying to check my bag.” “Oh, well, you can’t check it, it’s less than 45 minutes before your flight takes off.”

I tried to maintain my calm and a modicum of my natural charm, “Yes, I know that. Do you think I can speak to a manager?” An authoritative man with light brown skin and skeptical eyes strode over. “I know it’s less than 45 minutes before my flight, but I’d really like to check this bag. There’s not shampoo in here, it’s more than $100 worth of wine.” This is northern California, I thought, surely he’d understand. “I mean, if you can check your bags at the gate right before the plane leaves, why would it take 45 minutes before the flight takes off to check a bag?”

“We need to give TSA that time so they can check the bags.”


I surrendered to circumstances and pulled my bag away. I kneeled on the dirty terminal carpet and dug out my bottles, which I had carefully wrapped in jeans, sweaters, and skirts. I looked up and saw a mild-mannered man of about 40 with his wife, “Do you like wine?” I asked. “Well…” he stammered, probably thinking I was about to scam him somehow. “Look,” I hurriedly unwrapped the treasures. “Here are two very good bottles of Napa Valley wine – this one is worth $75,” I ran my hand along side of it ala Vanna White, “and this one is worth $42.” He stared, still a little confused. “I can’t bring them with me, they’re yours if you want them.” “Well,” he said, “if you’re sure.” “I’m sure – you do like wine?” “Yes,” he smiled.

As he bent down to get his booty, I wheeled my wineless luggage away, knowing that the Napa Valley Vintners Association had just made one couple very happy indeed.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Vosne-Romanee Premier Cru Les Petits Monts - ballerina of wines

We wine writers can be justly accused of taking flights of fancy when it comes to describing wine.

Disclaimer: I will do nothing to improve that questionable habit in this post.

Instead I want to propose a metaphor for the 2008 Vosne-Romanee Premier Cru Les Petits Monts from Domaine Robert Sirugue a Vosne-Romanee. We often speak (to the confusion of "regular people") of wine being feminine or masculine. I'll go one better. Not only is this wine feminine, but a certain type of woman. No curvaceous earth mother here. This wine is a ballerina - elegant, lean, balanced, and ethereal. And, with the fame Burgundy enjoys, she dances on a world stage.

She looks thin - tilt the glass and you'll see the translucent ruby of Pinot Noirs from this chilly climate. But she is not weak - while lithe, there is an inner strength. She knows who she is. Premier Cru Burgundy doesn't want to be big and brash--in certain vintages it is exquisitely delicate. Imbibers who regularly pour California or South American reds may have no appreciation for the restraint she shows. That's a shame, because just as a ballet dancer communicates deep emotion with the smallest turn of her wrist, Burgundy such as this is expressing profound Pinot Noir flavors, but in a delicate way.

While most people will acknowledge the grace of ballet, it's not everyone's thing. And so it is here. But for those people who appreciate subtlety and a centuries-old tradition of beauty, the ballet and this Burgundy are most satisfying.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Just how good was the wine at Cana?

File:Cana-01.jpgToday Catholics heard a gospel reading that is surely one of my favorites - the tale of the Wedding at Cana.  This gem of a story makes me happy for a number of reasons.  First of all, the New Testament doesn't have many parties, but this is one of them.  Secondly, it was Jesus' first miracle - that gives our favorite beverage tremendous klout from a religious point of view. Thirdly, I love that Mary plays the role of nagging mom and Jesus is the seemingly uncooperative son.  After she nudges him to solve the problem of the wedding party running out of wine, he shrugs her off, "Woman, how does your concern affect me?" And yet, just like many sons, he ends up doing what mom wants anyway, asking servants to fill up jugs with water and then, when they are presented to the wait staff, they have become wine.

But not just any wine.  The headwaiter remarks with surprise that usually the best wine is served early at the event, but they have saved the best wine for last.  I love that normally the degree of how inebriated the guests are is inverse to the quality of what's being served.  But who hasn't experienced the phenomenon of wine, beer, cocktails, or anything tasting much better after the first few drinks have been consumed?  I'm sure it's a technique still used by hosts today, although I like to drink "the good stuff" all night if I can afford to.

I like to fantasize about what the wine at the Wedding at Cana tasted like.  I like to think it was more elegant than what was being made in the surrounding vineyards at the time.  Would it have the finesse of a Burgundy from the best years, perhaps a preview of Domaine Romanee Conti?  Perhaps the masterful power of a first Growth Bordeaux from a legendary vintage?  Once I had a 1973 Riesling that still was as fresh and youthful as a new wine - my dinner companion declared, "This wine just makes me happy!" It could have been a white, after all.

In the States, our puritanical zeal for a "drug-free America" often lands any alcoholic beverage in the same heap as the hardest drugs. But I like to remind anyone who thinks this way that wine is mentioned hundreds of times in the bible, and never more fondly than at the Wedding at Cana.