Back in the Game, the Restaurant Game

Part 2 of Who Wants to Try a $500 Wine?

20 minutes after I got through with Shackelford, I attended a private tasting at long-time friend John Marihart’s house. Back in the restaurant game, John was on hiatus from the restaurant business to start a family and a successful second career in the technology business before returning to the food and beverage business to open a prime steakhouse. John has goals; big goals, because just like in Road House, John will get enough sleep when he’s dead.

The double blind tasting was conducted by Sommelier Vincent Cho.  I was certainly ‘warmed up’ from tasting with Shackelford.

The highlight of the tasting, was the flight of Cabernet. My Jedi senses were strong late in the day, as I yakked poetically about Chateau Montelena in Napa, the stylistic nuances it has along with the historic Paris tasting, fresh with the memory of the more modern Schrader/Scarecrow/Hourglass in my brain. Knowing there was at least one French Bordeaux in my flight, I didn’t guess Lynch Bages, but was very happy to be moving back and forth, pondering between the Montelena and the Lynch Bages. The third wine in the flight, a ‘new American’ Matthiasson Cabernet was more about contrast in the flight, as the wine was very lean and acid driven. In the perfect world and combining both the Shackelford and Marihart/Cho tastings, going from a Matthiasson to Forman to Lynch Bages to Montelena to Schrader would be an incredible example of Cabernet in a range of styles and the history of California winemaking.

As a Cabernet winemaker, I want luxury in my young Cabernet, not lean fruit and mouthfuls of acid. If I’m pulling a cork on a $60 Cabernet I want it to drink luscious, not lean. I want decadent, not demure. Dark black brooding fruits, not red cheery cherry fruit. If I wanted lean and full of bright red fruit, we had one in our blind flight, the Jolie Laide Gamay Noir from El Dorado County. Lean and mean, it was all bright red acidic fruit and perfect to drink early with cheese and country pate’, not a steak.

Other standout wines included a Krug Grande Cuvee 163rd edition,  a flight of Chardonnay, 1st Cru Meursault from 09 and 16 and the Rajat Parr project Sandhi Mt. Carmel SRH. A great comparison of wines from both old and new world, yet strikingly similar in style, but that seemed to be the point. Another Somm project, Gramercy Cellars 2014 Lagniappe Syrah from Washington was dense and rich and opened up nicely, I went back to it with some of the smoked tenderloin that was offered for dinner. The final two wines of the tasting were a Brunello and a Rioja, textbook style Brunello that was my first real drink with dinner (meaning, I was done spitting) and a Rioja that was built for the American or export palate, showing the presence of the American oak in the front and mid palate.

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Not every wine is a great wine in these tasting formats. From the Marihart/Cho tasting, I’m still not a big fan of whole cluster fermentations. The green character they exude when whole cluster is being done for the sake of being called whole cluster is no different than putting 100% new oak on Cab because it checks some box, it is lazy wine making for the sake of being cool. When whole cluster ferments taste like yalanchi filled with green peppers dipped in a wheatgrass sauce, it didn’t work out the way you planned and don’t excuse it for terroir, it’s not terroir, it's sloppy and a poor experiment.

I'm looking forward to my next double blind tasting experience with Marihart Inc....carrying on 35 years of tasting everything from Keystone Light to Grand Cru Bordeaux.

Who wants to try a $500 wine?

Who wants to try a $500 wine? Or perhaps a $30 wine that tastes like pickle juice?

Part 1

I love being involved in wine tastings. Triple threat Chef/Somm/Proprietor Chris Shackelford has been holding open tastings for as long as I remember.  Usually about 30 or so wines from around the world are poured, with a mix of anything from a $20mid-week sipper, natural wines, right on through a $500 cult Cab from Napa; basically something for everyone and every budget. Knowing how to taste at Shack’s event is key, everyone bum-rushes the most expensive Pinot first, so avoid that station. Rather, enjoy a glass of Riesling or Sparkling wine to start, as there should be enough Pinot to try in about 20 minutes.

Highlights from Shack’s tasting for me included the Hourglass HG III Red Blend 2016 out of Napa, a Merlot heavy wine and rather enjoyable this early for $55, it’s warm-weather, modern, with some oak, but it totally works. The Schrader RBS To-Kalon Beckstoffer 2015 is pure clone 337 Cabernet on a specific French oak for 20 months, which allows me to see what a very pure expression of Cabernet tastes like in the modern style.  I work with clone 337 in Dry Creek, so it’s helpful to see where other winemakers take the fruit. For something with some bottle age and grace, a 1985 Forman Cabernet, Napa Valley was a dramatic contrast to the Hourglass or Schrader. The 85 Forman came in at 12.8% alcohol and drinking as you would expect a wine of pedigree from that era, wonderfully. Looping back to Pinot, the 2015 Trombetta Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast was my favorite in the line-up. Oh, there was a Scarecrow in there too, yawn…(that’s because I didn’t get any).

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From the Shackelford tasting there were a few wines of the 'natural' category (not pictured). Pickle juice and brett showed up in back-to-back wines where flaws become flavors to some. It’s tough for me and other winemakers to be blatantly honest about many of these wines, as some of the winemakers are our peers and friends. Some of the stuff is just plain horrible and it gets an audience, simply because it’s different, not good. In fact, Sonic Burger just announced a Pickle Juice Slushie just in time for summer. Combine that with kombucha sales and maybe there’s a trend for vinegar based beverages. I’m just tasting volatile acidity (VA) and poorly made wines from producers who know better.

Perhaps among ancient Rome’s peasants, having a wine that tasted like pickle juice and had 10% alcohol in it was better than dysentery or cholera, but we live in modern times and I don’t want wine that tastes like pickle juice. Let’s face it, you messed up your ferment and you have to sell it, I get it, bulk it out next time and call it a day. 

I'll post Part 2 of my all-day tasting with a post entitled Back in the Game and a double blind tasting.

The Hunter, 2016 White Wine

Mastro Scheidt releases The Hunter, 2016 White Wine

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While technically not a drought year, 2016 offered abundant sunshine and warmth through the growing season. Yields were up over 2015 and about on par with 2014. Setting pick dates, we saw no complications. Several vineyards were used in the creation of this wine throughoutSonoma County.

The 2016 Hunter is a classic Bordeaux inspired white blend. The backbone is all Sauvignon Blanc adding acidity and notes of lemon cream and melon to the blend, without any unripe flavors. I'm personally not a fan of grassy Sav Blanc. The addition of Semillon and barrel fermentation in neutral French oak adds complexity and roundness to the finished wine.

I hope you enjoy this wine all Summer long. I will.

For those that want the technical specs, find them HERE.

Rose of Sangiovese 2016

Rose of Sangiovese 2016 aka The First Rose I've Ever Made!

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Rosé of Sangiovese is a wine I’ve always wanted to create, as I’ve produced various Sangiovese red wines over the last several years. The wine was created using the saignée method, a technique whereby I drain off juice from the main body of the Sangiovese crop, which has had skin contact for a 24 hour period. The resulting juice for this Rose is light pink in color.

The juice was placed in last year’s Sangiovese barrels for primary fermentation for 14 days and stirred twice on the gross lees. The wine was then racked off the gross lees and returned to barrel, where it was stirred again twice, or bâtonnage, adding texture to the wine. The wine was not allowed to go through secondary fermentation.

The result is pale pink in color, with a bit more depth on the palate. The wine was fermented dry, without residual sugar.

For those that want all the technical specs you can find it HERE.

A Hot Dog Wine Pairing

I'm a traditionalist; white wine doesn't pair with rib-eye and Cab doesn't pair with shrimp, period. However, when an opportunity presents itself to pair my wines with hot dogs, I don't see much downside. It's a hot dog, I can drop the pretense.

The pairings were done on a working crush pad at the winery and I chilled my wines before eating the hot dogs (it's 100 degrees up in Healdsburg).

The first dog incorporated a Southwest or Tex-Mex flavor profile; the second is a spin on a banh mi Vietnamese sandwich.

Tex-Mex Hot Dog with the 2014 Mastro Scheidt Il Bruno Sangiovese

The Tex-Mex style dog used a Niman Ranch uncured hot dog, a smear of paprika honey mustard on each side of a normal hot dog bun, some pickled jalapeno pineapple salsa, corn cotija salsa and finally a few pieces of fried chorizo on top. The acid and heat from the jalapeno pineapple salsa combined with the cotija cheese are what bring this hot dog to the next level. Sweet, savory, hot, pickled, cool and fat from the chorizo and hot dog for some reason all work with my Sangiovese. I'm not just saying it, it works, but I wouldn't have ever thought to pair all this stuff together with a Sangiovese.

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 Corn and cotija salsa

Corn and cotija salsa

Banh Mi Hot Dog with the 2015 Mastro Scheidt Hunter White Wine

The minute I heard "banh mi" I thought of my white wine blend. Since the first vintage, my white wine, The Hunter, has always had citrus flavors which allow generally solid pairings with Thai and Vietnamese foods. With the addition of Muscadelle to The Hunter in 2015, a wider range of spicy flavors have begun to pair well with my white wine.

The Banh Mi hot dog had some lightly pickled hot red chili which added zing and heat to the hot dog and paired off with The Hunter well. Add the richness of a peanut sauce and the fat from the Niman hot dog, and the citrus flavors in the wine cut through, again harmoniously. The hot dog itself was fun because it plays on textures, heat, Thai/Vietnamese flavors that is so far away from a ballpark hot dog, I'm surprised more people don't demand more condiments at the ball game.

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 Chili and peanuts for my hot dog

Chili and peanuts for my hot dog

Lamb, potatoes, green beans, Zinfandel

My friends and I have been sous vide crazy this summer. We've even tried to sous vide an artichoke (not that I'd recommend it).

I didn't do much cooking for this dinner, I have childhood friend John to thank for the sous vide lamb. Lamb leg was the next logical candidate for the sous vide machine. Leg of lamb generally has a long, slow cooking time anyway, so it makes sense to use a little science and cooking together. There is no real recipe for sous vide leg of lamb, other than cooking time, which was 9 hours. We finished it on a charcoal fire for some color and additional flavor.

 Sous vide lamb leg with roasted peppers

Sous vide lamb leg with roasted peppers

For me, what made the entire meal pop were the green beans. Chinese influenced green beans were the contrast to all the richness in the meal. The salty umami heat in the sauce made me want to have another bite of lamb and another sip of Zinfandel. It was a virtuous circle of eating.

I can't take credit for the green beans, John's wife Falina prepared the dish, in addition to the roasted potatoes, one style with feta the other with proscuitto.

Pan fried green beans with slivered almonds and chili sauce

1 package Fresh green beans (you know, the ones that come in the bag, cleaned)
1 tablespoon Fresh chopped garlic
1/4 cup Shaved almonds
3 tablespoons Soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chili paste
3 tablespoons Canola or Peanut Oil

Blanche your green beans in boiling, salted water for about 30 seconds.

Have a large, hot saute pan ready to combine all the ingredients above for a quick, high heat saute (unless you're lucky enough to have a commercial wok in your house). The saute pan should NOT be overloaded with green beans. It's better for this dish to split the green beans in two or three batches, so that the pan stays screaming hot and the cooking process stays hot, this is wok-style cooking in a non-commercial home kitchen.

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Steelhead Salmon Dip for the 4th of July

It's hot in Fresno all Summer. Real hot. 100 degrees plus. Fresno is all about backyard parties, cold beer and white wine (generally white wine, some Fresnans will put ice in red wine during the summer, I usually just pop the whole bottle in ice).

A simple cream cheese and salmon (cooked and cooled salmon, not a tartare) based dip, kept cold, is an easy appetizer to wash down with beer and wine all summer long. 

The proportions in the picture below, outline the entire recipe and ingredient list. Rather than write everything down, I just shot a picture instead. Remember to juice the lemon and chop the taragon for those that take things literally. Stir everything together until incorporated.

You can scoop the dip with vegetables, such as celery or carrots, or serve with toast points or crackers. If you want your salmon dip to have a creamier texture to it, add sour cream and/or mayonnaise and a bit more salt and pepper to taste.

 Cooked salmon, cream cheese, lemon juice, red onion,taragon, capers, salt and pepper - stir all ingredients vigorously until combined

Cooked salmon, cream cheese, lemon juice, red onion,taragon, capers, salt and pepper - stir all ingredients vigorously until combined

 Finished product, salmon dip topped with taragon

Finished product, salmon dip topped with taragon

 The Hunter and the salmon dip are a natural pairing

The Hunter and the salmon dip are a natural pairing

Paradise Patio Party Couscous Recipe

Paradise, California. 

There is such a place. It's just off Highway 395 nestled in at 5,200 feet. I've been to a few patio parties there in the last couple years. For this party, I prepared a couscous salad, along with my tri-tip beef skewers. 

Here's the recipe for the couscous salad:

Cooked Couscous
4 cups Couscous
4 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
2 teaspoons salt
½ cup olive oil
Follow package instructions for the cooking of the couscous.

After couscous is cooked, let cool on an oiled large sheet tray so that the couscous can be worked over by hand. Using your hands (kitchen gloves make this easier and less messy), make sure the couscous is coated in the olive oil. Break up any clumps of couscous with your hands. This will prevent it from clumping up later if you are making your couscous in advance and it sits. Couscous should be “light and fluffy” not clumpy and starchy. 

For the dressing
1 small handful of fresh mint, chiffonade
4 red bell peppers, minced
10 green onions, minced
½ cup Olive oil
½  cup Rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Ras el Hanout (to be found at places like Trader Joe’s and Cost Plus)
1 teaspoon salt

Combine all the dressing ingredients in a large bowl and allow ingredients to marinate together for an hour. This will help soften the edge of the bell peppers and green onions.

Combine Couscous and Dressing

Combine the cooled couscous and the dressing together in the large bowl. You can serve immediately or hold for a couple hours at room temperature.

If I may be so bold, grilled tri tip skewers and couscous salad pair really well with my Cabernet Cuvee. Yes, that is a picture of several red wines kept cool on ice. It's 100 degrees in Paradise at 5pm in the summer, I wouldn't want to drink my red wine either if it were "room temperature"!

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Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Vertical

I showcased three vintages of my Signature Cabernet Sauvignon at one of my tasting events recently to highlight the differences Mother Nature can impart on Dry Creek Valley Cabernet.

2011 was from the summer that never came, 2012 was the "perfect season" and 2013 was an early harvest and a warm, dry growing season. The Signature is always Dry Creek Valley fruit. It can come from various vineyards and since 2011, has been 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.

 Three years of Signature Cabernet Sauvignon from Dry Creek Valley

Three years of Signature Cabernet Sauvignon from Dry Creek Valley

These three Cabernet's are remarkably different. From lean in 2011 to plush in 2013; there's something for every Cabernet lover in this line-up. 

While tasting the vertical of Signature with customers, I was asked more often than not, "Which is your favorite?". Signature has always been my project; blending from various fruit sources in Dry Creek Valley, trying not to be just another Cab that tastes like blackberries and spice. I don't think I have a favorite, what I have are three very different wines:

2011 Signature: For my palate, the 2011 tastes best with beef, plain and simple. When I'm having steak, be it rib-eye or New York, the 2011 shines brightest. Lower alcohol and higher acid is the perfect pairing with rich beef. The 2011 has been showing better each year since release, gradually maturing with its peak still a few years off. Think Bordeaux, not Napa or Sonoma Cab.

2012 Signature: The 2012 pairs best with lamb. Where the 2011 is more about minerality and austerity, the 2012 is more about macerated fruit, plums and roasted nuts. The 2012 has gone through the most changes since bottling, a moving target of flavors that have paired well with pasta initially, to burgers and pizza last year, to grilled and stewed lamb today. Something about the pronounced flavors of lamb are hitting the spot with the 2012 Signature.

2013 Signature: The 2013 is all about elegant, sexy, smooth drinkability. The 2013 seems to get consumed before dinner hits the table. I picked the 2013 fruit several weeks earlier than 2012, and not all at the same time. Layering of flavors, chewy tannins, full palate smoothness and a lingering palate have contributed to the early drinkability of this wine.

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The Signature Cabernet is the only wine I hold back in inventory and release date. I want to show the evolution of style, the effects of weather, and what cellar time does to change the wine. The 2014 is already in the bottle, the 2015 is in the barrel and I'm looking to my trials on the 2015 as the 6th vintage in the series.

I'll continue to write about the evolution of the Signature wine from personal tastings and interaction with customers. 

New Release Focus - 2014 Zinfandel

I've been hinting at this project for a while. 100% Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel from the 2014 vintage.

Before I was a Cabernet drinker, I was a Zinfandel zealot. I couldn't get enough of the stuff. Verticals of Zin took up my cellar. But around 1995, things began to change. I was buying less and less Zin, sometimes no Zin at all. Zinfandel was morphing into an alcoholic fruit bomb of a wine. Riper and riper with each passing year to the point I couldn't drink the stuff anymore. 

So, I took matters into my own hands and made Zinfandel in 2014. 

I decided on first pass French and American oak for the Zin; a difference from what many do in Sonoma County, favoring more neutral Hungarian and American oak. Hungarian oak is known for spice characteristics. Likewise, Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel has pronounced spice as a matter of terroir. I saw no reason to double up on the spice character of my first release of Zinfandel. 

Secondly, I extended the Zinfandel aging process from a more typical 9-12 month program in oak to just over 12 months. That additional time in oak smooths out the corners, rounds the edges, and builds complexity.  

I'm craving elegance in my Zinfandel. A Zinfandel that shows power, but not alcohol; rich fruit but not cooked fruit, spice but not heat. 

I want to drink Zinfandel again...my Zinfandel!