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.


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).


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 California Appellation Designation: The Future of Boutique Winery Success?

The California appellation designation on a bottle of wine has long carried a negative connotation. Wine can be sourced and blended from anywhere in California, usually from the cheapest regions of the state and then packaged in a box or large format bottle.


Enter Dave Phinney.

Dave Phinney, creator of The Prisoner and Orin Swift offers a guiding light to reinterpret and reposition the California designation. We can debate the Phinney wine making style; not the sales results. Phinney sourced The Prisoner (now owned by Constellation) like many winemakers have for years, from all over California. Constellation has announced that The Prisoner Wine Company will have its own tasting room replacing Franciscan Estate in the heart of Napa Valley.

Orin Swift, now owned by Gallo, forever changed the landscape with California appellation wine designations garnering a premium price with the likes of Trigger Finger, Abstract, and Machete. Brilliant! Judging by commercial success alone, the Orin Swift and Prisoner wine business models are successful.

The new California wine model is focused more on the word California than whether you are a new or old style of winemaker, or whether or not you use a specific varietal or vineyard or what appellation the grapes are from.

Can I borrow $8000 for a ton of Cabernet?

Using the California labeling designation to its fullest extent, as Phinney has done, is one option for the boutique winemaker’s to grow and flourish. How much $5000/ton Pinot from Russian River can a micro winemaker buy each year? Or $8000/ton Cabernet from Napa? How long can a small winery float that money before they have to have positive cash flow? One season? Two?

By using the broad California appellation designation, a wine maker can use grapes from any part of the state. Early ripening, colorful, fruity and less expensive ($650/ton) Petite Sirah from District 13 (Fresno/Madera) combined with slightly more expensive ($1200/ton) Tempranillo in the Foothills (Amador/El Dorado) and finished off with some average priced Cabernet Sauvignon ($3200/ton) from the North Coast Appellation (Lake/Mendocino/Sonoma) and voilà, California Red Wine is made.


The micro winemaker would then make wines from each individual vineyard, say a vineyard designate Cabernet from Alexander Valley and sum of each appellation, a Sonoma County Cabernet or a foothills Tempranillo. A vineyard designate Cabernet from Alexander Valley and a Red Blend from California can both be made at the same time in the same location. Your harvest may start earlier and end later than most regionally specific wineries like Napa or Sonoma only, but your average costs will be lower.

The successful new California winemaker is the same as the successful old California winemaker, source quality fruit at the best prices from throughout the state and make a great wine that people will buy. Perhaps, easier said than done, but Phinney gave us all a model for success.

December Feasting

Fresh sea urchin in Santa Barbara, right off the boat. Whole roasted, bone in rib-eye cooked by yours truly only to be followed up by braising the bones and pulling the meat for Bolognese the following night. Lobster tails on Christmas Eve. Hand-made pasta at Cousin Vince's house paired with one of the first wines I ever made, a 2007 Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon. Freshly made cannoli by Mom.


I lost track of how many times I had rib-eye over the month of December. House to house, night to night, city by city it seemed rib-eye was being served. The only break in the rib-eye action was on Christmas Day when Cousin Jeff brought over some antelope (outstanding) and wild duck breasts from three different types of ducks, canvasback being one of them. Delicious (please ignore the unceremonious plating job). Wild ducks are not what most people are used to being served in restaurants, there isn't much fat on these, but the breast meat has a depth of flavor that rivals almost any beef. Cabernet is still too harsh for duck, but Pinot shines with duck, and I've always got some Pinot on hand.

From the Cellar a 2007 Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

From the Cellar a 2007 Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon


It was a fantastic December of family, friends, food and drink. A great way to end 2016.

The Jug from 1976 to 2016

A jug of wine is nothing new in my family. Below is a photo from 1976, summer vacation in Aptos, CA. My Dad in the foreground, my Grandma and my brother John in the back; I'm there on the right in the yellow shirt. And in the middle of it all, a big 3 liter jug of red wine with a screw cap. No fancy wine glass, just something to drink with the meal. Let's face it, those old jugs weren't the best red wine in the world or California. They were drinkable.

Fast forward to 2016, I've improved the quality of wine I put in my half-gallon growler. The Mastro Scheidt Jug Red Wine is purposely made, not an afterthought or with 'left-overs'. I blend several varietals from Sonoma County to craft an easily drinkable red wine for the entire table. It is bottled unfined, unfiltered, and without additional sulphites. The Jug is 64 oz or 1.89L of wine, nearly 3 normal size bottles.

Give the Jug a try. Find it online or at your local retailer in Fresno and Bakersfield. Sorry, no out-of-California sales.

My Mastrogiacomo Rosso is a Sonoma County product, filled with top quality, hand-picked fruit. 

My Mastrogiacomo Rosso is a Sonoma County product, filled with top quality, hand-picked fruit. 

Pasta Party (with wine)

Gnocchi and Linguine were on the menu Saturday night. Fresh, hand-made and demonstrated by the bald guy in the center picture (me).

The gnocchi were sauced two different ways:

Gnocchi #1 - browned butter with sage and black pepper
Gnocchi #2 - crispy pancetta with basil and garlic topped with fresh Parmigiano Reggiano

The Linguine was sauced with a Bolognese of lamb, beef and pork.

Wines poured that evening:

2014 Mastro Scheidt Sangiovese
2013 Mastro Scheidt Bordeaux Blend
2013 Denner Syrah
2012 Mastro Scheidt Superstrada
La Marca Prosecco

Most of the photos are courtesy of our hosts, John and Falina Marihart. Thanks for letting everyone get flour on your floor!

David rolls out the pasta dough with friend Trisha

David rolls out the pasta dough with friend Trisha

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

Pinot Noir and Food

I love Cabernet Sauvignon; which makes sense, I make a lot of it. But Cabernet doesn't pair well with everything. Call me traditional, but I'm NOT a huge fan of the philosophy of "drink what you like with whatever you like." Ian Fleming's James Bond taught us that you can often catch the villain at the table by just monitoring his wine choices.

While Cabernet doesn't pair with everything, Pinot Noir pairs with lots of different foods and lots of people are in LOVE with Pinot Noir.

I recently released a single-barrel of 2013 Pinot Noir and paired it with a wide variety of foods for an event I attended and served for in Visalia. I'll admit, my Pinot Noir paired well with mixed green salad and CAB sliders. Even the deep fried calamari paired up with Pinot, the salty, deep-fried breading and the acid of the Pinot balance themselves out. 

I managed to snap a few pictures of what I considered solid pairings of my Pinot Noir with some of the foods offered that night. However, Pinot Noir does NOT pair with bread pudding! Bread Pudding stands on its own! If someone is drinking Cabernet or Pinot with bread pudding, don't trust them, they may work for an evil global organization.

Pinot Noir pairs well with fried calamari

Pinot Noir pairs well with fried calamari

Pinot Noir pairs well with Mixed Green Salad

Pinot Noir pairs well with Mixed Green Salad

Pinot Noir pairs with CAB sliders and caramelized onions

Pinot Noir pairs with CAB sliders and caramelized onions

Pinot Noir does NOT pair with Bread Pudding

Pinot Noir does NOT pair with Bread Pudding

Football, Food and Wine

Sitting around on the final Sunday of football season has become a tradition with some close friends.

Winemaker, David Scheidt slicing up BBQ pork ribs

Winemaker, David Scheidt slicing up BBQ pork ribs

Always a pot-luck event, there is no real theme to the day, other than perhaps excess and quality. Guests are welcome to bring anything they'd like. There have been a few coordinated efforts over the years to not cook "one too many tri-tips", which seems to occur at many events in Fresno.


However, 'one too many ribs', 'too much sashimi' and plenty of wine is not a problem. Below are a few pics from the evening.