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.

Loud and Clear

The first of its kind Craft Wine Growler Dinner in Fresno was performed with unique flair and precision (and a little fun).

Front of House Ink...Loud and Clear

Front of House Ink...Loud and Clear

The entire staff, both front and back-of-house were ready for the end of a jam-packed Restaurant Week. The staff were encouraged to "dress down" from their more formal dress code, to something that resembled backyard BBQ attire (the Hawaiian shirt above, show off some personal ink and the shoes at the bottom). To fit the more relaxed theme of the evening, a special menu of small bites were prepared to pair perfectly with our craft wine growler...lovingly referred to by Mastro Scheidt fans as "The Jug".

For all the pictures, click on our Craft Growler BBQ gallery. I've got some shots of personal ink, the shoes all the staff wore and the various hats worn by all the kitchen staff that evening. A fun look inside the restaurant business and the characters that work in it.

BBQ Ribs

BBQ Ribs

The Jug is 100% Sonoma County Red Wine composed of Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon hand-blended and hand-bottled. Each and every guest in the sold out restaurant received their own craft growler at the conclusion of dinner to take home.



Thanks to each and every guest for their participation and enthusiasm.

The Best Shoes I've ever seen in the Front of House

The Best Shoes I've ever seen in the Front of House

The Terroir of Parmigiano Reggiano

As a winemaker, I am built to talk about terroir. Terroir, is the French term used to describe the place of origin, a unique set of descriptors for a wine from a specific region, vineyard, or vineyard block. Cabernet Sauvignon from a specific vineyard in Dry Creek Valley has a unique terroir different from a vineyard in Napa.

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

In the same vein as a wine tasting, I attended a cheese tasting sponsored by the Parmigiano Reggiano Academy at Cookhouse in San Francisco. I didn’t know what to expect from a cheese tasting. I’ve been to countless wine tastings for 20 years, arranged by everyone from the local wine shop to events sponsored by a particular viticultural region. I always learn something, either about my own palate or about the wine being drunk.

Photo by David Scheidt, Parma, Italy 2009

The focus of the Parmigiano tasting was to sample Parmigiano Reggiano aged 14-18 months, 24 months (Vecchio), 36 months (Stravecchio), directly from the wheel and incorporated with food. Chef Jordan Schacter of Jordan’s Kitchen in San Francisco, prepared an entire menu of Parmigiano heavy, small plates ranging from a Parmigiano crisp pizza to Parmigiano polenta topped with sugo. My personal favorite Parmigiano inspired dish of the night? Parmigiano and mushroom accented brodo.

Why would anyone consider Parmigiano Reggiano a homogenous branded cheese from Italy?

If I were to tell a fellow wine maker or sommelier that all Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for 12 months from the Sonoma County AVA is basically the same product, I’d get some real funny looks.

But that's exactly what many of us do when we speak generically of Parmigiano. And here's why...

An accurate definition of Parmigiano Reggiano and a good enough answer for most would be that Parmigiano Reggiano is produced exclusively in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna, on the plains, hills and mountains enclosed between the rivers Po and Reno, made exclusively of cow’s milk, made with natural rennet and aged a minimum of 12 months.

But the answer above only describes the minimum requirements to be called Parmigiano Reggiano.

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

For the Parmigiano tasting at Cookhouse, the focus of the evening was on the age of the cheese, from 14 months to 36 month. Parmigiano at 36 months is certainly drier in mouth feel, has a more crumbly texture, and greater intensity of flavor that a 14 month old wheel. A 14 month Parmigiano could easily be described as creamy. Each cheese maturity level can also have different applications in the culinary world, with younger cheeses playing a supporting role in polenta, while a stravecchio parmigiano a leading role on a cheese plate with balsamico.

Beyond the sensory and maturity characteristics we focused on that evening, I began to become even more curious about the specific origins of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

384 dairies are responsible for all of the Parmigiano production, globally distributed, of which 34% is exported to countries like the United States. Each dairy produces milk throughout the year from various cows, in various regions, independently of each other.

Each dairy will have variations in cows, harvest, feed, temperature, etc.  Similarly in the production of wine, there are variations in soil type, fertilization, sun aspect, and temperature. Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 7 grown in Alexander Valley, while genetically the same as Cabernet Clone 7 grown in Dry Creek Valley will have dramatically different flavors even if harvested on the same day each year, even if only grown 5 miles apart. Conditions vary from region to region, town to town, winery to winery, winemaker to winemaker. In the case of Parmigiano, conditions vary from dairy to dairy and cow to cow throughout the region of Emilia Romagna.

If there are 384 dairies, how many different cheese makers are there? One for each dairy? Again, the analogy to wine makers is appropriate and accurate. No matter the minimum production standard, each cheese maker has learned a technique, timing, and “feel” differently than their counterparts at other dairies, just like wine makers.

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

With all the potential variables for each wheel of Parmigiano, why do so many consumers and cheese mongers generalize Parmigiano Reggiano as some homogenized product; albeit hand-made and of the utmost quality? Various conditions exist in raising cattle as they do in winemaking; yet a sommelier would never consider all Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County homogenized. That would be blasphemy! It’s actually a disservice to generalize and homogenize Parmigiano Reggiano into a monolithic hard Italian cheese.

A few basic distinctions when consuming and buying Parmigiano Reggiano: 

  • Milk comes from Red Cows, Brown Cows and Holsteins. Certain dairies will stamp their certified Parmigiano wheels with a secondary brand, indicating place of origin and the type of cow used for milk. Red and Brown cow milk is more highly prized and more rare than Parmigiano made from Holsteins.
  • Cows are milked throughout the year, causing seasonal variations in the milk, spring versus winter milks, and the diet of the cows from dairy to dairy can vary. Each wheel of Parmigiano is stamped by month, to ensure the 12 month minimum aging requirement, but nothing more.
  • There is no legal certification beyond 12 months of aging. Dairies, exporters, and your local cheese monger may or may not know and is under no obligation to disclose the various ages of the cheese. However, there is an obvious difference in flavor, texture, and visual appearance between a 14 month and a 36 month piece of cheese. 

After a couple hours eating, discussing, and analyzing Parmigiano Reggiano I have a new respect, understanding, and inquisitiveness about The King of Italian Cheeses and the vast kingdom of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Just as I never take Cabernet Sauvignon from Dry Creek Valley for granted, I will never take another purchase of Parmigiano Reggiano for granted either.

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

Miles, Merlot and Italy

Of all the wines I have drunk, I can recall a few wines that have altered my opinions and broadened my experience; Ridge’s Monte Bello, an eight year vertical tasting of Opus One, and everything from Vino da Tavola to the finest Barolo in Italy.

Most American’s have a perspective on what merlot tastes like; merlot is looked down upon, marginalized, blended. I certainly have my opinion. I’ve never thought of merlot as the primary grape for making an outstanding American style Bordeaux, much less a single varietal Bordeaux. I like merlot as a varietal; I also like other varietals, zinfandel and petite sirah just to name two. I doubt merlot, zin, or petite could hold up against a great Cabernet or Pinot.

The film Sideways deepened America’s marginalization of merlot.  Miles rant about not wanting to drink “F’ing merlot” in favor of Pinot seemed appropriate, considering his love affair with the Burgundy varietal. Then there was the final irony, drinking a Château Cheval Blanc, heavily influenced by merlot; with a hamburger.

I have a friend, fellow wine aficionado and American Italian who knows her way around the world of great wines. It was a double blind tasting in Bakersfield and Lanette was pouring, explaining, and challenging the crowd that had gathered. Opinions were not something the crowd was unwilling to share; strong opinions to be sure.

I know that Lanette put something special in front of us for this double blind tasting. I know Lanette wouldn’t trick us with some plonker or over-rated trophy. I also happen to trust Lanette.

The wines had been set to the proper temperature, decanted and appropriate stemware was available. Each of the bottles we tasted was brown bagged for secrecy. We were standing, gathered around a large table, tasting among friends and peers; informal yet serious.

In most cases, with each taste, great wines reveal something, something more. Sure, I can figure out the sensory stuff with the best in the room. But that sensory evaluation is fleeting, it’s momentary, as the wine expands in the glass. The evaluation is also particular to the moment, as wine is constantly changing in the bottle. Taste the same wine a month later and the conditions change. Great wines are pervasive, they make an immediate sensory impact and a long-term personal impact; compelling the taster to seek out the wine again and again.

My first smells and tastes were probably a holdover from the truffle cheese and prosciutto de Parma I’d eaten moments earlier. So the first tastes were a throwaway, to refresh the palate.

Even though I discounted my first taste, one of the wines was certainly rich.

The second taste began to reveal what I was experiencing in that moment. Bold fruit; no-holds-barred fruit; with a monster of a back palate. This wine was not for the faint or those looking for softness. In all honesty, the second taste actually put me off a bit, it was too much, too bold. This certainly wasn’t a Pinot or Burgundy blind tasting. It had to be Bordeaux. But was this a blend or a single varietal? I know from past tastings, the likelihood of me figuring out if this wine was pure Cabernet or something else, was not likely. I’m much better at figuring out Old World versus American versus New World wines. This certainly tasted American to me, but knowing Lanette, I put the odds of this wine being American at 50/50.

Tasting again and again I began to shift my focus from sensory evaluation to personality and situational characteristics. When would I drink a wine like this and with whom? Who would appreciate this? What’s the setting? What food would pair with this wine? This is a showcase wine, not a warm-up. Any lesser wines, I don’t contemplate this much; I simply drink and move on. This had to be an epic wine.

But what was it? Who made it? Where was it from?

I get the fact that this is well crafted wine. This wine is not being tasted on its own, but side-by-side with another wine. And while I didn’t know it at the time, we were about to taste 8 other wines of high quality, side-by-side for the next couple hours.

For some reason, the crowd was very excited about this second wine. Is it rare? Is it expensive? Probably yes to both. Was I the only guy who wasn’t in on this? Then Lanette says, “this is the Latour of Italy…the Lafite of Italy.” So it was Bordeaux.

Take another sip…

Again from Lanette, “if I told you this was 100% Merlot, would that change anyone’s opinion?”

Take another sip…

I think to myself, “This wine is outstanding…this is merlot? No way…merlot doesn’t taste like this. The Lafite of Italy…What the hell have I been missing?! An Italian merlot maker? That narrows the list considerably.”

The suspense was building and Lanette was doing a wonderful job of building it.

I’m now captive, hostage to this wine. I know it’s of very high quality, from Italy, and 100% Merlot.

Do I have any sips left?

The brown bags are are torn apart to reveal…Masseto; 100% merlot from Italy and coming in at 15% alcohol.

I’ve only read about this wine; the book, a gift from my Mother about the best wines of Italy written by Bastianich. I’ve tended to favor the wines from La Spinetta, Gaja, and Pio Cesare over the years as benchmarks for the finest red wines in Italy. I would have never have guessed merlot could taste this good; this great. Nebbiolo, yes. Merlot, no.

Once the Masseto was revealed, it was quickly snatched up, but it was only the beginning of the evening. I wish I could have squirreled away another glass for later comparison. This is one of those rare opportunities where opinions are changed in an instant. Forget the preconceptions, your bias and learn something new. Merlot can be extraordinary.

At the end of the night, I had a glass of 2007 Ridge Monte Bello in my glass, a wine that made me change my perceptions regarding American oak and Cabernet Sauvignon outside of Napa Valley.  The Monte Bello was a fitting end to a provocative and enjoyable evening dedicated to changing my opinion about merlot. Italians can make a fantastic merlot; we Americans should try harder at making one too.

Thanks Lanette.

Masseto 2009

Ridge Monte Bello 2007

Hundred Acre 2009

Guado al Tasso 2009

Ramey Pedregal 2008

Opus One 2007 (twice)

Bryant Family Bettina 2009

8 Guests, 8 Courses, 8 Wines

It was such a pleasure to get into the kitchen with Chef Tommy Chavez again. It was a fun night, but certainly not an easy one. Everything was cooked to order and from scratch. I even baked fresh fennel bread for the event. Chef Tommy and I were challenged by the glass cook top (not induction), but it was 10 times easier to clean up after than a gas range. Otherwise, things moved quickly and smoothly.

Long-time friend John Marihart made sure our eight special guests always had their glasses filled, their plates cleared, stemware polished and of course, gave the kitchen feedback on how the evening was progressing. Special thanks to Falina Marihart for taking all the pictures that night, cleaning dishes, utencils, stemware, and tasting all of our food before it was sent out. Non-stop for everyone and everyone did their part to make sure our guests had a great evening.

For your viewing pleasure, we've attached a slide show below, a brief history of the evening in the kitchen.

We would like to thank everyone who was a part of a wonderful night of food, wine, and celebration. Here's the menu and the wines for the event (And yes, I favored some Dry Creek Valley reds that night, but I'm biased). The Gruet, the only non-California wine, was served because one of our guests has a special connection to New Mexico. I have links to all of the wines and the wineries in the menu below, just hover over the wine for the link.



Gruet, New Mexico Blanc de Noirs NV




Caymus 2010 Conundrum White




Caymus 2009 Conundrum Red




Pine Ridge 2010 Chenin Blanc/Viognier




Lago di Merlo 2009 Dry Creek Valley Sangiovese




A. Rafanelli 2004 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel




Mastro Scheidt 2007 Proprietor’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon




Windwalker 2001 Orange Muscat



Chiaroscuro and La Folie in One Night

I’ve already talked about how good I think Chiaroscuro is on The Cured Ham a couple of times.  I'm amazed how little coverage Chiaroscuro gets from the Bay Area food scene, especially for how authentic and consistent it is. I have a special place in my heart for pasta and I feel confident that Chef Alessandro will cook better pasta than I can most nights. I’m sure Chef has off nights, but my birthday dinner was not one of them. And considering Chef's Mother was also in the kitchen, everything had to be good.

I’ve attached the meal as presented that evening. On the cheese plate, a cherry leaf wrapped goat cheese from Basilicata was the standout. A house cured lamb prosciutto had a punch of pepper to it that was unexpected. The desserts that evening were a raisin gelato (that had absolutely no chewy raisins in it), strawberry shortcake, and profiteroles. The profiteroles a.k.a. cream puffs, had nearly the same density, texture, and softness as my Italian Grandmother’s. And yes, both pasta dishes were outstanding. The rigatoni was challenging to the palate with one secret ingredient (which we had to ask Chef about. He was being sneaky about that addition and no I'm not divulging it here).


What I didn’t plan for that evening was a special look inside La Folie. One of my cousins is close to Chef Passot. I was allowed to view kitchen operations at the height of service. Basically a step away from the pass, as I watched Chef inspect and arrange nearly every dish. The kitchen is small, efficient, and very busy. No room for idle chit chat, only communication about their stations and timing. What a delight to watch.

After service was over, Chef sat with my cousin, a good friend, and me for nearly 45 minutes. We talked about food of course, but also family, travel, and living in the Bay Area. Chef suddenly became another friend at the table. Way cool. Chef Passot was extremely generous with his time.

I couldn’t have had a better birthday. Welcome to 40 years on Planet Earth.