A Surprise at Nixon Library: A Wine Glass Display

NixonBirthplaceTo honor my future father-in-law, as well as a cousin on my mother’s side — both of whom served in the Vietnam War — my future wife, her daughter and I wanted to do something on Memorial Day besides firing up the barbecue.

So we decided to attend a wreath ceremony at the Richard Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. The master of ceremonies said he believed it was the best attended Memorial Day event in the museum’s history.

There were brief remarks by local politicians and decorated military personnel, and wonderful patriotic music performed by a Marine Corps marching band. Afterward, attendees could walk through Nixon’s birthplace (shown here), pose for a picture aboard the Marine 1 helicopter, and visit the museum’s exhibits.

It would take hours to tour the facility properly, and because of the big crowd, we vowed to return on another day. But before we left, a small display case caught my eye — first, because it featured a picture not of Nixon, but rather of John F. Kennedy, and second, because it included wine glasses.

I had skipped most of the displays dealing with the opening of relations with China and the details of Watergate, but I couldn’t skip this one.

Under Kennedy’s name, the placard read:

“In 1961, Mrs. Kennedy ordered new glassware from Morgantown Glass Guild in West Virginia. She ended the tradition of ordering engraved stemware. The simple design of the glassware allows it to be used for formal or informal settings. On display is a set that consists of two wine glasses; tulip champagne glass; water goblet, and a fingerbowl.”

No details were offered regarding why Mrs. Kennedy had decided not to order engraved stemware. Thus, the display had both informed and perplexed me. I had to learn more about the tradition of engraved stemware at the White House.

I’ll let you know what I found out in tomorrow’s blog.

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Brunch and Wine in the ‘New’ Las Vegas

Welcome to Las Vegas neon signWhen I was a kid, most of our family vacations were to Las Vegas. My folks loved the downtown area, and it was perfectly safe and acceptable for one teen (my brother) and one pre-teen (me) to stand by the casino entrances while their parents fed nickels, dimes and quarters into slot machines a few feet away inside.

Like so many visiting Californians, we’d arrive on Friday night (following dinner at the Bun Boy in the desert outpost of Baker), and leave on Sunday morning — but not before partaking of one of the casino’s buffet brunches. The typical price: $1.99, all you could eat.

That was Old Vegas, and it has been gone for a long time.

While the downtown area still exists and has been undergoing extensive urban renewal, most of the brunch action has shifted to the Strip and the suburbs. In the New Vegas, brunch isn’t about cheap eats; it’s about gourmet fare, a wide selection and, in several cases, some pretty good wine.

Here are five Las Vegas brunch destinations for oenophiles…

  • Bardot Brasserie — Some are saying that this is the best new restaurant in Las Vegas, so it’s no surprise that its brunch is stellar. Picture eggs Benedict made with Swiss chard or smoked salmon, atop a croissant… or a king crab buckwheat crepe bathed in beurre blanc. And for an extra $20, you can drink all the French rosé your heart desires. At the Aria resort. 702-590-8638.
  • Fountains Brunch at Jasmine — Most Vegas visitors hit this brunch for the view of the Bellagio fountains. While that view is awesome, so is the food, including seafood flown in fresh, dim sum options and a chocolate fountain. It’s made all the more sublime with a glass of bubbly. 702-693-8865.
  • Jazz Brunch at the Country Club — At this Wynn resort restaurant, the views are of the golf course, and the palate-pleasing options include ultra-fresh smoked salmon, an amazing seafood ceviche, and sausages so good they’re served at a carving station. Add in boundless bubbles, and it’s impossible to leave this brunch without a smile on your face. 877-321-9966.
  • Marche Bacchus — While tourists jam the Strip hotels to get their brunch fixes, locals head here, part of the lakeside Desert Shores development. Crab and asparagus Benedict is an inspired dish, as is the lobster salad croissant. What locals also know is that when you “do brunch at Bacchus” on Saturdays, free wine tastings are part of the deal. 702-804-8008.
  • Sterling Brunch at BLT Steak — Back on the Strip, this is a true Las Vegas classic.

Bally’s Steak House closed last year, then was remodeled and given a new identity: BLT Steak. The old Sterling Brunch was so good that Vegas residents were willing to fight the tourist crowds in order to partake of the lobster, cognac and Boursin omelet, accompanied by “bottomless” (a term that means something else at some other Vegas places of business) Perrier-Jouet Champagne. Well, those old mainstays are back, making the Sterling Brunch a true “destination meal.” 702-967-7999.

As mentioned, crowds can be frustrating at some Las Vegas brunches, but here’s a tasty and fun alternative to that scene: It’s back downtown, in the new Container Park complex, which is home to a wine-focused spot called Bin 702.

There, the specialties of the house, food-wise, are the montaditos — Spanish mini-sandwiches that could be considered tapas, only with no fork necessary. Choices range from a simple turkey and Brie with apricot jam, to triple-crème Saint-Andre cheese and salty bresaola — each served on a 4-inch roll.

A nice selection of wines by the glass means patrons can try lots of flavor combinations. Even better, the montaditos cost just $2.25 each, or six for $12.

I have a feeling my folks would have loved this place — a short stroll from the slots at the El Cortez Casino. 702-826-2702.

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Posted in Our Wine Travel Log

3 Wine-Focused ‘Trips of a Lifetime’

If the long three-day weekend got you thinking about taking a longer vacation later in the year, we have a few ideas to share.

In its May issue, National Geographic Traveler features a story called, “50 Tours of a Lifetime,” written by Margaret Loftus. The story’s subhead urges readers to “Venture farther. Dig deeper. Get personal.”

It is the magazine’s 10th annual list of the best guided trips, and three of them are clearly focused on wine:

  • “A Wine Lover’s Journey Through Budapest, Vienna and Prague” is presented by Exeter International, and costs $8,025. The 10-day trip includes time in Austria’s Wachau Valley, where riverside rows of grapevines ascend the adjacent hillsides in steeply terraced rows. A visit to the Stahov Monastary, near Prague, also is included.

www.exeterinternational.com

  • “Georgia’s Food, Wine and Culture” is presented by the Great Canadian Travel Company, and costs $3,280. This is not an expedition to the southern U.S. state; this is the Republic of Georgia, where wine is produced at the ancient Alaverdi Monastery using earthenware vessels that are buried in the ground. So how’s the wine? You’ll find out on this 10-day trip, which focuses on food and wine.

www.greatcanadiantravel.com

  • “Argentina Vision and Vine” is presented by Ciclismo Classico, and costs $5,300. This nine-day expedition to the Andean foothills in Argentina’s northwest corner promises to provide plenty of memories for photographers and wine lovers alike. There will be amply opportunity to sample exceptional Malbec and Torrontes wines at the estates where they’re made.

www.ciclismoclassico.com

To read about other “tours of a lifetime,” pick up the May issue of National Geographic Traveler.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

French Wines: A Long History of Excellence

frenchredsTerroir is important when talking about the wines of France, and so are vintages.

Perhaps more than in any other winemaking country, vintages matter in France because an important part of terroir — the climate — can vary widely from year to year.

All of which makes me wonder what the early French vintages were like. And when I say early, I mean early.

As we noted in a 2007 blog, Roman ruins found in southern France were declared remnants of the country’s earliest known winery.

The large site, built around 10 A.D., was still surrounded by vines on the outskirts of Clermont l’Herault, in the heart of Languedoc wine country.

“It’s really exceptional, and very elaborate,” Stephane Maune, head of the site and archaeologist with France’s CNRS research institute, told Decanter.com at the time.

Mini craters that once formed the bases of huge pottery wine vessels sat in neat rows where the old winery building stood. Each one held up to 1,800 liters, while irrigation channels showed how winemakers used water to maintain a constant temperature.

A villa, complete with 200-meter swimming pool, was attached to the building.

Maune said inscriptions named the founder as Quintus Iulius Primus, who probably came from southern Italy to invest in the region’s burgeoning wine industry.

Romans arrived in Languedoc-Roussillon via Narbonne around 118 B.C. Historians know that after subduing local tribes, the Romans cultivated vines to send wine back to Italy.

“There was lots of economic development in this area. You have good access into ancient Gaul, and there were ports close by,” Maune said.

Winemaking has come a long way in France since then, of course. Today, modern technology in the cellars can help vintners overcome some of Mother Nature’s wrath during challenging harvest seasons, while enhancing her gifts in trouble-free vintages.

When it all comes together — terroir, vintage, wine estate and winemaker — the wines of France are among the best in the world.

Click here for a few tasty examples.

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Posted in Wine in the Glass

The Best Winemakers Are Control Freaks

iStock_000017467842SmallIf we were talking about any other profession, you might think of them as “control freaks.” But winemakers have valid reasons for wanting to make as many decisions as they can.

In point of fact, the more control the vintner has in every step of the process — beginning in the vineyard — the better the wine he or she is going to make. (“Better,” of course, is in the eye of the beholder; a more accurate way of putting it might be to say that greater control equates with being able to make wine in the vintner’s preferred style.)

Few winemakers begin their careers with such control. Typically, they’ll earn a degree in viticulture, then land a job as an assistant winemaker. Depending on the winery and the circumstances, it could take years — even a decade — to move up in the ranks. Sometimes it’s as much about luck as skill: being in the right place at the right time when a veteran vintner decides to retire.

But even head winemakers are at the mercy of others, at least to some degree. They may work for a winery that has purchase agreements with any number of vineyards, but they’re not likely to have much say in how those vineyards are farmed.

And even if they do have a say, they’ll still be dealing with clones of varieties that were selected when the vines were planted. Farming methods may influence how flavorful that fruit is in a given vintage, but the aroma and flavor spectrum will always be limited by the clonal selection.

All of this came to mind when a press release from Duckhorn Wine Company arrived in my “in” box. Duckhorn made my “epiphany wine,” a Merlot crafted from grapes grown in a vineyard that the winery did not own — Napa Valley’s Three Palms Vineyard.

Here is the text of that release:

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Duckhorn Wine Company is gratified to announce that, after 37 years of making wines from its coveted fruit, the company has acquired Napa Valley’s legendary Three Palms Vineyard. Widely recognized as North America’s greatest Merlot vineyard, Duckhorn Vineyards made its inaugural Three Palms Vineyard Merlot in 1978. This iconic wine helped to pioneer luxury Merlot in California, and played a pivotal role in establishing it as one of North America’s great premium varietals. Three Palms was acquired from Sloan and John Upton for an undisclosed price. Duckhorn Wine Company has been purchasing all of the grapes from the 83-acre Three Palms Vineyard since 2011. Fruit from Three Palms will continue to be used exclusively in Duckhorn Vineyards wines.

“This is a very special day for us,” says Duckhorn Wine Company Founder and Chairman Dan Duckhorn. “We have championed the remarkable character and quality of Merlot from Three Palms Vineyard since our debut vintage. We released that inaugural vintage at the then-high price of $12.50, because we wanted people to understand that it was a Merlot of exceptional quality. This message connected with people. Not only has the Duckhorn Vineyards story always been tied to the story of Three Palms, our long friendship with Sloan and John has been one of the wine industry’s most successful and enduring partnerships. We are honored that they are entrusting us to carry on their life’s work, and to carry their great legacy forward.”

Three Palms Vineyard has long been recognized for its unique history and its benchmark Merlots. In the late 1800s, the property was owned by San Francisco socialite Lillie Coit (for whom Coit Tower is named), who planted the site’s three landmark palm trees. In 1967, the rocky alluvial fan was acquired by the Uptons, who planted it the following year. The vineyard has sparse, bale loam soils. In many spots the vines’ roots dig as deep as 18 feet in search of nutrients. Because of the challenging soils, the vineyard is planted to only 545 vines per acre.

Three Palms is also covered by volcanic stones, which absorb the sun’s heat during the day and radiate the heat back to the vines at night, protecting against frost and helping to ripen the fruit. In addition, the vineyard’s warm up-valley location contributes to a shorter season with exceptional ripening. Of Three Palms’ 83 total acres, 73 are under vine, with approximately 50 acres planted to Merlot, and the rest planted to smaller amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.

With the acquisition of Three Palms Vineyard, Duckhorn Wine Company’s Napa Valley estate program now includes seven vineyards. These vineyards include both mountain and valley floor sites, for a total of 223 planted acres.

“Three Palms is the crown jewel of our estate program,” says Duckhorn Wine Company President and CEO Alex Ryan. “Not only does Three Palms represent the pinnacle for New World Merlot, it is one of a handful of Napa Valley’s greatest vineyards. When the history of Napa Valley is written years from now, Three Palms, and the relationship between the Duckhorns and the Uptons, will be an important part of the story.”

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Ultimately, the only way a winemaker can truly have full control is to be involved in the site selection, clonal selection and planting of a vineyard… to oversee how it is farmed… and to make the decision regarding when to harvest the grapes.

Three Palms Vineyard may already be planted, but how it’s farmed and when it’s harvested each year will henceforth be decided entirely by the Duckhorn team. And that can mean only good things for the already iconic Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot.

Sometimes in life, being a “control freak” is a good thing.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

The Wit, Wisdom and Wine of David Letterman

lettermanI don’t now anybody with an ambivalent attitude about David Letterman, who is retiring from a three-decade career in light-night television following tonight’s “Late Show” broadcast on CBS.

You either love him and his brand of comedy, or you don’t. I happen to be a fan — even if there haven’t been very many “wine moments” on either his original NBC program or his current CBS program.

There’s a reason for that, as Letterman told Jane Pauley on this week’s edition of “Sunday Morning” on CBS. He began drinking as a youngster when his father offered him sips of the stiff stuff, and he liked it. The habit continued through high school and escalated in college.

But one day, in his mid-thirties, Letterman had a revelation. He suddenly came to realize that not very many people are given the opportunity to host a network talk show, and if he kept behaving in the way he was behaving, it could all go away. So he quit drinking. Cold turkey.

He may have banned alcohol from his body, but he didn’t ban it from his show. I recall one appearance by Martha Stewart in which she was cooking with wine, and Letterman actually took a swig from the bottle — only to spit it out a moment later. Then there was the time a bowling lane was set up outside the Ed Sullivan Theater, and bowling legend Dick Weber knocked over all kinds of things with a bowling ball — including champagne glasses with set-ablaze Sherry in them.

In October of 1996, just after the New York Yankees had won the World Series, several members of the team appeared on the set and sprayed Letterman with Champagne — a reenactment of their locker room celebration, more or less. You can see a picture of that foamy image here.

Much more recently, actor Kurt Russell appeared on the program, and promoted the wine he makes under the GoGi label. It’s a Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation of California’s Central Coast.

Letterman asked Russell what the alcohol level was, and Russell replied, “About 14.1.” That’s pretty standard for a lot of California red wines these days.

Letterman, still ever quick with a rejoinder, deadpanned, “Call me when you get it up to 20.”

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Raising a Glass of Garnacha to B.B. King and the Blues

guitar and Wine on a wooden tableI like to think I know a thing or two about music, but I really didn’t have much knowledge about — or an ear for — blues until I spent 13 years in Chicago beginning in 2000.

There, a friend introduced me to a club called Buddy Guy’s Legends, and that began a monthly ritual of walking several blocks after work — even in the dead of winter — to hear nationally touring artists and local mainstays perform. And a few times each year, Buddy Guy himself would be on stage — often during the early evening hours, before the “headliner” would take the stage.

It was through those performances that I learned about the blues, and came to respect a true giant of the genre: B.B. King. As you no doubt know by now, the music world lost King on May 14. He was still performing as recently as a few weeks ago even as the complications of life with diabetes took their toll.

They say that more than any other musicians, blues players can “feel” their music, and in his final performances, there was no doubt King was feeling his — lending even more soul to his playing, if that’s possible.

I had already left Chicago when a line of wines bearing B.B. King’s name began appearing in his blues clubs around the country. (Like Guy, King was an entrepreneur in addition to a musician.) King collaborated with Bodega Santa Cruz in southeastern Spain to produce two wines under the B.B. King Signature Collection label — one red and one white.

The red is a blend of Garnacha, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, made in the Crianza style (meaning it spent at least a year in oak casks prior to bottling). The white is made entirely from Verdejo grapes.

I had an opportunity to taste the 2010 Red when it was released, and it was quite good. In fact, it seemed like the perfect wine for one to sip while listening to the blues — dark, brooding and seductive, yet quite accessible… just like the music.

Selfishly, I now wish I’d had an opportunity to have Mr. King sign my bottle of B.B. King Signature Collection Red. As one who loves music — including the blues — and wine almost equally, that would have been a real keepsake.

A memorial service is planned for this coming Saturday in Las Vegas, and you can get more information here. Saturday evening, I plan to load “B.B. King Live” in my CD player, open a bottle of red wine from Spain, and pay silent homage to a true legend of the blues.

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Sparkling Wine: The ‘Default’ Pairing Partner

duvalFor whatever reason, we don’t typically think of sparkling wine when it comes to pairing wine with food.

We tend to gravitate toward rich red wines to serve with beef… rich white wines to serve with fowl… and various other red, white and rosé-style wines to serve with other types of main courses, sauces and side dishes. No wonder our “Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes” archives are so packed!

But when it seems as if a dish won’t match well with any type of wine — whether because of the dish’s saltiness, its spiciness or its heat — sparkling wine makes an excellent “default” choice.

And to the ever-growing list of things that you can eat with Champagne or other sparkling wine, add raclette.

As Robert Reid described it in National Geographic Traveler, raclette is “basically gourmet nachos: cow’s milk heated open-air and served with potatoes, onions, cornichons and dried ham.”

He noted that Chateau de Villa, a castle built in the 1500s in Sierre, Switzerland, was one place to taste the melted morsels.

Because of the complexity of the flavors complementing the saltiness of the ham, sparkling wine would be an ideal libation to pour with raclette.

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You can read more about raclette in Robert Reid’s story here. And you can check out some sublime sparkling wine pairing partners here.

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A Rosé by Any Other Name…

roseTrends come and go in the wine world, sometimes for reasons that make no sense whatsoever.

In 1975, Bob Trinchero of Napa Valley’s Sutter Home Winery invented a new type of wine: White Zinfandel. Actually, it sort of invented itself, a happy accident of a stuck fermentation that you can read about here.

Before long, White Zin was being produced by the millions of cases by Sutter Home, Beringer and other wineries. It simultaneously delighted a new generation of drinkers, who preferred sweetness in their wine, and horrified wine connoisseurs, some of whom seem to live by the mantra, “Dry or die.”

But White Zin’s ascent, inexplicably, caused many people to “un-think pink” altogether. Wonderful — and fully dry — rosé-style wines were mentally lumped into the same category as White Zin, and their stature (as well as their sales) fell. It seemed as if the only Americans drinking rosé were those who had experienced the wonderful Provencal versions first-hand.

We rosé lovers owe a great debt to Tony Soter of Napa’s Etude winery. In 1992, some 17 years after the introduction of White Zin, he crafted a dry rosé from Pinot Noir grapes. Based on Etude’s success with that bottling, other California vintners followed suit. Even imports of Provencal rosé grew 25-fold over a 10-year period beginning in 2003.

Today, you may find rosé bottled under any number of designations, including Rosado, Rosato, Vin Gris and blush.

Regardless of the verbiage, rosé-style wines offer an abundance of drinking pleasure, especially during the warmer months, not to mention great food affinity. Their popularity is a trend that we’d like to see continue for a long, long time.

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Check out some thirst-quenching, delicious, rosé-style wines that happen to be on sale for a limited time here.

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Posted in Wine in the Glass

75th Anniversary: Wines for McDonald’s Menu Items

Fotolia_64561302_XSMcDonald’s conducts regional test marketing all the time. There also are regional menu variations, although not as many as there used to be.

I can tell you this from personal experience — a lot of traveling around the country, and way too many meals under the golden arches.

Right now, as an example, you can’t get a regular chicken sandwich on the Value Menu in Las Vegas. That city’s McDonald’s restaurants have switched over to spicy chicken sandwiches — too spicy for my palate. Meanwhile, in Southern California (and perhaps the whole state), the iconic fried apple pie is back (for a limited time, according to signs in the windows).

No matter where one may visit a McDonald’s, the menu is vastly different than it was 75 years ago tomorrow when brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened the first restaurant to bear their name in San Bernardino, California. And thanks to the efforts of the late Ray Kroc and management teams that have followed, there are more than 35,000 places worldwide to chow down on McDonald’s food.

Unfortunately, for those of us who love wine, the beverage choices at McDonald’s (at least here in the States) are restricted to sodas, shakes, smoothies, tea, coffee and coffee drinks, and water. If you want to experiment with wine pairing and the Mickey D’s menu, you’ll have to do it at home.

As is the case with virtually all food-and-wine combinations, the key is to focus on the dominant flavor of the food. That’s why some of the suggestions that follow may surprise you — and why Chicken McNuggets may be enjoyed with either white wine or red wine, depending on the sauce.

  • Cheeseburger, Double Cheeseburger, McDouble or Quarter Pounder With Cheese — Perhaps the easiest of all McDonald’s menu items to pair with wine, these are four burgers with the same basic ingredients, although the onions are chopped larger on the Quarter Pounder. Pinot Noir, known for its earthy tannins, is a solid wine choice as those tannins stand up nicely to the charred meat. Suggestion: Remove the pickles from the burgers and nosh on them separately, before or after eating the burger.
  • Bacon Clubhouse Burger, Bacon McDouble or Premium Grilled Chicken Bacon Clubhouse Sandwich — Although the condiments vary on these sandwiches, each is defined by its bacon component. This calls for a wine with a similarly smoky quality, such as Syrah. Perhaps surprisingly, Riesling also can make an excellent pairing partner — not just with the chicken sandwich, but also with the burgers.
  • McChicken — We’re talking about the “traditional” Value Menu rendition, not the spicy one. Ask them to go easy on the mayo (or scrape it off yourself), and eat it with Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio.
  • Chicken McNuggets — Nobody (except perhaps my grandson, who is an extremely picky eater) eats McNuggets without some kind of sauce. So you’re not really pairing wine with chicken; you’re pairing it with the dipping sauce. With honey-mustard sauce, pour a glass of off-dry Riesling (because the sauce will make the wine seem drier than it is). Pair barbecue sauce with (red) Zinfandel. And with sweet-and-sour sauce, Riesling or Gewurztraminer are solid wine choices.
  • Filet-O-Fish — This sandwich is all about the tartar sauce that’s slathered between the buns. The perfect pairing partner: a medium-bodied white blend.
  • French Fries — McDonald’s gets a lot of grief from consumer groups, in part because of its menu and in part because of its size. Any company as big as McDonald’s is an easy target. But I think there’s one thing we all can agree on: It makes darn good fries. So even if you don’t care to purchase one of their sandwiches, pick up an order of fries, take it home, and open a bottle of sparkling wine — either Brut or Rosé. Sparkling wine is a solid choice with most salty, otherwise-challenging-to-pair food.

Happy Birthday, McDonald’s! You sure don’t look 75.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes
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