Scrabble Success on a Winery Terrace

Zin & StingersI’ve made my living as a writer and an editor for close to 40 years now. I landed my first newspaper job at age 16, and while I wasn’t exactly making a living at that time, I was gaining valuable experience that would serve me well in the years to come.

I like to think that I’m pretty good at what I do — which is important, since I don’t do much of anything else well. Yet when it comes to Scrabble, I lose regularly to friends in professions that have absolutely nothing to do with words.

So when I actually won a game a few weeks ago, it was cause for celebration. And when I managed to earn 50 bonus points with a seven-letter word, it was cause for a photo.

Why am I sharing my Scrabble adventures and misadventures in a blog devoted to wine? Two reasons:

1. Check out the three-letter word just above STINGERS. Yes, Zinfandel fans, that one was mine, too.

2. The game took place on the terrace of Villa San-Juliette, in San Miguel, Calif. — a winery that we’ve featured several times here at Vinesse.

If you’re planning a wine country vacation or weekend getaway anytime soon, take along your Scrabble board… or some other game, if you prefer. Most wineries are more than happy to have you stick around for a while… especially if you’re drinking a glass or two of their wine.

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Advice on ‘Moderation’ from an Expert

Red_Wine_Glasses2Who better to speak to the health benefits of wine than a wine producer who also works as an emergency room doctor?

Food & Wine magazine’s Ray Isle introduced us to Dr. Laura Catena — who has been called “the face of Argentine wine” — in its September issue, and Isle began his health-related questions directly. “Is wine really good for you?” he asked.

Dr. Catena’s response: “Any kind of alcohol has cardiovascular benefits as long as you drink it in moderation — its reduces your risk of heart attack, stroke, dementia. But that’s in moderation. Drink more, and you lose everything you would have gained.”

Which logically led to a follow-up question, asking for a definition of moderation.

“Different countries have different standards,” Dr. Catena explained. “In the U.S., one drink per day for women, two for men. But in Greece, it’s one-and-a-half for women, three for men. Also, you can’t squeeze all the drinks into one day and say, ‘I had seven drinks on Friday, so that’s one drink per day. Moderation, right?’ Wrong.”

Food & Wine’s website is a great resource for wine-friendly recipes. Check it out here:

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Posted in Wine and Health

What to Pair with Fair Fare

csffbIn a recent post, I told you about wine-drinking opportunities at the 2014 Orange County Fair. I didn’t get a chance to go to the California State Fair in Sacramento this year, but I did have a couple of spies there.

Their mission, should they wish to accept it (and they did): try some of the OTFF — Out There Fair Fare — and report back to me with their findings. I thought it might be fun to hear about a few of their unusual finds, and then figure out what kind of wine would match well with them.

Wish me luck! Here goes…

  • OTFF No. 1 —Chicken Waffle Tacos. They’re basically what folks in (mostly) southern states have been eating for years, except you can (should/must) pick these up with your hands. This dish calls for a white wine with a certain degree of richness, so my choice would be Chardonnay.
  • OTFF No. 2 — Bacon-Wrapped Jack Daniel’s. A churro is infused with a shot of Jack Daniel’s bourbon, then wrapped in bacon and grilled. It’s served with maple syrup and whipped cream for dipping. As long as you don’t overdo the syrup, I’d opt for a rich Port. Skip the syrup altogether, and I could see eating this with a glass of (red) Zinfandel or a GSM (a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend).
  • OTFF No. 3 — Pork-a-Bello Mushroom Kebab. White mushrooms are stuffed with smoked Gouda cheese, stuck on a skewer, then wrapped in bacon and grilled. This dish is all about smokiness, and that calls for a wine that exhibits that characteristic. The red wines of France’s Côte Rôtie and Hermitage appellations would work well, as would many American renditions of Syrah.
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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

Hawaii Food & Wine Festival Is a Go

hawaiifoodandwinefestEarlier this month, nearly five years since Hurricane Neki caused minor damage to the northwestern Hawaiian islands, it appeared that America’s 50th state was going to be hit by two hurricanes, one right after the other.

Fortunately, Hurricane Iselle ended up doing only minor structural damage, primarily due to flooding. Even more fortunately, Hurricane Julio missed the islands entirely. All told, the damage tab was about $53 million, the major victim being the papaya crop.

It could have been a whole lot worse.

Obviously, the main concern when a hurricane hits is public safety and, sadly, one person did lose their life due to flooding on Kauai. Once that threat subsided, I began to wonder about an event scheduled in Hawaii, August 29-September 7: the 4th annual Hawaii Food & Wine Festival.

So I checked with event organizers last week, and the news is good: The festival is a go.

Here is how the event is described on the festival’s website:

The Hawaii Food & Wine Festival is the premier epicurean destination event in the Pacific. Set in the lush island paradise of Hawaii, our Festival features a roster of over 80 internationally-renowned master chefs, culinary personalities, and wine and spirit producers.

Co-founded by two of Hawaii’s own James Beard Award-winning chefs, Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong, the Festival in Hawaii Island, Maui, Honolulu, and Ko Olina Resort will showcase wine tastings, cooking demonstrations, one-of-a-kind excursions, and exclusive dining opportunities with dishes highlighting the state’s bounty of local produce, seafood, beef and poultry.

Sounds pretty good to me — but then, do we really need an excuse to dream about visiting Hawaii?

If you’re not familiar with the aforementioned chefs, here is a little bio material, also courtesy of the event’s website:

  • Roy Yamaguchi is the creator of “Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine,” a combination of exotic flavors and spices mixed with the freshest of local ingredients, always with an emphasis on seafood. Born in Tokyo, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York and opened his first Roy’s in Hawaii in 1988. The restaurant was soon dubbed the “crown jewel of Honolulu’s East-West eateries” by Food & Wine and added to the Condé Nast Traveler Top 50 list. There are now 32 Roy’s in Hawaii, the continental United States, Japan and Guam.
  • Alan Wong has made a name for himself internationally with his marriage of ethnic-cooking styles featuring the finest island-grown ingredients, creating local dishes with a contemporary twist. He was one of 10 chefs in the United States nominated by the Wedgewood Awards for the title of World Master of Culinary Arts. Bon Appétit has recognized him as the “Master of Hawaii Regional Cuisine,” and Alan Wong’s Restaurant has been ranked by Gourmet twice. It is also the only restaurant in Honolulu that appears on the Top 10 of America’s Best 50 Restaurants.

Reality television obviously has had an influence on the organizers of the festival, as one of the planned events is the “Halekulani Master Chefs Gala Series,” which will see “six of the world’s finest executive chefs compete in a lavish six-course plate-up.” Also planned is a “Battle of the Brunch Showdown.”

The various events are individually ticketed, and packages also are available. For ticket information, click here:

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Eat and Drink Like Royalty in Long Beach

sirwinstonsThe Queen Mary has been a major Southern California tourist attraction for decades — still majestic, still somewhat mysterious, and home to one of the region’s signature dining experiences.

Ascend to the highest level of the ship, and you’ll encounter Sir Winston’s — lit by candles, and offering a spectacular view of the coastline and downtown Long Beach.

Unlike many “view restaurants,” which excel in scenery but come up short in cuisine, Sir Winston’s provides an array of Old World classics that have been re-envisioned with New World flair. A sampling of the menu…

  • Appetizers — Roasted Oyster Rockefeller, Cured Scottish Salmon, Lobster Ravioli.
  • Soups and Salads — Lobster Bisque, Lobster Salad, Bibb Lettuce Bouquet.
  • Entrees — Dover Sole Meuniere, Petaluma Duck, Sea Scallops.
  • Classics — Beef Wellington, Chateaubriand.

The award-winning wine list features more than 100 selections, including both California and international bottlings.


If you’d rather not fight the crowds at the Queen Mary, head to Chianina Steakhouse, which merges the American steakhouse tradition with Italian cuisine.

The restaurant, the third concept from restaurateur Michael Dene and chef David Coleman, brings a farm-to-table mentality to its menu, which includes…

  • Salads — Caesar, Iceberg, Market Greens, Summer Salad.
  • Appetizers — Diver Scallops, Pork Belly, Beef Tongue, Lobster Crostini, Carpaccio, Kauai Shrimp, Roasted Bone Marrow.
  • Raw Shells — Kumamoto Oysters, Hama Hama Oysters.
  • Piedmontese Beef — New York, Bone-in Rib-Eye, Bistecca alla Fiorentina.
  • Other Than Beef — Colorado Lamb, Half Jidori Chicken, Duroc Pork Chop, Copper River Salmon.
  • Pasta — Risotto, Gnocchi Bolognese, Linguini with Clams.

And then there’s the wine list, which is even bigger than that of Sir Winston’s — some 300 bottles in all.

On ship or off, Long Beach offers an abundance of wining and dining pleasure.

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Sir Winston’s is located on the Queen Mary at 1126 Queens Highway. For further information, call 562-499-1657, or visit

Chianina is located at 5716 East Second St. For further information, call 562-434-2333, or visit

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Temperature-Controlled Wine Storage for $3,035.71 Per Bottle

Fotolia_1904719_SOh, sure, the 10,726 square feet of living space is nice.

Ditto for the five full bedroom suites, including the master bedroom that occupies about 2,100 square feet.

The six fireplaces certainly come in handy during the winter months, and the six bathrooms mean “no waiting” year-round.

The elevator that connects the three levels of the house is convenient, especially when lugging heavy items.

There’s a certain sense of style that emerges through the effective integration of marble, granite, antique French limestone, onyx, copper, hand-forged iron, bronze, oak and mahogany.

And the billiard table, library, entertainment room, Jacuzzi and bars — not to mention the adjacent golf course and country club — provide an abundance of recreational and leisure-time activities.

But for me, what makes this home in the Southern Highlands neighborhood of Las Vegas so appealing is the wine cellar on the basement level.

The wine racks were handmade from Malaysian mahogany, and can hold up to 2,800 bottles. True, that’s about 2,750 more than I have on hand at the moment, but still…

In a city where air conditioning is a must for comfortable living about six months out of the year, this wine cellar has its own, independent climate-control system.

While such systems are not all that unusual, this home’s security system provides another level of protection for all those bottles: It monitors the room temperature 24/7, and it the temp climbs above a programmed threshold, sends out an alarm to the security service.

Just one Las Vegas summer day in a non-air conditioned home could do irreparable damage to a bottle of wine, so that safety net is a necessity. Besides, when I’m lounging in the Jacuzzi after a long day on the golf course, I certainly don’t want to be fretting over the temperature of my 2,800-bottle wine cellar!

The list price of this home, which was built in 2006, is $8.5 million. I’m waiting for the 8 to disappear before I consider putting in a bid.

But, hey, a wine lover can dream!

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Laetitia’s Winemaker on the Benefits of Whole-Cluster Fermentation

WineBarrels_VineyardMaking wine is part science and part art form, the first aspect ensuring that the product is made correctly, and the second lending personality and uniqueness.

Eric Hickey, the winemaker for Laetitia Vineyard & Winery, recently shared insight on one aspect of winemaking that has become more common in recent years: whole-cluster fermentation.

It’s a phrase you may have heard, but may not completely understand. Laetitia recently issued a press release that shed a good deal of light on the topic, and I’d like to share excerpts with you here.

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“Whole-cluster fermentation is the act of using the entire bunch or cluster of grapes, including the stem, in alcoholic fermentation,” said Hickey, who has used the technique for about a decade. “The winemaker can vary the amount of whole clusters included in the fermentor. For example, in our case, I use anywhere from 30 to 70 percent whole clusters in a given batch. The remaining percentage in the fermentor is made up of de-stemmed grapes.”

The use of whole-cluster fermentation began as an experiment for Hickey, who has made a career of exploring different approaches to Pinot Noir from Laetitia’s Arroyo Grande Valley AVA estate.

“We have a vast array of plantings, clones and diversity when it comes to Pinot Noir,” he said. “Not all of our lots do well with whole-cluster, but through all of our trials over the years, we’ve located the specific clones and sites that work well.”

In Burgundy, where Pinot Noir is king, whole-cluster fermentation has been used for hundreds of years, perhaps somewhat out of the convenience of tossing an entire bunch into the fermenting vessel. The hallmark of whole-cluster wines — a signature burnt tobacco note entwined with the fruit aromas and flavors — became synonymous with the Pinot Noir variety in Old World winemaking.

“It’s not always obvious, but there’s an extra layer of structure to whole-cluster Pinot Noir,” said Hickey, “and when it’s at its best, there is a dusty chalkiness to the mid-palate.”

Whole-cluster fermentation can be practiced on any variety, and is often used to tone down fruit characteristics and add another dimension to the wine. For example, Hickey also uses whole-cluster fermentation on Grenache from the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard for the NADIA Wines label.

While New World winemakers have used this method for many years, a fruit-driven, de-stemmed Pinot Noir became popular as the variety gained a foothold in the United States market in the late 1980s and 1990s. Today, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction, with many winemakers moving away from “pure-fruit” Pinot Noir by fermenting clusters whole to impart complexity, tannic grip and a lift on the palate.

To bring this style further into balance, when Hickey whole-cluster ferments Pinot Noir, he leaves the intact bunches to rest in the fermentor after harvest rather than crushing them immediately. In this anaerobic environment, fermentation then begins within each individual berry as yeast penetrates the skin wall under the pressure of carbon dioxide, a process called carbonic maceration.

“When fermentation takes place inside the berry, you tend to get very high levels of delicate red fruit and floral aromas,” said Hickey. “In the case of the whole-cluster technique, the high fruit tone is a good counter-balance to the earthy tobacco characters the stems provide.”

Each vintage, Hickey rounds out the Laetitia Pinot Noir program by offering a whole-cluster Pinot Noir made from clones conducive to the practice. The most recent release is the 2012 vintage, which included Pinot Noir from clones 115 and 2A to produce a wine marked by focused flavors and a refreshing grip in mouthfeel. Crisp notes of cassis, whole-leaf tobacco and black peppercorn mingle with a touch of sweet oak and sultry black tea on the nose and palate. With its heightened earthiness, the 2012 Laetitia Whole Cluster Pinot Noir pairs well with similarly earthy cuisine such as roast duck, sautéed porcini mushrooms, or eggplant lasagna.

“Consumer response [toward whole-cluster wine] has been great,” said Hickey. “It usually appeals to those who prefer a Pinot with more power, structure and less ‘pure red fruit’ on the nose.”

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Posted in In the Cellar

Delighting Diners (and Winers) for Half a Century

rustypelicanoutsideIn yesterday’s blog, I mentioned that when I was growing up, the Johnson family-owned Balboa Bakery in Newport Beach, California, provided bread to two of the best local restaurants.

Both of those restaurants — the Chart House and the Rusty Pelican — were located on Pacific Coast Highway, and I can vividly recall not only mixing, shaping, baking and slicing that bread, but also joining Dad in the family station wagon to deliver it… usually a hundred or two loaves at a time.

The Chart House is long gone from that location, but the Rusty Pelican remains. Founded in 1965, it’s gearing up for its 50th anniversary in 2015.

For more than 10 years, both restaurants served our family’s Squaw Bread as a pre-meal treat and to accompany the soup/salad course. Each table received a basket containing half of a one-pound loaf, warmed, accompanied by a little dish of whipped butter — exactly how we’d eat it at home.

Squaw Bread (which probably would require a different name today in the wake of the recent ruling over the NFL Washington Redskins’ name) was made with a mixture of wheat and rye flours, delivered in 100-pound bags by a bakery supply company.

My Dad took that mix and then added a few secret ingredients to differentiate his Squaw Bread from all others. His had a mellower (less sharp) flavor and a kiss of sweetness that made it unique, not to mention an anticipated part of a Rusty Pelican meal.

The restaurant hasn’t served Squaw Bread for a long time, but its fresh garlic bread appetizer is quite good, and its seafood-heavy menu of entrees remains stellar. Johnson family favorites include the fresh salmon and shrimp, topped with lobster sauce; penne alla vodka with shrimp and scallops; and pan-roasted opah, served over a bed of marinated tomatoes. The filet mignon, served with a Cabernet reduction, also is superb.

And here’s something I didn’t know about the Rusty Pelican way back when, but do now: It boasts a well-selected wine list, heavy on bottlings that pair well with the restaurant’s signature fish dishes.

The Newport Beach dining scene is ever evolving, and has changed considerably since the Squaw Bread days. But the Rusty Pelican proves that by emphasizing freshness and quality, and offering a solid wine list, a restaurant can be successful for a long, long time.

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The Rusty Pelican in Newport Beach, California, is located at 2735 West Coast Highway. Reservations: 949-642-3431. More info:

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Newport Beach Gets Its Own Wine-Focused Festival

iStock_000006095441SmallI mentioned in Friday’s blog that I grew up in Orange County, California. Specifically, the Johnson family lived on the Balboa Peninsula, part of the city of Newport Beach.

Newport has a deserved reputation as a “ritzy” area, but our family was not rich. My parents owned a bakery a few steps from the peninsula’s major landmark, the Balboa Pavilion, and while most elementary school kids were getting in a few more hours of sleep before school, I was rolling bread dough, making cinnamon rolls and frying donuts.

If that sounded like a complaint, it was not meant to be. Those years instilled a work ethic and made us a tight family. What we may have lacked in material things was more than made up for in loving life-long relationships. On the evening he passed away at age 97 years and 364 days, the last word my Dad said to me as he struggled for breath was, “Family.” He needed to say no more.

The Balboa Bakery still exists, several owners past the Johnson family and barely resembling the business my parents had built over a 20-year span. The Pavilion is still there, too, as are a few amusement rides from the venerable bayside park known as the Fun Zone.

But much of the rest of Newport Beach is unrecognizable to me today, some 35 years after my folks retired from the bakery business. The city now has a vibrant arts scene, and has become a destination for foodies. So, when I heard about the inaugural Newport Beach Wine and Food Fest, I was not surprised. Such an event makes perfect sense for my “hometown,” circa 2014.

The Newport Beach Civic Center will host the festival on the weekend of September 19-21, and a press release promises an array of local chefs serving hors d’oeuvres, celebrity chefs leading demonstrations, jazz musicians providing toe-tapping sounds, and winemakers pouring their wares.

Tickets are priced at $160 for one day or $300 for two. There also will be VIP tickets that include a launch party, a pop-up event and an exclusive grand finale event. Proceeds will benefit Project Hope Alliance.

It would have been cool to have such an event back when my folks were in the bakery business. I’m pretty sure the bread we made for two local restaurants — one of which is still in existence — would have been a big hit.

I’ll tell you more about that bread and that wine-friendly restaurant in tomorrow’s blog.

Meanwhile, you can learn more about the inaugural Newport Beach Wine and Food Festival here:

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Should Orange County Be Called ‘The G.C.’?

I grew up in Orange County, California, and not once in all those years did I ever hear my home county referred to as “The O.C.”

A popular television series changed all that, however, and the abbreviated nickname has become widely known and accepted.

That’s probably all well and good, considering that oranges disappeared from Orange County a long time ago, save for a rogue grove hidden among housing tracts and strip malls.

And now, there’s another contender for fruit preeminence in the O.C.: the grape. Specifically, wine grapes.

No, the county is not suddenly being overrun with vineyard plantings. Target stores are not being replaced by Tempranillo vines, and McDonalds locations are not being closed to make room for rows of Malbec vines.


The accompanying photo shows a row of vines that are on display at the 2014 Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa, Calif.

However, at least 10 wineries have joined the county’s landscape, and collectively form what’s billed as “The O.C. Wine Trail.”

The “trail” forms a semi-circle around the communities of Irvine and Laguna Hills, and includes:

  • Giracci Vineyards & Farms — 16162 Jackson Ranch Rd., Silverado. 714-602-1109.
  • Newport Beach Vineyards & Winery — 2128 Mesa Dr., Newport Beach. 949-645-0273.

Most of the wineries source grapes from various California growing areas. Rancho Capistrano Winery actually ships in grape juice and skins (must) from around the world, then transforms the raw materials into wine at its winery and tasting room, located just steps from Mission San Juan Capistrano. In its first, year, Rancho Capistrano produced varietal wines and/or blends from France, Italy, Portugal, South Africa, Chile and New Zealand, in addition to the western United States.

With grapes — whether grown locally, or their must shipped in from far-flung locales — becoming more prominent in Orange County, perhaps the time has come to change the county’s nickname from “The O.C.” to “The G.C.”

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Posted in Wine Buzz
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