What Goes With a Cold Night and a Glass of Merlot?

Crock PotAs I was writing yesterday’s blog about Merlot, I started thinking about some of the dishes I’ve enjoyed with Merlot over the years.

I happened to have the Weather Channel on at the time, and was reminded of how numbingly cold it has been this winter in so many parts of the country.

And THAT reminded me of a dish we featured here back in 2007. It’s called, simply enough, Slow-Cooking Stew. It not only makes a house smell wonderful as it cooks, but it’s a perfect pairing partner for Merlot.

A flavorful wine such as Merlot calls for a flavorful main dish. This tasty recipe fits the bill deliciously, and makes about 6 servings.



  • 4 carrots, chopped
  • 2 potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 1 cup mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 stalks celery, chopped
  • 3 lbs. cubed stew meat
  • 1 packet dry onion soup mix
  • 1 can (10.75-oz.) condensed golden mushroom soup
  • 1 3/4 cups water


  1. Place carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, onion and celery in slow cooker. Place stew meat over vegetables.
  1. In a medium bowl, combine the soup mix with the can of soup. Add water and mix well. Pour in slow cooker over meat and vegetables. Add water as needed so liquid comes just to the bottom of the meat.
  1. Cook on low setting overnight, adding more water as necessary in morning. Allow to cook all day.
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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

A Decade After ‘Sideways,’ Merlot Survives and Thrives

merlot“If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any (bleeping) Merlot!”

When movie-goers heard Paul Giamatti’s Miles make that proclamation in the movie “Sideways,” and in another scene heard him wax poetic about Pinot Noir, it changed the California wine industry — perhaps forever.

In reaction to public demand, wineries and growers planted new Pinot Noir vineyards up and down the California coast, from Santa Barbara to Mendocino. Today, there’s even an American Viticultural Area that is devoted primarily to Pinot Noir: the sprawling Sonoma Coast.

It’s hard to believe that 10 years have passed since “Sideways” stood the wine industry on its head. But we are happy to report that Merlot is still alive and well and taken very seriously by hundreds and hundreds of California wineries.

One North Coast estate that has always taken Merlot seriously is Duckhorn Vineyards. In fact, fundamental to Duckhorn’s tradition was the early decision to focus on the production of Merlot. Dan Duckhorn felt that this elegant varietal was under appreciated in North America.

“I liked the softness, the seductiveness, the color, the fact that it went with a lot of different foods,” he said in an interview on the winery’s website. “It seemed to me to be a wonderful wine to just enjoy. I became enchanted with Merlot.”

And so did a lot of other people. If you’re one of them, or if you’d like to see what all the enchantment is about, check out today’s Vinesse Cyber Circle sampler.

  • Tomorrow: A Merlot-friendly recipe for cold winter nights.
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Posted in Wine in the Glass

Cohn Festival: Takin’ It to the… Field of Dreams

2001-dave-mason18-copyIt’s the end of one era, and the beginning of another.

For more years than I can remember, Bruce Cohn — a man who has guided the careers of the Doobie Brothers and other music stars, and the founder of B.R. Cohn Winery in Sonoma County — has produced a music festival on the grounds of his wine estate.

Sadly, it appears the 2014 festival was the last to be held at the winery. But there’s also good news. This coming October, the newly christened Sonoma Music Festival will move to downtown Sonoma, on a piece of property dubbed the Field of Dreams.

“It became clear to us that we had outgrown the B.R. Cohn Winery, Cohn said in a press release. “The Field of Dreams is a more patron familiar and friendly venue, which will be less costly to build out — which translates to more money for the event beneficiaries. We are excited about the move to downtown Sonoma.”

In 2015, the charities will be Northern California-based organizations, as well as local and national veterans’ causes, Cohn added.

The event dates are October 2-4, and the list of performers is expected to be announced soon. You can get more information here: www.sonomamusicfestival.com

Early October is a great time to visit the Sonoma Valley, and if you’re a classic rock fan, the Sonoma Music Festival promises to be a memorable experience — just as the annual events were at B.R. Cohn Winery.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Taking Wine to New Heights in Washington

naches heightsAmerican Viticultural Areas are the U.S. equivalent of wine appellations in France.

In order to gain AVA status, an area must be shown to possess unique characteristics that separate it from neighboring areas. In some cases, it’s the general environment. In other cases, it’s the weather. Even the soil could be a determining factor in whether an area gains its own AVA status, or remains part of a larger AVA.

Naches Heights became the 12th AVA in Washington state in 2011. Located within the Columbia Valley on an ancient volcanic bedrock plateau, Naches Heights is above the level of the Missoula Floods, at elevations ranging from 1,200 to 2,100 feet.

Because I’m a huge fan of Washington state wines, I decided to do some research on this still relatively new AVA. Here’s what I found out…

At present, there are about 40 acres planted to wine grapes in Naches Heights, although the AVA encompasses 13,254 acres in total. The first grapes planted within the AVA’s boundaries were Pinot Gris, Riesling and Syrah in 2002. Those boundaries are the Naches River to the north and east, Cowiche Creek to the south and west, and the lower Tieton River on the west.

The land is comprised of windblown soil, also known as loess, which is heavy in clay and helps the soil to retain water. Around 10 to 13 inches of rain fall annually in the Naches Heights region, and it is considered a cooler region for Washington.

Several features distinguish Naches Heights from its neighboring AVAs, including its geological formation of Tieton andesite, rich volcanic soil, higher elevation (which reduces winter damage to vineyards), and sustainable farming. All seven vineyards in Naches Heights grow their grapes using organic, biodynamic or LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) certification program practices, making it Washington’s first exclusively sustainable AVA.

“We farm with love,” noted Phil Cline, proprietor of Naches Heights Vineyard and a third-generation farmer in the region. “Love of the land, grape-growing and making the region a sustainable place for generations to come.”

The region was formed 1 million years ago from a lava flow from the Cascade Mountains. After that flow, andesite cooled and hardened to form the single, elevated Naches Heights plateau.

“The Naches Heights Winery and Vineyard Association hopes that all future vineyards on the Heights will also agree to go organic,” said Cline. “With our ideal growing conditions, ample irrigation water from the Cascade Mountains, and 310 days of sunshine per year, there is no need to use chemical herbicides or fertilizers on Naches Heights.”

If there were degrees of uniqueness, that would make Naches Heights extremely unique.

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Posted in Wine Region Profiles

Honors for Winemaker/Environmentalist Mike Benziger

salmonI’ve long admired the wines produced at Benziger Family Winery in the Sonoma County burg of Glen Ellen.

And that was before I learned about his biodynamic farming practices, important not only now but for future generations, and his efforts to conserve water, extremely important during a period of extended drought that California has been experiencing.

Appropriately, Benziger’s environmental work is starting to become as well known as his superb wines. On March 13, he will be honored by the Golden Gate Salmon Association at its 2nd annual Sonoma Dinner, to be held at the Ramekins Event Center in Sonoma.

“Mike is well known in the region for his water conservation practices and biodynamic farming,” said Victor Gonella, founder and treasurer of GGSA, in a press release. “Conserving and wise water policies are needed to keep the iconic salmon industry strong, along with California’s water dependent economy. As a farmer, Mike Benziger understands this. So, it is our great pleasure to honor him.”

The release included this description of the GGSA: “A coalition of salmon advocates that includes commercial and recreational salmon fisherman, businesses, restaurants, tribes, environmentalists, elected officials, families and communities that rely on salmon. GGSA’s mission is to protect and restore California’s largest salmon producing habitat comprised of the Central Valley rivers that feed the Bay-Delta ecosystem and the communities that rely on salmon as a long-term, sustainable, commercial, recreational and cultural resource.”

Tickets for the dinner honoring Mike Benziger are available by calling 855-251-GGSA (4472) or by visiting www.goldengatesalmonassociation.com. They cost $125 per person, and table sponsor packages are available for $1,200, and include reserved VIP seating for eight and $100 worth of raffle tickets.

And, yes, Benziger Family wines will be served.

You can read more about Benziger’s environmental efforts here.

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Posted in Wine and the Environment

Cailler: Calling All Chocolate Lovers

Cailler2When you think of Switzerland, what comes to mind? Perhaps the Swiss Alps, noted for their natural beauty and abundant ski resorts. Or maybe your mind’s eye brings fine, handcrafted clocks and watches into focus.

But if you have a sweet tooth, another image likely comes to mind… and promotes drooling: fine Swiss chocolates. And there’s no better place to experience this stylish Swiss treat than the Maison Cailler chocolate factory in the town of Broc.

There, a guided tour provides a complete overview of Cailler, its history and its products. Presentations cover the different stages in the Cailler chocolate production process — from roasting to crushing to milling to milk processing to mixing to grinding to conching to tempering to molding to packaging.

The past comes to life through a selection of photographs that trace the factory’s history from its humble origins in 1898 up to the 1960s.

Cailler1Appetites whetted, visitors can then visit a specially designed shop that sells the entire range of Cailler of Switzerland chocolates. Then they can rest their feet with a specialty coffee or chocolate drink in the Cailler café — a relaxing way to conclude a visit to a renowned purveyor of stylish chocolates.

So what is a story about Swiss chocolate doing in a wine blog? Because wine and chocolate can make wonderful pairing partners, as people discover each year when they take part in the Wine and Chocolate Weekend presented by the estates of California’s Madera Wine Trail. You can read about the 2015 event here: http://www.maderawinetrail.com/february.htm

You probably won’t find any Cailler chocolate at that event, but I can guarantee that your sweet tooth will be satisfied.

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Posted in Vinesse Style

Pizza and Pinot? Here’s a Perfect Pairing

Glass of red wineWhen pepperoni pizza is on the plate, my go-to wine is Zinfandel — red Zinfandel, that is. The spicy character of the wine is a wonderful complement to those round slices of red meat that cover the top of the pizza.

But Zinfandel is not the only wine that pairs well with pizza. As with all other types of food, the wine pairing should be built around the dominant flavor of the dish. And as well all know, man (nor woman) does not live by pepperoni pizza alone.

Check out the Four-Cheese Margherita Pizza recipe that follows. Based on the primary flavors of this pizza, my wine pick would be Pinot Noir. Not only does Pinot complement the Mozzarella and Fontina cheeses that serve as the base, it also goes well with the Parmesan and feta cheeses that top the pizza, as well as the garlic.

Yes, Zinfandel also would work with Four-Cheese Margherita Pizza, but for a truly sublime pairing, pick Pinot!



  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 8 Roma tomatoes, sliced
  • 2 (12-inch) pre-baked pizza crusts
  • 8-oz. shredded Mozzarella cheese
  • 4-oz. shredded Fontina cheese
  • 10 fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese


  1. Stir together olive oil, garlic and salt. Toss with tomatoes, and let stand for 15 minutes.
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  1. Brush each pizza crust with some of the tomato marinade. Sprinkle the pizzas evenly with Mozzarella and Fontina cheeses. Arrange tomatoes on top, then sprinkle with shredded basil, Parmesan and feta cheese.
  1. Bake until cheese is bubbly and golden brown (about 10 minutes).

This recipe yields 8 servings.

Right now, for a limited time, you can enjoy an outstanding collection of California Pinots from top growing regions on sale at Vinesse.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

5 Fascinating Facts About Argentina Wine

ArgentinaYou’ve heard of Malbec. You may even have tried a glass on occasion, as it’s becoming more and more popular as a “house red” at bars and restaurants.

But do you know where most Malbec wines come from? Although its historic home is France, most Malbec today hails from Argentina.

Yes, Argentina.

If that’s a surprise, the five facts that follow — all fascinating, of course — will turn you into an instant Argentina wine expert…

  1. Argentina ranks fifth among all wine-producing countries.

That’s fifth not in quality, but in overall production — the number of bottles that hit the marketplace each year. Some would say that the country has vaulted ahead of a few Old World wine countries in terms of overall quality as well, but we won’t get into that debate; there’s still plenty of great wine being made across the pond. But now, the same is true in South America, and Argentina has become a vinous flag-bearer.

  1. Old World… or New World?

We think of Argentina as being a New World wine country, simply because of its location on the global map. But grapevines were first planted there in the mid-16th century — long before some of France’s most revered regions were planted.

  1. Bring oxygen!

John Denver famously sang, “Rocky Mountain high…” but he had never been to Salta, Argentina, which is home to the highest commercial vineyard in the world. Elevation: over 9,800 feet.

  1. A new home for Malbec.

By the late 1970s, Malbec was on the ropes. Worldwide plantings of the red variety had declined by 75 percent, and Malbec seemed destined to be nothing more than a minor blending grape in the red cuvees of Bordeaux. But it found a welcoming new home in Argentina — somewhat of a surprise, since the locals had long preferred white wines. But substantial international investment fueled a renaissance for Malbec, which now is Argentina’s leading vinous export.

  1. Mark your calendar.

Check out today’s special Cyber Circle offer from Vinesse, add a few bottles to your wine rack, and then open your 2015 calendar to the April page and place a giant M on the April 17 square. That’s Malbec World Day, providing a great reason to open a bottle and toast what has become Argentina’s signature wine.

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Posted in Wine Region Profiles

Vinous Secrets of the Hearst Castle

hearstDuring the period of Prohibition in America, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst took an editorial stance for temperance but against the 18th Amendment.

“I consider the 18th Amendment not only the most flagrant violation of the basic American principle of personal liberty that has ever been imposed on the American public, but the most complete failure as a temperance measure that has ever been conceived and put into impractical operation,” he wrote.

At the Hearst Castle on California’s Central Coast, visitors who take the Cottages and Kitchen Tour can see Hearst’s wine cellar, consisting of two rooms with double-vault doors in the basement of the Casa Grande building.

According to the castle’s website, the iron doors were installed as early as 1924. That August, Hearst’s secretary, Joe Willicombe, wrote, “Mr. Hearst told me to tell Mr. Rossi [the construction superintendent] to put the iron doors on the wine vault. Mr. Hearst wants to lock the vault and take the keys with him. He does not consider the wooden doors any protection against possible thievery.”

The wine cellar doors were always kept locked. As Hearst employee Wilfred Lyons said in an interview, “Mr. Hearst would lock up his cellar and you couldn’t get into it. I mean, even the butler had to order ahead.”

Hearst served wine to guests throughout Prohibition, tapping his extensive collection of bottlings from the Alsace, Bordeaux and Burgundy regions of France, and the Rhine and Moselle regions of Germany.

Grapes were grown on the Hearst property, but were used for eating, not making wine. Ironically, much acreage in the surrounding San Luis Obispo County, mostly barren during Hearst’s lifetime, today is devoted to vineyards that produce the “raw materials” for world-class wines.

The Cottages and Kitchen Tour provides a look at both the personal and practical sides of the castle. It lasts 45 minutes, covers approximately three-quarters of a mile, and includes about 176 steps (both up and down). The cost is $25 per adult and $12 per child (ages 5-12), and the ticket includes a viewing of the film, “Building the Dream,” at the Hearst Castle Theater.

For further information, and to help you plan your Hearst Castle visit, go online to hearstcastle.org.

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Posted in Our Wine Travel Log

The Perfect Wines for the Perfect Schnitzel

SchnitzelIt is a dish that may have originated in northern Italy, where it’s known as costoletta alla Milanese, but it has become the undisputed national dish of Austria.

We speak of the breaded, fried veal cutlet known as wiener schnitzel, and there is no better place to savor authentic wiener schnitzel than in Vienna. After all, you’ll find part of the dish’s name in the city’s name: In Austria, Vienna is known as Wien.

Countless restaurants serve wiener schnitzel, but no restaurant does it better than Figmueller Wollzeile, which has three locations in Vienna — the original, opened in 1905; a second, just a few doors down the street, built to handle the overflow; and now a third, a few additional doors away, to handle the overflow from the second restaurant.

If you’re fortunate enough to land a table at the original restaurant, you’ll be able to hear the dish being prepared. That’s right, you’ll hear it. Each wiener schnitzel is hammered flat until it’s about 12 inches in diameter — large enough to completely cover a dinner plate.

Figmueller Wollzeile offers a number of traditional Austrian dishes, including broiled beef with chive sauce and apple horseradish; glazed calf’s liver with fried onion rings and baked apple; and veal goulash with butter dumplings.

But if you have time for only one big meal in Vienna, the wiener schnitzel — simply prepared with flour, eggs and bread crumbs, then fried to a golden brown — is the dish you must have.

Servers will recommend Gruner Veltliner, Austria’s signature white wine, to accompany the schnitzel, and that’s a solid choice. It also pairs well with Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Gewurztraminer. Prefer red wine? Opt for a fruit-forward Pinot Noir (known in Austria as Blauburgunder or Blauer Spatburgunder).

And as the accompanying photo illustrates, there’s no need to save room for dessert.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes
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