Near Silicon Valley, Another Valley Prepares for the Harvest Season

Santa Clara Valley from Joseph D. Grant Country Park, Northern CaliforniaThis is the time of the year when we like to share harvest reports from various regions with you. After all, there is no more critical part of the winemaking process than when the grapes are harvested, and the kind of shape they’re in when they are.

We’ve already brought you a report from California’s Carneros district and a preview from the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Today, I’d like share excerpts of a media release from the Santa Clara Valley — which continues to produce wine even as a different kind of valley (Silicon Valley) keeps pushing people closer and closer for affordable housing. Here’s the report from Sarah’s Vineyard…

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Sarsh’s Vineyard, one of the premier winegrowing estates in the Santa Clara Valley, is gearing up for a mid-September start to the grape harvest. Proprietor Tim Slater is excited to get going: “First up will be Pinot Noir, our flagship varietal. The weather has been cooperating and everything is lining up beautifully for us to be crushing grapes next month.”

Most of the region’s vineyards are located just a few miles south from tech giants Google, Apple, HP and Intel. But before it became known as “Silicon Valley,” the Santa Clara Valley boasted a long, 175-year history of grape growing and wine production. Tim is one of the young, next-generation winemakers working to carry on that legacy.

“Our location in the ‘Mt. Madonna Gap’ gives us the perfect balance of warm sunny days and cooling winds and fog from the ocean,” explains Tim. “This year’s growing season has been an interesting one — the return of winter and spring rains after years of drought has given the vines a shot in the arm, vigor-wise. As soon as veraison was finishing up, we spent a lot of time hedging the vine rows to open up the canopy and allow the fruit the air circulation and exposure necessary for final ripening.”

Adds Slater: “Some weather events back in May affected fruit set a bit. We’re seeing smaller than normal clusters on the various Pinot Noir clones. I believe quality will be very high; there just won’t be a whole lot of grapes this year.”

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4 Lessons Learned from an Amazing Grilled Cheese Sandwich

grilledcheeseThe mention of a grilled cheese sandwich in yesterday’s blog reminded me that during my last year living in Chicago, I had the opportunity to try Graham Elliot Bowles’ take on the American comfort food classic at his take-out shop known as Grahamwich.

Oh. My. Gosh.

Sorry, Mom, but yours simply does not compare. (Mom passed away in 2009, so I’m hoping she’s busy with other things and not reading this particular blog…)

I was not drawn in by Elliot’s combative public persona. Frankly, I’ve always found that kind of boring. But I’d heard good tings about some of the menu items — not all — and one colleague returned one day from lunch raving about the grilled cheese.

The place was a bit of a walk from our office, so one day I came in early, knocked off early, and strolled to Grahamwich for a late lunch / early dinner. Twenty bucks later, I’d had one of the greatest grilled cheese sandwiches ever, a big bag of house-made chips (with plenty left over to take home), and a house-made soda.

Graham wasn’t shy about charging for his food, but once the “newness” of the place wore off… and once more people had grown tired of that aforementioned public persona… business took a nosedive and the place ultimately closed.

But I will always remember that sandwich, and the lessons it wrought…

  1. If you find a really good, gooey grilled cheese sandwich, take half of it home and enjoy it with a good glass of rich, creamy Chardonnay.
  1. When a “hot” restaurant opens, don’t wait for it to cool off before you visit. If you wait too long, you may miss it altogether.
  1. A grilled cheese sandwich does not need bacon in order to be great.
  1. Even if you find your own “best grilled cheese sandwich ever,” don’t tell Mom.


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Seriously, Are We Drinking Coffee or Wine?

coffeepairingsAs regular readers of this blog know, I’m a Starbucks guy. Because my work does not require me to be tied to an office, I do a great deal of my daily work at a couple of Starbucks locations, both close to where my wife works (yes, her job ties her to an office).

This routine gets me out of the house so I can stay connected to all kinds of trends, from fashion to human behavior, and it also enables me to enjoy my second-favorite beverage in a welcoming atmosphere.

Before going any further, let me make it clear that I’m not one of THOSE Starbucks people. I do not simply grab a table, plug in the laptop and stare at my computer or cell phone screen. I always buy coffee and often purchase food as well, and during longer stays, I go back for a second drink. Nothing is more annoying than watching people come in, sit down and just take up space without ordering any coffee or food — except for the people who come in, take up space, don’t order coffee or food, AND bring in their own food. That takes a lot of nerve.

Anyway, let’s just say I’m a polite Starbucks guy, and they make a lot of money off my patronage. My gold card proves it.

When I was living in Chicago, one of the larger downtown Starbucks locations was experimenting with occasional coffee-and-food pairing seminars. They’d select a specific day and time, and invite customers in to try one of their food items with one of their coffee blends or coffee drinks. I attended a few, and they were fun.

Before long, “wine-speak” terms like “Reserve” were appearing on packages of limited-edition Starbucks coffees.

Now, Starbucks Chef Stefano Cordova has come up with some very interesting coffee-and-food pairing suggestions for three of Starbucks’ most popular roasts: the light roast known as Veranda, the medium roast known as Pike Place, and the dark roast known as Espresso.

One of the recommended pairings for the light roast is toasted brioche with fresh avocado. As the Starbucks newsletter noted, “The avocado gives the coffee a more robust mouthfeel, making this light roast taste suddenly taste more full-bodied.”

Mouthfeel… full-bodied. Sound like wine terminology?

For the medium roast, one of Chef Cordova’s recommended dishes is a grilled cheese sandwich. Why? Because “the cheese and bread act like cream and sugar in the coffee, making it deliciously smooth and easy to drink.”

Smooth… easy to drink. More wine-speak.

And with the dark roast, one of Chef Cordova’s suggestions is a chocolate truffle. “They balance each other nicely, for a smooth, seamless taste.”

Balance… smooth… seamless.

Seriously, are we drinking coffee or wine here? Frankly, I don’t care, because if my beverage — whether it’s coffee or wine — has most of these attributes, I’m a happy guy.

Here’s is a link to a video featuring Chef Cordova and other food-pairing suggestions for the three Starbucks roasts.

You can drink coffee by itself, just as you can drink wine by itself, and have a fine experience. But in each case, when you can find something complementary to eat with it, the experience is elevated.

Given the choice, I’ll take “elevated” whenever I can get it.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work… here at Starbucks.

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Fogerty, Steve Miller Band, Toby Keith Headline Sonoma Music Festival

sonomamusicThe end of summer may be nearing, but that does not mean an end to some great outdoor music in California’s wine country.

To close out this week, I’d like to share colleague Michael Coats’ media release on the Sonoma Music Festival — an event that was held for 28 years on the grounds of the B.R. Cohn Winery, but ultimately outgrew that facility.

The “B” in B.R. Cohn, by the way, is Bruce Cohn, who not only established an exceptional winery, but years before that managed some of the most successful rock bands ever, including the Doobie Brothers.

Take it away, Michael…

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Bruce Cohn of Bruce Cohn Charity Events (BCCE) is pleased to present the big 30-year anniversary of the Sonoma Music Festival, October 7-9 at the Field of Dreams near downtown Sonoma.

Appearing at the successor to his fabled 28-year winery fall festival are John Fogerty (only NorCal appearance), Andy Velo, and the Fogerty kids’ band Hearty Har on Friday, October 7 (doors at 3 p.m.); the Steve Miller Band, Dave Mason, Paul Barrere, Gabe Ford, Kenny Gradney and Fred Tackett of Little Feat, plus Greg Douglass and the Accomplices on Saturday, October 8 (doors at 2 p.m.); and Toby Keith (only NorCal appearance), Andy Velo, the Curly Wolf, and “The Voice” finalist from Vacaville, Lyndsey Elm, on Sunday, October 9 (doors at 3 p.m.).

Ticket prices, purchases and information are available at

Last year, over 10,000 attendees saw stellar performances by Ringo Starr, Chicago and Gregg Allman.

The Field of Dreams location not only puts the concert goer two blocks from Sonoma’s Plaza, it allows the festival the opportunity to grow and generate more proceeds for charity, raising over $250,000 last year. This year’s beneficiaries include national and local veterans organizations, including Fisher House and American Legion Post 489, the Redwood Empire Food Bank, and others. Over its 29-year history, BCCE has raised over $7 million for charity.

“This is a very important milestone year,” exclaimed Bruce Cohn. “We needed to top last year and we think we have with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and first-time BCCE festival performer John Fogerty, plus Hall of Famers Steve Miller Band and Dave Mason on Saturday. And we are going country with superstar Toby Keith and up-and-comer Andy Velo, whom I’m now managing, on Sunday.”

The Field of Dreams set-up, while different than the winery set-up, still follows in the BCCE tradition, with great sight lines and access no more than 150 feet from the stage. These are rain or shine shows.

Plans call for the best music, food and wine Sonoma has to offer. Many of the region’s finest purveyors are joining in, including Lagunitas Brewing, a pop-up HopMonk beer garden and second stage, high-end and popular restaurants and, of course, some of the best wine in California, including B.R. Cohn, Sivas-Sonoma and many others. There will be no in-and-out privileges.

Because of the new location, visitors are only 45 minutes from San Francisco, and one hour from Sacramento. Locals are encouraged to walk, ride a bike or car-pool. VIP, motorcycle and bicycle parking near the venue will be available, and there is plenty of parking surrounding the venue in Sonoma. Check in with the festival website for maps and details.

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Kicking Off the Harvest Season in Carneros

GrapesOnVineThe Tognetti-Bayview Vineyard in the Carneros region of California’s North Coast kicked off the 2016 grape harvest for sparkling wine specialist Schramsberg. The first grapes were brought in on August 3.

“The Bayview vineyards every year come in earliest of our sites,” Schramsberg proprietor Hugh Davies told the Daily Calistogan. “The microclimate there is unique: dark loamy soils along the Carneros Creek, just north of the San Pablo Bay watershed. The exposure is planted north-to-south, and it seems to provide the vines with optimal sun, and a surplus of nutrients and water.”

The occasion called for a few words from Davies, a toast, and even some bottles opened with sabers. I kid you not. And then the Pinot Noir picking picked up steam.

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from cooler regions like Carneros —earmarked for sparkling wine — almost always kick off the harvest season, as high sugars in the grapes are not required for making sparkling wine.

You can read more about the Schramsberg festivities here.

Here’s hoping for a successful harvest for all of the grape varieties in all of California’s growing regions! As we know, great wines begin with great grapes.

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Want to Go Wine Tasting? You Have No Excuse!

Vineyard in Okanagan Falls, British Columbia, Canada with Vaseux Lake and McIntyre Bluff in the background. McIntyre Bluff is near Oliver in the Okanagan Valley.If you’ve really been wanting to visit a winery but have thought they’re simply too far away from where you live, allow me to explode that myth.

Presuming you live in the United States or Canada, the numbers say you should have ample opportunity to check out a tasting room — even if you live in some remote corner of one of these two great countries.

According to Wines Vines Analytics, the United States presently is home to 8,854 wineries, of which 5,455 have tasting rooms.

In Canada, there are 679 wineries, of which 508 have tasting rooms.

Live in Italy? Spain? France? We don’t need to tell you that there’s probably a winery no more than an hour from where you live.

For Americans and Canadians, a winery visit may require a day trip, or perhaps an overnight stay. But I can’t think of a single place in the U.S. that is more than a day’s drive from a tasting room — and that includes Alaska.

So, what are you waiting for? Google “winery tasting rooms” and the name of your state, and begin your research. Then plan to visit to a winery or two while the weather is still nice and getting there is still easy.

Keep in mind that some wineries — especially those in America’s northern tier — go to more limited hours once winter sets in. And it’s always a good idea to verify hours by phone before making a special trip.

P.S.: It’s very likely that the numbers shown above are off by at least a few. Reason: In the last six months alone, 400 wineries came on line… which means, on average, more than two are opening their doors every day.

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Lightly Sweet Wines & Pairings for Soda Fans

lns“Do you like Pepsi?”

That’s an easy question for someone to answer, presuming they’ve tasted the soft drink.

Some may answer in the affirmative, others may say they prefer Coca-Cola, and still others may say they avoid soft drinks altogether. The point is, when you say “Pepsi” or “Coca-Cola” to someone, they know what you’re taking about and have a clear understanding of what it tastes like to them.

Oh, if only the same were true for wine. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been involved in a conversation such as this:

Me: Do you like wine?

Other Person: No.

Me: What kind have you had?

Other Person: Red.

Me: Do you know what kind of red?

Other Person: No. I just remember that it was bitter.

Me: Have you ever tried a white wine that was a little bit sweet?

Other Person: No.

Me: Why not?

Other Person: Because I don’t like wine.

Then, if the person is willing to continue the conversation, a little education begins. Over years of writing about wine and leading tastings and seminars, I’ve learned that for many people, wine has been a “one and done” experience. If they didn’t like the flavor the first time they put wine to their lips, it can take a lot to get them to try it again.

I’ve found that, for most people, there’s a progression that takes place in the styles of wine they like, and that progression almost never starts with a dry red wine. So, if the first wine they ever tried was a Cabernet Sauvignon, it could have been a $500 Bordeaux and there would have been little chance they’d like it.

It’s much better to start off a person with a wine that has just a touch of sweetness to it. Among the varieties that often are made in this style are:

In no way should these varieties be thought of strictly as “training wheel” wines, however. As America has become more of a melting pot than ever, and as our palates have been introduced to a wider array of ethnic fare, wines possessing just a touch of sweetness often make ideal pairing partners.

For instance, sauces with honey, sugar or tamarind — common in Asian cuisine — pair nicely with sweeter wines. And with hot and spicy food, whether ethnic or Tex-Mex, a well-chilled sweet wine makes a wonderful pairing partner.

Personally, I’m not a fan of super spicy Thai food, but my wine-geek friends tell me that a chilled Riesling is the perfect wine match. That certainly makes sense, given Riesling’s high level of food-friendly acidity.

With wines like Moscato, which tend to be sweeter than the other varieties mentioned above, it’s best to pair it with something sweet — but not as sweet as the wine. Crème brulee or a mascarpone tart would make sinful (in a good way) partners.

But my favorite pairing of all, when it comes to lightly sweet wines, is Gewurztraminer with dim sum. The poached and steamed dishes you’ll find rolling around the room — as long as they’re not too spicy — play right into the wheelhouse of Gewurztraminer, which typically has slightly lower acidity and slightly higher alcohol than other light and sweet wines.

Keep in mind that’s you’re not likely to find a Gewurztraminer on the wine list of a restaurant that offers dim sum, so call ahead to see if they’ll let you bring your own bottle.

The Vinesse tasting panel has curated a selection of lightly sweet wines that are ideal for so many occasions — including introducing a reluctant friend to the wonderful world of wine.

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What’s That? You’ve Never Had Wine With a Cupcake?

two glasses of red wine and tulipsEvery Tuesday and Thursday night, six or seven food trucks park in a lot that’s a about a half-mile from our place. We’ve been driving by this mini culinary camp for months, nearly every time saying something like, “We’ve got to go there.”

Only problem is, we’re in the left lane at the time, and “going there” would require being in the right lane and missing the turn to our place. And at that time of the day, with so many crazy drivers on the road, all we want to do is get home. So, Tuesday after Tuesday, Thursday after Thursday, we repeat the refrain: “We’ve got to go there.”

This week, we went there.

And it was so much fun.

While many people parked their cars and made beelines for specific trucks, we, being newbies, strolled from truck to truck to check out the menus.

One featured Barcelona-style tapas. Another offered Mediterranean (mostly Greek) fare. One specialized in gourmet hot dogs. Multiple iterations of sliders were featured at another. Still another offered sushi. The choices seemed endless, and the three of us ended up patronizing three different trucks for our “main courses.”

Rather than eating while standing up, and because we lived so close, we decided to take our meals-in-cardboard-containers home. All of the purveyors were happy to provide a piece of aluminum foil with which to cover the containers and keep the food warm.

With that, we walked back to the car, cushioned the food safely in the back seat… and headed back to the trucks.

Had we forgotten a wallet or a purse? Had we accidentally left one of the cardboard containers at one of the trucks?

No. We went back to visit another truck — the dessert truck.

Michelle’s daughter had noticed a big sign (complete with big picture) promoting cream puffs. I had seen a list of cupcakes that included one with two of my favorite flavors: lemon and blueberry. Michelle had smelled the chocolate chip cookies baking and wanted to have one while it was still warm. (You know what they say about life being short and eating dessert first.)

With those sweet additions in hand, we returned to the car and headed home. I’m happy to report that each of our selections was delightful; not one disappointed. I couldn’t identify what kind of cheese they used for my veggie quesadilla, but whatever it was, it held the gooey concoction of zucchini, bell pepper and mushroom slices together perfectly between the warm flour tortillas.

As for dessert, I had a plan for that lemon and blueberry cupcake. When we’d gotten home, I’d put of bottle of light and sweet Riesling — very similar to this one — in the refrigerator to give it just a little bit of a chill. After chowing down on the quesadilla, I took a break and caught up on some of the Olympic Games competition and American swimmers’ soap opera.

After the Riesling had been in the refrigerator for about an hour, I opened the bottle, poured a glass, unpeeled the cupcake’s baking cup, placed the cupcake on a plate and grabbed a fork.

The cake part of the cupcake was lemon-flavored. It was slathered with a swath of cream cheese icing, which was topped with a spoonful of juicy blueberry compote.

I took a small bite of the cupcake, making sure to get some of the cake, some of the frosting and some of the blueberry topping in my mouth at the same time. I let it sit on my tongue for a moment before slowly chewing it and allowing all of the flavors to meld into a single sweet (and slightly sinful) presentation.

Without really realizing it, a grin must have crossed my face because Michelle looked over at me and said, “Are you enjoying yourself?”

I was. But the best was yet to come.

After swallowing that bite of cupcake, I took a sip of the light and sweet Riesling. This time, that grin must have turned into a big smile because Michelle said, “Okay, it’s my turn.”

Unfortunately, she had already finished her chocolate chip cookie and had nothing to offer in trade. So I had to decline her request — with a promise that we would return to that food truck next week so she could get her own wine-friendly cupcake.

I was able to get away with that because I also told Michelle, who prefers sweeter wines in general, that we would make good use of the Riesling the next night with our dinner — not dessert… dinner.

I’ll tell you about that food-and-wine pairing… and a few others involving light and sweet wines… on Monday. Meanwhile, if you have yet to experience “food truck cuisine,” you owe it to yourself to give it a try… perhaps this weekend?

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Thanks for the Memories, Riviera Hotel and Summit Inn

SummitInnIt’s ironic that just one day after the last tower of the Riviera Hotel was imploded, the Summit Inn burned to the ground.

The Riviera was the ninth casino and the first high-rise to be built on the Las Vegas Strip. During its storied 60-year history, its marquee featured the names of entertainers from Frank Sinatra to Liberace, and from Dean Martin to George Burns.

The Summit Inn was much less glamorous but no less historic. It was perched on a hill along Old Route 66 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas — and that made it a stopping point for many entertainers headed to Vegas for a weekend stint or a longer residency.

The diner opened in 1952, but on Tuesday, it was reduced to smoldering rubble, the result of the so-called Blue Cut Fire, which quickly grew to an 18,000-acre inferno in California’s Cajon Pass. It was one of those places where the walls were adorned with photos of many of the celebrities who had stopped in for a plate of buttermilk pancakes, a baked meat loaf dinner, or an ostrich burger.

You could get a glass of “generic” wine for $3 or sparkling wine for $3.50 at the Summit Inn, but you were much better off spending a buck or so more for a shake — especially the diner’s date shakes.

Now, it’s nothing but ashes… just like the Riviera. For anyone who ever had a meal at either place, we raise a glass of (better) wine and propose a toast that another Riviera mainstay, Bob Hope, would have appreciated: “Thanks for the memories.”

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Cheese, Charcuterie and Pinot Grigio for Your Next Get-Together

SalumiPlatePlanning a get-together? Perhaps for your fantasy football league draft, or the first PTA meeting of the new school year?

An easy way to cater it is to combine a classic cheese plate with a charcuterie board, and open a few bottles of chilled-down Pinot Grigio and/or Pinot Gris — perhaps one or more of these.

When not sitting down for a formal meal, cheese, charcuterie and Pinot Grigio make for a tantalizingly tasty treat. Most of the food can be obtained at your neighborhood grocery store; a few of the items may require a trip to a specialty market such as Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or my better half’s favorite destination in Chicago, the all-things-Italian mega-store known as Eataly.

Here’s a “cheat sheet” for your shopping expedition…

  • Four or five of your favorite cheeses, sliced thin or cut into small cubes.
  • Salami, also sliced thin.
  • Five or six selections of cured meats. Prosciutto, of course, is a must, but also surprise guests with a few less-obvious choices such as Mocetta (cured beef tenderloin). When we visited Barcelona, we fell in love with Jamon Serrano (Spanish ham), which seemed to be available everywhere.
  • Gherkin pickles. They go great with the meats. Put a piece of Mocetta and a Gherkin pickle on a slice of bread, and you have a gourmet mini-sandwich packed with flavor.
  • Crackers and either your favorite type of spread or a flavorful dip.

No fancy serving trays are necessary, unless you really want to spend time on the presentation. Just lay out the various selections on regular dinner plates, provide a supply of toothpicks, and let your guests go at it. Even the wine can be self-serve; just place glasses next to the opened bottles of Pinot Grigio / Pinot Gris.

Why that variety? Isn’t it kind of strange to serve a white wine with meats?

Pinot Grigio / Pinot Gris typically undergoes little or no barrel aging, so there are no oak or oak spice flavors to compete with the saltiness of your charcuterie selections. Furthermore, it’s the perfect variety for chilling down, and that makes it extremely refreshing — also a good thing when serving wine with salty food. Even the pickled personality of the Gherkins won’t cause a problem, especially when you chomp on one with a piece of meat and a cracker or slice of bread.

Be adventurous. Don’t stress the pairings. This is one instance when the wine — especially these selections — will work wonders with virtually any of the cheese or charcuterie selections you come up with.

Just chill down the wine… and chill!

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