Showing posts with label Napa Valley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Napa Valley. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Tasting of Italian Wines in Century City

The 2018 Vini d'Italia tour was an invitation-only gathering to sample wines from some of Italy's best small-production wineries. After Philadelphia and Austin, the last stop was Terra, Eataly's rooftop dining room in the revitalized Century City Mall.


Marilyn Krieger works for the Winebow Group which organized the tour.  She said that the event was an opportunity to enjoy premium Italian wines distributed by Leonardo LoCascio Selections (LLS) and to talk with the winemakers. The wines we would taste that afternoon would evoke the location of their cultivation and the winemaker whose palate guided the creation of that year's bottling. Each wine was unique. Each winemaker had a story to tell.


I understood completely what Krieger meant. I love visiting vineyards and enjoy meeting winemakers, like Shawna Miller at Luna Vineyards in the Napa Valley and Mélanie Weber in her vineyard overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland.


The wines served at the afternoon event traversed Italy.


Four rows of tables stretched the length of the large dining room and outside on the covered patio where winemakers and representatives of vineyards from all over Italy poured their vintages and talked about their wines.

To stimulate the palate, a table was set with fine cuts of charcuterie, rough-hew chunks of aged Parmesan, small plates of calamari fritti in a spicy marinara sauce, crusted mashed fingerling potatoes heavily seasoned with flake salt, pasta with fennel sausage and spring salads with burrata, English peas and fava beans.


Some of the wines poured that afternoon were not yet available. Those would be shipped in the fall, available for the holiday season. And, many were so prized, their small productions would sell out before their release dates.

For me, the best adventure as a travel and food writer is to visit wineries as I did in Napa and Switzerland, to spend time with winemakers, explore the area around the vineyards and enjoy the fruit of the vines.


At the Vini d'Italia event I did the next best thing. I traveled from table to table, criss-crossing Italy from north to south and along the way tasted a Brunello, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco, Barbera, Chianti, Barolo and a Soave Classico. Every wine was unique. Every winemaker had a story to tell.

I wish you could have been at the event. At the very least, look at the website and check with your local wine shop. Maybe you will find one of the wines we tasted. I hope so.


I look forward to enjoying the wines in a restaurant and seeing them in wine stores and I look forward to visiting the wineries in Italy to complete the experience.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Love At First Crush, One Woman’s Love Affair with Winemaking

California’s Napa Valley is home to some of America’s best wineries. The valley is also well-known as an incubator of women winemakers. Shawna Miller is one of a group of talented women who have pursued a winemaking career in the valley.



Growing up in a small Virginia town along the Appalachian Trail, Miller spent a lot of time outdoors, hiking and helping her grandmother tend the large garden that fed the family. In the summer they ate what they grew and canned the rest. During the wet, cold winters they happily survived on the food they put up in the pantry, including jars of huckleberry and blackberry jam, tomatoes and green beans.

She never thought about grapes or wine

Studying forestry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia, she graduated with a degree in forestry, which was a natural fit for a woman who had grown up trekking along the Appalachian Trail. That’s also where she met and married Zak who shared her love of biology. To see the world and build up their resumes, they picked up jobs wherever they could. After a stint with the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida, a friend invited them to work a harvest in New Zealand. That work-vacation changed their lives. 

Near Margaret River in Western Australia they worked at the Cape Mentelle Winery Miller, tasted the different varietals and loved the taste of the different grapes. She learned that each grape had a different temperament. Each had to be picked at exactly the right moment. Pick too soon or wait too long and the grapes would yield inferior wine. 

Now she and Zak were hooked. They pursued harvests in California, New Zealand, Australia and Chile. They experienced firsthand how soil and climate, terroir, created very different wines. The Indian Ocean breezes that swept across the grapes at the Cape Mentelle Winery yielded wines very different from the ones she came to love in hot, dry Napa.

Taking classes at the University of California, Davis Extension, Miller wanted to learn the science behind raising grapes and making wine. But there wasn’t time to get a degree in enology.

Her graduate work would be done in the fields and in the labs where her background in science got her jobs measuring fermentation levels. 

To become a wine maker, she had to master more than chemistry. Wine making is part science, part art. 

Even if a wine is made entirely from one varietal, the grapes grown in one part of a vineyard can be markedly different from those harvested from another area. Blending together those different flavors is an art that must be developed by a winemaker. 

Today as the winemaker at Luna Vineyards, she oversees the production of a collection of well-regarded, affordable wines. 

Luna Vineyards

What distinguished Luna Vineyards in its early days was the choice to produce Italian-style wines. When Michael Moone founded the vineyard in the mid-1990s, he wanted to produce wine modeled on the Italian wines he loved. He planted Pinot Grigio (white) and Sangiovese (red) grapes and blended the wines in a way that set them apart from the largely French style wines produced in the valley’s other vineyards.



Balancing work and a family

At times in their marriage, Miller’s husband Zak has worked half a world away at a winery in Chile. But now with Zaira, their little girl, to raise, Zak stays closer to home as an assistant winemaker at Domaine Carneros.

As harvest time approaches, they put the call out to their parents. When the grapes are ready to be picked, Shawna and Zak  will be in the fields from before dawn until well into the night. Someone needs to be home with Zaira. 



In the days before the harvest begins, Miller walks through the vineyard. The fat clusters of grapes hang heavily on the row upon row of well-tended vines. If the weather cooperates and no pests damage the grapes, she could have a very good year. She is always hoping that with luck and hard work, this year’s vintage could be one of the winery’s best.

Harvest – exciting and nerve wracking 

With a last look at the refractometer that measures the sugar level of the grapes, Miller makes the call to the vineyard manager, “Ok, let’s take it.” And that’s when the real drama begins. 

The grapes are ready. Miller is ready. But during harvest time there is more work than workers available. Sometimes when she calls she is told there isn’t a crew available. The grapes won’t be picked for days. 

During that waiting time she is at the mercy of the weather. If it gets too hot or if it rains, the grapes will be pushed past their prime and a vintage that could have been great will be less so. 



At moments like this, all Miller can do is watch and wait. She busies herself, making sure the lab is ready and the fermentation tanks are clean. Finally, when the crew is available, it’s all hands on deck. Time for their parents to babysit Zaira. 

Fermenting and then blending

What makes one wine different from another? Of course the quality and the variety of the grapes make a difference, but so too does the palate and skill of the winemaker. 

Depending on the wine making style, the maturing wine spends time in stainless steel vats or in oak barrels. When Miller believes the wine is ready, she begins a series of trial blends that are like rough drafts. Making several blends, she and her team will sample and rate each, comparing that year’s wine with ones they liked from years before. Like the best chef, she will mix and combine until she has the flavor she loves. At that moment, she will call in the bottling crew.

During the year there are moments when Miller can take a break to spend time with her family. As all-consuming and as hard as the work can be, having time with Zak and Zaira is absolutely essential.

And then it’s time to start the process all over again. In spring the leaf buds poke through the dark wood. In the heat of the summer, the vines need to be tended, the grape clusters are thinned and the plants monitored for pests. And in the fall there is the harvest when so many moving parts have to work together to give Miller what she needs to make great wine.

At the end of the day, even with all those stresses Miller counts herself lucky to have a career she loves and to be living with her family in a valley that produces beautiful wines.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

An Easy Summer Meal of Heirloom Tomatoes and Sautéed Chicken Breasts

A good friend had a problem: his wife's birthday was a week away and he had to organize a dinner for 25. Clay likes hosting Lesli's birthday party but doesn't enjoy the pressure of putting together the meal. In the past he had side-stepped the stress by ordering out.

For many years, the dinner party was catered by Versailles a popular Cuban restaurant. This year he decided a pot luck dinner would make the meal more personal. Truth is Clay's talents lie in painting and photography and while he enjoys eating, he's happy to leave the cooking to others. But he had committed to preparing the main course and a side dish and even that felt burdensome. We discussed all this at our weekly Sunday brunch. I figured it was the manly thing to do to help him plan, shop, and prepare the dinner.

The central question was obvious: what to make for the main course that would feed 25 and wouldn't require a huge amount of time in the kitchen? In the winter, the obvious answer would be a roast or a comfort dish like chicken and dumplings. Since Lesli's birthday falls in the middle of summer when the air is warm and eating outdoors is the order of the day, something lighter was required.

Given that Lesli and my wife, Michelle, prefer simply prepared meals, we settled on easy-to-make grilled chicken breasts and Italian sweet sausages. For a side dish we talked about sautéed spinach, green beans with garlic and mushrooms, or grilled artichokes, any of which would go well with the grilled meats. In deference to eating locally, we made a plan to shop at the farmers' market the day of the party and decide what to make while we were at the market.

Saturday morning we met early at the Santa Monica farmers' market. Walking past the farmers' stalls we saw vegetables we hadn't thought about: summer squash and Japanese eggplants for grilling, plump carrots for a Moroccan flavored salad, and baby bok choy that we could stir fry with ginger, garlic and soy sauce.

Finally we settled on the obvious summer choice: a salad of heirloom tomatoes in a simple vinaigrette. Right now the profusion of tomatoes in the market is nothing short of phenomenal: Brandywines (red, yellow, black), Cherokee Purples, Green Zebras, even a sweet cherry tomato called Snow White.

We also saw fresh Italian parsley, shallots, ginger, and garlic. Those flavors could bring a helpful lift to the chicken breasts. We decided on a simple butter sauce and a crispy topping of bacon, shallots, garlic, ginger, and Italian parsley leaves.

The nice part about pot luck meals is you discover things you didn't know about your friends. Talking with Melissa about what she was going to bring, I learned that she and her husband had just gotten back from a trip to Napa. She happily applied her recent experience and brought a terrific platter of cheeses (each one with its own flag-label) accompanied by a fig spread, grapes, strawberries, and nuts.

Heirloom Tomato Salad

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds ripe heirloom tomatoes (washed, stems removed)
1/2 basket ripe heirloom cherry tomatoes (washed, stems removed, halved)
1 ripe avocado (washed, peeled, pit removed, roughly chopped)
1/2 cup olives (cracked green or black, pitted, roughly chopped)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and pepper

Method

On a very low flame heat the vinegar in a small saucepan until reduced to 1 tablespoon.

Cut the large tomatoes into quarters or chunks or slices--whatever you prefer--gently toss them with the cherry tomatoes, avocado, olives, olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar. Season to taste with sea salt and pepper.

Variations

Add cilantro or Italian parsley leaves, roughly chopped.

Add red onion or scallions, peeled, finely chopped.

Chicken Breasts with Butter Sauce and a Crispy Topping

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 1 hour

Ingredients

4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (washed, pat dried)
4 slices bacon (finely chopped)
4 shallots (peeled, finely julienned)
2" piece of fresh ginger (peeled, finely julienned)
4 garlic cloves (peeled, finely julienned)
1/2 cup Italian parsley (washed, dried, leaves only)
1/4 cup sweet butter
1/2 cup chicken stock
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
6 cups safflower oil

Method

Make the crispy part first. Heat the oil in a deep pan like a wok so that when the ingredients are added and the oil foams up, the pan is deep enough that the oil won't flow onto the stove. You can tell this was a lesson I learned the hard way. Test the oil by dropping in a parsley leaf. If it crisps in 5-6 seconds, the oil's hot enough. Cook the bacon, ginger, garlic, parsley, and shallots separately. Have a slotted spoon or a fine-mesh strainer ready because they will cook in a few seconds. Remove each and let drain on a paper towel.

Drizzle olive oil onto a plate, then season with sea salt and pepper. Dredge each chicken breast half through the seasoned oil. Either grill the breasts on a barbecue or sauté in a medium-hot pan until browned on each side. Put the breasts on a plate and cover lightly with a piece of aluminum foil. Heat butter and chicken stock in a sauté pan and reduce until thickened.

Arrange the breasts on a platter, drizzle with the butter sauce, and top with the crispy bits.

Summer Tomatoes Saved for Winter Dishes

Even as the heat of the sun makes us wonder if summer will ever end, as the saying goes, "Winter is coming." Walking through th...