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I have a horrible habit of thinking it’s hilarious to pronounce Champagne like “Champ-Ag-Nee.” Regardless of how you want to say it, Champagne is weird stuff. At its most interesting, Champagne is a product of sheer ingenuity – of centuries of curious tinkering, trial, and error. At its most expensive, Champagne is one of the most successful tales of marketing in the history of food and beverage. And at its most refined, Champagne is the stuff of delirious gustatory delight and celebration.

So, what exactly is Champagne?

Champagne is a sparkling wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir grapes that are grown exclusively in the Champagne region of France.

Queue the sound effect of tires coming to a screeching haltPinot Noir? But that’s a red grape! And Champagne is white!

Not exactly – the skins of the Pinot Noir grape (and the Pinot Meunier grape for that matter) are most definitely red but(!) the juice of the grape is actually white. If you separate the juice from the skin early in the wine making process, you’re left with the makings of a white wine.

Champagnes made from only Pinot Noir grapes or a mixture of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are called Blanc de Noirs (literally translates to “white from red”). Similarly, Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay grapes is called a Blanc de Blanc (white from white). In a similarly confusing fashion, most Champagne is made from a mixture of grapes harvested in different years (usually marked N.V.). However, if a particular year (aka vintage) proves to be exceptional, under the laws of the powers that be, a Champagne Vintage may be produced that contains grapes exclusively from that one year.

Pretty Champagne vines in Fall

In Europe, where they are much stricter about these things, not only must a wine called Champagne be made from grapes grown within this small region, but that wine must also be produced by a specific and traditional method (here in America, we’re not so particular – you can slap “Champagne” on a $5 bottle of Andre. God bless America!). This method requires that the effervescence, or bubbles, in Champagne be produced by a second fermentation in the bottle.

This means that, to start, Champagne is made just like any other wine – the grapes are harvested and thrown into a fermentation tank along with some yeast. The yeast converts the natural sugar present in the grapes into alcohol and voila! A wine is born. To make that wine into Champagne, it is poured directly into the bottle along with some extra sugar (called dosage), some more yeast and set aside to age for a minimum of 1.5 years or 15 months. During those years when a vintage is declared (a year when the harvest is exceptional), bottles must be allowed to age for twice as long – for a minimum of three years.

Merci, Madame Clicquot!

For a long time, because yeast and sugar were introduced directly into the bottle, Champagne was a cloudy wine – it had all kinds of fun particulates floating around! It was the infamous Widow Clicquot (of Veuve Clicquot) who introduced the use of something called a riddling table (a table that holds Champagne bottles upside down so that the sediment from secondary fermentation settled into the neck of the bottle and made it easier to draw off) that was used to produce the sparkling clear Champagne we know and love today.

Notice: A guy all decked out in formal top hat and tails and an elegant evening-gown clad lady.

So, if Champagne is such a specific wine why do we have a habit of calling any old sparkling wine Champagne? This is where we get into a case study of brilliant marketing. Even before it came to resemble the stuff we drink today, Champagne had long been treasured by European royalty and French aristocracy and imbibed at official ceremonies and celebrations. The method champenoise wasn’t introduced until around 1700 (and, coincidentally, not in Champagne but probably somewhere in the Languedoc region). Before the method was introduced to the winemakers of the region, Champagne was imbibed as a still wine, and often only during celebratory occasions – it was, even back then, the good stuff you busted out for company. Champagne, then, was always a wine associated with luxury, prestige, and celebration.

During the 1800’s Champagne houses and producers took advantage of their product’s rarified past and began marketing it to the burgeoning middle class at home and abroad. Take a look at any old Champagne ad (if you don’t already have a poster up on your wall) and you’ll see the instant appeal.. Needless to say, the Champagne industry did gangbusters.

However that success was not built entirely on marketing a lifestyle – Champagne is amazing stuff. The range of styles; from delicate, floral and dreamy to biscuity and savory younger varieties to the rich and complex mature examples make Champagne exactly the kind of indulgence that pairs perfectly with just about any occasion.

So, to review:

A true Champagne may only be made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes grown within the Champagne appellation and subjected to the traditional and specific method of secondary in-bottle fermentation

Methode Champoinese is the traditional method by which Champagne is produced. Sparkling wines that are made in other regions may indicate that they were produced in this same fashion. If you see a sparkling wine that has Methode Champoinese or Methode traditionelle on the label, it just means that the wine was made using the same technique as Champagne – with the secondary in-bottle fermentation and aging.

Blanc de Blancs is Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. You may see other sparkling wines that are called Blanc de Blancs – and they may be made from white grapes other than Chardonnay.

Blanc de Noirs is Champagne made from either 100% Pinot Noir or a mixture of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. You may see other sparkling wines that identify themselves as Blanc de Noirs – this just mean’s they’re made from red grapes, not that they’re Champagne.

Vintage : A Vintage Champagne means that all of the grapes used to make the wine (regardless of varietal) were harvested in the same year and that that year produced an exceptional harvest. A Vintage Champagne also means that the wine was aged for at least 3 years in the bottle. If you see N.V. on a Champagne label, it means that the wine was not produced as a Vintage and could have been made from grapes from different years.

Brut, Extra Brut, Sec, and Demi Sec are all terms that are commonly found on Champagne labels as well as on the labels of other sparkling wines. Brut indicates a dry wine; Extra Brut means, incidentally, extra dry; Sec means sweeter than Brut but still on the dry side; Demi Sec is used to indicate a sweet sparkling wine.

Next week, I’ll be looking at sparkling wines other than Champagne – Prosecco, Cava, Cremant, and New World sparklers. Stay tuned!

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Last night, I had the privilege of attending a blind tasting class at New York Vintners in Tribecca. The tasting was hosted by the venerable Bob Millman, whose company, Executive Wine Seminars (doesn’t that just sound so professional and serious?), has been hosting big deal wine tastings since 1981.

  New York Vintners is a pretty cool little spot – upon first inspection it just looks like a hipper-than-your-grandma’s wine shop. But take a closer look and you’ll notice that there’s a whole second half to the store – a space devoted entirely to wine education and tastings.

The store employs their own chef who hosts classes revolving around food and wine pairings and also caters the private dinners and tastings offered. Being that the store is relatively close to Wall Street, they get their fair share of banking big wigs and hedge fund guys coming through to nibble on expensive food and gulp big-deal wines.

In fact, New York Vintner’s owner, Shane Benson, was a Wall Street guy himself, once upon a time.  But we’ll get to him later.

I really wasn’t sure what I was getting into heading into last night’s tasting. I was a little bit intimidated by Bob Millman and thought I was headed right into a lions’ den of pretentious swirling, sniffing, and declarative statements regarding obscure bouquets and flavors. Happily, I was dead wrong. Instead of being greeted by a bunch of guys wearing monocles with slicked hair and ascots, I was greeted by a glass of Gruet Blanc de Noirs (sparkling wine) from New Mexico.

The tables were occupied by groups of single ladies, couples, and me. In line for the bathroom one half of a couple commended me for being “brave” and coming on my own. That’s a post for another day.

The tasting was what Bob called “double blind” – we had no idea what wines were being served except that there would be three whites and three reds. Before we dove into the white wines, which sat winking before us, Bob gave a quick presentation on how to approach tasting a wine. The quick and dirty of the presentation was this:

Appearance: Clarity & Intensity. For white wines, this meant taking a look at each glass and noting how intense the color was. Bob pointed out that the deepest, most golden of the wines was made from the ripest grapes. Ripe grapes, Bob went on to tell us, usually means more sugar and lower acid. For red wines, however, color can be a decent indicator of age (wines change color as they get very old – almost always to a brick or orangeish color) varietal (some grapes are naturally much darker – like Syrah) and tannin since the color is derived from the juice’s contact with the skins and tannin comes from the skins.

Aroma: Bob talked about swirling wine and why we do it – to bring up the bouquet. He also taught us a little technique that can come in handy if a wine has a “shy” bouquet (ie not easily detected). If a wine just refuses to open up he suggested swirling the wine with a hand over the top, then releasing your hand just as you stick your nose in the glass. This technique, Bob offered, can help whip up and then trap the odiferous vapors. I’m skeptical of how much this would help seeing as I’m not sure I believe that vapors magically appear by swirling – you need heat for vapors!

Palate: To discuss the “taste” of a wine, Bob gave us a few factors to consider:

Sweetness: A big part of wine is the result of converting sugar into alcohol. Residual sugar will show up in a wine when the wine maker stops this process from completing all the way (leaving some sugar behind) or when the wine maker adds sugar to a wine after the fact. Usually when we’re talking sweetness, we’re talking desert wines.

            Acid: Bob Millman is a self-professed “acid freak” and most serious wine drinkers would agree that acid is super important. When a wine has low acid it can seem sleepy or dull. But a wine with enough acid is awake and alive.

            Tannin: Tannin comes from grape skin – which is why you don’t usually find a lot of it in white wines. Tannin is also, for that same reason, the factor that keeps a lot of wine drinkers away from red wines. Tannin can be rough and unpleasant or it can lend structure and body to a wine. Bob used the anecdote that the French love to drink their wines young and tannic (sometimes I like to think of these as wines that kick your ass), the British like their wines old and soft (tannin breaks down with age), and the American’s just like their wine.

            Alcohol: Up until the 1980’s most wines had a respectable 11-12 1/2 % alcohol. Queue Global Warming and you’ve got wines weighing in with a hefty 13-14%. All that alcohol contributes body and(!) gets you drunker.

            Body: Here’s a tricky one. When you talk about body, what you’re really talking about is how much of your palate the wine hits before it disappears. Some wines only really hit the tip of your tongue before they vanish – these are super light bodied wines. Some wines will linger through, hit the middle of your mouth (mid-palate and usually middle body) before saying Au Revoir! But a big, full bodied wine will fill up your whole mouth, and then linger after you’ve swallowed.

            Flavors: Everyone gets different flavors from different wines. Next….

            Finish: Once you’ve swallowed a wine, how long does it linger? Does it give out and vanish right away? Does it leave a watery after taste? Or does it hang out and stay a while in your mouth?

Once we were all well-versed in the proper tasting technique, we got to actually downing some vino. I, of course, was playing a little game with myself trying to guess the varietals of each wine. I lost. Like, seriously – lost. But! To be fair, the sommelier snuck in a really obscure white wine from Sicily made from a varietal so obscure (Inzolia) that he’d only heard of it for the first time the week before (it was a super light and racy white wine that was so acidic it was almost briny). I don’t even count that one.  We also tasted an oaky Cotes du Rhone Blanc (Viognier, Roussane & Marsanne blend) and a gorgeous Verdejo from North-Central Spain.

As for the reds, we tasted a Rosso di Montalcino (made entirely from Sangiovese – the oak should’ve given it away! Damn!) that I thought was either Beaujolais or, perhaps, a Dolcetto. We followed that up with a 2009 Bordeaux (a super ripe vintage that tricked even Bob into thinking we were sipping on a fruit-bomb California Cab) and my personal favorite – a 100% Syrah from the Rhone that was unctuous on the nose (comments from the peanut gallery: “It smells like dank dirty ass!”) and just gorgeous on the palate. I thought it was a Nebbiolo because of the barnyard-and-tar aroma. Wrong. Again. Lastly, we were surprised with a fourth wine when the winemaker showed up near the end of the tasting and threw his wine into the mix. This last wine was a real treat – an elegant, smooth Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend from South Africa that we were all happy to have tacked on to the end.

The tasting over, I tucked into a conversation with some of the people sitting around me while the staff poured the leftovers for anyone who wanted them. Usually, I’d be embarrassed to admit that I was one of the last two people to leave, but I was rewarded with a glass of an unbearably delicious Barbera d’Alba (you know how I love me some d’Alba anything!) and a great conversation with the owner, Shane.

Wearing a rediculous tye-dyed shirt (I warned him I’d have to give him shit about the shirt), Shane told me his story – how he went from culinary school to Wall Street (seriously, you’d never think it from the tye-dye) to owning New York Vintners. We talked about how the wine world is exploding, that people should drink what they like (even if its $3 wine from Trader Joes), and how we can’t wait to see wine snobbery fly out the window. Both Bob and Shane told me that the Blind Tasting class was their favorite class because it was a great way to introduce people to the right way to thinking about wine. Freed from expectations, people could approach each wine with the simple question of, “Do I like it and why or why not?” – which is exactly how everyone should find the wine they love.

Shane and his team have built a super friendly, relaxed, and fun space to taste and learn about wine. Especially if you’re interested in the relationship between food and wine, I’d head over to their website and take a look at the classes. Many of the people I talked to at the tasting had already been to three or four classes and had come back for this one. At $50 a pop for at least three glasses of wine and food, it’s a real value and a great way to spend an evening.

            Psst….! PS. Keep an eye out for a post coming up about Champagne & Sparkling wines and a fall wines roundup I’m working on! Cheers!

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            Look, I totally get it. I’m not so jaded and sophisticated that I don’t understand the appeal of going to a wine tasting for the “free booze” but if that’s why you’re thinking of attending a wine tasting you might want to think again.

Wine tastings are a great opportunity to try a lot of different wines – maybe a lot of different wines that you’d never have the chance to try again! And yes, they can also be an occasion for lots of drinking on the cheap…a $15 dollar ticket to what is basically an open bar? I hear ya! You’re like, “where do I sign up?!”

And while I’m all about pushing aside staid conventions and having fun with wine, a wine tasting is no place to get wasted. You’ve got to think about it from the point of view of the people hosting and working the event – sure, they know you’re there because you might leave drunk, but they’re also there hoping to introduce their product and perhaps do some business.

If you don't pace yourself, you could look like this.


            Ok, enough with the semi-lecturing and onto the good stuff….

Do a walk around before you start tasting. Grab your tasting glass from the front and do a quick round of the room. Realistically, you’re not going to get a chance to try everything so make a mental note of the tables that have wines you’re really interested and hit those first – before you get too buzzed to remember any of your tasting notes.

Rinse your glass between tables. You walk into the room and you do your scan and you see a bottle of club soda or soda water on every table and you’re like, “Gee, that’s so nice that they’ve put something out for the people who came here and don’t drink!”. Yeah, no. The seltzer is for rinsing out your glass between tables.

Generally, you should rinse your glass if you’re going from reds to whites (or visa versa) at the same table, or even if you’re switching between totally different varietals from pour to pour (from a Cabernet Sauvignon to a Pinot Noir for example) so the flavors don’t get muddied. It’s up to you how often you rinse your glass – some people do it after every pour and some wait until they’re switching colors or tables. You want to pour in a small amount of the soda water (sometimes its just plain old regular water), swirl it around, and pour it into the spitting bucket. If anyone sees you drinking this water, it will be a dead giveaway that you’re a newbie! Generally they’ll provide ice water or water bottles at a tasting that are for drinking.

The spitting thing. I can’t spit in public. I just can’t – its gross and, inevitably, I either spit with too much force and get splashed by the disgusting bucket juice or I don’t spit hard enough and it dribbles down my chin (embarrassing) or down onto my shirt (more embarrassing). So, what’s a very small girl with an average tolerance and 11 tables to go supposed to do?! I limit myself to a two-sip per pour – and often only end up taking one. Sometimes its enough to get the gist of a wine from one long taste – letting it spend more time than usual swishing around my mouth before swallowing – and sometimes I need a small second taste. Don’t feel compelled to finish every pour. I can’t stress this enough! You will not insult anyone if you simply pour out the remainder of your taste into the bucket. If anything it will show that you know you have to pace yourself and you’ll get some major tasting cred. And if any of the other guests give you a hard time for pouring out the wine they’re probably just embarrassed that they’ve been choking down a lot of wine they didn’t particularly care for. That said, if you do get a pour of something you love it is more than acceptable to not only finish the pour but ask for a second one while you move to the next table.

Keeping track. I’m old fashioned – I like to bring a small notebook and pen with me to write down the names of any wines that I loved. If you have an iPhone or a crackberry it is more than ok to bust it out and type the name of the wines you liked into it. You can also ask the pourers if they have any info to take away with you – most of the time they’ll be armed with press releases or some kind of info.

Be polite. The people pouring the wines are there because it is their job. I shouldn’t even have to say it but, say “please” and “thank you.” Also, try not to make this face if you hate a wine:

Asking questions. Alright, here’s where things get tricky. As you’ve learned here…we Americans are used to seeing our varietals right where we can see ‘em – printed clearly and neatly on the label. Unfortunately, things get complicated when you go abroad – particularly to France, Spain, or Italy. Damn those foreigners!

So, here’s where all those nifty maps I’ve made come in handy (click here and here). Most of the time when you’re being poured a French wine, the wine will go by the name of the area where it is from. Knowing which grapes are grown where can be helpful in knowing what grapes are in your glass. (Bordeaux has a traditional mix of five grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot while anything labeled “Burgundy” is strictly Pinot Noir. Seriously – just look at my old post!).

It is perfectly reasonable to ask the pourer what grapes or varietals (same thing, fancier word) are in the wine but you’ll be showing yourself off  as a newbie and, really, when it comes to French wine, the grapes are not the point – the terroir is the point.

If you’re tasting an Italian wine, things can get tricky since some go by their grape name (Dolcetto, Valpolicella, Nero d’Avola) and some go by their place name (Chianti – which is made from Sangiovese for example). Emphasis is more on grapes and less on terroir for Italian wines, but Italian wines are also much more prone to include obscure hyper-local varietals that you (or I) have never heard of. So you can ask…just prepare your best poker face when you have no idea what the guy’s talking about.

Here are some better questions to ask if you want to know more about the wine you’re drinking:

How many vineyards are the grapes sourced from? (Often if the grapes are sourced from a single vineyard or less than a few, this is a good sign)

What is the area like where the grapes were grown? What kind of soil? (This is a great way to learn more about how geography influences wine as you’re tasting it!)

How many bottles are produced each year? (A smaller amount produced and the more focus the winemaker can give each individual vintage).

What is in here that gives the wine it’s color/nose/backbone/smoky taste? (Is there something unusual or striking about the wine? Asking why it’s there and identifying something that is unique about a wine will impress everyone!)

Where can I buy this wine? (If you love a wine, ask where you can find it!)

So, that’s all I got for navigating a wine tasting. To sum up:

            • If you’re going to get drunk, don’t go.

            • Don’t feel compelled to finish every pour and don’t feel pressured to try something you have no interest in! Just say no thank you and ask to try what you want to try!

            • If you don’t want to spit in public, just commit yourself to a one or two sip maximum and pour out what’s left without feeling badly.

            • Pay attention and take notes if you want to remember something.

            • Ask questions that have answers you actually care about or would understand. There’s no point in asking “what grapes are in this?” if you have no idea what it means that a wine is blended from Roussane and Viognier. On the other hand, ask “what varietals are typically found in wines from this region?” and you’ll sound so much more informed.

            • Enjoy! Talk to strangers and be polite when they like the worst wine you tasted the whole night. Nobody likes a snob. Oh, and I leave you with this picture…which is just…weird: 

           

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Drinking Cooking with Wine

            For those of you who don’t know me too well, one of my all-consuming passions besides wine is cooking. In fact, once upon a time I had a little blog called The Unlikely Gourmand, where I chronicled my mishaps and triumphs in the kitchen over about the course of a year.

gratuitious staged shot of Farmers Market goodies

I’ve always loved cooking with wine and, in fact, had one of several fake ID’s confiscated for trying to purchase a bottle of Marsala wine (to make, what else, Chicken Marsala). My attempt to explain that I was merely buying the obscure and practically undrinkable fortified wine for purely innocent and culinary purposes fell on deaf ears and I was left sans ID and sans dinner. America is a tough place for the aspiring home cook under the age of 21.

When it comes to cooking with wine there really are a lot of opinions out there, circling around the one consensus that it makes a lot of dishes infinitely better. If you watch anyone on the Food Network, you’ve surely heard that you should never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink. Walk into any restaurant kitchen, however, and you’ll find Carlo Rossi-esque jugs of wine that are used expressly for cooking. So who’s right?

It depends. I realize this is not the answer you were hoping for, so lets get to it, shall we?

A couple of bottles from a few weeks back

Certainly for wine-centric dishes like Coq au Vin or Beouf Bourgignon or even a simple braised chicken dish, the wine you’re using matters a little bit more. If it’s a dish that calls for wine as a significant ingredient, it should be a wine that you would drink. That’s not to say you should go ahead and pour that expensive1987 Bordeaux you have lying around into your Coq au Vin because that would just be a waste. A very expensive and sad waste. But, if you have a decent everyday-quality wine (in the $10-$20 range) that you wouldn’t mind drinking while you cook or, later, with dinner, by all means, go ahead and use it.

Same goes for a bottle of wine that you just never got around to finishing. I, for one, hate to waste so I try to finish a bottle over two nights. However, if I just can’t get around to emptying a bottle and I’ve got a glass or more left on the third day, I’ll keep the bottle corked in the fridge and use it to cook later. It’s also never a bad idea to have a cheap ($7ish) bottle of Pinot Grigio in the fridge to use in everything from Risotto to Soup.

Another reason I would like to believe those Food Network ladies are always hawking drinkable wine is that most of the time you’re only using a cup (more or less) of wine in any given dish and so why not have that wine around to serve with dinner or drink later? However, keep in mind that the wine is going to be cooked so it’s really not necessary to splurge.

Alright, so now that we’ve cleared that up – lets get to the best kinds  of wine to cook with. As I mentioned earlier I think a light Pinot Grigio is a good thing to have around – its bright and acidic (the main reason you use wine is usually to deglaze, or in normal terms, to scrape up all the brown bits from the bottom of a pan). You don’t want to use an oaky chardonnay because its just got too much character and will impart its own funky flavor. However, an unoaked chardonnay could do quite nicely. I’m also a big fan of cooking with dry reisling – again its got lots of acid and bright flavors that won’t get in the way of your dish. Sauvignon Blanc can be tricky because sometimes the NZ or California examples are just too herbaceous, too grassy, and too fruity. But if you get a flinty French example you should be ok.

You could make this if you had some wine around!

For red wines, the same rules apply. Pinot Noir is a great cooking wine because its got great acid and lighter flavors. For a “dry red wine” Chianti can be pretty fabulous – its tannic yet light and still acidic and I don’t mind using a Cab-Merlot blend that’s not too oaky for richer dishes like beef stew.
Very recently, I tried a wonderful recipe from the ladies at Food 52 – one of the best food websites around if you ask me. It was a dish made with Rose and as soon as I saw it, I just had to make it. It was delicious and a great way to use up some leftover Rose I had lying around. When cooking with Rose, I’d urge you to go for the good stuff from Provence – crisp and herby and just delightful.

The only thing you really want to stay away from is wine that’s really expensive or wine that’s really bold. Anything else is most likely going to better your dish more often than bring it down. Yet another gift of the grape.

Want to try cooking with wine? Head on over to the recipes linked below:

Merrill’s Rosy Chicken

Coq Au Vin

Chicken in Reisling (go for the cream instead of the creme fraiche)

Alice Waters’ (and my favorite) Beef Stew

Risotto with Mushrooms and Peas (can easily swap out white wine for red and change up the ingredients but a great basis for liquid-to-rice ratio)

Strawberry Rhubarb Breakfast Cake - am I bad at photography or what?

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The other night I attended a lovely event hosted by Sonoma Cutrer. The evening started with a discussion, moderated by one of my idols, Barbara Fairchild. The panel included Chef Michael Lamonoco, who owns Porter House New York, where yours truly worked as a hostess for about 4 months when I first moved and when I still thought that I was the exception to the “magazines aren’t hiring” rule.

Also on the panel was famed Chef Charlie Palmer, cookbook author and writer Dede Wilson, longtime food journalist and critic Ray Sokolov, and Mick Shroeter, winemaker for Sonoma Cutrer.

The prospect of being in the same room with, let alone possibly meeting Barbara Fairchild had me shaking in my boots just enough to zap my appetite for the day. The wine served was a California Chardonnay that was zippy and fruity rather than oaky and buttery. The discussion was centered on the idea of American food trends, so naturally, Barbara asked about the biggest trends of the last 30 years had been.

No matter how many different ways they tried to say it, the answer from everyone on the panel was the same: fresh seasonal and local ingredients. There were jokes about how frozen Dover sole was once an innovation, and about how restaurant patrons back in the day didn’t know the difference between a freshly caught diver scallop and one chiseled out of a frozen bag. The biggest shift, agreed on by all present, was that fresh and quality ingredients had become available, in demand, and had changed the way that everyone was cooking.

The follow up question was, of course, to name three chefs who made a difference in food trends of the last 30 years. Chef Lamonoco went first and mentioned Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Palmer, and the French chef  (my French is nonexistent…) who brought contemporary French haute cuisine to NYC. All of these, I thought, were noble choices and all of the parties mentioned certainly did make a significant contribution to modern American food.

However, after all of the other members of the panel went on and discussed their choices, the feminist in me couldn’t resist screaming inside my head:

YOU ALL JUST SPENT 15 MINUTES TALKING ABOUT LOCAL SEASONAL AND QUALITY INGREDIENTS AS A HUGE CULINARY TREND AND NO ONE MENTIONED ALICE WATERS?! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!

(By the way, she had spent that morning with Michelle Obama – you know, the president’s wife? No big deal.)

While the feminist in me can be hot headed,  she also has a point.

To be honest, it should not have been surprising. At the end of the day, though women have made huge contributions to the culinary industry, its still a world predominantly run by men. That’s not to say that women have not been successful – especially outside of New York.

When I think about Los Angeles, where I grew up, and the culinary scene out there, I think about women who have built veritable culinary empires like Nancy Silverton, Susan Fenniger, Suzanne Goin, Zoe Nathan,  and Candace Nelson.  Even the food critic for the LA Times is a woman (though S. Irene Virbilla is hard-up for fans these days) – hell, Ruth Reichl got her start as the LAT critic and Barbara Fairchild ran Bon Appetit from the west coast!

In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I’ve rounded up some  California wine makers that make great wine and happen to have breasts, too.

Heidi Peterson Barrett: Winemaker at Screaming Eagle & La Sirena Winery (her own label) via CalWineries.com:

“In 1992, Barrett went to work for Screaming Eagle. Screaming Eagle is one of those wines that everyone has heard of, but not many have tasted. It is an emblematic California wine, perhaps the California wine of the last few decades. And once again, it was Barrett’s exquisite blend of art and science that made this wine a reality.

Her first vintage, the 1992, also received a 100 point score from Parker. (Two in one year!) At the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction, a 6 liter bottle of this wine was purchased for $500,000; the most expensive single bottle of wine ever sold.”

Sally Johnson:  Winemaker at Pride Mountain Vineyards. Pride Mountain Winery is located on Spring Mountain, one of my favorite areas of Napa. I’m not alone, here, and Johnson managed to make one of Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines of 2010.

Laura Zahtila is the owner of Laura Zahtila Vineyards in Napa Valley. Laura is the owner and winemaker and they make teensy tiny amounts of amazing wine.

Anne Vawter: Winemaker at Oakville Ranch Vineyards. Vawter worked under Heidi Peterson Barret at Paradigm, one of the most prestigious winemakers in Oakville before moving on. Oakville Ranch Vineyards was the first in the area and has always been known for being the best so Vawter’s position is an important one.

Helen Turley: Winemaker at Martinelli, Marcassin, and Turley Wine Cellars.

Via thelifestyleloft.com:

“A name that has become synonymous with truly great California wines is Helen Turley, one of the most sought-after winemakers in the world. […] Now Turley’s efforts are so revered that she recently graced the cover of Wine Spectator beside the suggested title “America’s Greatest Winemaker?” 

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Wine can be just as seductive as a beautiful woman. Long legs, intoxicating perfume, and an intriguing reluctance to open up are all qualities that could be ascribed both to a femme fatal and to a great wine. Not to mention that too much of either (or both) has been the downfall of many great men.

And just like with a beautiful woman, it’s best, with wine, not to rush into things – to take the time to appreciate all of its attributes and pay homage to each one in turn. Whenever you see someone swirling their wine, inspecting the sides of their glass, and sticking their nose into it, what you’re seeing is the equivalent of foreplay for serious wine drinkers.

So, knowing just how important it is (if you don’t you probably have something dangling between your legs and need to go buy as many back issues of Cosmo as you can get your hands on and perhaps peruse the sex books section on Amazon), I’ve provided you all with a nifty little guide to the essential moves and know-how to getting the best performance from the next glass of wine you get involved with.

The Swirl

The move: Place two fingers on the base of the glass, one on each side of the stem and, without lifting the glass from whatever surface its resting on, start to swirl the glass in a counter clockwise motion. You want to achieve a motion that causes the wine to rise up and wash the sides of the glass. You don’t have to do this for very long – a couple seconds should do the trick.

The point:
For a long time it was thought that the Swirl helped encourage a wine to “open up” by getting air into it. However, the Swirl, it turns out, is pretty inefficient towards this goal – a wine will open up better with time or a decanter than with a few spins around the wine glass.

While the Swirl doesn’t do much to open up a wine’s flavors, it does prove rather effective in amping up a wine’s scent. For wines like Pinot Noir, Viognier and Riesling (to name a few) getting a good swirl is essential and by coating the sides of the glass, the wine gets closer to one’s nose and enables more subtle scents to be detected.

 

Legs Inspection


 

The move: Holding a wine up to the light post-Swirl in order to watch the wine on the sides of the glass drip back down into itself, leaving thin trails of wine that are called “legs” or “tears”

The point: As it turns out, legs are just another long-standing and wrong supposition. A wine with “good legs” or “long legs” was once thought to be an indicator of a wine’s high quality and also to indicate the levels of sugar present in a wine. As it turns out however, legs are just a visible side effect of the evaporation of alcohol – the higher the alcohol the thicker the legs. So, I guess if you’re at a blind tasting and you only have a few tastes and you’re and looking to get hammered, this trick will come in handy. Otherwise, they’re just kinda pretty.

The Sniff:

The move: You can tell just how serious someone is about wine by how far they stick their nose into a wine glass. To get all the benefits of the sniff, you want to swirl    your wine and tilt the glass towards your nose, to get the wine as close as possible to your nostrils. Then go ahead and inhale deeply and take the wine away from your nose as you exhale.

 

The point: The reticent who only venture to sniff the air at the top of their wine glass are missing out on all the pleasures afforded by a good deep sniff. Half of taste is smell and sometimes half the pleasure of a glass of wine is its perfume. The nose of a wine can be just as essential to its enjoyment as its taste. Smell is an intensely personal sense and powerful in its ability to trigger memories – similarly, sometime’s a wine scent is much more revealing about its past than its taste can be.

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Often as soon as I mention to people that I write a wine blog, the first question asked is, “What’s your favorite wine?”. I hate that question. And not just because it puts me on the spot, but because, honestly, my taste for wine changes with my mood, with the weather, with what I’m eating – the variables are endless.

(Favorite Everyday Reds: )

However, I can say that there are wines that I return to and tend to defer to for special occasions. Generally, I’m a red drinker and generally I like wine that is far more masculine than my petite frame and girlish charms would seem to suggest. There are a few things that I look for depending on variety; I like spice in a Syrah, leather with a touch of vanilla in my Merlot, and muscle in my Priorat.

(Favorite Everyday Whites: )


I have a strange fondness for Beaujolais – a wine that lies on the complete opposite end of the spectrum as the wines I just mentioned. Beaujolais is a light wine, and it’s endlessly quaffable, but when it’s good it is sooo good and, I would argue, largely unappreciated. It can be delicate, poetic, and pretty at it its best, and the fact that it’s best served chilled doesn’t hurt it’s go-to status come summertime.

(Go-to gifting wines: )


When it comes to whites, I’m picky. I like clean, minerally and dry on one hand and floral, succulent, and crisp on the other. Pinot Noir is a tricky grape for my palate, and unfortunately I’ve found that – with a couple exceptions – I’m more inclined towards the expensive stuff as a matter of taste. I like a long lingering finish, firm structure and obscure flavors like lavender and smoke. All that being said, I’ve compiled a few short lists for my some of my favorite wines and categorized according to price. Next time someone asks me what my favorite wine is, I can simply direct them here.

PS. If you are eager to try any of the above or just want to copy me (don’t worry…it happens all the time – you’re not alone. My roommate copied my shampoo just the other week!) but you can’t find any of the specific bottles above just check out something from the same region, producer, or grape and let me know how you liked it…you can never have enough go-to’s when it comes to wine.

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