wine and Food

Blue Nose, Blue Blood

This time it was Blue Nose. It was always something, but it was always something special. There are places to buy things and there are places where it’s an adventure to buy things. One of those places is Osprey Seafood in the town of Napa. 

We brought home some fabulous Bluenose bass from New Zealand this time, but whatever we bring home from there is always delicious. Why? Why are some merchants so much better than others? The fish at Osprey is more-or-less the same price as Whole Foods just down the road, but it is always, always better. Certainly it is more expensive than the seafood offerings of Safeway, but food that is inedible is never cheap enough.

The “why” is simple. They care at Osprey. They care in a way you just don’t see behind the counter at a chain, even at the level of a Whole Foods. At the likes of Safeway it’s not an issue of excitement as they have little interest or knowledge in what they’re selling. 

It’s always amazing at Osprey as, in spite of the fact they deal with fish day in and day out, they’re excited about today’s special arrivals. It’s that ability to be excited that makes them go out of their way to have something to be excited about. 

What’s happened to that excitement in the wine industry? Cynical buyers, loaded with attitude, but with closed minds who have already decided what wines are the best by the time they’re twenty-five. Their counterpoints are ego driven, “lifestyle” wineries more interested in points than quality, which pump out over-oaked, high octane, insanely priced fruit bombs.  All of the above driven by someone else’s pointed opinion instead of their own. True enough there’s a lot to be not excited about.

However, once a month, I get a package that reminds me that there still exists, in the increasingly corporate wine world, merchants filled with passion, excitement and energy that is all their own. That package is the monthly shipment I get from the Kermit Lynch Wine Club, one of the privileges of living in California.

Each package is a voyage of discovery. Not that I do not know some of the wines that arrive, but each shipment is an inside look at the mind of the Kermit Lynch company. The energy and commitment in that collective mind is clear in the quality and distinctive personality of each bottle that arrives. 

For about $40 a month you get two bottles of interesting wine. While that should not be an unusual thing, it is, and the arrival of each package makes me think about the wines we make. As always, there is no greater compliment you can give a wine than it makes you think. Any wine that costs more than $10 a bottle should at the very least make you notice you are drinking it. 

Kermit Lynch, Osprey and merchants like them are the blue bloods, the royalty of the merchant class. While it is said you get what you pay for, it is more than that. There are many places to get above average, but there are few places where you can travel together as excited explorers sharing the energy that discovery brings to those that share in the adventure together. 

You’ll never get this experience at Cost Plus, Trader Joe’s, Costco or any chain operation. You’ll also not save any money by shopping at these chains unless you insist on buying overpriced, industrial wines that are only pretenders to the throne. Yes, if you want to buy Silver Oak these are your places. However, the Osprey’s and Kermit Lynch’s of the world are the ones offering true value. 

There’s a sucker born every minute. Don’t be a sucker. Buying smart means not buying hype. It also means not buying on price alone. Smart buyers buy based on price and the energy and effort the merchant puts into bringing them the very best.

A Kermit Lynch selection with an Osprey selection makes not only for a wonderful dinner, but money well spent.

American Wine: The Locavore's Hypocrisy

Link: American Wine and Locavore Movement, by Todd Kliman, author The Wild Vine – The Daily Beast

In an excellent article author Todd Kliman blasts American restaurants for their public devotion to buying local food, while snob-ily ignoring local wines. He correctly points out the superficial commitment to buying local by restaurants in Missouri, New York and Virginia, all states with vibrant wine industries and many dedicated and serious winemakers. When questioned by Kliman, sommeliers (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) noted under their breaths that the wines were not just up to their standards. That perhaps is flipped around as maybe it is the sommeliers, not the wines, that are not up to snuff as it is the job of the sommelier at a locavore restaurant to discover and offer the finest local wines to their customers.

While other American wine regions may be limited in the selections they offer to restaurants, the same cannot be said for West Coast restaurants. Certainly any sommelier worthy of the title could craft an outstanding wine list from the wines of California, Oregon and Washington. Anyone claiming they can’t is just not doing their homework.

Perhaps no more hypocritical example can be found than the famed Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. Chef Waters can be found on national television constantly singing the praises of Slow Food, but one look at her wine list in Berkeley tells another story. I agree with Chef Waters that the vast majority of California wines do not match well with her food, but there are more than enough that do to provide her with an outstanding wine list. Toss in the wines of Oregon and Washington and she has no excuse.

Let’s give Chef Waters a break as Chez Panisse is a stones throw from Kermit Lynch’s wonderful store and Kermit’s exceptional wines can make anyone forget their locavore passions when it comes to wine. Certainly I cannot resist Kermit’s imported temptations myself. However, I am not on television saying the only way to eat and drink is by supporting local farmers. Winegrowers, it should be remembered, are farmers too.

Hard core locavore chefs in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco rant on about their local sources for eggs, cheese and meat, while their wine by the glass selections are more likely to be produced from vineyards 4,000 miles away. Hopefully someday locavore will be a term that is more than a marketing fad.

In Europe, chefs are locavores naturally, in America it is still a foreign concept. Oddly enough Europeans practice it, but don’t talk about it much. In America, we talk about it a lot, but don’t practice it well.

Campton Place Restaurant

Chef Srijith’s cuisine concept masterfully blends California Cuisine with Mediterranean inspirations and gentle spice route overtones. In keeping with the culinary superlatives, our cellar is also highly acclaimed as a destination among winemakers and wine connoisseurs. With over fifteen hundred carefully selected labels from across the globe our Master Sommelier, Richard Dean, can select wines that will seamlessly harmonize with the distinct flavors articulated in the menu.

link: Campton Place - San Francisco - Luxury Hotel, Restaurant and Bar

Some meals move you and the last several meals I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying at Campton Place were not only moving, but breathtaking. More often than not it seems the restaurants that really deliver are somewhat off the radar. Campton Place may have faded in the past years from prior glories, but this restaurant is back delivering perfect service and elegant, creative cuisine. Don’t miss this wonderful pleasure on your next visit to San Francisco.

Italian - vera Cucina

Simple is beautiful when to comes to food and wine. Simple does not imply a lack of character when it comes to cooking or winemaking, but to a willingness to let the flavors of wonderful ingredients show through. Here are some excellent cookbooks built on that concept.

I have been using Bistro Cooking, Patricia Wells’ book of simple French recipes, for several decades now.

So what stopped me from buying her book of Italian trattoria cooking?

Two words: Marcella Hazan.

I am addicted to Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. It’s clear. It produces restaurant-quality meals that take only modest effort. And “fancy” is the last thing it is.

I thought I just didn’t need another Italian cookbook.

But now, fourteen years after it was first published, Trattoria: Simple and Robust Fare Inspired by the Small Family Restaurants of Italy — a bargain at $13.59 — is finally in the house. And, more to the point, in the kitchen. And I am chastened.

You want simple? This is it. Easy? Forget about it. Organized? Buying the book could be the last time you’ll ever need to think about an Italian menu.

Why? Because the fact is, you really don’t want rich and fancy. You want a meal fit for a trattoria — an uncomplicated, modestly decorated, family-run establishment featuring traditional regional fare. You drink the house wine. You tend to order whatever special is being pushed. And you are likely to leave satisfied though not sated.

Wells begins with a large selection of antipasti, moves on to grilled vegetables and hearty soups. Then she reaches pasta. There are 17 pasta recipes — and that’s just the dried pasta. (I’m under the impression that Italians have no affection for fresh pasta; in any event, there are 15 recipes for fresh.).

There are lovely recipes for entrees. But I’m feeling in the mood for a bargain dinner that rips the torpor from my taste buds. That means spices — garlic and red-pepper flakes. And what Wells calls “a young Italian red table wine.”


Serves 6

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 plump fresh garlic cloves, skinned and minced
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
sea salt
28-ounce can peeled Italian plum tomatoes or a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes in puree
1 pound tubular pasta
1 cup flat leaf parsley, snipped with scissors

In a large skillet, combine oil, garlic, crushed red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt. Stir to coat with oil. Cook over moderate heat. Remove from heat when garlic turns gold, but not brown.

If you’re using whole canned tomatoes, chop them before adding to skillet. If using pureed tomatoes, just pour into skillet. Stir, then simmer until sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes. Adjust seasoning.

In a large pot, boil 6 quarts of water. Add three tablespoons of salt and the pasta, cook until tender but firm. Drain.

Add the drained pasta to the skillet. Toss, cover, cook over low heat for 1-2 minutes to allow the pasta to absorb the sauce. Add the snipped parsley, serve in soup bowls.

“Traditionally, cheese is not served with this dish,” Wells notes. Gotcha.

Start the water and the sauce at the same time, dinner is on the table in 30 minutes, Wells advises. A very well-spent 30 minutes, say I.

Cross-posted from

via Food on

Warning Label

I like to experiment with wines so I’m always trying new things. That’s always a risk and sometimes I get burned. Burned was what I got when I ordered the Herman’s Story, On the Road, Santa Barbara Grenache 2007. I was not burned by the wine, after all a winemaker has the right to make the wine they see fit. The wine itself was well made and interesting, but it clocked in at 16.1% alcohol on the label. A little warning of such an extreme would have been nice.

In Italy Amarone has for generations been a revered wine and it routinely sports alcohol levels of 16% and more. The problem with this Grenache was not the alcohol level, but that there was no way to know what was coming to your table unless you read the label before the cork was pulled. When you see Amarone on a wine list you know what to expect. With New World wines you have no clue. It seems to me the restaurants should make an effort to guide us a bit considering the markup they take. As with Amarone, wines like the Herman’s Story Grenache are not really table wines to compliment dinner, but “meditation wines” to be sipped with cheeses and nuts to finish a meal or while you read a book before the fireplace. When a restaurant tosses such wines into the wine list without comment they do their customers a disservice. It’s like putting a bottle of Graham’s Oporto into the wine list with the rest of the red wines - except that everyone knows Port is sweet.

A wine at 16.1% alcohol is an extreme wine for special circumstances and the wine list should note this fact.

The Herman’s Story, On the Road, Santa Barbara Grenache 2007 itself is an outstanding wine for the finest full flavored cheese you can find. Washed rind and blue cheeses will find a perfect counter point in this powerful, warm and richly fruity wine. The intense fruit and the high alcohol give an impression of sweetness on the palate that marries well with the the pungent saltiness of such cheeses. As there was no chance we could finish this wine with a meal, we brought the bottle home and tomorrow night a cheese course will be waiting for it. I think 24 hours of air won’t hurt a bit either.

Sweet Alsace

crab The Dungeness Crab season along the Oregon and Northern California coast is something I look forward to every year. They’re so succulent that dipping them in butter is redundant.

With this lusciousness in mind, I selected the 2004 Audrey et Christian Binner Pinot Gris for what I knew were going to be some great crabs. The crabs exceeded even my highest expectations and were perhaps the best I ever tasted (I think I say that every year), but the wine only reminded me why I buy so few Alsatian wines these days. The Binner was out-and-out sweet and was cloying with the crab. Cloying was not the flavor match I was going for – rich and concentrated yes, but cloying no. While the Binner would be outstanding with a cheese course, it was terrible with crab.

Alsatian wines used to be one of my go-to wines. They were always balanced with a firm, complex minerality No more, you’re more likely to find ripe apricot than firm mineral in the wines and the various varieties have started to lose their individuality and meld into one unctuous sameness.

The thing that bothers me most about the sweetening of Alsace is they don’t give you a hint on the label except for their ultra-rich dessert wines Vendage Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles.  But for everything else, if they’re going  to continue making wines like this (as they surely will considering the high points they get) they should start doing like the Germans do and tell us on the label how sweet they are.

The Binner is a wonderful wine and my remaining two bottles will be finding themselves bonding with some Munster instead of clashing with some crab. It would be a perfect wine if they only put a little more information on the label.

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A Pleasant Surprise

Hess Cabernet capsule 011 One of the most consistently disappointing categories of wine is moderately priced California Cabernet. That range from say $15 to $25. Most just have no reason for existence as they have more to do with $10 grocery store cabernet rather than $50 bottles. Not that you can find top quality California Cabernet in the $50 range anymore.  Bordeaux has always had a many Petit Chateau and Cru Bourgeois that delivered excellent value, but nobody in California seems to want to get into the mid-price business. Everybody wants to be Screaming Eagle if they have the grapes or not.

So I tasted the 2006 Hess Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendocino, Lake, Napa with little optimism, but I was in for a pleasant surprise. Certainly not a great cabernet, but it is a very nice one and at $15 is a very good value. While definitely forward and ready to drink, there is just enough tannin to remind you that it is truly cabernet and to let you keep it around for a year or two. The blend is 88% cabernet, 8% syrah and 4% merlot harvested from vineyards in Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties. At 13.5% it’s medium-bodied by American standards. Hess Chef Chad Hendrickson offers this recipe suggestion to pair with this wine:

Herb Marinated Skirt Steak with Point Reyes Blue Cheese and Sweet Onion Relish, Balsamic Reduction

Skirt Steak

1 lb. Skirt steak, cleaned, defatted

½ Tbsp. Thyme, chopped

½ Tbsp. Oregano, chopped

½ Tbsp. Sage, chopped

½ Tbsp. Garlic, chopped

2 Tbsp. Extra virgin olive oil

To taste Salt and Pepper

Point Reyes Blue Cheese and Onion Relish

1 oz. Extra virgin olive oil

1 cup Sweet onions, small dice

½ cup Pt Reyes Blue cheese, crumbled

1 Tbsp. Chives, sliced ¼” bias

1 Tbsp. Balsamic Vinegar Reduction

To taste Salt and Pepper

Method for the skirt steak

Season the skirt steak with salt and pepper. Set aside. Combine the herbs, garlic, and olive oil in a bowl. Add the steak and toss to coat with the herbs. Set aside for 4 hours.

Method for the Sweet Onion Relish

Heat a sauté pan over high; add the oil and onions, season with salt and pepper. Let cook stirring periodically until caramelized. Adjust seasonings and keep warm.

Grill the skirt steak to desired doneness. Let rest for 5 minutes, and then slice ¼ “thick on a bias (against the grain). Fan the steak on a plate.

Heat the onions over medium until warm, toss in the crumbled blue cheese and chives.

Place on top of the skirt steak. Drizzle the balsamic reduction around the plate.

Eat Local? Drink Local!

sustainability_spheres Portland Oregon is a famously green city. Named the most sustainable city in the United States, the city even boasts an Office of Sustainable Development. The city’s restaurant scene also follows the sustainable mantra with a passion. The number of restaurants featuring sustainable, locally grown ingredients makes Portland a foodie nirvana. Considering that Portland sits at the head of the verdant Willamette Valley, the supply and diversity of sustainably grown meat, fruit and vegetables available to local chefs is almost overwhelming. Indeed Portland is in, “A golden age of dining and drinking,” as Eric Asimov wrote in The New York Times.

Not much more than a half hour drive from this hotbed of sustainable restaurants owned by chefs obsessed with the freshest local produce sits one of the world’s most highly regarded wine regions, the Willamette Valley. The same rich diversity of soil types and microclimates that provide the endless sustainable pantry for local chefs also offers world-class wines, which are now sought after by the best sommeliers and fine wine shops. No serious wine list in New York, Chicago or other major American city would feel it had a complete wine list without a significant selection of Oregon Pinot Noir. Just a few hours away are the great vineyards of the Columbia Valley and the emerging regions of Southern Oregon. Portland restaurants are literally surrounded by outstanding wine regions, which grow the full range of the world’s finest wine varieties.

Like Portland, Oregon is arguably the greenest wine growing region on the planet. The movement towards sustainable winegrowing in Oregon seemed to develop its own natural (appropriately enough) momentum based on the personality and beliefs of the people that came here to grow grapes. It makes perfect sense that winegrowers who came here to grow Pinot Noir—the most terroir driven of grape varieties—would have a closeness to the earth itself that would inevitably lead them to be good stewards of the land and move away from conventional agriculture to the various sustainable disciplines.

In Oregon, there are a variety of sustainable certifications and, as usual, practitioners of each discipline assert the superiority of their methods, but of most importance is the unique commitment among Oregon wine growers to use methods that have minimum impact on the environment. While environmental aspects have helped fuel the greening of the Oregon wine industry, there are two indisputable factors that are driving this growth. First is the obvious fact that grapes farmed by any of these methods make better wine. All of the top wineries in Oregon use one of these methods. The simple truth: To achieve any of these certifications, you have to spend more time in your vineyards and that contact inevitably leads to better fruit, which always means better wine. The second reason for the explosion in sustainably certified vineyards is a little less altruistic, but is important nonetheless. Being green means more than bettering the environment, as certified wines command more greenbacks. Green makes for good marketing and has, in fact, become a marketing focal point for the Oregon Wine Board, which has now introduced its own certification, Oregon Certified Sustainable.

So we have a match made in heaven: a hot sustainable food scene in Portland surrounded by dedicated sustainable winegrowers producing wines in an incredible range of styles from every important wine grape variety in the world. Unfortunately, and with a logic I cannot follow, this is a match that hasn’t happened. I have never seen a city so close to major wine regions that is so disconnected from its local wines. If people eat in Bordeaux, they drink Bordeaux, in Alba they drink Barolo, in Dijon they drink Burgundy, in San Francisco they drink California; but in Portland, you are more likely to find wines grown 5,000 miles away rather than 50.

There is a disconnect between Portland and its regional wines. It is common to dine at a restaurant that prides itself on serving the freshest local provenance while featuring wines from France and Spain with only a nod to the wines of the Northwest. Unfortunately, that also goes for the city’s fine wine shops, on whose shelves Northwest wines are often second-class citizens.

Within a four-hour drive of Portland, some of the world’s most sought-after, respected wines are grown. Great Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Tempranillo, Syrah and many other varieties, along with exceptional Champagne-method sparkling wines and dessert wines, are produced in Washington and Oregon. This fact leaves local restaurants little excuse for not offering interesting wine lists based on local wines. That’s certainly not to say there’s no room for the world’s other wines, but a food community that believes in a sustainable model and does not take full advantage of the exciting wines grown in its own backyard is only paying lip-service to sustainability. This, of course, means more work for restaurateurs who must spend more time in wine country, tasting and finding wines from producers who make wines that they find exciting with their food, but that’s how chefs working in the world’s other wine regions do it.

The concept of sustainability is important to Portland’s restaurateurs, winegrowers and their customers. Serving local wines in local restaurants is a part of the sustainability model that should not be overlooked. Putting wine on a ship, then on a truck and transporting it thousands of miles leaves a big carbon footprint hard to ignore.

In 2005, the “Eat Local” challenge ( ) was launched by the Ecotrust, Portland Farmers Market and the Portland Chapter of the Chefs Collaborative to educate consumers on the benefits of eating locally grown food. Perhaps it’s time we launch a “Drink Local” project with the same goal. Eating locally and drinking locally cannot be separated when you live in the heart of a great wine region.

This article originally appeared in The Oregon Wine Press

Burnt Pizza

DSC_0027 The line was long and they didn't take reservations. They said the wait would only be around forty-five minutes, so we decided to stick it out as we'd heard it could be much longer than that. It was with great anticipation that I went to Portland's renowned Apizza Shoals, for what is certainly one of the city's most revered pizzas. The long lines and great press promised a real treat.

After the expected wait, we sat down, ordered and the much anticipated pizza finally arrived. My first bite surprised me. My second confirmed the first. The pizza tasted burned to me. A quick look at the bottom revealed a heavily charred crust. I ventured a complaint to the waiter, who fetched a manager, who informed us, "that's the way we do it." A quick look around the dining room confirmed that this was the case as every table was snarfing down their equally charred pizzas with great pleasure.

Before you think this is a bad restaurant review, it's not. The people at Apizza Shoals are passionately dedicated to making great pizza. Their's is style inspired by great pizzerias in New York and New Jersey and the heavily charred crust is part of the character of their pizza. They go out of their way to use the freshest, high-quality ingredients they can find. For example, they can make only so much fresh dough by hand a day and when it runs out it's closing time. The extra effort they put into their food is reflected by the long lines and packed tables.

What I like best about Apizza Shoals is that they have a distinct vision and passion for the food they create. What I don't like is the pizza and that's my problem, not theirs.

Great chefs and winemakers must make something they believe in, not something designed to try to please everyone. In fact, having a distinct vision means by definition you will be crafting something that some people will love and some will hate. Taking such a position is a badge of courage and personality is a characteristic to be treasured in all things culinary.

This is my problem with wine reviews based on points as it imply's some sort of absolute. That rating a wine 90 points is some kind of quantifiable statistic that effectively communicates the overall quality of a wine is clearly preposterous. In this case my "score" for Apizza Shoals pizza would be irrelevant as it simply is not to my taste. This does not make it bad pizza, as proven by its many admirers. The use of points as a marketing crutch by producers, importers. restaurants and retailers has fueled the boring standardization of so much of today's wine, which more-often-than-not is made using a recipe for scoring success than with passion or vision.

Even though Apizza Shoals was not my favorite, I would rather eat their distinctive style of pizza than the bland pies put out by places trying to please everyone. Needless to say, I feel the same way about wine.

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Old vs. New: Is there a difference?

landing_columbus Pamela at Enobytes graciously invited me to moderate a discussion on their Enobytes Forum on New World vs. Old World Wines: is there really a difference. To help fuel the discussion, I posted this comment:

In my experience there is a significant difference between European (Old World) and New World wines. I do not believe the reason for this is a superior terroir, but a way of thinking. Europeans cannot separate wine and food. I have never met a serious European winemaker whose vision of their wine is tied not only to the table, but to their local cuisine. They also describe the wine in those terms. If you use America as an example of the New World philosophy I think you will see our wines are conceived very differently and and consumed differently and these differences cause them to be made differently.

Let's look at consumption first as consumers fuel the fire so to speak. European consumers do not drink still wines as cocktails, before dinner they enjoy a whole range of aperitifs (including a lot of sparkling wine), but they don't sit around and gulp pinot grigio or merlot. One quick look at an upscale American bar and you'll see a very different picture as a majority of the customers are drinking wine as a cocktail, not as a companion to food. Oddly enough in recent years this includes red wines and a more unlikely cocktail I cannot imagine! This means that European winemakers can make their wines knowing they will be enjoyed with food, but that American winemakers must take into account that their wines will be served with conversation instead of cuisine. The very thing that makes European wines so wonderful with food: acidity, dryness and structure makes them difficult cocktails.

So New World winemakers are met with more than one dilemma. First they must make wine that can work as a cocktail. Secondly, it is more important to their commercial success that their wines taste great when compared to other wines instead of how well they work with food. Success is tied to top ratings by critics using the 100 point scale who taste wines against each other in a context more like an endurance sport. I can't think of something more radically the opposite of what wine enjoyment should be than tasting dozens (hundreds for some tasters) of wines blind in rapid fire succession and then ranking them.

I think it is this combination of the pressure to get points and to please consumers that drink wine without food that causes the major differences you see in New World wines and Old World wines. If you go back to California wines of three decades ago they were not so different from Old World wines. Over the years the demands of the market have forced producers from those more elegant styles of years past and replaced with with the fruit bombs that seem that seem so over-the-top to those who prefer more balanced wines crafted for the table instead of those formulated for competitions.  Certainly there have been many Old World wines guilty of these excesses too as they courted the American market, but fortunately that attack is clearly in retreat.

There is no doubt that some European producers, notably in Spain and southern Italy have gone down this "International Style" of winemaking route. Considering the amount of wine they need to sell, their making what seemed like the best commercial decision at the time is understandable. One commenter noted that he was finding it hard to distinguish between a zinfandel and primitivo and I think that points out why what seems to be a good commercial decision is a bad one. If primitivo tastes more or less like zinfandel, why bother to import it? It seems to me that primitivo would be better off if it tried to have a distinct style. Sicily, a place with wonderfully distinct wines has tried to turn itself into another Australia (often using Australian trained winemakers) and has destroyed its market in the USA. Why drink a nero d' avola from Sicily when a shiraz from Australia tastes just like it for several dollars less a bottle?  Some European producers have achieved short term success using this strategy, but I think in the long term as they become just another big, fruity red wine they will lose their markets to cheaper competitors.

There are many American producers that make wines that would be difficult to identify as being New World in blind tastings, but the majority have chosen a more commercially viable direction and are making the wines that the market and the press like. There is nothing wrong with this as a winery is an agricultural business that has to make a profit. Only when consumer preferences change, either here or in Europe, will it become harder and harder to tell the difference between Old and New World wines.

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Mac Farmer's Market

lions mane mushrooms The farmer's market is back in McMinnville. Over the winter you slowly forget how wonderful such small things can be. Just a block long with maybe two dozen producers, markets like this hold treasures supermarket buyers, including Whole Foods et al, can't give us. Every Thursday now through late fall you'll find me at the market.

Today's treasure was lion's mane mushrooms. As usual, each visit to a farmer's market I approach without a recipe in mind, letting the local provenance guide me. With the beautiful mushrooms  I added to my bag some fresh organic eggs, chives and the excellent aged Gouda from the Willamette Valley Cheese Company. Warm crusty baguettes from the Red Fox Bakery, just picked greens and a pint of fresh strawberries from a small organic farm guaranteed a perfect dinner.

The meal could not have been simpler:

For two:

4 or more large lion's main mushrooms (or other meaty, flavorful fresh mushroom) chopped into large chunks

2 cloves garlic peeled and smashed

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

A small wedge of aged cow's milk cheese like Willamette Valley Cheese Company's aged Gouda cubed

Minced fresh chives

Salt and pepper

5 large eggs with salt and pepper beaten lightly with a fork - using good eggs is very important so look for eggs with yolks that tend more towards orange than yellow

  • Smash the cloves of garlic, add  2+ tablespoons (depends on how big the mushrooms are) good extra virgin olive oil to a non-stick sauté pan over medium high heat (don't let it smoke), add the garlic and cook until golden brown, but not burnt, then remove and discard
  • Continuing over medium high heat add the very coarsely chopped lion's main mushrooms to the hot oil and stir fry for one minute.
  • Add beaten eggs, chopped chives, cubed cheese salt and pepper and scramble until just cooked
  • Serve immediately with fresh salad and bread

To match with this very local food I strangely enough grabbed a bottle from far, far away. The 2006 Domaine de La Gramière Côtes du Rhône, which is produced by two Americans, Amy Lillard and Matt Kling, who are living a dream that many of us have as they are living and making wine in France. I had resisted opening this wine for almost a year now as I felt it really needed a little time to come together and my patience was well rewarded.  The wine has broadened and gained more complexity and aromatics. This is one of those wines that is big to the French, but medium bodied to Americans. I love the meaty, smoky butcher shop aromas this wine has developed along with the bright, ripe black fruit flavors. I think it's going to get better for another year or so, but now that it's this good I don't know how I'll keep my hands off of it that long! La Gramière is imported by Kermit Lynch.

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Opinionated About

opinionatedabout Those that were around the main wine and food forums four or five years ago will remember the tenacious argumentative spirit of Steve Plotnicki. If you weren’t on those boards in the past you probably won’t remember Steve because he was tossed off all of those forums by the moderators years ago. The intense energy and passion that drove Steve into those endless arguments about food and wine led to his banishment from those forums, but also led him to found his own.

That new project became Opinionated About, which anyone who has had an interaction with Steve knows, he is with a brutal passion. One of the first products of Steve’s banishment from the more heavily moderated forums was his own blog and forum, which he appropriately named OA or Opinionated About. The one thing about Steve is that he is only interested in dining as a perfect experience and so his blog for some time has been a virtual window into the best restaurants of Europe and the United States for those of us without his budget or time.

Now this abrasive, but focused passion for fine dining has created a new restaurant guide, The Opinionated About Fine Dining Survey, which can only be described as the exact opposite of Zagat as the reviewers are screened by the irascible Plotnicki, in contrast to the American Idol format used by Zagat and with the same artistic results. The result is a listing of the best-of-the-best restaurants in Europe and the United States. The restaurants in this guide are where to eat if seeking perfect food and wine is your only goal and money is no object. There are no best buys here, just all out hedonistic pleasure. I think the result of his effort is something completely new, a guide for those seeking perfection to those seeking to attain it. One thing is for certain, if you are lucky enough to dine at any of these restaurants it will be something memorable. As a first edition, it is clear that this guide is not all inclusive or prefect in it’s ratings, but who cares at this level. At only $6.95 a copy the guide will cost you less than the valet parking at most of these restaurants. By the way, I am one of the reviewers anonymously sending in my opinions for this guide

I will be sure to have a copy with me each time I travel as, unlike any other guide, I know it lead me to a restaurant that is as passionate about food and wine as I am.

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Intense Competition

dahlialounge It started out strong, but soon had no chance as the competition overwhelmed it. The 2006 JM Sauvignon Blanc, Klipsun Vineyard was impressive when I took my first sip, but then the unthinkable happened: the food arrived. I was really enjoying the bight, clean and zesty flavors of this wonderfully varietal wine, but what happened next was not fair to any wine, yet is typical on today's menus.

We were dining at Seattle's excellent Dahlia Lounge and the waiter delivered their Sea Bar Sampler, which included; Hamachi sashimi, Dungeness crab with chili paste and tempura crispies, Dahlia smoked salmon with hot mustard, Alaskan halibut ceviche with red chilies and cucumber and Albacore Tuna with sweet onions lemon and ponzu. Everything was delicious, but the first taste of the citrusy ceviche made the formerly crisp sauvignon blanc taste flat, while the rich smoked salmon made it taste thin and so on.  Some fresh bread and butter returned my palate to normal and the JM was perfect with my main course of sauteéd Alaskan halibut with brown butter potatoes (some of the most wonderful potatoes I've tasted anywhere) Brussels sprouts chanterelle mushroom and bacon.

It's probably impossible to select one wine that would be perfect with each part of the Dahlia Lounge's Sea Food Sampler and not necessary as the JM Sauvignon was delicious with almost everything, but it's good to remember that some foods can make very nice wines not taste very good. The only thing I could think of to better handle such a broad range of flavors would have been a just off-dry riesling or a sparkling wine. Perhaps a more important point is that you can't always get a wine that is perfect with the entire meal and that should not be your goal, you can always revert to the water for the mismatched course and return to the lovely wine you've selected when the next course arrives.

Pie in the Sky

baraonda atlanta Finding good pizza in the USA used to be a pie-in-the-sky proposition. All that was available was the soggy mush made with loads of waxy fake mozzarella and way too old vegetables. When you picked up a slice the sodden crust would collapse under the weight of mediocrity. Of course, the vast majority of pizza in America is still like this, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

That light hit me the other night while traveling on business. Often you arrive too late and too tired to seek out fine food and the restaurant at hand is the only thing you have the time and energy to consider. This is what happened just the other night in Atlanta when I was lucky enough to walk through the door of Baraonda, an excellent pizzeria a block from my hotel. I ended up with a great pizza, but what’s exciting here is that crisp thin crust pizza made with fresh ingredients and cooked in wood-fired ovens are getting a lot easier to find. There seems to be a growing pizza revolution baking in America these days. Everywhere you turn there are pizzerias investing in wood-burning ovens and paying attention to their ingredients.

Now that there’s good pizza to eat, the next question is what to drink with it. The Italians tend to drink beer or fizzy local red wine, both of which are great matches. Woody or high-alcohol wines are absolutey terrible with pizza, but fresh, zesty young reds that appreciate a bit of a chill are perfect. Dry pink wines are also great for pizza. Good draft beer is a match made in heaven and most pizzerias that invest in these expensive ovens can be depended on to have a range of good micro-brews on tap.

Often when presented with really good pizza like Baraonda’s, I can’t resist trying a bottle on the list that normally would be considered too elite for pizza. That night I was inspired to try the 2001 Vigneti La Selvanella, Chianti Classico Riserva, Fattoria Melini, this Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri winner is made predominately from sangiovese grosso aged in large old barrels. It is a complex, balanced and elegant wine that reflects real sangiovese character. The combination of an excellent wine with an excellent pizza made for a lovely dinner. I admit a chilled frizzante barbera would have been a better match, but each glass and each bite was so good on its own I could have cared less.

A great pizza is the ultimate comfort food. Drinking this wonderful Chianti Classico Riserva with it my not have been the ultimate match, but it was very, very comforting. 

Fresh Fish; Stale Wines

ettas-photo.jpgEating seafood in Seattle is always a pleasure, but for me a meal without an equally interesting wine is always missing that ultimate note of complexity and pleasure. Etta’s, part of Tom Douglas’ mini-Northwest food empire, is one of those great seafood experiences and, like all of his enterprises, is an excellent restaurant. On a recent visit there the food was outstanding, but the wine list was not.

For dinner I selected the following courses:

  • Stellar Bay Oysters (stellar indeed, some of the best I’ve tasted)
  • Kasu black cod, sweet and sour vegetables with ocean salad ( a wonderful mix of flavors and textures)
  • Pan seared Alaskan Halibut, beluga lentils, baby golden beets, escarole, smoked ham hock and horseradish crème fraiche ( an excellent dish mixing the smoky ham with the rich lentils and a crispy piece of very fresh halibut)

To match this delicious menu I selected from the wine list the 2005 Cedergreen Cellars Sauvignon, Columbia Valley and here the meal hit a snag. Sure this is a nice wine, but it’s just not nice enough for such thoughtfully prepared foods. A very clean wine that’s certainly acceptable, but it’s nothing more than that. This is a wine more suited to a picnic than fine dining. The notes on the wine list presented this wine as light and fresh as it was unoaked, but as it approaches 14% alcohol, light is not the word you would use to describe this wine. Perhaps this time the fault was more the wine buyer than the winemaker.

Wine With Flying Fish

flyingfish2.jpgA happy coincidence brought me back to the excellent Flying Fish Restaurant  twice on my last trip to Seattle. The quality of the seafood here is simply outstanding as are the creative preparations. Fortunately they have a assembled a tremendous wine list so you can rest assured what’s in your glass will excite you as much as what’s on your plate.

When it comes to food and wine matching, I usually paint with a broad brush as I find as long as the wine and food are great and the harmony close enough that pleasure  is at hand. However, sometimes you get a match that is so perfect that the qualities of both the food and wine are amplified. The Flying Fish supplied such an experience last night when their seared sea scallops with shoestring sweet potatoes, crispy prosciutto and pineapple hollandaise met a bottle of 2001 Josmeyer Riesling. I have been a fan of Jean Meyer’s deft, food-friendly winemaking for years and this lovely bottle did not disappoint. This is a wine at its peak showing enticing petrol highlights over rich aromas of honeysuckle and ripe white peaches. Substantial, but extremely well balanced on the palate, this wine walks the line between depth, complexity and balance with elan. The rich scallops with the salty prosciutto integrated with the flavors of this wine in a way that still makes me salivate just writing about it.

The Flying Fish combines the best of what I love about a restaurant these days. It is casual, but offers a better wine selection and better food than most of its more stuffy brethren. This is a restaurant focused only on actual quality, not just the appearance of it. 

Free Truffles at Ducasse!!!!!!!

ducassetruffles.jpgWant to have the full-blown truffle blow out experience dinner at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant? No problem, but the $320 per person (sans wine and tip) tab could be a bit steep. However, that’s not an issue as the Amateur Gourmet  found out. Ask and you shall receive seems to be reality. Faced with an invitation that was out of his budget the Amateur Gourmet decided to ask Alain Ducasse if he and a guest could come for free. Just as you might expect, Ducasse said yes and the results are recorded in a wonderful comic book style photo album recorded here:

Don’t miss it!!