Category Archives: wine

Chicago Gourmet 2014 today and tomorrow

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It starts months before. Chefs and culinary personalities across the country put on food and drink events in Chicago all year. Then comes the big weekend – that’s now.

Last night Bon Appétit presents Chicago Gourmet opened with the traditional Hamburger Hop. Twenty chefs competed to create the hamburger with the most epicurean elan.

Hamburger Hop winner Chef Mendelsohon #ChicagoGourmet
Hamburger Hop winner Chef Mendelsohon #ChicagoGourmet

Chef Spike Mendelsohn of Good Stuff Eatery got *Judge’s Choice for his “Prez Obama Burger,” with red onion marmalade, gorgonzola crumbles and horseradish mayonnaise on a brioche bun.

The Chefs John Hogan & Tony Mantuano for their “Tête de Tête Burger,” layered with house-made head cheese, onion pickle relish, tête de moine (gourmet Swiss cheese) and crispy pig skin on a yogurt roll. Attendees voted by dropping bottle caps into containers at their favorite chef’s station.

A good time was had by all. And I hope you’re out there today partaking of the expansive array of food and drink options in Chicago’s biggest culinary celebration. If you’re not, see if there are any tickets left for tomorrow.

If you’re feeling flush, get a ticket for the Grand Cru. An unforgettable crush of fabulous wines and gourmet tastes.

* Judges included culinary experts Lin Brehmer (WXRT), Carla Hall (The Chew), Jeff Mauro (Sandwich King), Mario Rizzotti (Iron Chef America), Patrick O’Neill (Lagunitas Brewing Company) and Michael Gebert (Chicago Sun-Times).

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Top-drawer dinner special at David Burke’s Primehouse

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How do you judge the excellence of a steakhouse? Quality of the meat, certainly. The sides matter, of course. But in some cases, more than the food sets one place above another – ambience, wine pairings and service.

That’s where David Burke’s Primehouse, located in The James Hotel at 616 N. Rush St. , stands out. If all the wait staff are as knowledgeable and attentive as was Bryan, our server on a recent visit, this place gets nearly five stars. Plus the wines they paired with our food were truly exceptional. The first one, for example, was a blend of their own vintages that rated a solid four stars.

Primehouse occasionally offers a prix fixe menu with wine pairings at an attractive price compared to ordering a la carte. Once you review the regular menu and look at what you would have been paying, you realize just how attractive the package is.

At any rate, the Primehouse folks select the menu to showcase some of their most popular items. The appetizer, Surf & Turf Dumplings, takes the prize for imaginative use of ordinary ingredients. Two little dumplings – really, deep-fried dough-covered-fillings-on-a-stick – come out beautifully displayed on a pair of square pristine-white plates – set off brilliantly by the restaurant’s subtle mood lighting.

And then comes the taste. Layer upon layer of flavor jumps out as you bite into each dumpling – one made with lobster and roasted lemon chutney, and the other with meltingly tender beef short rib meat seasoned with pickled red onion and spicy mustard. The dish was reminiscent of the finely wrought, multi-layered-flavors in certain Asian delicacies but with a distinctly North American weight to it.

Next came an arugula salad full of almost-bacony flavor from the house-smoked-over-applewood truffle tomatoes, set off with pine nuts and coated lightly with a creamy goat cheese fondue. Nice combo. Especially enjoyed the slight bitterness of the greens with the creamy smoothness of the dressing.

We were taken aback when Bryan delivered the next plate. Three very large chunks of seared, rare ahi tuna sat atop a vegetable mix consisting of preserved fennel, bell peppers, black olives and a few green beans. A more than generous serving of an intriguing combination, though not a favorite for either of us.

Next, the piece de resistance. The auxiliary server arrived with a large char-grilled steak. Bryan was concerned that it might be overdone (we’d requested one serving medium rare and one medium well). We appreciated that he asked to have it taken back so the chef could confirm it was properly cooked to order. While we waited, Bryan explained this is their most popular steak – the bone-in 55-day dry-aged ribeye, and that it hangs in their own dry-aging smokehouse for that many days before it’s sent to the grill.

The steak came back from the kitchen confirmed, and the auxiliary server carved it for us, first in half, and then in slices, giving each of us pieces that conformed to our wished-for doneness. Sides included an aluminum basket of French Fries seasoned with truffle oil and melted Asiago cheese, and a generous helping of Roasted Mushrooms seasoned with shallots, sherry vinegar and herbs and served in a sizzling oval skillet.  While none of these dishes reached beyond good, they were nicely prepared and flavorful.

Throughout the meal both Bryan and the sommelier kept us in generous tastes of the selected paired fine wines. Bryan was also kind enough to write out the list of wines for us:

  • Palette Pinot Noir 2013 (Primehouse’s own blend for sale by request at $75/bottle) – exceptional
  • William Fevre Chablis 2012 – a beautifully balanced, un-oaky Chardonnay
  • Sanford Chardonnay 2013 – Santa Barbara
  • Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – Napa Valley – exceptional

Finally, a composed dessert called Coconut & Mango. Coconut cake, mango semifreddo (softly frozen custard), mango mojito sorbet, and key lime chia seed gelee. Delicious flavors artfully arranged in a plate-size carnival of color variations, textures and shapes and served with a respectable Italian Moscato, this was a winner.

I’ll be back when this fabulous special is available again.

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How’d they make it that color? Provence dry rosé wines

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Français : Dégustation de Rosé de Provence
Français : Dégustation de Rosé de Provence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re a baby boomer like me, you remember the time when the term rosé attached to a wine meant an overly sweet, syrupy libation called white zinfandel. To most of us in the U.S. back then, that’s all the rosé there was – unless you were already a serious wine aficionado, which meant, of course, knowing French wines because France was considered the source of good wines.

Today, the rosé movement across the United States is all about crisp, food-friendly pink wines, most of which come from Provence in the south of France. You can learn more from a new book out called Provence Food and Wine: The Art of Living by Viktorija Todorovska, a well-traveled author who writes with love about Provence food and drink and includes recipes she makes at home for her friends.

The book tells about pairing Provence dry rosés with food and tells you where to find these wines outside of Europe. Plus, in case you’re moved to get thee hence, she shares a multitude of tips on where to go and what to do when you’re in that delicious part of the world.

Friends and I recently enjoyed a dinner of Provence wines paired with dishes from Viktorija’s cookbook at the beautifully restored restaurant side (reopened in 2012) of The House of Glunz wine and spirits shop, where they carry a select group of fine wines and spirits. Though many are on the pricier side, you’ll also see baskets of highly rated yet affordable deals. The folks who work there know wines and spirits and can help you pick out just the right bottle to fit your taste and your budget.Description : gamme de couleur de vins rosés d...

Meanwhile, if you’ve tasted many of these beautiful dry rosé wines, you know they’re loaded with character and body and come in a gorgeous variety of pinks and salmons. Ever wonder how they do that?

Well, there’s a whole institute dedicated to it in Provence. Since 1999, experts at the Center for Research and Experimentation on Rosé Wine in Vidauban, Provence, have been studying the question of color. They’ve identified four factors that determine the shade of pink a Provence rosé will exhibit, from light to darker, with more of a purplish hue or one that leans toward coral (i.e., salmon pink). Here they are:  

Grape variety. All Provence rosés are made mainly from red grapes, but some have more pigment in their skins than others. Those yield the darker pinks.

Climatic conditions. Provence is a country of varying terrains, all with distinct differences in temperature, sun, and soil. In a recent five-year experiment, researchers made wines with exactly the same grape varieties and using the same vinification methods. Growing conditions alone produced striking color variations along with variations in acidity, aroma, and flavor. Proof positive that “like great white and red wines, rosé wines are also ‘wines of terroir.’”

Temperature control during winemaking. Temperature control in Provence begins at harvest (conducted at night, when the grapes are their coolest) and includes the use of refrigerated presses, thermo-regulated fermentation tanks, and cold aging facilities — all to preserve the freshness and color of the wine.

→ View video: “The Making of Provence Rosé: Temperature Control

Skin contact time. Finally, what color your finished wine is depends on how long the grape skins are in contact with the clear juices. The shorter the time, the paler the wine. Provence’s palest wines start with pressing grapes right after picking. For deeper-colored rosés, grapes are crushed and then soaked (or macerated) – skins and juice together – for 2 to 20 hours at a specific temperature. Then the pink juice is released into the fermentation tank.

Provence wines are the gold standard for rosé. These winemakers are continually investing in ways to make sure these wines offer beauty, freshness, and balance in a glorious range of colors. For more information visit www.winesofprovence.com and on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

P.S. I like the palest colors the best. ” )

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Pinot Days 2014 coming – highlights of 2013

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Fess Parker wine wearing a coonskin hat at Pinot Days 2013!
Fess Parker wine wearing a coonskin hat at Pinot Days 2013!

I’m excited that Pinot Days 2014 is coming to Chicago again – I really enjoyed the wines I tasted in 2013.  Mark your calendar now for April 26 at Navy Pier, from 2 to 5 pm. Believe it or not, this winter will be over before we know it! The festival goes on for days before that party – with Winemaker Dinners, “Meet the Winemaker” pinot and food pairings at local wine bars and restaurants, and tastings at boutique retail stores.

This year more than 50 wineries will come to Chicago to “paint the town pinot.” Then, it all culminates with the Grand Festival at beautiful Navy Pier. To help you get an idea of what you can look forward to at Pinot Days festival 2014, here are some notes from what I experienced at the Pinot Days 2013.

Lucky for me, I have an oenophile son-in-law. I mean this is a guy who actually absorbs what he reads in Wine Spectator. So I emailed him the list of wineries that would be represented and he made some picks. As a result of his educated suggestions, I’d say this was one of the best wine tastings I can remember. Of course I ended up tasting several wines that were so high-end I had to bend at the knees to hoist the price tags. But hey, what better way to get to know these beauties!

Pinot Days Chicago 2013 was packed with celebrity wineries. From bubblies to deep, dark reds, from high-end beauties for $60 and $75 a bottle to more affordable reserves, the selection was huge, the wine-pourers friendly, and the atmosphere relaxed. More notes from Pinot Days Chicago 2013: My 5-star pick: Miner Family 2011 “777” Rosella ($75). Some of my 4-star picks:

And here are a few of the other memorable pinot noir tastes available at last year’s Pinot Days:

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Double Gold winners – good way to find great wines

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DG - Wollersheim dry rieslingSan Francisco invented this challenge and in 2013, its 33rd year, more than 1400 wineries entered 4500+ products from 29 states and 30 countries. Since the San Francisco International Wine Competition folks took the 2013 winners on the road to major cities across the country, I’m sharing my notes on some of the Double Gold winners that stood out.

The Double Gold Winner of the overall competition (as judged by 52 of the wine industry’s best palates) came from a not-far-from-Chicago winery. How about that? American winemaking has sure come a long way. Even the tres haute magazine Wine Spectator says France is rapidly losing its mystique as the mecca of the winemaking universe. The day is nearly upon us when serving your guests a fine “blanc de blancs” (what sparkling wines have to call themselves when they’re not made in the Champagne region of France) will have precisely the same cachet as pouring champagne.

Wollersheim Winery, maker of the winning wine, is located at 7876 Hwy. 188 in a little town called Prairie du Sac, a few miles from Madison, WI. They took the grand prize with a still white wine, a dry Riesling. While I normally think of Rieslings as the white that’s a-little-too-sweet-for-dry-wine-drinkers wine, this one is titled “dry” and tasted deliciously light with barely a hint of sweetness. A masterful blending.

And here are a few among the other Double Gold winners that I particularly enjoyed.

Puma Road 2011 Chardonnay from Pedregal Vineyard in Paicines, San Benito County. This is the only white wine that I gave 5 stars to, even though the judges chose D&L Carinalli Vineyards 2011 Estate Chardonnay as the Best Chardonnary of the show. Both retail for about $20, so pick one or both and decide what you think.

Here’s an interesting twist. The wine chosen Best Merlot – Villa Yambol 2011 Merlot from Thracian Valley, Bulgaria – retails for about $8 and garners only 3 stars on the popular Vivino wine app. Could be the price is so reasonable because the Bulgarians are just trying to gain a foothold in the international wine market. I remember when South American wines were dirt cheap. Not so much these days since their quality has finally been widely recognized.

I’m delighted to report I could agree wholeheartedly with the judges’ choice of Best Cabernet Sauvignon (my favorite grape). A big 5 stars to Rocca Family Vineyards 20009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Grigsby Vineyard, Yountville. Beautifully balanced, complex with a long finish (which I take to mean it keeps tasting good even after you swallow it).

And I gave 4 stars to the wine they designated Best Bordeaux Blend <$25, the Antucura 2008 Calcura, Red Bordeaux Blend from Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina (there’s that South American quality). Blended from Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec (a bunch of my favorite grapes), it retails for about $20.

The wine chosen as Best Red in Show was the J. Lohr 2009 Premium Bordeaux Blend, Cuvee POM Paso Robles, CA. I thought it had a tinge of sweetness, which surprised me in such a fine wine. But it was also exceedingly well balanced – creatively blended of Merlot and Cabernet Franc but with tiny additions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot (never heard of this one so here’s some info) – and very easy to drink. Not that I’d be likely to over-indulge at $50 a bottle. Still, a wine worthy of a truly special occasion.

One notable 4-stars-from-me wine was the McManis Family Vineyards 2011 Petite Sirah, CA with its ripe taste of blueberries. Sweet-ish, but not sweet ($11). And if you like prosecco very light taste and light bubbles, the Best Prosecco in Show was Zonin Prosecco from Veneto, Italy ($15). It had more body than I typically feel in prosecco. I liked it but much prefer the blanc de blancs and champagne for my wine bubbles.

The white wine chosen as Best Sauvignon Blanc was Matua 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, supposedly the first sauvignon blanc ever grown in NZ, but I gave it only 3 stars. I am willing to try it again compare to one of my favorites, Goldwater sauvignon blanc, also from NZ.

You could, of course, also get the Top 100 Wines edition of Wine Spectator and start tasting in your price range. Whichever way you go, the only real answer to “what’s best” is to taste for yourself. Great way to start the new year, so have fun!

 

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Sauvignon blancs so good you may switch from red wine

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Goldwater sauvignon blancI’m a fair weather fan. I’m not proud, but that’s how it is. For example, for many decades my last memory of getting excited about baseball was when the Chicago White Sox won the pennant in 1959 (okay, I’m old).

However, I am open-minded. Like a few years later, ahem, in 1995 I was taken to my first baseball game in forever at the then-brand-new stadium of the Cleveland Indians. Within 4 plays-including a super-powered at-bat and an incredible spinning, on-the-fly catch-and-fire to first base – I was on my feet yelling to my companion: “Oh, my God, this isn’t how they played baseball last time I watched!”

Along those lines, I used to think I didn’t much like white wines. The words “sauvignon blanc” pretty much made my mind go blank. I spent many years in comfortable ignorance. But it’s been a long time since I tested white wines, and things seem to have gotten a lot more sophisticated since I last paid attention.

Below are my comments on a few Pasternak Wine Importers selections I tried recently (the notes denote “how much this wine makes my mouth sing!”) and one of Lot18’s sauvignon blancs:

  • Morro Bay (Split Oak Estates) 2009, California. Light, crisp, bright and dry. Delicious served with rich, double-cream D’aufinois cheese (like Brie with pepper). Winemaker says vanilla and pineapple, and here’s the rest.

My verdict: Sensuous and sexy ♪ ♪ ♪

  • La Petite Perriere 2011, France. Dry, rich, well-blended with perfume-y fruit notes, almost oaky like a chardonnay. Winemaker says ripe exotic fruits, refreshing and complex, and here’s the rest.

My verdict: Makes me feel rich ♪ ♪ ♪

  • Goldwater Sauvignon Blanc 2010, New Zealand. Creamy, soft white, a bit less astringent than some sauvignon blancs. Gentle and flavorful. I could easily drink this every summer afternoon and convince myself the rest of the tasks on my agenda don’t matter. Winemaker says rich, ripe fruits and crisp feel, and here’s the rest.

My verdict: Dangerously drinkable ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪

  • Jaja Sauvignon Blanc 2010, France. Crisp, pleasant, light. Winemaker says flowers and blackcurrants and zesty, and here’s the rest.

My verdict: Very nice edition of SB ♪ ♪ ♪

  • Los Vascos 2011, Chile. Smooth, rounded, full-bodied, great with food. Tastes good even with sweet ‘n’ sour dishes. No kidding-I drank it with a meal that included pickled beets and vinegar-dressed slaw! A winner. Winemaker says fruit, spices and persistent, and here’s the rest.

My verdict: Luscious, companionable, easy to drink. ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪

  • Lafite Reserve Speciale Bordeaux Blanc 2010, France. Very smooth and rich. Blend of Semillon and Sauvignon grapes yields rounder flavor. Winemaker says vivacious, full and balanced, and here’s the rest.

My verdict: Gentle and drinkable. A nice introduction to sauvignon blanc for newbies. ♪ ♪ ♪

  • Merlin’s Barrow Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Marlborough, New Zealand. Crisp, light, drinkable. Good with light and/or spicy foods. Winemaker says star-bright, green-hued wine leaps from the glass with passion fruit, grapefruit and pineapple perfumes and here’s the rest. (As of this writing the half-case sale on this link is expired, but look for the winemaker’s notes lower on the page).

My verdict: Crisp and delicious alone or with foods. ♪ ♪ ♪

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Making wine – it’s all about science, art and love

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SG_Mike_Trujillo2Tall, fit and handsome. Silver-tinged sideburns. Relaxed, warm and friendly. Mike Trujillo is the face ofSequoia Grove Winery—and the heart behind its unique wines. He exudes the same classic aura as the Sequoia Grove (SG) wines he personally oversees. It’s nice to meet a winemaker in person—and a cool way to identify great wines.

Sequioa Grove Winery, created under the guidance of legendary Napa consultant Andre Tchelistcheff, nestles in a stand of redwoods in Napa Valley and has been creating wines since 1982 when Mike first joined the effort. Now the estate has truly flowered under his leadership as president and head winemaker.

A master winemaker in the making
Mike comes by his winemaking talent naturally. Having grown up helping his father on their 3000-acre farm in Colorado, he learned at an early age about how soil, climate, pests and critters affect living, growing plants. He first started out in college in an engineering program, so it never occurred to him he’d end up applying all his hard-earned farming knowledge to the fine art of winemaking. Now, 31 years after a fateful road trip, he’s taking Sequoia Grove estate wines to new heights.

It all started one day when Mike and some buddies were on a break from college. During a road trip to Napa Valley destiny intervened when they were asked to help out in the cellar at Sequoia Grove where they were visiting. Out in the vineyards and living the life, Mike caught the wine bug—bad and, as it turns out, permanently.

Working closely with Tchelistcheff and the owner, Mike paid close attention as they refined Sequoia Grove’s cabernets and chardonnays. Later he worked for a time on the Domaine Carneros estate. Realizing he was in the business for life, Mike enrolled at the University of California at Davis to study winemaking in that extension program. He says winemaking uses all the skills he developed both in farming and in engineering—planning and executing irrigation and designing and laying out the vineyards being among the biggest challenges.

Thinking big from the start, Mike launched his career by creating Karl Lawrence – his own brand of Cabernet wine. He was using SG facilities and building a following. Then in 2001 when the founder of SG retired and the Kopf family partners took over ownership, they recruited Mike to head the operation. His first goal was to incorporate some of the more modern approaches to winemaking. His dream was to make SG wines bigger, not in the sense of higher alcohol content but of being more expressive of their place of origin, the Rutherford Bench region of Napa Valley.

Secrets of a master winemaker
You couldn’t ask for a better location than the soil of Rutherford and its micro-climate—what time of day the sun shines on the grapes, for example, and how the ocean affects them. So Mike spent the first few years upgrading the quality of the grapes. “You’ve got to have great grapes to make great wine,” he said. He had acres replanted within a quarter mile of the winery, and he used the first new fruit from the Sequoia Grove vineyards in the Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 vintage. He also uses grapes from a few select trusted growers nearby, such as Gary Morisoli, Beckstoffer Vineyards, Healy Vineyards, Stagecoach Vineyards, and a few more. Mike said, “At Sequoia Grove, we concentrate on putting the bling in the bottle—and that starts in the vineyards.”

Then there’s the precise moment of picking. Do the grapes have that certain something? Only a well-developed instinct can tell you when they’re right, and long experience deepens and broadens your knowledge. How tightly are the grapes clinging to the vines? When you shake the vines, how many grapes fall off? What do you do when it rains all season, or when an overwhelming influx of some insect or critter attacks your vines? The best answers aren’t always the stuff you learn in school.

Next steps in the winemaking are crushing and pressing the fruit, skins and pulp, to create the must. Then fermentation, clarifying, aging and bottling. Takes a lot of experience to know when the flavor, aroma and color are perfect for your intended wine—tasting is essential at every step.

And then there’s blending. Mike drew a simple arc and talked about how it’s done (see photo). If there’s a flavor in a wine that’s too strong—represented by spikes rising above the arc—it can be fixed by blending with other wines. But when something is missing in a wine—some element falls below the curve—it’s generally too late by this stage. Those kinds of weaknesses need to have been “fixed” by getting it right from the start, from soil to grapes to must and so on.

Re-imagining chardonnay
One of Mike’s goals was to produce a unique Chardonnay. “I wanted to make a more food complementary wine,” Mike said. His aim was to create a wine that “doesn’t bombard you with butter and oak flavors before you get to the food.” Instead he describes his 2009 vintage Carneros Chardonnay as establishing a “true partnership with the gourmet food you love to eat.” With just a tiny touch of the sharpness of, for example, a sauvignon blanc, this lovely wine sits easy on the palate, gently inviting you to relax and enjoy the warm, soft, full flavor with your lobster or scallops. And since this Chardonnay comprises only 8% of their production, it’s a special find.

Making the most of Cabernet Sauvignon
Mike’s next goal was to work his magic on the grape this area of Napa is famed for—Cabernet Sauvignon. With contributions of several types of grapes from several Rutherford vineyards—Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot—Mike makes a wine that is artfully blended each year and aged to produce the flavor and approachability you’ll find in all their Cabernets.

While the Rutherford area of Napa is well-known for fine Cabernet wines like Silver Oak, SG’s signature Napa Valley Cabernet continues to make its own high mark in the world of fine wines. Their 2009 vintage was a truly beautiful wine, and they made just over 17,000 cases for worldwide distribution, so we’re talking a comparative treasure. You can get it at Chicago Cut Steakhouse and other fine Chicago restaurants (see ***list below).

A breakthrough in fine red wine
After a few years at the helm, Mike decided it was time to step way out of the box and create a wine that broke the rules. He selected the finest lots of a given vintage of Cabernet and then blended those with primarily Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Not quite enough Cabernet to be called a Cabernet (requires 75%), the new wine needed a name of its own. So Mike picked it: Cambium. The 2008 vintage is a wine that’s impossibly complex and rich. You just want to let it caress your senses long after each sip—I’ve never had a wine before that kept talking to me all the way down. Yet it pairs beautifully with the prime aged beef and sweet, rich crab meat served at Chicago Cut—and works fabulously with their Bearnaise butter sauce and lightly sautéed fresh spinach, too.

Mike works with Molly Hill, his fellow SG winemaker, each year to create these deeply flavored, complex and satisfying wines. And when he’s not tasting and tweaking—or training his daughter Sophia, age 7 (see photo) in the fine points of wine blending—Mike happily works with fellow winemakers and vintners in the area to foster the mission of the Rutherford Dust Society. Their goal is to promote only the highest quality in grapes and in wines and to strengthen people’s connection with the soil and land of Rutherford that’s so uniquely suited to these pursuits.

If you haven’t tried a really special wine in a while, you can’t go wrong with one of these Sequoia Grove beauties. And if you’re visiting Napa Valley, Mike says Sequoia Grove is a really laid back place. Don’t hesitate to stop by.
***Failing a trip to Rutherford, you can get some SG wines in the Chicago area at the fine restaurants listed below.

Chicago locations:

Hugo’s, 1024 N. Rush St.
Chicago Yacht Club, 400 E. Monroe St.
Chicago Cut Steakhouse, 300 N. Lasalle St.
Rosebud on Rush, 55 E. Superior St.
Rosebud Prime, 1 S. Dearborn St.
Levy Restaurants, 1901 W. Madison St.
Gibsons Steak House, 1028 N. Rush St.
Sunda, 110 W. Illinois St.
Shulas Steak House, 301 E. North Water St.
Socca, 3301 N. Clark St.
Signature Room, 875 N. Michigan Ave.
Capitol Grill, 633 N. St. Clair St.

Suburban locations:

Bastas, Peoria Heights
Clubhouse, Oak Brook
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, Des Plaines
Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, Oak Brook
Glen Oaks Country Club, Glen Ellyn
Riverside Golf Club, Riverside
Potters Place, Naperville
Mecenat, Western Springs

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Domaine Carnernos sparkling American wines top the charts

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Eileen CraneEileen Crane’s ordinary conversation is sprinkled liberally with interesting stories and lots of facts about fine wines and the foods that go with them, including fresh oysters, double- and triple-cream cheeses, and many more culinary delights. And that’s probably because she’s a graduate of Culinary Institute of America and the President and Chief Winemaker at the Domaine Carneros estate. Domaine Carneros is the winery for which she was hand-picked by Claude Taittinger to build and lead the American home of his French Champagne Taittinger dynasty.

Eileen and her group met for lunch at a downtown Chicago restaurant known for its fabulous seafood, GT Fish & Oyster. The place’s smart, sophisticated design made a great backdrop for enjoying the latest vintages from the winery.

Sipping the Brut Vintage Cuvee 2008, Eileen tells the story of a time a few years ago when she first learned about the International Wines for Oysters Competition. Held each year at the Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, DC. the contest seemed a perfectly natural place for her to enter that year’s Domaine Carneros Brut. Eileen wasn’t surprised when it ended up winning, hands down, over several hundred competitors from more than a dozen countries around the world.

Domaine Carneros Brut Vintage Cuvee, made using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, is the estate’s signature wine. It’s aged three years and is perfect to serve when it’s released but is also designed to increase in complexity as it ages. The latest 2008 vintage surprises and delights your taste buds—extraordinarily elegant and well-balanced with a long, luscious finish. It makes a fabulous sipping wine and also goes beautifully with lots of foods: fresh oysters, shellfish, fish, rich cheeses, poultry and a variety of cuisine styles. Loved drinking it with GT’s deliciously fresh oysters and their Crudos, a small collection of fish and seafood items prepared with unique flavors and sauces and served on a giant block of natural wood.

All Domaine Carneros wines are not just superbly crafted; they’re also certified organic and DC is the only California winery to achieve that distinction for all its wines. When asked about the effects of the recent drought, Eileen said California escaped drought altogether and none of their vines suffered. In fact, she said, “We need agricultural workers, so maybe the places that have no work for workers because of drought could send those folks to California.”

Sparkling wines are growing in popularity in the U.S. But in the 1700s it was a brand new thing in France. “Madame Pompadour introduced sparkling wines to the court. She turned Louis XV on to them. She is believed to have said, ‘Champagne is the only wine a woman can drink and still remain beautiful.’ You must have an advocate like that in order to get a new product introduced and accepted in the market.”

Profoundly grateful to the long-ago intervention of Madame Pompadour, guests let Eileen pour from the latest version of DC’s greatest star wine, Le Reve. French for “The Dream”, the Le Reve 2006 vintage is made from 100% Chardonnay grapes using the traditional method Champagne and then aged in the bottle, on the lees, for five and a half years. This one, the 15th vintage in their long line of fine Blanc de Blancs, is also made to age beautifully. Some of the aromas you’ll notice include buttery, yeasty brioche, white flowers, fruit and more. The palate caresses with crème brulee and toasted almond and notes of white fruit. And you’ll love the long silky finish.

Eileen explained that this vintage needed only a small amount of dosage (a traditional sugar and wine mix added to balance sparkling wines) to reach perfection. Her guests explored the taste of East vs. West coast oysters—and came out firmly divided—but voted unanimously and joyfully that Le Reve made a perfectly beautiful accompaniment.

Taittinger told her when he recruited her in 1987 that he wanted to create America’s best Blanc de Blancs. She remembers fondly when she tasted the first Le Reve vintage in a social situation. She vividly recalls feeling stunned at how beautiful it was. “Ah, so this is how it tastes!” she said to herself. After spending all those years and months babysitting the grapes, the juice, and the wine in the lab, the experience of tasting it in a social situation opened her eyes to the splendor of her creation.

In fact, that Le Reve vintage was so spectacular that owner Claude Taittinger opted to serve it at his millennium party at his hotels in Paris-an American sparkling wine!

Eileen made a point of saying that Le Reve is a special-occasion wine for her, too, not just for the buying public. She says you don’t have to drink the whole bottle at once—and recommends using a closure suitable for fine sparkling wines. You don’t need to pay a lot—try this champagne wine stopper from Crate & Barrel. She said she and her husband have sometimes toasted with a single glass of Le Reve and then, after stoppering and refrigerating the remainder, gone off to enjoy a week’s vacation. They then happily returned and enjoyed a welcome-home toast from that same bottle of Le Reve, still elegant, perfectly balanced and beautifully bubbly.

Eileen tells another cool story about how in France all the winemakers have dressing rooms designed into their wineries. She said Taittinger suggested she include these in her design for Domaine Carneros. But when she asked and was told what they were for, she insisted they be taken out of the design. Apparently, in France it is important for workers to arrive in suits to show that they are doing a professional job. She told him it doesn’t work that way in America. So they took the dressing rooms out and put in an employee break room instead.

Domaine Carneros is known for its award-winning sparkling wines, but they also use some of their grapes to create a small quantity of 100% Pinot Noir vintage. Their latest, the 2010, has aromas of cherry and pomegranate with hints of herbs like clove and sandalwood and goes fabulously with foods like beef and poultry, pork and salmon.

To go with the main courses, Eileen poured glasses of the 2010 Pinot Noir—a velvety smooth wine, perfectly balanced after being aged 10 months in oak barrels and then 8 months in the bottle. Despite less than ideal growing conditions in 2010, this vintage was carefully nurtured to deliver “expressive aromas, fresh and well-defined flavors, and a bright, balancing acidity.” I loved its beautifully blended, silky taste, and everyone agreed it worked wonderfully with some of GT Fish & Oyster’s lunch items—their delightful fish and chips, tomato-sauced mussels, fish tacos, and excellent crab cakes (see pictures).

Next Eileen next poured her guests flutes of DC’s Brut Rosé Cuvee de la Pompadour. She says she loves the wild strawberry and peachy nose of the rose and confesses to happily drinking this wine all summer. This beautifully dry, silky textured, delicate salmon-colored sparkling wine bears absolutely no resemblance to what some older folks may remember of early American rosé wines. Surprise and delight yourself with a bottle of this gem—lovely as an aperitif or paired with duck, salmon and fresh berries-and with desserts.

It went very nicely indeed with GT’s fabulous Salted Caramel Tart, served topped with an egg-shaped mound of Chantilly whipped cream-a dessert worth traveling for. A beautiful wine, eminently suitable to welcome guests or to accompany fine fare.

La Reve is less than 1% of their production. Rosé is 5%. Pinot Noir 22%. Their total production is 55,000-considered a very small winery. But Eileen says they are a very friendly winery with a big visitor center. If you’re going to the area, come in and enjoy the cheese plate with some of their wines. The place is gorgeous-literally a castle-styled mansion that’s patterned after the Taittinger chateau.

Eileen says there’s an old saying: “When you get married, the first wine that should be in your mouth should be a sparkling champagne.” I like that—and hey, you don’t have to be getting married to live by it.

Ask your favorite wine supplier to order you some, or if you’re out and about in Chicago, look for Domaine Carneros wines at the following fine restaurants:

RL Restaurant (Ralph Lauren, 115 E Chicago Ave, 3124751100

Sixteen at Trump International Hotel, 401 N Wabash Ave, 3120588800
Pops for Champagne, 601-605 N State, 3122667677
Ki Kis Bistro, 900 N Franklin St, 3123355454
III Forks, 333 E Benton Place St, 3129384303
Mon Ami Gabi, 2300 N Lincoln Park W, 7733488886
Gemini Bistro, 2075 N Lincoln, 7735252522
Mastros Restaurant, 520 N Dearborn St, 3125215100
Hugo’s, 1024 N Rush St, 3129889021
GT Fish & Oyster, 531 N Wells St, 3129293501
Gibson’s Steak House, 1028 N Rush St, 3122668999
RPM Italian, 52 W Illinois St, 3122221988

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