Wine wisdom from Matt Crafton of luxury Chateau Montelena wines

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Chateau Montelena comes to Chicago at Maple & Ash
Chateau Montelena comes to Chicago at Maple & Ash

Some wineries bring their wines to market via huge gatherings of trade and media reps, complete with educational seminars, panel presentations, slide shows, and so on. With luxury producers like Chateau Montelena, it’s more usual to showcase their wares by serving them in the conditions for which they’re designed – small groups that encourage conversation and allow the wines to reveal their true beauty over a shared meal of delicious food.

Winemaker Matt Crafton talks about Chateau Montelena
Winemaker Matt Crafton talks about Chateau Montelena

That’s the approach Matt Crafton, chief winemaker at Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, takes when he brings a curated selection of his wines to a city. He works with local executive chefs to pair their creations and his with a deft and definitive touch. In Chicago recently, he worked with chefs at Maple & Ash, 8 W. Maple, to construct a menu ideally suited to the wines – perfect pairings for the luxury whites and reds he brought to represent the best of the Chateau’s small-production vineyard.

Crafton, who says he enjoys having his 7-, 5- and 1-year-old kids follow him around the vineyard, often checks his smartphone, even when he’s out of town, to see how the vines are faring. The winery has sensors all over the vineyard that constantly send stats about water levels to his phone. Those numbers tell him when the vines are being stressed – even before the leaves begin to show physical signs such as curling or turning – so that he can order countermeasures if needed.

Over a meal of meticulously paired and perfectly prepared dishes created by the chefs at avec Restaurant, 615 W. Randolph, Crafton generously shared a few of his thoughts and insights about wine in general and Chateau Montelena in particular.

Special points of his wine wisdom:

  • Be on the watch. The Bordeaux wine region in France has recently been spraying its vines with copper sulfate in order to control a mildew infestation. This is not good for the soil long term – and thus for the wines.
  • Food for thought: Seven percent of the entire human population is left-handed. In the wine making business, the share is forty percent.
  • Labeling a wine – or anything – “organic” is nearly meaningless in our current state of affairs. There are simply too few controls. Sustainable growing is, instead, the ideal for which we all should be striving.
  • Wine is a delicate custom expression of each terroir – and naturally varies according to the year’s weather and soil conditions. If you’re looking for the same experience every year in your beverage, drink beer.
  • When you want to age a wine, you’ll get a better result with 1.5-liter bottles than the usual 750 ml size. Why? Because with the same cork, you get twice the volume, which slows down the process.
  • Using an aerator is good, but it cannot remotely compare to actually aging a wine. Oak and grape skins contribute tannins. Cement and clay hold oxygen while keeping the fruit fresh. Aerators just add ambient air.
  • American oak is looser-grained and can contribute flavors like coconut, dill and vanilla. French oak is more subtle. Spanish wines, for example, use a lot of American oak and tend to have a vanilla aroma.
  • If you the big Italian red wines like Barolo but find yourself not enjoying somewhat lesser Italian reds, it may be you are not consuming them along with food – the experience for which they are specifically made.
Beautiful - Montelena Estate Cab 2005
Beautiful – Montelena Estate Cab 2005

Special points about Chateau Montelena:

  • Chateau Montelena was one of the California wineries that came crashing onto the world stage with the famous “Judgment of Paris” back in the 70s when Napa Valley wines, red and white, received top honors over France’s finest – as decided by French judges doing blind tastings.
  • Chateau Montelena sets aside 5 to 10% of every vintage of Chardonnay and Cabernet each year and cellars it so that customers who cannot or choose not to age a bottle on their own will be able five years hence to purchase one that shows off how well that vintage has aged in the bottle.
  • Their Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (SRP ~$65), typically blended with Merlot or sometimes Cabernet Franc – is made to be approachable when young.
  • Their Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet (SRP ~$175) is never blended with Merlot – because they don’t grow those grapes on the estate –  but sometimes with Petit Verdot. This gem takes time to reach its peak and will open up much more after a longer time in the bottle.
  • The estate consists of 100 acres behind the Chateau and is partly situated on two mountain ranges that each contribute a different kind of soil – one of volcanic ash and the other mineral-rich from having been under the sea.

Crafton said he likes to bring Chateau Montelena to others around the country in order to demonstrate what their values are. “We take our wines very seriously,” Crafton said. “But we try not to take ourselves too seriously. After all, it [making wine] is about making people happy.”

Some of the luxury wines he brought to Chicago included:

Happily, when you’re looking for that special wine you want to save for the future or that special wine you want to drink to celebrate a momentous or even just a festive occasion, you can frequently find Chateau Montelena wines at Binny’s, Mariano’s, and many small wine shops and restaurants in and around Chicago.

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Loire Valley shows how to match flowers to wine

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  1. Whether you’ve always wondered about it or you’ve never given it a thought, wines can be paired just as delightfully with flowers as they can with food. Spring to Loire 2019 (see our earlier review here) came to Chicago and presented an entire separate seminar on the art of matching your flowers to your wines at any special occasion.  A florist/wine aficionado showed attendees how to match three different wines – a red, a white and a sparkling – with its own specific  flower type. So next time you plan a brunch or dinner party with wine and flowers, consider these notes and let your imagine run wild:

Red – Sancerre rouge Joseph Mellot Le Rabault 2017 -100% Pinot Noir. Color: deep ruby. Nose: the nose starts with black cherries, elderberry and blackcurrant. A hint of toasted bread.  Mouth: balanced with a beautiful volume, structure and fine and silky tannins associated with the freshness of Pinot, a gorgeous mouth-feel and silky-smooth tannins yielding lovely structure. Flower: White Hyacinth, with its slightly bold spring fragrance adding a zippy finish akin to the natural spice finish of cherry.

White – Menetou-Salon blanc Henry Pellé Les Bornes 2017 – Sauvignon Blanc. Color: clear yellow. Nose: green apples, citrus and melon. Mouth: Citrus, peach, apples and mineral all the way. Long aftertaste, full bodied. Flower: Sweet Pea, with its spicy and green elements that make it feel very balanced.

Sparkling – Crémant Domaine Xavier & Agnès Amirault Les Quarterons – Chenin Blanc. Type: small bubbles with aromas of old rose and lemon, enlivened by drops of honey. An enticing wine in which the breadth of Chenin and the confidence of Chardonnay blend to perfect effect. Flower: Honeysuckle, the main note of which is fresh apple, which makes it smell lightweight and sophisticated.

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Loire Valley Wines refresh and delight

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Spring to Loire 2019 Chicago at J. Parker Atrium
Spring to Loire 2019 Chicago at J. Parker Atrium

Want a wine that evokes gloriously fresh surroundings? The wines of the Loire Valley bring to mind a range of pleasant springs and mountain streams as well as gentle sun, lazy breezes and relaxed days. They come in a myriad styles – from dry to sweet and everything in between – and in all price ranges.

Jamel Freeman presents Spring to Loire seminars
Jamel Freeman presents Spring to Loire seminars

Recently, Jamel A. Freeman, wine director at the Bellemore Chicago, presented seminars at Spring to Loire 2019 in Chicago – facts, figures and stories about these lovely wines. He explained that Loire Valley wines are best known for crisp, dry, white wines, notably Sauvignon Blanc and aromatic Chenin Blancs. yet they also produce fruity red wines from Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes as well as earthy red wines from Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Not to mention their selection of dry and off-dry rosé, elegant sparklings and luscious sweet wines. All are known to be:

  • Moderate alcohol, refreshing acidity and minerality that make them ideal for pairing with foods.
  • Pure expressions of varietal and terroir unmasked by oak.
  • Excellent value.
Jamel presented three separate seminars. One on the Diversity of LV wines. A second on the Sauvignons of LV. And a third on LV sparklings. He also shared additional interesting facts and figures about Loire Valley and about wines in general. Herewith a few tidbits:
  • The balance of acid and fruit is a good indicator of how well a wine will continue to develop in the bottle – like a fruit ripening, a wine may be high in acid to begin with and then become  mellower and sweeter as it ages.
  • Loire Valley:
    • Is France’s #1 producer of white wines, and the #2 producer of rosés.
    • Is the #1 region for the number of AOC sparkling wines
    • Is the 3rd largest vineyard in France.
    • Has 51 appellations and denominations
    • Produces 320 million bottles per year.
  • Ever notice how Prosecco seems to go flat quickly? That’s because it’s produced by the bulk method. Loire Valley and other sparklings produced by methode traditionale are fermented a second time in the bottle – which results in longer-lasting bubbles.
  • Stress to vines develops complexity. Higher elevation means more acidity and more minerality.
  • Vouvray – which has become almost a generic name for sparklings from Loire Valley – is half as bubbly as champagne, but creamier than Cremant.
  • Chenin Blanc grapes are more aromatic than Charadonnay, but Chardonnay can be more easily manipulated because of its less powerful aromas.
Most of the wines Jamel presented are available at Binny’s. A few of the excellent wines showcased at the program are listed below. For more information about Loire Valley wines visit www.loirevalleywine.com/.
Sparklings
  • Vouvray NV, Domaine VIgneau-Chevreau. A sparkling with lots of flint, minerality. 100% Chenin Blanc from 25 year old grapes. Just delicious! SRP ~$23-26.
  • Jean-Francois Merieau Vouvray 2012. 80% Chenin Blanc, 20% Sauvignon Blanc. Seashell minerality and a nose of floral notes and white peaches. SRP ~$19.
Whites
  • Vincent Grall Sancerre 2017. This wine is the benchmark for Sauvignon Blanc in Loire Valley. Aged in oak or acadia wood. SRP ~$26.
  • Domaine Paul Buisse Touraine 2017. 100% Sauvignon Blanc. A lovely value-priced white with seashell minerality on the palate; sage, bell pepper and crushed chalk aromas SRP ~$13.
  • Vignobles Gibault Touraine-Chenonceaux 2017. 100% Sauvgnon Blanc. Long, slow fermentation pulls out the aromatics, and this wine features rich notes of pears. ~$21
  • Henry Pelle Menetou-Salon 2017. 100% Sauvignon Blanc. A nose of organic white peach blossoms, yellow apple flesh. Rich tasting white. SRP ~$23.
Reds
  • Sancerre 2016 Joseph Mellot. 100% Pinot Noir. Complex with a long finish. Similar in characteristics to Northern side of Burgundy.

Be sure to look for our next post on pairing Loire Valley wines with flowers!!

Any way you look at it, you’re almost guaranteed to have an enjoyable wine when you choose from the broad selection of Loire Valley Wines.
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Lovely Bordeaux and Burgundy wines visit Chicago

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It’s always a joy to have the winemakers of France come to Chicago, and particularly delightful to taste the wines of Bordeaux in our fair city. Vins de Bordeaux held a tasting at Virtue Restaurant in Hyde Park that proved especially enlightening and enjoyable. As with many grape-growing lands that depend on rivers, two of them – River Garonne and the Dordogne – flow through Bordeaux. One way to categorize their red wines is to note that those from the Left Bank tend to blend more with Merlot, while wines from the Right Bank tend to blend more with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Wines at Somm Like It Bordeaux
Wines at Somm Like It Bordeaux

Bordeaux wines come from 65 different appellations, many of  which you’ll recognize: Cotes de Bordeaux (“cotes” denotes hillsides that overlook the right banks of the Garonne and the Dordogne Rivers), Saint-Emilion, Pomerol & Fronsac, Medoc and Graves. The region produces dry whites (11% of their production) that are fresh and vibrant with good natural acidity. Bordeaux sweet whites are made from grapes affected by botrytis. They’re medium- to full-bodied and are produced mainly in Sauternes and Barsac in the southern part of Bordeaux. 

By the way, if you’re ever confused about Bordeaux and Burgundy, read this from the Wine Spectator for a down-to-earth explanation. Below are a few of the many they showcased in Chicago in 2019:
 
WHITES
Chateau Petit-Freylong, Cuvee Izzy 2015. Rich, stone fruit bubbly from Bordeaux made from early-picked Sauvignon Blanc, this was 5-star all the way. Importer: Sweiss Group, LLC. SPR ~$22.
Chateau de sours, La Source Blanc 2011. This blend of 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillon will please nearly anyone. SRP $35.
 
REDS
Domaines Baron de Rothschild (Lafite), Legende 2012. Beautiful blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Merlot. Imported by Esprit du Vin. SRP $49.99
Chateau Lafitte Laujac 2011. Made from grapes grown in very well drained soils in the Medoc region, this one spent a full year in barrels. 60% Cabernet, 35% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot. Lovely.
ROSÉS
Chateau Maurac 2012. Blended from Cabernet and Merlot from the Haut-Medoc area and imported by Michael Corso Selections. SRP $29.99.
Chateau de Sours, Reserve de Sours sparkling Rosé. A lovely sparkling wine from Bordeaux made of 87% Merlot and 13% Cabernet and imported by Old Bridge Cellars. SRP ~$20.
For more information about the Bordeaux wine regions, read here.
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Heritage Wine Cellars brings Boisset Collection highights to Chicago

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Quite wonderful, the variety of burgundies and Beaujolais wines produced from grapes that grow in very similar terroirs – found both along the left and right banks of the river valley, and up and down the length of Burgundy – as well as those grown in similar climate and soil conditions in parts of California. Similar terroirs, yet producing wines with remarkably distinct qualities that are easily identified by sommeliers – and clear enough to the rest of us when pointed out.

Recently Heritage Wine Cellars brought Chicagoans a “Tour de Terroir” that showcased these distinct qualities. The tour showcased selections of wines from the Boisset Collection at a lovely private event space at Sunda, where attendees enjoyed excellent finger fare to accompany the wines.

Boisset is a family-owned collection of historic and unique wineries bound together by a common cause: authentic, terroir-driven wines that are in harmony with their history, their future and the land and people essential to their existence. Their family includes wineries in some of the world’s preeminent terroir such as Cote d’Or, Beaujolais, Rhone Valley, California’s Russian River Valley and Napa Valley. And each house retains its unique history, identity and style, while still distinctively expressing their unique terroir.

Boisset was founded in 1961 by Jean-Claude and Claudine Boisset, then a young couple living in the heart of Burgundy. They gradually acquired vineyards and wineries on two continents and forged an identity as the leading wine producer in Burgundy. Now under the leadership of their son, Jean-Charles, Boisset welcomes and fosters the collaboration of France and America in a profound belief that sharing our knowledge and wisdom will deepen and enrich the world of wine and also increase appreciation and provide even more exposure for each region’s diversity and uniqueness.

You will know you are drinking a wine from the luxury Boisset collection when you choose from one of the following names: Pierreux, Momessin, J. Moreau & Fils, Bouchard Aine & Fils, Jean-Claude Boisset, Domaine de la Vougeraie and Domaine Henri Maire, and look for even more wineries on the Boisset website. Below are a few of the many wines that were remarkable in the recent Chicago  tasting, including two value-priced whites (a sparkling and a still – the last two in the listings).

REDS
Domaine de la Vougeraie
Nuits-St-Georges 1er Cru “Les Corvees Pagets” 2014 – SRP $108
Nuits-St-Georges “Clos de Thorey” Monopole 1er Cru 2015 – SRP $121
Vougeot “Clos du Prieure” Monopole 2015 – SRP $112

Mommessin
Moulin-a-Vent 2016 – SRP $23

WHITES
Bouchard Aine & Fils
Chassagne-Montrachet 1er cru 2017 – SRP $111

J. Moreau & Fils
Chablis “Valmur” Grand Cru 2017 – SRP $99
Chablis “Les Close” Grand Cru 2017 – SRP $99

Jean-Claude Boisset
Saint-Aubin “Sur Gamay” 1er Cru 2017 – SRP $66

Domaines Maire & Fils, Jura
Cotes e Jura Heritage Tradition 2018 – SRP $15
Sparkling: Cremant de Jura Brut Jurassique N/V – SRP $16.25

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Acquiring excellent wines via club

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Winestyr finds small-production gems for members
Winestyr finds small-production gems for members

Some of us have tried wine clubs and drifted off eventually for one reason or another. But there are always new efforts being floated out there. Forbes magazine published in 2017 an updated list of top wine clubs you could feel comfortable about joining.

Winestyr, one of those listed in the Forbes article, has been around since 2011 when its founder started researching to discover a wide variety of rare, small-production gems for club members. They first started shipping in 2015, and have since founded a Chicago headquarters where they host winemakers. They send out nicely printed newsletters that give you the kind of lowdown you always want to have on any wine you buy that’s beyond table wine. So if you’re looking to go diving into exotic waters that transcend the local bulk wine store, this might be a good place to begin.

As an example, consider the idea of dry Rieslings from all over the world. Those from Austria and Australia are classically bone-dry with high natural acidity and mineral finishes. Some German expressions are dry, too, such as those from Pfalz and Rheingau. And now the US is producing dry Rieslings in spots like New York’s Finger Lakes region and the southern stretches of Oregon.

But even if you don’t like sweetness in your wines, it’s a fact that sugar is added to many types, including dry wines. Sugar helps tone down too much tooth-shredding acidity and can lend viscosity (body) to the mouth feel of an otherwise tart, lean wine. Rieslings that have some residual sugar are among the most aging-worthy wines anywhere. Winestyr says their people have tasted bottles up to 40-50 years old that were still fresh and vibrant. Winestyr offered to send us a few samples of Rieslings they’ve hand selected and vetted. We enjoyed them very much, and here are descriptions:

  • 2017 Off The Grid Riesling, Ovum Wines, Oregon. This small production (444 cases) is ready to drink now. Grapes grown at 1500 feet in alluvial gley soil – similar to that in Napa Valley’s Rutherford region – https://vinepair.com/articles/illustrated-guide-wine-soils/ have resulted in a wine with lots of tension and a flinty, quince-like finish. Club price $30.
  • 2014 Yellow Bird Vineyard Syrah, Elephant Seven in Walla Walla Valley AVA. 94% Syrah co-fermented with 6% Viognier. Absolutely delightful with frittata, light vegetables and cheeses. Club price $48.
  • 2016 Super MSG! Rhone Blend, Fausse Piste, in Columbia Valley AVA. Only 360 cases produced, it’s a blend of 34% Mourvedre, 22% Syrah, 24% Counoise, 20% Grenache. Has an earthy funkiness typical of the Southern Rhone. Notes of blackberry, dried plum, white pepper, and a hint of Brett (the yeast that gives the distinctive earthy aroma). Club price $26.

The goal at Winestyr is to educate and delight members with unique selections. The $0 shipping on orders is pretty sweet, and members-only pricing is not bad at 10 to 40% most wines in the portfolio. Visit www.winestyr.com for more info of membership.

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Consider these wine gems from France, California, and Italy

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As we continue dealing with the raging contest between spring and the dregs of winter here in Chicago, now’s a perfect time to turn your thoughts to lovey libations. Herewith we present for your consideration a few items we’ve sampled recently.

Bouchard Pere et Fils recently brought to Chicago a broad array of beautiful Pinot Noirs from Burgundy. The selection represents the efforts of the tall, slender, sophisticated Cellar Master Frédéric Weber, who spoke with quiet glowing happiness of the making of the current vintage. “2017 was a vintage with good growing conditions where our decisions in the vineyard transformed it into a compelling vintage… A truly pleasurable vintage ready to enjoy now.” He also promised that all these wines will be available in the U.S. by April. There were several Binny’s scouts in attendance so chances are good they’ll be able to get you these wines. At the same event, guests sampled another brand from among the Henriot Maisons & Domaines, a variety of William Fevre white wines grown in an area near Burgundy. Herewith, a few of the many lovely wines from these two iconic vineyards:

Among the Bouchard Pere & Fils Pinot Noirs were selections from Villages (the lowest level of the Burgundian hillside), Premier Cru (next highest area), and Grand Cru (highest elevation). Noteworthy among the Villages selections of 100% Pinot Noir grapes were:

  • Santenay Côte de Beaune, a worthy base-level burgundy wine.
  • Vosne-Romanée Côte de Nuits. Elegant, velvety, with charm and great length.
  • Chambolle-Musigny, 2017. Grown in soils ideally suited to produce elegant wines; aged 13 months in oak.
  • Gevrey-Chambertin Côte de Nuits. This area has the highest concentration of Grand Cru reds. These are aged 13 months in oak and are known for strength and velvetiness.

Among the Premier Crus:

  • Beaune Gréve Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus (Domaine) – an exceptionally smooth wine, one of the stars at Bouchard Pere et Fils
  • Volnay Les Casillerets Côte de Beaune- beautifully smooth blending with gentle tannins
  • Volnay Taillepieds (Domaine) Côte de Beaune – again beautifully blended with soft tannins

And among the Grand Crus our favorite was:

  • Echézeaux Cote de Nuits

Consult the William Fevre website for more information about the delicate yet full-tasting Chablis wines Winemaster Weber brought to the party in Chicago. Truly a luscious collection.

Lucas & Lewellen Estate Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Valley View 2016. Santa Ynez Valley. 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7.5% Petit Verdot, 7.5% Malbec. The warm days and cool nights of the Santa Ynez Valley facilitate a long, gentle growing season, and grapes grown in the Valley View vineyard there make fine wines. This wine is carefully blended to produce a distinctive, layered taste of blackberry and fig jam on the palate with silky tannins and a long finish. It’s marvelous with meat, pasta or, basically, anything your heart desires. SRP ~$25

Tre Bicchieri 2019
Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri USA tour‘s recent stop in Chicago brought us a broad selection of lovely special Italian wines. Many stood out this year at the show which was held again in the beautiful spaces of the Bridgeport Arts Center. The exhibition is designed to let members of trade and media in various cities across the U.S. experience the wide variety of Italian wines that have reached the highest standards.

If you’re a fan of naturally sparkling wine, consider one showcased in this show from Lusvardi, Italy. While we here in the US grew up with “spumante” as something overly sweet and extremely basic, Lusvardi now makes a line of sophisticated bubblies, several of which are made with no added sugar. We liked the Lusvardi Brut Lambrusco Dell’Emilia IGP – dry but with just a little sugar added – that we tasted at the show. Every year Tre Bicchieri celebrates Italian wines that have gained the coveted “Three Glasses” designation from a large cadre of experienced judges. Another notable bubbly, somewhat sweeter but with no added sugar, was the red Senzafondo Lambrusco Dell’Emilia IGP. These wines are made from grapes grown on a small 35-acre family farm and vinified with love.

A couple of other excellent listings from “Tre Bicchieri” (Three Glasses) participants:

  • San Salvatore Pian di Stio, a lovely white wine from Campania, available in the US for ~$40.
  • Fattori Nicolucci Romagna Sangiovese Sup Predappio di Predappio V. del Generale Ris. 2015, another beautiful white wine grown on a family farm in Emilia Romagna.

Don’t know if you’d even be able to find them all, but in case you’re a huge fan and want some new resources for Italian wines, here’s the complete listing of producers for participating wines and wineries in the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri USA tour. Have a wonderful time browsing!

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3 new consumable ideas for you

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From time to time, we are privileged to review food or drink products that interest us. This week we’re happy to introduce you to a brand of all-natural nut butters, a line of slightly exotic seasonings, and a new line of drink-enhancing cordials for mock- or cocktail time. Love to hear your feedback on any of these you decide to try.

Crazy Richard’s Nut Butters are made without the usual oil, added sugar and salt. Our experience was that the peanut butter tastes more like pure nuts than others we’ve tried. The texture seemed a little drier as well. Crazy Richard’s butters come in traditional jars and in single-serve carry-along or lunchbox pouches. Try it in Extra Creamy or Crunchy Peanut Butter, Almond Butter, or Cashew Butter. The new Peanut Powder is convenient for ramping up protein in smoothies, and for baking or cooking. And they’ve just launched their new frozen snack line, Wholly Rollies – Frozen Protein Balls. But if you decide to buy online, be sure to compare prices. We found dramatically different pricing on different sites. For example, Amazon was three times more than Walmart. So do your due diligence.

Crazy RIchards butter prices - all over the place
Crazy RIchards butter prices – all over the place
Loved the flavor kick from Pereg in this slow cooker crustless pumpkin pie
Loved the flavor kick from Pereg in this slow cooker crustless pumpkin pie

Pereg Natural Foods makes a wide variety of unique food products. We recently agreed to sample a couple of their distinctively different seasoning blends that work either for sweet or savory. We found both of them complex and pleasurable in their own ways. We used the sweet blend as part of our seasoning in our favorite slow-cooker dessert/breakfast/snack recipe for no-crust pumpkin pie. It gave the dish a slightly exotic touch that went perfectly with the normal pumpkin-pie-spice-mix of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves (or allspice). We also liked it quite a bit mixed with cottage cheese sweetened with a good sprinkling of powdered stevia. What an easy way to have an exotic but healthy dessert without cooking!

Plain cottage cheese tasted like dessert with Pereg
Plain cottage cheese tasted like dessert with Pereg

The savory mix gave a little mystery to the slow-cooker chicken we rubbed with it. We highly recommend trying these seasonings if you like to give your cooking a little pizzazz without a lot of work – and without a lot of extra sodium and sugar. Pereg hawaij retails for about $5.99. Available at kosher food stores, independents, health food and many chain stores (ACME, Albertsons). And check out some of their other healthy products like pasta made from quinoa. Love that idea!

Sōm Cordials are hand-crafted with exotic botanicals, tropical fruits, local Oregon berries. They’re called cordials because they’re concentrated. You use them as flavorings to mix zero-proof “mocktails” or to create luxurious regular cocktails without having a closet-full of bottles for special liqueurs. Flavors include Ginger, Cranberry, Tangerine, Oregan Berry, Thai Basil and Pineapple. Conceived and perfected by a chef who loves Thai cuisine. Mix one of these with plain or even flavored sparkling water and you’ve got yourself a complex, layered treat. If you want a kick, they mix beautifully with real spirits, too. We did one with 3 parts raspberry-lime sparkling water, 1 part Tub gin (really good gin, by the way) and 1 part Cranberry. Wow. You’d have thought we had a professional mixologist hiding in the kitchen. Read more here.

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River Roast chef freely shares expertise

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RIver Roast Executive Chef Cedric Harden
RIver Roast Executive Chef Cedric Harden

Surprised and delighted to learn that River Roast, 315 N. LaSalle St., offers cooking classes. Well, more like cooking demos because you get to watch rather than participate. Besides the beautiful and eclectic decorations in the space, the great view of the river and the delicious foods you get to eat, one of the most positive things about these sessions is the fact that you get to ask River Roast Executive Chef Cedric Harden any cooking question you want (preferably related to the dish he’s preparing right in front of you – when you sit at the bar, which we highly recommend), and he gives you the straight dope  from his extensive professional experience.

Chef team Cedric and Eric
Chef team Cedric and Eric

Attending a recent class felt like the most fun you can have in downtown Chicago on a regular Saturday afternoon. That day Chef Eric Lees, Chef de Cuisine at Spiaggia, a sister restaurant in the Levy Group of fine establishments, was on hand to assist. He and Chef Cedric put on a truly down-to-earth demonstration of what it’s like to invent and to execute an original dish.

Chef's beautifully imagined surprise appetizer
Chef’s beautifully imagined surprise appetizer

It was pure pleasure watching the construction of the spring greens salad at this Cooking with Spring Ingredients session. Oh, and before the first course, the chef surprised us with an appetizer that wasn’t on the menu – a lovely concoction of salumi slices, wedges of fresh fig, and fresh arugula nestled atop a creamy puddle of locally made burrata. Delicious. Back to the spring salad. Have you heard of using shaved raw asparagus along with steamed asparagus tips together in a salad? It’s a cool idea that works very well, especially when dressed with a lovely handmade Green Goddess dressing. The freshness of all the flavors and the whole combination made all the students’ tongues happy. And that was just a single one of the many interesting ideas and tricks the chef gave his guests. He shared his knowledge generously, from talking about where to learn knife skills to explaining why and how to salt the water for pasta (you’ll be shocked to hear what he suggests!).

River Roast cooking class's fabulous chicken entree with rich pan sauce
River Roast cooking class’s fabulous chicken entree with rich pan sauce

Included in the price (~$65) you’ll be served a number of small cocktails/wines throughout the class. Just enough to give a pleasant buzz on a sunny Saturday afternoon. But it’ll undoubtedly work just as well on a cloudy one.

The winter series of cooking demos is finished now, and we are eagerly awaiting word on the new series. This is one of the most delightful ways to spend a Saturday afternoon that we can imagine. A bit of spirits, a lot of delicious food, and a generous helping of professional knowledge – a win-win in anybody’s book. Have already told friends about how much fun this was, and we can’t wait to get the new schedule.

 

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Spirits to lift your spirits this Chicago early spring

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Time to think about some spirits to uplift yours! Here are some news notes from three such companies: Rush Creek Distilling is a local distiller that’s just generally lifting spirits around town and for buyers online. Maker’s Mark is uplifting the spirits of sports/Chicago/Cubs fans and bourbon lovers across the land. and Bacardi is uplifting the spirits of women – and that spreads to everyone! Consider lifting yours with a few of these.

Rush Creek Distillery
Rush Creek Distillery

Rush Creek Distilling makes small batch releases of really nice vodka, gin and whiskey. The company is located in Harvard, Illinois, so it’s a kissing-cousin Chicago institution. The vodka and gin are both distilled from grain, so the flavor is unique. The American Gold and the Trophy whiskies are lovingly, slowly distilled. All the Rush Creek spirits are made using pure spring water and local grains. Plus, the distillery sounds like a beautiful and unique place to visit – artisan-designed and built to exemplify the spirit of craftsmanship. Book a tour and make a little vacation of it. They love to promote a spirit of adventure – even have an Adventurous Spirits Club you can join.

Recently Chicago welcomed Rob Samuels, grandson of the founder of the iconic bourbon Maker’s Mark, as he celebrated his company’s partnership with the Cubs. He met with media, Cubs people, club owners, and others as part of inaugurating the new Maker’s Mark Barrel Room, one of the private clubs for season ticket holders that’s opening in Wrigley Field this season. He highlighted key points in the history of Maker’s Mark, including how Bill Samuels, Sr. used to bake bread – and translated some of what he knew there into the beginnings of the famous bourbon. He also invites everyone to make a reservation at Star Hill Provisions, the on-Kentucky-campus full service restaurant and bar, with Chef Newman Miller offers authentic local cuisine with locally sourced ingredients – some coming from distillery employees’ own farms. There you can learn more about the deep and proud connection between horse racing and bourbon and about out how dramatically bourbon has increased in popularity in just the past decade.

Bacardi, one of the country’s premier spirits makers, kicked off its second annual Spirit Forward Women Empowerment Series April 1st in Chicago. Now they’re on the way to LA (April 23), then New York.  Experts from hospitality, fitness, finance and entertainment will celebrate female leaders and entrepreneurs, especially the hospitality industry. Attendees will learn from panels, networking opportunities, hands-on workshops and more, designed for all genders, race, cultures and geographies. The theme this year is “originality,” and high-level industry speakers will address how it informs everything from the creative process to problem-solving bigger issues in the hospitality industry.

 

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Lovin' how Chicago does it!