The night of our 2010 Castello Holiday Party I was seated at a table with executive winemaker Brooks Painter. As dessert was served, a decadent Bouche Noelle, we were contemplating our next pour. No small task! Lovers of the sweet anxiously awaited the succulent Late Harvest Gewurztraminer. Tempting. However, in the corner of the rooms I saw a bottle of something red. To my delight it was the highly anticipated 2006 Castello di Amorosa Merlot. Rich chocolate goodness with Merlot? Brooks and I agreed; Yes, please! We toasted another great year and then…..Silence as we took a moment to contemplate the wine. This Merlot was stellar. Heavy intoxicating aromatics with a smooth velvety palate of bittersweet cocoa and blackberries. I asked Brooks where the fruit was sourced from as it differed from the past fruit-driven Merlots of Castello. For the 2006 Merlot Brooks brought in fruit from vineyards near the south end of the Napa Valley, closer to the San Pablo Bay and the fog that rolls in off the Pacific. Made sense. Cooler vineyard sites allow the fruit to mature slowly while maintaining structure and natural acidity. Our admiration was well-deserved as the 2006 Castello di Amorosa release was voted one of the best Napa Valley Merlots of the vintage.
Merlot: typically more approachable than Cabernet Sauvignon, more versatile with food – what’s with all the bad press? (pun intended) Some of my most memorable 'wine dinners’ have prominently featured this viticultural also-ran. Later that night my thoughts turned to past Merlot Super Moments. This trip down memory lane required a bit of travel.
First stop: Italy. Although not specifically known for great Merlot, a few standouts are indeed vino Italiano. Tuscany’s Galatrona Petrolo and Masseto by Ornellaia are two of the finest expressions of Merlot I’ve had. Unfortunately price and availability can be prohibitive. For lovely lush Italian Merlot that won’t break the bank, travel north to the Friuli-Venezia region. Livio Felluga produces Merlot that never disappoints. For approximately $20 this luxurious red is perfect with slow braised fork-tender short ribs and mushroom risotto…..listen closely…..those are angels singing.
Now, across the globe to South America. Chile is now the 4th largest exporter of wine to the U.S. and has 33,000 acres planted to Merlot. (2nd most planted varietal to Cabernet Sauvignon of course). I went to a BBQ last summer and brought a few bottles of one of my favorites from this exciting region; Santa Ema. This $10 Merlot has and edge and is always met with approval. Turns out this southern hemisphere bottling works great with spice rubbed grilled chicken quarters.
And back to where it all began: France. Not only is Merlot the most planted varietal in the country, in the Bordeaux region Merlot accounts for 172,000 acres planted compared to Cabernet Sauvignon’s 72,000. In St. Emilion, 70% of all planted grapes are Merlot. Wines from this region, although Merlot dominant, are primarily blends; they embody elegance and restraint. Be adventurous….pick up a few right-bank’ers in the $30-$40 range and enjoy with roast leg of lamb or grilled duck breast. Two of my favorites: Chateau Monbousquet and Chateau Tertre Roteboeuf, my favorite prime roast beef wine.
I applaud and encourage all global explorations of this soft maligned varietal. In Napa Valley, where Merlot excels at higher elevations and cooler vineyard sites, this once exploited grape is being produced with new vigor and excitement.
Be adventurous and in your endeavors may you find out why Merlot is said to be the “flesh on the Cabernet Sauvignon’s bones.”
Mary Davidek C.S, C.S.W
I have always rooted for the underdog, drawn to the dark horse; sure things and odds on favorites need not apply…..My Dad would have said being a Dodger fan has taken its toll. And so it goes; when it comes to wines my preference also leans to the runner-up. I often pass on the popular choice and instead, opt for its viticulture next of kin. When Cabernet Sauvignon is what’s for dinner, trust I will be sipping Merlot.
Not to say dark brooding Cabernet isn’t tempting with its flirtatious undertones of blackberry, cassis, dark cherry and chocolate…..wait…..am I describing Merlot? Yes. In fact, on a palate chart Cabernet and Merlot are kissing cousins and easily confused. If you want to have some fun, (admittedly wine-geeky fun) invite a few friends for a blind-tasting featuring Cabernet and Merlot. Make certain the wines are of similar pedigree, bottles in the $25 to $45 price range offer worthy contenders. Castello di Amorosa’s 2006 and 2008 Merlot are two of my favorite wines produced by Brooks Painter and his Castello team. Put these beauties in the lineup and even in the presence of well-seasoned palates, I predict a dead heat; a 50/50 split. In tasting panels Merlot is said to possess a softness or a roundness not typically associated with Cabernet. Why then the ridicule for this benevolent cultivar, which is, in fact, the most widely planted grape in all of France!? (Sacre bleu). Truth be told, Merlot is prolific in many regions and quite possibly this is at the root of its undoing.
Merlot could wear the banner "Just Because You Can Grow Something Doesn’t Mean You Should" but we’ll cover geography in Part 2. This over-abundance and plenitude eventually lead to Merlot becoming the marketing darling of the 90’s. Finally a wine our thick American tongues could pronounce. (I wonder how many “peanut noyas” were ordered?) Restaurants eagerly filled their wine lockers with this fashionable red. However, this trend ran its course as the over-planted Merlot often bordered on insipid rather than inspiring and earned a “sideways” glance.
Seemingly overnight Merlot became ‘persona non grata’ in tasting rooms as an often quoted movie line rang through the wine country. Out went Merlot and in came the next grape of favor. (shh, don’t tell me chateau Petrus!)
Well, fear not Merlot loving readers! Merlot is back with a vengeance and it’s better than ever. Next I’ll cover a few regions that are cultivating this classic with new vigor and excitement.
Until then, go drink some Merlot!
Mary Davidek C. S., S.W.
Wine of the Week: Castello di Amorosa 2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay
This is a crowd-pleaser of a chardonnay. It has nice aromas of vanilla and toffee along with flavors of red apple, pear and spice, which will appeal to lovers of oak-influenced chardonnays. Yet the wine is not over-oaked. It is balanced with a freshness that allows fans of crisper white wines to appreciate it as well. With this chardonnay ($28), you won’t need to stress over which style to choose for your next dinner party.
Not only does Castello di Amorosa’s winemaker, Brooks Painter, continue to roll out beautiful wines, but the winery’s schedule is jam-packed with fun events. Next weekend there is the Ragin’ Cajun Party followed by a Midsummer Medieval Festival, and then Hot Havana Nights — among many others. It is likely you will find something intriguing!
You can read the full article in the Napa Valley Register here
In the last submission I covered the basics of getting your wine to the restaurant. Now, for the dedicated corkage seekers……..let’s continue.
Take care of the waitstaff. Many experienced servers see a bottle carried in and mark you as a diner who is…….well……thrifty. I prefer to call it savvy. And when addressing the monetary side of it, I usually MYOB but regarding BYOB; I can’t hold back. If service warrants a generous gratuity, include an additional percentage for the server to off-set their loss of a potential wine sale. I usually include an extra 5%. In a more intimate dining setting I offer the server, or chef, or other interested staff a small sample of the wine. If you frequent a particular restaurant, develop a rapport with your favorite server. A big bonus, many times the published corkage fee disappears.
When possible I patronize restaurants with lenient BYOB practices or those that do not charge corkage…..EVER! Be on the lookout for specials or promotions. One of our favorite Napa spots offers “No Corkage Mondays”. Some wineries have partnered with local restaurants who offer complimentary corkage if you bring in a bottle purchased at the referring winery. Castello di Amorosa has a list of at least 20 restaurants in the valley that are happy to open a bottle of Castle wine at no charge. And kudos to Restaurant Cuvée in Napa and Farmstead in St. Helena, CA; a small corkage fee is charged and donated to charity. Bravo!
Become active on sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor to give feedback and accolades. Wine forums are also a great place to turn. Check out WineSpectator.com, VinoCellar.com and RobertParker.com; you will find lively and well-informed participants as well as updated BYOB info.
As previously mentioned, there has never been a better time to dine out with wine as more restaurants and chefs are embracing BYOB diners. States that had prohibited BYOB in the past are now loosening laws and restrictions. Establishments that at one time discouraged corkage enthusiasts are now recognizing the valuable business this clientele provides.
Happy dining –
Mary Davidek C.S., C.S.W
BYOB = Bring Your Own Bottle
Corkage Fee = the fee charged to open and serve a bottle of wine not purchased at the dining establishment
Every restaurant has restrictions and specifications which are said to cover the cost of opening a bottle, providing stemware, and serving the wine. Realistically, a corkage fee is charged to cover lost revenue. I am unabashedly a self-professed BYOB junkie; a dedicated corkage hound ……and I go to extremes in my pursuit. Here are a few situations I have encountered and simple resolutions which may help in your quest.
1. Call the restaurant or check their website prior to your reservation as fees and restrictions vary. Some restaurants may impose a 1-bottle limit and others may have more tempting ways to capture your attention. A growing trend; restaurants charge a fee but will comp it one for one, for every bottle purchased. For example, restaurant “X” charged $25 corkage. I brought in a bottle of Castello di Amorosa Cabernet Sauvignon. From the restaurant wine list I selected a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc to enjoy with apps. I love a zippy Sauvignon Blanc with bruschetta and goat cheese on a warm baguette; sublime. The bottle I purchased was $28. That’s right, the corkage fee for my Castello di Amorosa bottle was waived. This is clearly a win-win. Typically I bring in a red and purchase a white from the list as even the grandest wine menu offers a tasty and affordable white wine.
2. A common and reasonable request; the bottle you bring in cannot be available for purchase on the existing wine list. To ensure your selection for carry-in is acceptable, browse the wine list on-line or request a fax or emailed copy prior to your planned visit. Here is my fool-proof solution. Bring in wine from a winery that does not distribute. This is becoming easier as more small and mid-sized wineries are opting for direct-to –consumer sales only. Castello di Amorosa wines have been a fixture on my restaurant outings for this very reason. Restaurant wine lists change weekly and this takes the guess work out of it.
3. Prepare your bottles. If you want a chilled bottle of bubbly with your Dungeness crab; chill it. If you are bringing a Napa Cab with a little age on it, stand it up for a few hours prior to leaving which allows sediment to collect at the bottom.
4. I have seen bottles transported in everything from a paper shopping tote to a plastic grocery bag. My advice; invest in a respectable wine carrier. From leather totes to canvas carrying bags to decorative wine boxes – your wine should travel in style.
Good news for us food and wine lovers, corkage and BYOB is becoming an accepted standard. Restaurant owners are adopting more favorable corkage policies as a marketing tool.
Stay tuned……Part 2 coming up.
Mary Davidek C. S. , C.S.W.
The first time I saw the man who would eventually become my husband I was dumb-struck (quite a confession those who know me will attest). Just my type; tall, dark (it was summer), and handsome. After a chat over a glass of vino (what else?), I made the fatal mistake of telling him I thought he was smarter than I was. I say fatal mistake as it is now 24 years later and he won’t let me forget that statement.
Our friends often tell us they have never met 2 people more suited for each other, meant to be together. Better together as 1 than separate as 2. Like peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, peas and carrots……it just works.
Perfect pairings certainly enhance and intensify and one thing which is singularly good, but with food and wine, perfect pairings take on a new meaning. If you have ever been on the Royal Pairing Tour at Castello di Amorosa you may have experienced a few of these perfect pairings. A rich pate’ with Castello’s award winning Il Passito comes to mind. Sommeliers agree this match is perfection. Popular wine writer Karen Macneil says “this luxurious pairing comes perilously close to maxing out the human tolerance for pleasure”. An endorsement like that certainly piques the imagination. But, must perfect pairings always be so lofty, and quite candidly, so costly to be perfect? Does perfection have a price? A rule of thumb, pair rich with rich and humble with humble. One of my affordable favorites, a simple roast chicken (any grocery store’s rotisserie is fine), and a bottle of Pinot Noir. The rustic flavors of a simple roast chicken, a loaf of crusty bread and the earthy tones of Pinot Noir are magical together. When selecting your pinot go for light and fruity bottlings from Sonoma. For my dollar Castello’s Los Carneros Pinot Noir is the perfect choice with a hit of clove balanced with bright fruit. This Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to perfect pairings, celebrate this dynamic duo with your honey. Light a couple of candles, put in your favorite music, pour a couple glasses of vino and relax.
Throughout the year, connect with your inner match-maker; go forth and discover new and exciting pairings.
And remember, perfection is in the eyes of the beholder……
Cheers and Happy Valentine’s Day
Mary Davidek C.S., C.S. W
Having a birthday on or near a holiday has its good and bad points. Obviously, friends and family gather to frolic and take part in festive merriment. Unfortunately, said merriment typically has little to do with the birthday and everything to do with the holiday. Me, I share my birthday with a Turkey. November 25th is always crammed with either celebration preparation or post-feast recovery. Every 7th year my birthday is THE day and the turkey proves a formidable rival; pumpkin pie with birthday candles does not have the allure of butter cream frosting with bright neon pink birthday wishes.
My mother was sensitive to this scheduling conflict, thus, when I was very young I was appeased with a trek to the toy store and carte blanche up to $25. In my teens, it was off to the movie theater with my friends for whatever movie was making its blockbuster holiday premier and a pizza sleep-over. As I grew up and eventually, out, we took on a new tradition. I was crowned the decision maker as to what to do with the turkey left-overs. Finally, the bird’s day in the spotlight was over, literally left-over.
A few of my favorites were fairly ordinary; Shepherd’s Pie, Turkey pot pie and Turkey noodle soup were regulars. As I got older, the requests were a bit more sophisticated. Turkey and sour cream enchiladas met with approval and when I requested Turkey Taquitos--that was a keeper.
However, one of my favorites was nothing inventive, creative or inspired by culinary vision. Regardless of my left-over request, turkey salad on mini cocktail bread made an annual appearance and truth be told, I would have forgotten about the other gastronomic explorations in favor of the plate of petite pleasers. As I came of age to share a bit of vino, a glass of bubbly or a fruity rose was included in the party.
I no longer compete with the bird, instead, we are allies. I happily share my birthday with the invited guest and relish the tasty treats it provides.
I thank the bird as left-over memories fill me with happiness.
Not only a great way to use the turkey, but with this salad you can toss in fennel, celery, apples, onion, or cranberries. The La Fantasia has bright berry notes and a slight effervescence; what a way to welcome the holiday season.
My first attempt at preparing Thanksgiving dinner sans mother was 1995, a rite of passage. This particular meal was not a small intimate dinner for myself and my husband, this feast included 2 harsh scrutinizing critics; my step children.
We rented a cabin near Lake Tahoe as we thought it would be the ideal setting for a mountain holiday. The prospect of a Turkey day snowfall and a warm fire seemed perfection. Unfortunately, my mother hurt her leg 3 days before the trip which left more than travel arrangements to rearrange, she was chef de cuisine!
Finally, Thanksgiving Day arrived which meant the inevitable trip to the grocery store, but first, a phone call to Mom. Amidst tears (mine), frantic note taking (me), and some tricks (hers) I was set to create a yummy meal. With list in hand, including the deal-breakers (nothing with carrots, nuts, or mushrooms for Mikaela and for Philip; no peas, cauliflower, or squash). *sigh*… off to the market.
I bought more than was necessary but I was in no position to make last minute shopping trips, this was a one-time performance. Turkey breast; check. Wine; got it. Yams, mashed potatoes; easy. Wine; yes again. Gravy; not too difficult. Biscuits, the kids love little crescent rolls. Pie and whipped cream, double check. Wine; yes, will need a 3rd bottle. But (cue Jaws theme) what about stuffing! The very stuff of which Thanksgiving can be made or broken. I got the stuff on everything but the stuffing! And my Mother‘s stuffing was the benchmark, the Alpha, the Omega of stuffing. Turkeys were honored to be served with this stuffing. How could I have forgotten such a fundamental Thanksgiving Day dish? After all, I had watched her make stuffing for almost 30 years! That’s 30 Thanksgiving dinners! Wait…um….er…..yes. Ok, thanks Mom, I got this.
We sat cross-legged at the coffee table in the middle of a cozy living room, a fire was crackling and the snow was falling. Thanksgiving dinner 1995 garnered rave reviews, the critics were delighted and the stuffing was just right.
Some very traditional ingredients plus a few additions; cornbread stuffing mix, broth, butter, salt, pepper, sweet onion, apple, fennel , dried cranberries, salt, pepper, grape seed oil, and sausage. Lean turkey or chicken sausage is usually my preference, but for stuffing, I want the extra richness of pork sausage.
Sauté onion, fennel and apple in grape seed oil. Grape seed oil brings complex fruitiness and is great for sauté. If available, use fennel instead of celery, it has a sweetness that compliments the onion and tart apple. This sauté has incredible aromatics.
I prefer cornbread but any stuffing mix will work. Add dried cranberries for a splash of color and a hint of acidity. Mix with browned sausage and sautéed veggies. Add melted butter and broth per instructions increasing broth amount by 1/5th. Bake at 350 for approximately 40 minutes, remove foil and bake an additional 5 to 10 minutes.
Pinot Noir and Thanksgiving is a given at my table but with the abundance of savories it is hard to decide on a style of Pinot most suited for the big feast. Castello di Amorosa 2011 Los Carneros Pinot Noir is on the lighter side of the Pinot Noir spectrum, perfect for turkey and all the trimmings. Seductive notes of mulled spice on the nose and a mouthful of bright fruit, this will complement the entire spectrum of Turkey day dishes. To make this Pinot pop, serve at 62 to 65 degrees.
My inaugural blog is inspired by the season (harvest, Thanksgiving) as well as a pivotal election year. Lately, I have found myself churning with thoughts of presidents, Thanksgiving feasts and, of course, wine. For some inexplicable reason this combined into one seemingly implausible package when suddenly an image of Thomas Jefferson became etched in my mind. After a little cyber-searching clarity was resumed; apparently, for me, nothing says ‘Thanksgiving’ like Thomas Jefferson, Brussels sprouts, and wine!
Although the exact origins of Brussels sprouts are not known, Thomas Jefferson is credited with introducing these curious plants to the United States and they were planted at Monticello, his Virginia home. Jefferson loved wine and became one of the world’s most quoted wine connoisseurs. He said ‘wine is a necessity of life’. Well, along with great wine our nation’s 3rd president also had quite an appetite for interesting food and was known for his sophisticated palate. Jefferson frequently hosted lively dinner parties and would often tantalize and intrigue his guests with new delicacies and served delicious wine and unusual foods to promote stimulating conversation. I can only imagine the questioning glance of an inquisitive guest as a platter of odd mini- cabbages were set upon the table and unexpectedly found them to be deliciously savory little vegetables.
With mouthwatering dishes, wine flowing, animated discussions and laughter filling the air……….I then pictured a pleased Thomas Jefferson, content and giving thanks.
Shucked Brussels Sprout leaves Sautéed with shallots and pine nuts
(Aka How to Convert Brussels Sprout Haters into Brussels Sprout Lovers!)
Brussels sprouts are a cruciferous vegetable as are cabbage, broccoli, and kale. They contain healthy amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, folic acid and dietary fiber and are believed to protect against certain cancers.
It takes a bit time but it is oddly therapeutic. Once shucked from the core, the green leaves of the sprout don’t have a bitter tang. 1 pound of Brussels sprouts shucked leaves serves 4.
Sea salt, pepper (white or black), butter, pine nuts, shucked leaves, shallots, chicken stock
Lightly sauté pine nuts and shallots in 1TBSP butter and sprinkle w/ salt. Remove from heat.
Sautee sprout leaves in 1 TBSP butter and season w/ salt and pepper. Add 2 to 5 ounces chicken stock as a light braising liquid. Boiling sprouts results in significant loss of nutrients but sautéing or roasting does not. Add pine nut and shallot mixture once the sprouts begin to cook down.
Although veggies are not typically wine-friendly, the butter and pine nuts make this a match for Chardonnay. Castello di Amorosa’s Reserve Chardonnay offers just the right touch of juicy pear and stone fruits balanced with a texture of creamy nutty tones that compliments the richness of this dish.
For extra goodness, sprinkle with grated parm.