Monday, December 29, 2014

Sideways Revisited

How many of you are like me? When someone mentions the year 2004, you think it really wasn’t that long ago.  It is in the 2000s, so it can’t be that long. 

Wait? What?!  Ten years?  It has been an entire DECADE since 2004 and the movie Sideways hit theaters and televisions (and Merlot’s bottom line).  It doesn’t seem possible.  And yet, it doesn’t seem like that far away.  Ten years…that isn’t that long, right?  I watched Sideways again this past week, just to gauge how long a decade really is in wine years.

When I watched Sideways for the first time, I was just at the beginning of my wine journey.  I was drinking wine exclusively, and had been for some time, mostly because I never could stomach beer or hard liquor (except a great margarita on the rocks with salt; that I still enjoy). 

I started by drinking wine coolers.  Sun Country wine coolers in the two-liter bottle still make me smile because of the fond times I may or may not remember.  Of course, I did some Bartles and James in there, too.  Then by my mid-to-late twenties I had moved to sweet wines, then German whites, following a very typical wine palate evolution.  I had just turned thirty when I watched the movie, and was a mom with two young children at home, so to even watch an adult movie meant I was staying up late on a weekend after the kids had went to bed. 

            My first and lasting response to the movie was not wine related (as I am sure is true for many).  I just could not get over what a TERRIBLE person the character Jack was!  What a creep.  I was a bit annoyed with Miles’ character.  All of his sniveling and whining got in the way of me enjoying his wining through the Santa Ynez Valley.  Keep in mind, this was before I had been to California to visit or had been to any wine country, for that matter.  It was before I fell in love with Pinot Noir myself.  And it was before I turned forty.

            When I rewatched the movie, my first impression was still what a complete and total jackass (excuse my French, but the wordplay is intended) Jack was.  A decade of life experience had still not softened me to a man using a woman, any woman, as his self-esteem booster.  I also was a little less patient with Miles.  I found him more than just a bit annoying.  I was sorry he wasn’t more of a grab-life-by-the-horns type of forty-something…without the sexual promiscuity of Jack. 

            However, what did resound more with me was Miles’ love of Pinot Noir.  Though I don’t degrade Merlot as he did, his speech on the Pinot grape was not only true and beautiful, it was symbolic of life…a symbol, which as a fellow English teacher, he should have been able to apply to his own life (which I think, by the end, he did).  I loved the sniffing and swirling.  I actually understood the wine terms he used.  And I knew the areas Miles and Jack visited and discussed. 
  • "It's a hard grape to grow. As you know. Right? It's, uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it's neglected. No, pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And, in fact, it can only grow in these really specific, little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression."

            Don’t let being annoyed with one character and totally disgusted by another make you think I didn’t enjoy the movie.  A strong response to films like that usually means I was very engaged in the storyline, which was the case here.  Plus, if I am to speak completely honestly, when Miles goes to grab Jack’s wallet from the frightening sex-capade scene between waitress Cammi and her white-trash husband, I was cheering for Miles.  I wanted him to overcome something in his life…anything!  I was so happy that he did.  (And of course, very pleased when his love life appeared to turn around at the end of the movie.)  My overall review of the movie was positive, more so the second time around.  Anyone who loves wine and complicated characters will appreciate this film. 

            So, is a decade a long time?  The answer is yes!  Though 2004 doesn’t seem like it should be that distant in the past, it is.  Though the movie stayed the same, my life experiences and wine experiences have changed me so much that my response to the movie changed also.  From a novice wine drinker with two young children at home ten years ago to a formally educated wine lover six months away from an empty nest today, my reaction to Miles and Jack was very similar; however, my reaction to the wine and wine country was very different.  Time changes people…and wine.   I look forward to watching Miles and Jack again in another decade to see what I think of them and their juice.  But, good Lord, I will be FIFTY then!  Yes, time does fly.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Like Oil and...Vita Sana Olive Oil Company

Everyone’s heard the saying of two substances not going together, you know, like oil and water.  Well, I’ll tell you what oil does go with—good olive oil, anyway—and that is EVERYTHING!  Olive oil use is booming in the United States, not only for cooking, but for infusing, dipping, and dressing as well.  This boom has spawned a growing (what I call) designer olive oil industry.  In other words, specialty shops are popping up all over selling high quality and unique olive oils and balsamic vinegars.  I love this trend.  Love. It!  So I was in a bit of olive oil heaven when I visited Vita Sana Olive Oil Company on St. Joe Street in Rapid.

Olive oils and vinegars lining the modern store.

Vita Sana is in Rapid City, South Dakota, but don't miss its parent shop in Casper, Wyoming!
Vita Sana was open and inviting from the moment we stepped in the door.  Its walls were lined with high quality olive oils on one side and delicious balsamic vinegars on the other side.   Tasting was encouraged of all products—my favorite part.  Tasting cups were provided, and a small bit of oil or vinegar was put in each cup.  My comrades and I were instructed to rub the cups with oil on the palms of our hands to warm them a bit, then smell and swallow just like wine.  The balsamics didn’t need warmed up, but I found myself swirling them before smelling as well.

Store manager Rhonda showing us how this tasting is done.

I have infused my own olive oils in the past, and the “plain” olive oils here would be great for use alone or for infusing.  However, my favorite part of the experience was looking at the different options of already-infused oils for sale.  Some of these flavors I would never have thought to put together; many were old standbys, but all were so tasty.  Take blood orange for example.  I would never have thought to infuse oil with this fruit, but it was one of my favorites!  Of course, other flavors like Herbs de Provence and White Truffle were oils I loved and wanted to begin using right away.  On the other hand, I must not get so caught up in flavored options that I forget about the quality of the oils themselves.  During this time of year, the oils for sale originated in the southern hemisphere, from countries like Peru and Chile.  This is because of the harvest seasons there.  After the northern hemisphere harvested this fall, oils from Europe and Texas will be in the store by summer, making sure that the freshest oils are always available for customers.  There are many different styles and even organic options from which to choose, no matter what time of year it may be. 

Tasting the oils and vinegars...they mix WELL!

My comrade showing proper olive oil tasting technique.
As interested as I was in the oils, the balsamics had me even more enthralled!  I have long loved a well-aged balsamic, and these did not disappoint.   There was even a twenty-year aged traditional vinegar.  The infusion flavors were also impressive for the dark vinegars:  black cherry, jalapeño, and dark espresso were just a few.  But again, you know me, I love what’s even more unique and unusual, so I was drawn to the white balsamics like the cranberry pear and other fruity essences. 

Though oil and water may not mix, a pairing not to be missed is oil and vinegar…and I mean good olive oils and good balsamic vinegars!  The increase in popularity of both of these products has made it easier for consumers everywhere to get the best of both.  It’s a trend I hope stays and becomes common place.  Vita Sana Olive Oil Company in Rapid City (with its parent store in Casper, Wyoming) has embraced this movement and offers the best in both oils and vinegars for dipping, dressing, and infusing.  Stop in to do a tasting today.  Mix oil with your vinegar soon!

Though olive oils and vinegars are the star of Vita Sana's show...
The designer cheese case is also a supporting cast member that shouldn't be missed.

How to use your oils and vinegars:

Red, Orange, and Blue Salad

Hearts of romaine lettuce—3 cups
Blue cheese crumbles—1/4 cup
Golden raisins—1/4 cup
Honey roasted almond slices—2 tbsp.
Grilled or roasted chicken breast—2 oz.

Blood orange olive oil—2 tsp.
Cranberry orange white balsamic—3 tsp.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Indepdendent's Day--Independent Ale House

The traditional definition of an ale house is a place where ale is sold and served or another name for a tavern or pub. Though Rapid City’s Independent Ale House fits this definition, it is definitely not just another tavern or pub. It is a unique environment, from food to drink, and a great place for all to enjoy.

Just one example of the unique and fun atmosphere.

Excited to enter the Independent Ale House.

Warm and modern surroundings. 

Some friends and I had the opportunity to stop at the Independent Ale House on a recent chilly afternoon. The atmosphere was warm and inviting as we entered and slowly made our way through the beer menu. It is no wonder it took us a while to read the beer options: there are 145 choices of bottles and 40 choices on tap. To say there is a brew here for everyone would be an understatement! There are the “usual suspects” (as the Ale House’s web site puts it) of beers like Bud Light and Coors Light. However, those who love unique and unusual beers are covered with pilsners, ales, stouts, lagers, bocks, and IPAs from around the world, primarily from small, independent producers (hence the name, “Independent” Ale House). There are even gluten-free options! The forty choices on tap are always rotating, so new selections are available, even for the frequent Indy guest.   

Feature board.

Beer board for the constantly rotating forty beers on tap.
 Of course, everyone knows beer and pizza are a natural pairing, and the Independent Ale House has this area covered as well. Fresh, hand-made pizzas are made to order with special options like Buffalo Chicken Pizza (with Buffalo wing sauce, chicken, and blue cheese) to daily menu options like Pizza Bianca (with alfredo sauce) and Three Little Pigs (with pepperoni, sausage, and bacon). These are just a few of the options that had the entire establishment smelling of mouth-watering garlic and cheese as we entered the building.


Now, most know beer is not my first choice. However, wine drinkers like me still have some excellent options at Indy. Though the list isn’t as extensive as the beer menu, it carries both by-the-glass and by-the-bottle selections, starting with a house red and a house white. Other whites include many varietals ranging from Sauvignon Blanc to Chardonnay. There are even multiple sparkling and sake choices.  For reds, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and (my personal favorite) Pinot Noir begin the menu. Indy’s best night for wine drinkers would be Monday, when half-price wine is the special. During daily happy hour, dollar discounts are given on wine (and beer too).  

Of course, I went with an Oregon Pinot Noir!

 Yes, the Independent Ale House on St. Joe Street in downtown Rapid City fits the traditional definition of an ale house—it is a pub—but this definition does not go far enough to detail the food and drink opportunities offered here. Indy should be any beer lover’s choice for unique, quality beers, with almost 200 from which to choose. Plan to stay for a glass of wine or a house-made pizza. Independent-minded drinkers will be happy they did!

The place to go for the independent thinkers and drinkers--Independent Ale House.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

More Sweet Than Bitter--Bitter Esters Brewery

            Yesterday, on a beautiful Black Hills fall afternoon, my family and I entered Bitter Esters Brewhouse in Custer, South Dakota and found a bustling crowd filling the quaint and comfy brewpub.  I realized that like myself, many in the area had been hearing about the quality beer and food Landon Swanson was producing at Bitter Esters and stopped to find out firsthand.  None of us were disappointed.

            Bitter Esters opened on Main Street Custer almost four years ago.  Swanson, who has a master’s degree in biology and was a wildlife biologist in his life before beer, started on his quest to be a brewer by working at the Wild Sage Grille, a restaurant in Sioux Falls, SD.  The owner of Wild Sage also ran the Sage Creek Grille in Custer, and Landon traveled to Custer to operate the restaurant for several seasons.  Over three years ago, the team from Wild Sage and Sage Creek opened Bitter Esters.  The brewery was only opened seasonally in the beginning as its popularity grew.  It is now opened all year, with limited hours and days in the off-season. 

            Landon Swanson is almost a one man show—with background help in the kitchen.  He greeted us, took our orders, delivered our drinks, and brought our food.  Thankfully, he has wonderful chefs in the kitchen making the unique pub fare, or Landon would really have been busy!  The food menu is unique pub-style food.  The usual suspects, like grilled burgers and pulled pork sandwiches, are available to order, but there are also some distinctive options that aren’t found in your average bar.  The baked potato nachos with kettle cooked potato chips, sour cream, bacon bits, and chives were delightful.  Even better—and more original in a pub—were the Drunken Mussels made with the house ale, served with bread for dipping.  So, so good!
Good food in a great environment.
          Swanson considers Bitter Esters an ale house, as he produces more English style ales than anything else.  However, the number of beers available spans from stouts to ales to India pale ales.  At any time, there is up to seven original Bitter Esters brews on tap.  Landon likes to always have one guest tap option and up to 38 beers from other brewers for purchase.  In the summer, when the tourist population really keeps Bitter Esters busy, there may only be three original brews available.  However, in the winter months, when tourist traffic is much slower, there are more Bitter Esters beers from which to choose.  This is because Bitter Esters is just a two barrel brew house, and for now, Landon likes this size and thinks it will stay this way.   
The seven Bitter Esters brews on tap.


Build your own beer flight...have one of each.
            The Red Medicine Brown Ale (“malty brown ale with hints of cocoa”) and the Grace Anne Stout (“dark and delicious”) are always on the menu.  The other taps rotate between a larger number of beer recipes Swanson produces.  Since it is a beautiful fall, the Autumn Spice Saison is a natural fit as a seasonal option on the menu.  Other beers included the Padfoot Hula Farmhouse Ale (the “sendoff to summer…a Hawaiian dance in a glass”), the It’s All Mine!!! All Day Every Day Ale (“roasty British themed Amerbish Ale"), and the Ne’er Do Well Coffee Ale (“surprisingly light”).  My hubby got his favorite style, the Testy Tourist Imperial IPA (with four times the hops of the pale ale).  Landon also has plans for some distinctive beers this spring.  He has several brews aging in whiskey and wine barrels that will be ready after this long Black Hills winter. 
Many original qualities in this brew house, from the food to the growers... the sense of humor of Swanson and staff!  Myspace...haha!
            Bitter Esters was definitely a sweet stop to make on an absolutely fabulous fall day.  The number of people in the brew house on a late afternoon in the off-season is proof of the quality food, drink, and reputation Landon Swanson has built in the nearly four years Bitter Esters has been opened.  Stop in for a bite and a sip as soon as you can, no matter what the weather!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

From Laughing to Learning--Coffee!

The only thing I like better than a good wine meme is a good coffee meme.  If the two are mixed together, it is the Holy Grail of memes as far as I’m concerned.  The best chuckles ever.  I basically feel the same way about my day.  If I get to enjoy both a great mug of coffee and a fabulous glass of wine over the course of the time I’m awake, I consider the day a total success.  This love of coffee has led me to purchase a French press coffee pot, a milk frother, special flavorings, a bean grinder, and multiple cool coffee cups.  However, it wasn’t until this last weekend that it led me to actually learn more about coffee on a formal level.  Enter, the Sweet Sommelier’s first coffee cupping!

Though a coffee “tasting” is actually called a “cupping,” there are many comparisons between a coffee cupping and a wine tasting.  Like a wine tasting, I started by learning some basic information about the beverage.  This information was so interesting and showed that coffee is similar to wine in many ways.  First, coffee has two major species of plants from which coffee “cherries” are harvested.  Second, like grapes for wine, the coffee tree usually has five years from initial planting until harvesting of coffee cherries to make into coffee beans.  Next, there are different processes used to get the coffee cherries hulled to reveal the bean inside.  Finally, and possibly the most interesting likeness, is that both are agricultural products which require very specific climates only found in certain parts of the world.  I really had never thought about the climate zones for growing coffee, but I found it so fascinating that coffee-growing areas have a ring around the globe like traditional grape-growing areas. 
The brown areas are actual coffee beans marking the areas coffee beans are grown throughout the world.

After this new information, the class started the process of smelling and tasting the coffee.  Though this is an unofficial procedure, it resembles the five S’s of wine tasting.  First, the coffee beans were smelled whole and then ground for characteristics like sweet, spicy, nutty, and roasty.  Next, hot water is poured over the ground beans and allowed to steep four minutes.  During this time, a “crust” of grounds forms on the top.  After four minutes, this crust must carefully be removed while the coffee lover is smelling the aromas coming from the brewed coffee. 

Whole coffee beans and ground beans waiting to be sniffed.

After all of this smelling, it is time for the actual tasting.  Much like when tasting wine, the coffee needs to coat the entire tongue for all flavors to be tasted.  Also, slurping is a good sign, not an indicator of poor manners, so slurp away on the first coffee, noting acidity, body, flavor, depth, and finish.  Terms like nippy, smooth, tart, delicate, fruity, buttery, woody, grassy, and spicy are used throughout these steps.  Yes, those terms sound so familiar to wine lovers!  This entire method is repeated on the other coffee samples, with coffee cuppers deciding if they would like to swallow the coffee or spit it to not consume as much caffeine.  More and more similarities to wine show up from the beginning to the end of this fun cupping. 
Instructor Mary and her helper pouring the hot water for our coffee to steep.
Waiting for the grounds of the coffee to form a "crust" on the top of the cup.

Coffee and wine are fabulous beverages, proven with the fact that so many memes show up on the internet and social media outlets about them both.  However, for me, both are worth more than just a good laugh.  Sipping each has always delighted me.  Learning about wine has fascinated me for quite some time.  It wasn’t until just recently that I realized knowledge about coffee was not only just as interesting as knowledge about wine, but it is also incredibly similar to wine in ways it is grown, processed, and sipped.  Coffee and wine…beverages about which to laugh, love, and learn!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Legends of the Fall--Harvest in South Dakota

Though for many the first frost of fall brings to mind seasonal colors, football season, and thicker sweaters, what it really brings to mind for winemakers and grape growers is one thing only:  hard work!  I’m always fascinated when the romantic idea of the gorgeous bottle of wine that magically appears at an important event turns into the harsh reality—making wine is dirty, intense work that often goes on for days and weeks before much of a break is given to the winemaker.  Though this truth is happening in every vineyard and winery in the northern hemisphere right now, I got to experience just one small part of it this weekend, harvest at Old Folsom Vineyards outside of Rapid City, South Dakota.
Vines at Old Folsom Vineyards.

            Harvests in South Dakota and other portions of the Midwest are vastly different than most California harvests. While California enologists are worried about the brix (sugar content) of grapes and often must harvest before this number gets too high when the grapes might be considered too ripe, horticulturists in areas like South Dakota and Wyoming have a whole other worry…will the grapes get ripe enough?  This was the question last week as an early hard frost descended on the Black Hills, causing temps to plummet to below freezing.  Though grapes can survive this temperature for a short time, the vines can not.  They begin to shut down, and the grapes need to be picked soon. 

            On September 11, a day known for more patriotic reasons, Mike Gould of Old Folsom Vineyards was checking the weather for more pragmatic purposes.  He needed to gauge the upcoming nights’ temps and make a decision of when to pick the grapes of his 1800 vines on his five-acre plot.  The answer was simple:  as soon as possible. 

            He spread the word and gathered friends, neighbors, and acquaintances to create picking crews for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  Over the course of the three days, almost 7,000 pounds of grapes were harvested.  Mike started with Frontenac Gris, La Crescent, and Brianna and then moved on to his Frontenac and Marquette grapes.  He also grows Petite Pearl grapes, although these vines are still too young to harvest fruit.
Rows of Marquette vines with the bird net still in place.
Beautiful Marquette grapes just waiting to be picked.
            The first step in the process was to remove the bird netting that went over the vines in early August.  Though tall fencing surrounds the vineyard to keep the deer from completing their own harvest, the birds just fly in at will.  A few still found their way in and under the net, but most were kept at bay and the product safe.  After crawling around on hands and knees to remove the clips holding the netting in place, all were given a cutting tool, a bin, and a bucket (on which to sit).  Old Folsom’s vines are trellised low, so sitting on the five-gallon bucket is actually the perfect height to pick.  The actual act of picking was very simple, and as grapes were dropped into bins, workers moved through the rows to dump the full tubs into larger vessels so the smaller tub could be refilled once more.  Then repeat…and repeat…and repeat…

Your Sweet Sommelier, picking and picking and picking...

My through the grapevine picking partner Annette, also picking and picking and picking...

            I only picked on the third and final day, and the grapes still looked great.  However, the vines themselves were beginning to whither from the earlier cold spell.  The leaves were wilting and dying, a sure sign that the choice to pick these particular days was a good one.  Any more time on the vine and the grapes may have started to shrivel, affecting the sugar or acid content, thus affecting the wine.  Instead, the grapes went to the winery, where they were cold soaked—a process to extract flavor and color from the grapes—waiting for the next step in the fermentation process.
The leaves began wilting from the below-freezing temperatures just days before.

After seven straight hours of work—okay, there was one short break for lunch—I drove home full of the wonder of wine.  The reminder that wine is ultimately an agricultural product doesn’t surprise me, but it is often at odds with the sophisticated image that so many have of wine.  Not that agriculture isn’t sophisticated; it is just darn hard work!  Understanding the amount of work that goes in to each bottle only makes me appreciate wine—and winemakers—even more.  Harvest in the fall is just another step in the long road a grape takes from a small bud on a vine to large sip from a glass.  Enjoy the end product, but remember all the hard work that it takes to go from ground to glass. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

If You Build It They Will Eat…and Drink--The Wine Cellar Restaurant

          I like wine.  That probably goes without saying, since I’m a sommelier.  However, I also like food.  A lot.  More than a lot.  And generally not just any food.  Good food.  Really good food!  So naturally, I love wine and food together.  And I love making these special meals an event with my friends—friends who, for the record, also love food and wine. 

When these wine-and-food-loving friends and I were looking for a great wine dinner to attend, we ended our search and just built our own…a Build Your Own Wine Dinner, so to speak.   The first restaurant I thought to contact about this BYOWD was the Wine Cellar in Rapid.  I knew its regular menu, which changes twice a year with the seasons, is always a special treat.  Plus, Pamela Light, Wine Cellar’s owner and executive chef, also creates weekly features that her head chef, Christopher McConnell, brings to life on customers’ plates.  The wine list is also ever-evolving with great selections from around the world.  This was the perfect place for me to browse the menus and pair items with wines from the list. 
The cozy and chic ambiance of The Wine Cellar.

The first difficult step was to narrow down the items from the menu; my mouth was already watering.  For the first course, the beef tenderloin tacos, herb roasted potatoes, stacked caprese, and artisan cheese plate all piqued my interest.  Then for the main course, there were so many choices!  The classic chicken pastry sounded delish.  But what about the house-made mushroom lasagna or the champagne risotto with scallops?  Both of which I personally knew were topnotch.  Don’t even get me started on dessert.  All house made (as is everything served in the restaurant—the only item not made there is the mustard) sweets from cheesecake to sorbet made it difficult to only choose one.  The decisions were going to be tough.

Course One—Pesto and artichoke thin crust pizza paired with Chateau Mayne Pargade white Bordeaux:  the thin crust, European style pizza with fresh basil pesto was divine.  The rich pesto and cheese blend on the pizza were great contrasting pairings with the Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend in the wine.  This was a tasty and refreshing pairing to start our meal.
Course one:  artichoke pesto pizza with white Bordeaux

Course Two—Chef’s special filet served atop a red-wine risotto with blue cheese crumbles paired with Point North Oregon Pinot Noir from Sean Minor Wines:  Oh.  My.  Gosh!  I knew that the Wine Cellar’s Champagne risotto was amazing, but this risotto, created with wine and blue cheese, was over-the-top!  The filet was prepared perfectly.  And the pairing with an earthy and fruity Oregon Pinot was flawless.

Course Three—House-made vanilla bean ice cream with cabernet hot fudge sauce paired with Croze Port.  This was a very special, yet lighter, dessert.  The fact that the ice cream and sauce were both house made is impressive.  The pairing with the port was spot-on, and even my fellow diners who are still building a palate to properly appreciate port enjoyed the course.
Dessert course:  house-made vanilla bean ice cream with cabernet fudge sauce and port.

If you love wine and food, don’t wait for a formal wine dinner…build one yourself!  Contact a great restaurant (like the Wine Cellar) and a sommelier (like me) to help you out if needed, but great wine and food should not be put off because of lack of opportunity.  If you build it, your friends will eat…and drink…well!  BYOWD soon.
Build Your Own Wine Dinner!
My initial blog post about The Wine Cellar can be enjoyed here.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Dream Come True--Belle Joli Winery

         Three years ago, Matthew and Choi Jackson bought a plot of land on the outskirts of Sturgis, South Dakota.  Their goal?  To move a step forward in the fulfillment of a dream.  However, this dream had actually been a work in progress for over a decade, from the time the first grape vines were planted on a small half-acre plot inside Belle Fourche city limits in 2000.  To say a dream is coming true for the entire Jackson family as they celebrate the grand opening of their sparkling house and wine tasting room off Exit 32 this weekend is more than an understatement!

            After the initial purchase of the land, the area was then annexed into Sturgis city limits, and the process of getting water and sewer to the site was the first hurdle to overcome.  Last fall, ground was finally broken and construction commenced on a modern tasting room and wine-making facility that would house the equipment to make the Black Hills’ first sparkling wines produced in the traditional method—the same method used to make world famous Champagne wines in France.  Of course, nothing can go as smoothly as planned, and a Black Hills winter that saw the initial blizzard of the year the first week of October and the last snowflakes in May slowed down construction by several months.  Finally, on the Friday of opening weekend for the seventy-fourth Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Belle Joli’s sparkling house and tasting room opened its doors. 
The modern front entrance welcomes visitors.
Sparkling house, producing the first traditional method sparkling wines in the Black Hills.
            In addition to the new facility, Belle Joli has been in the process of a facelift to its labels as well.  A new logo that will be consistent on all wine bottles was introduced; all labels now feature the two trees that stand out front of Belle Joli’s Sturgis location.  Wines are also being labeled by varietal names instead of a unique brand name.  For instance, the Riesling (with a small blend of Edelweiss) was called La Lure.  Now it will simply labeled Riesling, making it easier for consumers to know what they are drinking.  The same is true for the Chenin Blanc (formerly Dakota Breeze) and Cabernet Sauvignon (formerly St. Cab).  More modern-style coloring of the labels and logos also adds to the updated look of Belle Joli ushered in with the opening of the new tasting room.  Yet one more change is the planting of grapes out front of the Sturgis site; these grapes should be ready for harvest and wine making in under five years.
The Belle Joli tasting lineup.  New and old labels on display.

            Even with all of these changes, some things must stay the same.  The majority of Belle Joli’s grapes are still sourced from South Dakota, either from their current vineyards in Belle Fourche and just outside of town or another grower in Spearfish.  Matthew still produces three dessert fruit wines:  cherry, pear, and peach.  The Deadwood tasting room is also still open on Main Street Deadwood for tasting of all the wines Belle Joli produces.  Finally, the most important consistency, is the likelihood of seeing any member of the Jackson family at one of the tasting rooms, smiling and inviting customers to enjoy wine.  Mathew’s parents, Patty and John, have been an integral part of the winemaking business and have worked hard to help Choi and Matthew accomplish this tasting room goal.

The beautiful patio with the rolling hills in the distance.

            So, pick up a glass of Belle Joli bubbly—either the Brut Vintage (made from Washington State Riesling grapes) or the Brut Estate Reserve (made from Belle Joli’s La Crescent grapes)—to toast to the fact that dreams do come true!  It may take a lot of time and patience, but Matthew and Choi have proven that good things do come to those who wait…and work…and work some more. 

Grand opening events this weekend at Belle Joli: 
            Friday, August 15, 4:00 p.m.—Ribbon Cutting
            Saturday, August 16, 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Public Open House
            Sunday, August 17, 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Wine Club Member Party

Read about Belle Joli's harvest and hard work here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Nectar of the Gods...Literally--Chubby Chipmunk Chocolates

Some of my favorite wines are made by small producers—people who see the process of making wine as an art.  These producers want to make a unique product that truly shows the soul of a wine.  They want to “listen” to what the grapes are trying to communicate and show a true sense of place where the grapes were grown.  However, this same philosophy can be applied by many artisanal producers.  Mary Tautkus—better known as Chip—of Chubby Chipmunk Chocolates in Deadwood, South Dakota shares this same philosophy.  Though she is a chocolatier, she is searching for the soul in her product, so it can make her customers’ souls happier.

Chip has very early memories of enjoying to cook, and she fell in love with chocolate from the time her grandma gave her a Hershey bar when she was maybe four.  After working as a registered nurse, Chip opened a Chubby Chipmunk bakery and chocolate shop in California for a year, where she and her husband lived at the time.  Chip’s husband dreamed of retiring in the Black Hills, and when he retired, Chip’s dream of being a chocolatier was set into full motion when she took over the old Sinclair gas station on the edge of Deadwood and turned it into her one-woman chocolate shop.   
  Chubby Chipmunk's mascot, Miss Chubby, in front of the former Sinclair station turned chocolate shop.
The Chub-o-Matic chocolate vending machine, so customers can get their chocolate fix 24/7!
When making her sweet creations, Chip always “leads with her heart over her head” to determine recipes.  Over the course of the past ten years, she has received many accolades from different sources, such as Rachel Ray’s Every Day Magazine and the Grammy awards.  This professional acknowledgment has led to big-time offers from such companies as Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart, and Macy’s.  However, Chip has always felt as if she needed to say no to these options.  She wanted to stay small and steer away from large corporate ventures:  “It’s not about making the money, but about making something so good.” 

More than truffles here--also caramel patties and Fortunato No. 4 chocolate bars.

In this frame of mind, Chip likes to “read” the different kinds of chocolate she uses to determine what production techniques to incorporate.  Just as when a winemaker takes into account different varieties of grapes and vintages of growth, Chip says different chocolates have different temperatures at which they temper—a technique where the chocolate is warmed and cooled to achieve its silky, shiny texture.  Her philosophy is “don’t get cocky” with the chocolate, because that is what leads to a poor finished product.  This attitude of respect and reverence for her creations is especially evident when she is working with the rare Fortunato No. 4 chocolate from Peru. 

As with so many parts of her career as a chocolatier, events just seemed to fall into place for Chip to harvest and use this special delicacy.  Chip read an article in a trade magazine about Fortunato No. 4.  She then contacted the magazine, who passed her message on.  The next thing Chip realized, she had been invited to Peru and was harvesting this chocolate—which is considered a national treasure and guarded by armed men—with a stick, just like the ancient Aztecs did hundreds and hundreds of years ago. The beans are then roasted and conched, a process that grinds the beans so fine a liquid is formed, using the same methods from the 1800s. After she returned home and was working with the Fortunato No. 4 in her own kitchen at Chubby Chipmunk, she pictured the Aztec gods watching over her, nodding their heads in agreement with what she was doing with their chocolate. 

After a second trip to harvest Fortunato this coming March, Chip will have the additional special privilege of using the first crop of the initial Fortunato No. 4 chocolate; this is chocolate so rare, she will be the only one in the world selling it.  In so many ways, Fortunato is unlike any chocolate Chip has worked with before.  It has a unique flavor and changes with age, just like wine.  Chip equates the discovery and use of this ancient chocolate to finding a rare grape all the world’s wine lovers thought was extinct.   Her relationship to and her feelings for this chocolate are hard to describe, but Chip explains it best when she says it’s all just been “meant to be.”
 White chocolate creations.
 Dark chocolate creations.
Milk chocolate creations.

Chip has many meant-to-be stories like this.  From her meeting and on-stage seats to TWO different Gary Allen concerts—her favorite performer—to her carved mascot, Miss Chubby, the events that have happened for Chip because of chocolate have been amazing, and they are equally as amazing to listen to because she is an incredible story teller.  Chip feels so fortunate where her business has taken her and itself.  Today she employs up to fifteen people, depending on the time of year and the events happening.  Though she has chosen to stay a small artisanal venture, she tries to make up for the lack of large corporate benefits to her employees by paying competitive wages and giving frequent raises.  Her appreciation for her employees and customers is evident the instant one is greeted in the shop by Chip or a smiling Chipmunk representative…along with the divine smell of wonderful chocolate!  Chip has a huge heart and soul, and she works every day to show this through her work, her business, her workers, and her product.

Small producers who seek the soul of a wine during the production process are craftsmen and artists; they are people who care so much about their process that they worry less about money and more about the quality of the product they create.  Chip Tautkus falls into this category.  She is not only a chocolatier, but she is also an artist—whose medium just happens to be silky, sweet chocolate.   No matter what truffle or chocolate bar, Chip’s sweet touch is evident as she gives consumers a product that can honestly be called good enough for the gods. 
The Sweet Sommelier and Miss Chubby--chocolate lovers at heart!

Chubby Chipmunk chocolates the Sweet Sommelier--and her chocolate-loving friends--adore
(in no particular order)
1.       Hot Mama Truffle
2.      Cheddar Beer Truffle
3.      Cinnabun Truffle
4.      Chipmunk Treasure Truffle
5.      Buttercream Truffle
6.      New York Cheesecake Truffle
7.      Moose Toffee Truffle
8.      Deadwood Toffee Truffle
9.      Crème Brule Truffle
10.  Milk Caramel Truffle
 Chubby Chipmunk's website: Get Your Chocolate Here

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

It's the Thought That Counts--Two Shepherds Vineyards

It takes a lot to make wine.  Yes, one needs grapes, and equipment, and time, and money, and passion, and work ethic, and…the list goes on and on.  However, to make GOOD wine—really GOOD wine—it also takes a lot of thought. 

Voltaire once said, “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”  William Allen of Two Shepherds Wines saw a problem.  He saw wines that were over-processed and over-worked, wines that didn’t show a sense of place where the grapes were grown.  He saw too much manipulation, too much use of the same grape varieties.  And William thought. 

He moved to California wine country and thought.  He started his own wine blog as “Sonoma William”—Simple Hedonisms—and continued thinking.  He home brewed beer.  He started making small batches of wine.  He became part of the Rhone Rangers movement and then president of the North Coast Rhone Rangers, focusing on grapes that are traditionally grown in the Rhone Valley of France:  Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Syrah, and Mourvedre.  He thought, and thought, and thought.  He began to form the ideas of what he believed would not only make wine in northern California, but make great wine. 

This “assault of sustained thinking” led him to use primarily neutral oak, all indigenous yeasts (with no inoculation), and some whole cluster fermentation with no new oak, no filtering, and no Cabernet Sauvignon. He started small—just 175 cases in 2010; however, by 2013 he was up to 1,000 cases from 11 varieties (10 of which are Rhone) sourced all the way from the more southern area of the Santa Ynez Valley to the more central area of Lodi.  This is quite an undertaking, especially considering that, for the most part, William is a one-man show, doing the majority of the production work himself, all while still maintaining his full-time “day job”.

William pondered everything:  what grape varieties to use, where the grapes were grown, how the grapes were grown, and how they were harvested.  He considered bottle shape and size, cork type and artwork, and label design and colors.  Every detail was painstakingly thought through…with amazing results!

The Whites
Grenache Blanc 2012—Two Shepherds largest production with 200 cases made, this wine (sourced from the Saarloos Vineyard in Santa Ynez) is filled with mineral on the nose and golden apples on the palate while being both incredibly smooth and brightly acidic.  (I purchased this white.)

Pastoral Blanc 2012:  Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc Blend—The nose shines with pineapple and baked apple as the palate reinforces these fruits.  Once again, this wine has that great acidity while maintaining a velvety smoothness not often found in acidic whites.  William thinks this wine has great aging potential for the next decade.
Pastoral Blanc 2012, Trousseau Gris 2012, and Mourvedre 2012
Viognier 2013—Grown in Saralee’s Vineyard in the Russian River Valley (one of William’s absolute favorites), the nose of this wine is filled with flowers and tropical fruits which are repeated on the palate.  With only thirty-three cases made, this is a very special wine.

Grenache 2012, Grenache Blanc 2012, Pastoral Blanc 2012

Trousseau Gris 2012—This might be considered a schizophrenic wine showing William’s inner wine geek and constantly-processing brain.  William used white grapes but produced them as he would a red wine, with 12 days on the skins after two punch downs a day; it is a beautiful neon-apricot color showing soft tropical fruits on the nose and palate.  William recommends continuing to treat this as a red wine and serving it at red wine temperature.

The Reds
Grenache Noir 2012—Also sourced from Saralee’s Vineyard in RRV, this was my favorite red!  A slightly murky shade of chokecherry, the nose was filled with strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries; the palate was packed with these mixed berries and that zippy acid that William’s wines display.  (I purchased two of these and have already consumed one.)  A barrel tasting of the 2013 Grenache had slightly less fruit on the nose at this time but still great berries and acid on the palate.  This 2013 is shaping up to be just as fantastic as the 2012.

Grenache 2012

Syrah/Mourvedre 2011—This almost fifty-fifty blend sourced from the Russian River Valley has baked fruit and spice on the nose with currant, cherry, spice, and metal on the palate; I might add this also had a finish that lasted forever!  The aging possibilities on this wine look good.

Mourvedre 2012—Also sourced from the RRV, the nose had currants and cherries with dried herbs that were repeated on the palate with lively acid.  Such a great style of Mourvedre, with only 12.3% alcohol (lower alcohol percentages are typical of William’s wines).  This would be a great food-pairing wine.  (I also purchased this wine.)
Viognier 2013 and Syrah/Mourvedre 2011
William Allen definitely made all of his thinking count when he started his Two Shepherds label.  Though he lives in the part of the country where he has easier access to the basics of winemaking—grapes, equipment, facilities, storage, etc.—and he added the time and money needed to make wine, he knew he wanted more.  He wanted to make a THOUGHTFUL wine, a wine that fixed the problems he saw in the industry.  His attentive yet almost minimalist style of winemaking is a model to be emulated, to be followed, to be enjoyed.  William definitely made his sustained thinking about absolutely every detail of winemaking count!
Two purchase any of these wines, please go to the website:  Two Shepherds Vineyards.