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