Monday, April 27, 2015

Choc-a-Lot--Chocolate Pot de Creme

One of the best parts of entertaining with food and wine is creating pairings that are truly amazing.  Even better is when one can entertain with these amazing pairings that are surprisingly easy!  Here is one of my favorites that others will think took much time and effort, yet you will know was incredibly simple and quick--chocolate pot de crème.  Pair it with a tawny port and a fantastic dessert course is made.

Chocolate Pot de Crème

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
2 Tbsp. sugar
Dash of salt
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. instant coffee
1 tsp. rum liquor (you can use cognac or brandy too)
¾ cup hot milk
Whipped cream

Add all ingredients except for the hot milk in the blender; slowly add the hot milk. Cover the blender to prevent splattering and mix well. Pour into demitasse cups or small ramekins. Refrigerate until set.  Double recipe for a larger group.  Garnish with real whipped cream and fresh raspberries. 
Delicious chocolate pot de crème.

Pair with any tawny port; this was the recent port I opened for a class.
This delicious but delightfully simple dessert will make you look incredibly impressive to your guests.  No need to let others know exactly how easy this was.  Pour the port, enjoy the chocolate, and look like the entertainer of the year! 

(I can not take credit for this recipe myself.  It came from Kirsten Hollenbeck, a wonderful chef I formerly taught classes with at Someone's in the Kitchen.  Thank you for the recipe, Kirsten!)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

It Takes One to Make One--Creekside Cellars

Visiting with winemakers is one of my favorite parts of wine writing.  The love these individuals exhibit for their crafts is absolutely contagious.  Learning about wines from those whose blood, sweat, and tears created the beverages I’m sipping is a truly eye-opening and awe-inspiring experience.  Every winemaker I have ever spoken with has left me a more knowledgeable consumer and a more passionate drinker (if that is even possible). 

This is the exact case when I was able to talk and taste with Michelle Cleveland, winemaker for Creekside Cellars in Evergreen, Colorado.  Her understanding of wine and the winemaking process, coupled with her love of Colorado, shows in every bottle she produces.

Michelle Cleveland showing some of her wines in barrel.
Michelle’s road to wine making in Colorado was a curvy one.  It started in Illinois when Michelle graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in agriculture.  She eventually found her way to Denver as the Director of Production and Distribution and a Master Roaster for Dazbog coffee.  (Yes, Michelle worked with the other beverage of the gods, coffee, before she worked with wine—that could just possibly be like winning the employment lottery!)

Michelle often hiked in Evergreen, the small mountain town just west of Denver; she also attended the Colorado Mountain Wine Fest on multiple occasions.  She saw the wines from Creekside Cellars at the festival and then saw the winery in Evergreen—a former service station along Bear Creek converted to a restaurant and tasting room.  Bill and Anita Donahue opened the winery in 1996 and purchased their own vineyard acreage in Palisade (the Grand Valley of Colorado) in 2002 to grow the grapes for Creekside Cellars. 

Creekside Cellars.
Michelle got to know Bill and started spending time at the winery.  She then put her agriculture background to good use as she volunteered for a year assisting with production.  Though her agriculture degree was helpful, Michelle wanted more formal education dealing with the production of wine.  She enrolled in the online enology program through prestigious UC Davis.  In 2007-2008, she took over as the official Creekside Cellars wine maker. 

Creekside Cellars primarily uses Grand Valley grapes supplemented with some Washington state grapes when Colorado’s growing area has a difficult year.  Reds, whites, roses, and desserts are all produced right at the Evergreen facility.  Both blends and single varietals are made from petit verdot, syrah, petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, cinsaut, mourvedre, viognier, chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc, moscato bianco, moscato arancio, and moscato d’amburgo.  In addition to quality wines, the café at Creekside Cellars has a talented chef who has created an impressive Italian-inspired menu serving flavorful panini sandwiches, unique insalatas, and an impressive antipasto platter. 

Award-winning wines made at the Evergreen facility.

All of this is located on the banks of Bear Creek, where the name Creekside Cellars originates.  The winery is open for production, tasting, and food all year.  However, the prime time for a patio lover like me to go taste wines is during the spring, summer, or fall.  When the weather is nice, a seat on the patio gives a magnificent view of the stream below, the trees beyond, and the wildlife outdoors.  If the sense of sight isn’t enough to make customers happy, the babbling of the brook truly makes this location one-of-a-kind.

Scenes from Creekside Cellars' beautiful patio.
This natural beauty was the backdrop for the tasting Michelle did with me and my daughter.  Throughout the wine lineup, Michelle’s passion and knowledge for wine were evident.  Her teaching background was also quite obvious; Michelle co-teaches enology classes at the Denver Metro campus.  These classes divide time between classroom instruction and hands-on work at the winery with Michelle.  My twenty-two year old learned more from this one tasting with Michelle than she had in a decade of me spouting wine information.  Michelle’s students at Metro are lucky to have her—I saw that first hand.

All of Creekside Cellars’ wines have an old-world quality about them.  Michelle works with the vineyard managers to harvest grapes at a slightly higher acid level than many other wine makers in the state.  She does fine and filter all her wines, yet she often takes a more hands-off role in wine production, making sure to let the grapes do the work and not “bastardizing” the grape variety through over-manipulation.  I enjoyed every wine we tasted that day; several were standouts. 

Michelle and her wines--a woman and her passion.
2012 Chardonnay—With grapes sourced from Book Cliff vineyards near Creekside’s Palisade site, this chard has slight butter and golden fruit on the nose.  On the palate, there is again the slight butter, but also fruit—honeycrisp apple and cantelope—and floral notes before a pleasant, long finish.  Michelle explained the slight butter was purposeful.  When she first started making the wine, the original chard was much too buttery for her.  She “weaned” the wine off the oak over the years for a less buttery style that shows more fruit.  (I purchased this bottle for a chardonnay-loving friend.)

2012 Riesling—Sourced from Creekside’s own Palisade fruit, this dryer style of riesling is a great example of what the grape can be.  On the nose, the slight petrol and mineral of a typical riesling are evident.  On the palate, golden delicious apple, fresh herbs, and slight floral notes prevail.  As a dry riesling fan, I purchased this bottle.  Can’t wait to sip on it again.

Dry Rose—The cinsaut and mouvedre for this rose blend are sourced from other Colorado growers.  (I love that Michelle uses an obscure grape like cinsaut!)  The beautiful salmon color leads to green herbs and strawberry on the nose and palate with perfect acid.  The finish lasts forever.  My only complaint about this wine is that it is not yet bottled, so a future trip or an online-shopping spree to purchase is in my future.

Rosso—A cinsaut, mouvedre, syrah, and cab sauv blend, this wine sees French oak for nine months.  The wine shows earth, cherry, smoke, and pepper on the nose before revealing raspberry, strawberry, and forest floor on the palate.  The evolution in the mouth goes from fruit to tannin back to fruit before a long finish.  Great acid makes this a nice pairing wine for the Italian menu of the café. 

2010 Syrah—Creekside’s Palisade vineyards provide the basis for this Syrah that also has two percent viognier, mouvedre, and cinsaut (future vintages will also have a small amount of counoise, another obscure grape.)  White pepper and ripe red fruits show on both the nose and the palate.  Like all of Michelle’s Creekside Cellars’ wines, this wine has less than fourteen percent alcohol, making it possible for the ripe fruits to show through.

2012 Robusto—The most popular wine at Creekside, this wine regularly sells out.  Because of this, we drank the Bordeaux blend (blended with a heavier dose of cab franc) from the barrel.  This wine is a superb blend with good structure.  It is bold and robust yet has ripe fruit with balanced tannins.  Nothing is overdone, which is why locals and tourists alike love it.  It is another purchase I will have to make in the future.

Our fantastic tasting on the patio.
Tasting with a wine maker is truly a learning experience, especially when that wine maker is a passionate teacher of the beverage, like Michelle Cleveland.  Getting the inside story from the person who makes the beautiful drink in the glass one is sipping is an awesome experience.  Michelle’s knowledge of and love for wine—her wines—comes through in every sip from the glass.  The beautiful surroundings on the Creekside Cellars’ patio only enhanced an afternoon of delicious wines and informative conversation.  Thank you, Michelle!

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Final Word--Northern California Wineries

There is often a hangover, so to speak, after huge sporting events and seasons end.  There is no more of the sport to watch on television, so the sports networks takeover, rehashing again and again the entire season of the sport and then looking forward to the next year already.  I am similar to the ESPN sports caster that just can’t get enough of the NCAA men’s basketball season as I keep commenting on great wineries.  However, instead of breaking down each questionable referee call or talking about the professional prospects of the players, I am going to hold on to the last vestige of my eight elite wineries by showing one final set of California producers, one final bracket for all to see.  The final word goes to my fellow International Wine (and Spirits) Guild alumni Oscar Montes Iga.

Oscar has been involved with travel, tourism, and events his entire adult life.  He started first with degrees in Nutrition, Diet, and Health Science; Travel, Tourism, Meeting, and Event Planning; and Food, Beverage, and Hospitality Management.  This formal education came after he worked in family-run restaurants throughout his childhood. Then in 2005 while working in a prime steakhouse in Texas, he visited a local winery and was in love…with wine!  His lust for wine knowledge started, and he has hunted for this knowledge in almost every avenue possible.  In addition to the already mentioned International Wine and Spirits Guild where Oscar is an Executive Chef of Wine Arts and Guild Wine Master Candidate, he is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and a Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators.  He has worked tirelessly in the state of Texas to promote the state’s wines through groups such as The Wine and Food Foundation of Texas, the Texas Hill Country Wineries Association, the Texas Wine Consortium, the Texas Wine Journal, and Texas Wine and Trail Magazine.

Sommelier Oscar Montes Iga
What this very impressive list of accolades means is that Oscar knows good wine.  He makes it his mission to know good wine.  In fact, he admits to being a “grape hunter and oenophile, foodie and avid ambassador for hospitality.”  I think it only fitting that I give him the final say on our honored wineries. 

Oscar’s criteria is a bit different than both mine and Eric Gardner’s (check out Eric’s elite eight here).  Having been full-time in the industry for a decade, he has tasted multitudes of wines from all over the world, so choosing eight greats from California isn’t about what is his favorite wine.  His choices are based on wines of extraordinary quality that impacted his sensory perception and captured his emotions in the instant of the taste.  He has yet to travel to California, but these producers represent ones he will surely visit to get closer to the experiences he has already had with the wines themselves. 

One—Cain Vineyards and Winery:  A Napa Valley producer specializing in cabernet sauvignon (the king of grapes), Cain has 90 acres under vine and makes about 20,000 cases of wine a year.  In 2005 while working his steakhouse shift, a customer shared with the staff the bottle of unfinished Cain.  Oscar was clueless about what Meritage or Bordeaux meant, but he knew instantly when he sipped that this was a special wine.  He professes, “It was as if the wine spoke the truth about the tender journey it had taken to be able to express itself in such manner upon consumption.”  This winery now has a deep spot in his wine memory.

Cain Vineyards and Winery
Two—Opolo Vineyards:  In 1999, Rick Quinn and Dave Nichols teamed together to make Paso Robles zinfandels under their own label instead of just selling fruit to other producers.  At a Zinfandel Advocates and Producers event, Oscar tasted Opolo Vineyards wines.  Though there are many quality zins from Opolo, the Mountain Zinfandel is the one that grabbed Oscar’s attention.  “It was really robust with a full body, yet very well balanced, rich, showcased a ton of jammy fruit with some spice qualities, and sufficient alcohol, nothing overpowering, but certainly overwhelming.”  It is the most memorable zinfandel experience Oscar has had.

Opolo Vineyards
Three—Ridge Vineyards:  This Santa Cruz producer also made my elite list (see my list here), and Oscar loves the producer for the same reasons.  The history of Ridge dates back to 1885 when it was the Monte Bello Winery.  Through the 1940s, Ridge made one of the best cabernets.  In the 1960s, zinfandel was planted there.  Although Ridge is famous for Monte Bello, its cabernet blend, it was the Geyserville Zin that made Oscar sin.  “It’s a dark and plump wine, with eloquent fruit and restrained alcohol, but certainly a wine that shows minimal manipulation, letting the fruit ‘do all the talking.’”

Ridge Vineyards
Four—Jordan Vineyard and Winery:  Founded in 1972, Jordan created one of the truly original cult wines of California.  The story goes that winemaker Rob Davis was unhappy with his first vintage in 1975, so he decided to dump all of the wine and wait for the next year.  The move created an incredibly sought-after product, even today.  Oscar respects this producer saying, “The passion and dedication of the grape growing and wine making teams shows in the glass when you pour yourself some Jordan, a commitment of over four decades is reason enough to pay them a visit.”

Jordan Vineyard and Winery
Five—Robert Mondavi Winery:  Such an iconic winery and wine personality, California and the United States both owe a lot to Robert Mondavi.  He was instrumental in advocating for strict labeling laws aligned with growing regions, much like the European concept of terroir upon which our American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are based.  When Mondavi was forced to leave his family-owned winery, he built his own facility, showing the future of California’s industry.  “Mondavi’s wine[s] continue to appear the world over, and it is with extreme dedication and care that we are able to taste in our glass the essence of the fruit and the winemaking techniques used to elevate each of his created [wines].” 

Robert Mondavi Winery
Six—Heitz Wine Cellars:  Though a traditional California winery dating back to 1964, Heitz has worked to find modern and new outlets to get traditional CA varieties to the market.  This blend of old and new can be seen in the fact that Heitz grows the traditional wine grapes of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and zinfandel, yet produces a zinfandel rose, the Grignolino rose.  This is Oscar’s favorite:  “A dry, medium dark cranberry hue, with fresh and ripe flavors of strawberry, cherry, and raspberry with good acidity and a pleasant floral bouquet enticing you to have a ‘pique-nicque’ at every city park or country outing.” 

Heitz Wine Cellars
Seven—Stolpman Vineyards:  In the business for over twenty years, some of Stolpman’s best wines come from the recently approved Ballard Canyon AVA.  Although some Mediterranean grapes like garnacha, viognier, roussane, and sangiovese are grown, the producer’s syrahs are world class—especially the ones from Ballard Canyon.  “Fresh and bright, with ripe fruit, pleasant perfume, dirty earth and spice components that are balanced and complex, ensuring you have an evolving glass of wine throughout the evening.”  Oscar says this is a must see!

Stolpman Vineyards
Eight—Chateau Montelena Winery:  In a way, this is Oscar’s honorable mention winery, merely because he has yet to have a personal experience with these wines.  However, the historic significance Chateau Montelena has in not only California but all of the United States makes it a significant producer.  The winery gets its fame from the celebrated Judgement of Paris tasting when British wine shop proprietor Steven Spurrier pitted American wines against French wines in a blind tasting.  The Chateau Montelena Chardonnay triumphed against the French wines, gaining respect for Napa Valley wines.  Oscar feels, “Visiting this chateau will give me an opportunity not only to taste the fruit of their labor, which they certainly take great pride in, but also to visit a historical site that has put American wine on par with elegant and ancient European estates.” 

Chateau Montelena Winery
Yes, well-educated and passionate sommelier Oscar Montes Iga definitely deserves the last word in our brackets of eight elite California wineries.  He is the final commentator dissecting the play-by-play of our wine game.  Though he lives in Texas, he knows good wine from all over the world.   His education and experience have helped to show that so many different options abound in choosing “teams”—the wineries which we love or would love to visit—for our elite brackets.  Luckily, unlike the actual brackets for the NCAA tourney, we can all be winners in our pool.  Just look for all of these wineries’ products.  Judge for yourself who your favorites might be.   

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

[Wine Bracketology]--Northern California Wineries

The madness must come to an end.  Last night, a new men’s champion was crowned.  The field was narrowed, and narrowed, and narrowed...until just two teams were standing.  Those two fought hard, but only one could win.  Someone, somewhere, chose the winner and today sat victorious over the others in the office pool.  Was it you?! (I took second in my office pool, by the way!)

Last week, I made the tough choices of eight elite wineries I was dying to visit in northern California.  I put much thought and logic into my picks.  I used a certain set of rules when making my choices, but just like with the regular bracket for the NCAA men’s tourney, there were literally another thousand different choices other than my eight. 
Experts say that the possible bracket combinations for the men’s tourney were more than nine quintillion…yes, quintillion...options.  I did not find nine quintillion other views on eight elite wineries in California, however.  I found two! 

The first opposing bracket is from Eric Gardner—Rapid City, South Dakota’s wine and food loving meteorologist.  His love for wine and food are shown in multiple ways, but they appear first and foremost in his “In the Kitchen with Eric Gardner” segments on the KOTA network out of Rapid.  He has taught wine and food pairing classes in the area and has led multiple tastings and wine events around the Black Hills.  It is obvious through Eric’s elite picks that he loves a good cabernet sauvignon, yet he appreciates many California wines. 
[Eric Gardner with his two favorite hobbies:  food and wine!]
One—[Morlet Family Vineyards]:  Patriarch Luc Morlet came from France to the U.S. with just a thousand dollars in his pocket.  He sought the best grapes to make wines in the fashion of his homeland, and he has done just that.  Eric loves the Morlet white Bordeaux blend—sauvignon blanc and semillon—but he also enjoys Morlet’s cabs, pinots, and syrahs. 

[Morlet Family Vineyards]
Two—[Varozza Vineyards]:  Jack and Dianna Varozza started by growing fruit for other wine producers.  However, they make small amounts of their own wine.  Eric tells they grow some of the best petite sirah in Napa to produce wine under their own label.  They also grow and ferment a wonderful old-vine sauvignon blanc, a show-case Chardonnay, and a world-class zinfandel.

[Varozza Vineyards]
Three—[Verite Wines]:  Another transplant from France, Pierre Seilan makes Bordeaux blends using merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc.  Verite’s Le Desir blend has a higher percentage of cab franc than his other wines; it is made this way to be similar to the traditional wines of St. Emilion.  Eric’s “Parker palate” is evident in his love of this producer—a producer that has received perfect one hundred point scores from Robert Parker himself.

[Verite Wines]
Four—[Detert Family Vineyards]:  The Detert family has been growing grapes on the west side of the Oakville region of Napa for over sixty years.  Year after year after year, Eric believes the Deterts produce one of the most delightful, unusual, and complex cabernet francs from California; they are big reds with floral notes.  Since this is a smaller producer, to purchase these wines, get on the winery mailing list.

[Detert Family Vineyards]
Five—[Schrader Cellars]:  Speaking of winery mailing lists, Eric’s father was fortunate to be one of the elite on Schrader’s, earning the ability to access some of California’s greatest cabernet sauvignons.  Eric believes these wines show the “essence of California”; they have also received more perfect scores from Parker and other critics than any other wines in California history. 

[Schrader Cellars]
Six—[Alban Vineyards]:  Eric’s love of Napa is quite evident in many of his choices, but he shows his diversity with Alban Vineyards, a tiny winery near San Luis Obispo in Arroyo Grande.  One of the first wineries to produce wines exclusively from Rhone varieties, Alban specializes in syrah, grenache, mouvedre, marsanne, and grenache blanc.  Eric still considers an Alban wine to be the most moving wine-drinking experience he has ever had:  “When I drank the 2006 Alban 'Reva' Syrah. The enormous wine changed every 15 minutes in the glass - much like John Alban's personality, interestingly enough!”

[Alban Vineyards]
Seven—[Entre Nous]:  Grapes for Entre Nous wines are grown in the Kristine Ashe Vineyards and produced by the team of Philippe Melka and Julien Fayard.  Entre Nous has one of Napa’s finest sauvignon blancs but also produces a cabernet that is, as Eric states, “More than fruit and tannin.”  It is so complex that even floral notes show through.

[Entre Nous]
Eight—[Barbour Vineyards]:  Jim Barbour has tended some of Napa’s most prestigious grapes over the past thirty years.  He grows his own fruit for elite winemaker Celia Welch to ferment into wine.  (Celia is the second Barbour winemaker; the first was equally as impressive—Heidi Barrett.)  This duo only makes cabernet sauvignon--which Eric loves--from Barbour’s dry farmed, sustainably grown vineyards.  Celia also makes wines under other labels:  Scarecrow, Keever, Hollywood and Vine, and Corra (her own).

[Barbour Vineyards]
Enjoy Eric’s elite eight wineries.  Check back soon when I have yet another bracket to add to our “bracketology” madness, a viewpoint that will be completely different!  My fellow International Wine Guild sommelier from Austin, Texas—Oscar—is going to share his unique insight on eight special California wineries.  This is yet another bracket that could be a winner.  Let the madness continue!