Archive for the ‘California’Category

Tasting Mondavi whites with New England seafood

Order counter at Abbott's Lobster in the Rough in Noank, Connecticut

In our next lives we want to come back as Mondavis. Every American branch of the clan seems to have a purple thumb ever since Cesare and his sons Robert and Peter took over the Charles Krug winery in 1943. As one of two winemakers at the Michael Mondavi Family Estate (michaelmondavifamilyestate.com), Rob Mondavi Jr. has developed quite a reputation for his quality Napa Cabernets. So we wondered: What about the whites?

Abbott's Lobster in the Rough signIn New England, where we live, summer means seafood. While we might sip a red with bluefish, we really need white wines for the kings of ocean: oysters and lobster. So we tossed a bottle each of 2015 Emblem Chardonnay Carneros and 2015 Animo Napa Valley Heritage Sauvignon Blanc into a cooler, placed a bag of ice on top, and paid a visit to Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough (abbottslobster.com).

We had a method to that madness. This Noank, Connecticut, seafood shack on the west side of the Mystic River is famous for the buttery hot lobster roll, a specialty of the Connecticut shore. Moreover, Abbott’s does not fry anything. All the seafood is raw, steamed, or grilled. No breading, no grease—just pure fish and shellfish. (For a view on wine with a lobster salad roll, see our post on rosé.)

Heritage Sauvignon Blanc with Connecticut bluepoint oysters

2015 Heritage Sauvignon Blanc with oysters


Mondavi’s Heritage Sauvignon Blanc represents an unusual French lineage. Back in the 1880s, the head of California’s State Viticultural Commission brought Sauvignon Blanc cuttings from Château de Yquem in Bordeaux back to the Golden State. The Mondavis got cuttings from the descendants of those vines and planted a new vineyard in 2006. In deference to the historic plant genetics, they even used the same 19th century root stock and trellising.

Talk about boutique wine! The vineyard is so small that the Mondavis were able to make exactly six barrels in 2015. The juice was fermented in French oak barrels and cellared in the fermentation vessels for nine months before bottling.

Connecticut bluepoint oystersThere’s no discounting the California terroir. The Animo vineyards are high on the slopes of Atlas Peak, where they stick up above the usual Napa cloud cover. This Sauvignon Blanc has a stony backbone reminiscent of good Sancerre with a more pronounced white peach and lime zest fruitiness. From the 11 different oysters available on the half shell at Abbott’s, we selected Connecticut Blue Points for their mild neutrality. They emphasized the mineral qualities of the wine, which was also fine for sipping without food in the salt air. It is a wine with multiple subtle layers. As it warms, some of the more floral flavors come forward, especially chamomile, bramble blossoms, and dandelions. Hints of mango and other petrol notes are held in check by the bright acidity. Retail ranges $57-$65.

Emblem Chardonnay with lobster roll

2015 Emblem Chardonnay with lobster


Michael Mondavi Family Estate grows the grapes for its Emblem Chardonnay in the southern part of the Los Carneros appellation, where fog from San Francisco Bay moderates the vineyard climate. There wasn’t much rain in 2015, but all that fog kept the grapes hydrated. Cold fall nights preserved a significant acidity, while a long hang time allowed for the typical Napa monster sugar development. (The dry wine runs close to 15% alcohol.)

The fruit in this wine is luscious and full-bodied. Alas, we caught the wine at an awkward phase in its development. (Think a teenager’s growth spurt.) The technical notes say the wine was aged 10 months in new French oak. Right now, it tastes more like a year in new American oak. The vanillin and other oak aromatics overwhelm the otherwise powerful fruit. We suspect it will improve a lot by next summer.

Even now, the 2015 Emblem Chardonnay works really well with buttered lobster. You’ve heard wine geeks babble about buttery Chardonnay, right? This one needed butter added. The salt of the lobster and the slight oiliness of the butter on lobster and bun alike showed the 2015 at its best. Next time you encounter an oaky Chardonnay, order a hot buttered lobster roll. You’ll be glad you did. Retail price varies $30-$35.

04

08 2017

Paso Robles wine comes into its own

tasting at a Paso Robles winery
Paso Robles has a frontier spirit. Located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Central Coast community lends its name to California’s fastest growing wine region.

wine signpost Paso Robles Known since Native American times for its thermal hot springs, Paso (as locals call it) had only 35 wineries in the late 1990s. But this district of limestone bedrock and huge day-night temperature differential has caught the eye of winemakers large and small. Located in the foothills of the Santa Lucia mountain range about a half-hour drive from the Pacific Ocean, the region boasts more than 250 wineries and 26,000 acres planted in more than 40 wine grape varietals. The power of Paso Robles goes well beyond the numbers. The palpable air of experimentation and possibility is so infectious that even short-term visitors get a lift.

Upscale boutiques, Western-style clothiers, restaurants, cafes, and more than 20 wine tasting rooms give a bustling air to the tidy downtown around City Park. While downtown is the best place to taste across the whole region, many vineyards are nearby. On Highway 46 alone, 25 tasting rooms dot the roadside within a five-mile stretch.

Coy and Sarah Barnes founded the first wine tour company in Paso. Their Wine Wrangler (the winewrangler.com) offers both half- and full-day tours.

“Wine has been grown here for as long as in Napa,” says Coy, “but the area is not as well known. There are only about one-third as many vines as there are planted in Napa. But it is an area that is young, growing, full of people who like to experiment.” Even a short tour gives a sense of the proud history and dynamic growth that give the region its unique character.

J Dusi shows Zin is no sin


Janelle Dusi of J Dusi Wines in Paso Robles Janelle Dusi is the fourth generation of a grape-growing family. She grew up on 100 acres planted in old-vine Zinfandel. “We’re farmers. My great grandfather began growing Zinfandel in the 1920s,” she says. “It’s Paso’s heritage grape and the vineyards are still intact and family-owned.”

Her grandfather taught her the basics of winemaking and she is now both winemaker and proprietor of J Dusi Wines (1401 CA-46, Paso Robles; 805-226-2034; jdusiwines.com). True to her family roots, Janelle makes a medium-body Zinfandel.

“I restrain the jam and alcohol. I’m not embarrassed to do a more restrained style with a little more finesse,” she says. “I don’t need to come out of the gates with a chewy meal in a glass. My wine is more food friendly.”

While she is proud of her Zinfandel, Janelle has become increasingly interested in some of the most full-bodied Rhone grapes. She produces single-varietal bottlings of Grenache, Syrah, and the Rhone-like Petite Sirah.

SummerWood strikes a French pose


Shayne Kline of SummerWood in Paso Robles Shayne Kline, general manager at SummerWood Winery, agrees that Rhone grapes are a good fit for Paso Robles. “This area is known as the ‘Rhone zone,’” he says. He points out that the weather and the soils in the two regions are comparable, while noting that the night-time cooling is the most important aspect of the climate.

SummerWood (2175 Arbor Road, Paso Robles; 805-227-1365; summerwoodwine.com) is known for its limited-production American Rhone and Bordeaux wines and for Cabernet Sauvignon, a favorite of winemaker Mauricio Marchant.

“I’m originally from Chile, and I love Cabernet,” Marchant says, He spent time working in Napa Valley where “it’s Cab and Chard all day long. Here we’re still learning, trying to figure out what will work. Trying new things all the time. I love Syrah—powerful, inky black, manly man wine.” He also makes a huge, intense Rhone-style Mourvèdre.

Villicana shows a spirit of its own


Alex and Monica Villicana of Villicana Winery & Vineyard (2725 Adelaida Road, Paso Robles; 805-239-9456; villicanawinery.com) share that sense of adventure.

Alex and Monica Villicana of Villicana Winery & Vineyard in Paso Robles “We were the 17th winery in the area in 1993,” says Alex. The couple has planted their 13 acres in Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot from Bordeaux, and Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah from the Rhone. “It’s Bordeaux meets Rhone,” Villicana says. He could add Puglia as a footnote, since Villicana also grows a lot of Zinfandel.

As winemaker, Alex stems the grapes and removes 30 to 40 percent of the free-run juice. “We change the ratio of juice to skins to get richer red wines,” he notes. In the process, “we stumbled on the fact that you can make vodka out of grapes” in place of the more traditional potatoes or grains. In fact, the Villicanas opened Re:FIND (refinddistillery.com), the area’s first craft distillery.

During the harvest, Alex saves their own free-run juice and buys this “saignée” from other winemakers. He makes vodka and gin by fermenting the juice and triple distilling the product.

“Twenty years of winemaking helped me in distilling.” Alex says. “I use the same sense of smell and taste to decide what to keep and what to get rid of.” He considers the venture to be “the ultimate in spirit-making sustainability.”

12

07 2016

Ocean meets wine country in Pismo Beach

sunset and the pier at Pismo Beach
California beach country is often also wine country. On the Central Coast, wineries nestle in the foothills of the Santa Lucia mountain range only about five miles from the ocean. The San Luis Obispo wine country comprises about thirty wineries squeezed into the hills between Arroyo Grande in the south and San Luis Obispo in the north.

Pelican preens on Pismo Beach pier Over the hills in Pismo Beach, Lissa Hallberg of the Tastes of the Valleys wine tasting bar and bottle shop was eager to introduce me to their products. The coastal village just over the mountains from Arroyo Grande boasts a long strand of soft sand. The town resists modernization, preferring to embody the classic, low-key beach getaway. In the morning, fishermen cast for Spanish mackerel off the 1,200-foot pier where seagulls and pelicans also perch. A gentle surf usually accommodates boarders and everyone can find enough sand to spread out a blanket. Dog walkers and joggers follow the shore south to wander among the undulating dunes. Shorebirds touch down in little lagoons, taking turns flap-flap-flapping to shake out their wings once they land.

Waiting for the sun to go down


Lissa Hallberg of the Tastes of the Valleys purs a sample in Pismo Beach As befits a beach vacation, Pismo Beach boasts plenty of arcades, salt water taffy pullers, ice cream parlors, and retro souvenir shops. But when the sun sinks low in the sky, all eyes turn to the pier. Local custom dictates buying a bottle of wine, pouring some into a Solo cup, and strolling down to the pier before sunset. I selected a bottle of Laetitia Vineyard and Winery Estate Chardonnay. Hallberg grimaced a bit at the thought of the plastic party cup adulterating the honeyed, mineral-driven taste of the wine from the Arroyo Grande Valley. (The region resembles Champagne in its soils and growing conditions, and the best wines are simple and unoaked.) Hallberg needn’t have worried. Watching the sun set, the taste of terroir came through fine without a crystal glass. I could get used to the ritual.

Tastes of the Valleys is at 911 Price Street, Pismo Beach; 805-773-8466; www.pismowineshop.com.

09

07 2016

What to Eat at the Airport: More LAX

LAX Terminal 5 Operating at the corner of Third and Fairfax since 1934, the Original Farmers Market is a Los Angeles landmark that celebrates great California fruits and vegetables as well as good cooking from around the world. Now a little piece of this city treasure has been transplanted to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Opened in June, Farmers Market at Terminal 5 includes such market stalwarts as Bennett’s Ice Cream (look for the chocolate-covered frozen banana), Magee’s House of Nuts (perfect for munching on the plane), and the Dog Bakery (in case you need a treat for Fido waiting at home).

Loteria! at LAX Two spots are stand-outs for a satisfying meal before a flight. At Monsieur Marcel Pain Vin et Fromage (www.mrmarcel.com), you can select some great cheese and bread for a quick snack or order a bowl of French onion soup or a wedge of quiche Lorraine. Much more in tune with southern California’s Mexican heritage, Lotería! Grill (loteriagrill.com) serves lightened versions of regional Mexican cuisine. The green tomatillo enchiladas and shredded beef tacos are among the most popular with airport diners. But for my money, nothing beats a bowl of chef Jimmy Shaw’s purée of tortilla soup. The creamy, slightly spicy soup is topped with corn tortilla strips, sliced avocado, queso fresco, and toasted ancho chile. It’s the ultimate comfort food before a long flight back to the East Coast.

I didn’t want to wait until my next trip to Los Angeles to enjoy another bowl, so I developed this recipe to try to approximate the version served at Lotería! It’s inspired by the chicken tortilla soup I’ve been making for years from a Consumer Reports cookbook—crossed with Dean Fearing’s famed puréed tortilla soup that he reveals in his Texas Food Bible that came out last April. I have lightened up the recipe by baking the tortilla strips rather than frying them.

By the way, if you’re going to be in Terminal 7 at LAX, see this post on where to eat.

tortilla soup at Loteria!
PURÉED TORTILLA SOUP

Serves 6

Ingredients

12 corn tortillas (6-inch), halved and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch strips
1 tablespoon light, neutral-flavored oil (sunflower, peanut, or canola)
2 medium onions, puréed in the blender or a food processor
6 whole large garlic cloves
1 tablespoon ground ancho chile
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 bay leaf
6 cups chicken stock
juice of a small lime
8-oz. can tomato sauce
1 tsp. sugar (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

For garnish:
fresh avocado, peeled and thinly sliced
queso fresco, crumbled (cow’s milk feta cheese makes a fine substitute)

Directions

Preheat oven to 350°F. Arrange tortilla strips in single layer on cooling racks and place in oven to bake until lightly browned and crisp (about 5 minutes). Reserve.

In large pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic cloves and cook until onion turns a golden brown. Stir in chile, cumin, oregano, and bay leaf. Add chicken stock, lime, tomato sauce, and sugar. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook 20 minutes.

Taste soup and add salt and/or pepper, if needed. Add about one-third of toasted tortilla strips and cook at a simmer for 10 minutes. Remove bay leaf and purée soup in batches in a blender or by using an immersion blender. It should be the texture of light cream. If it is too thin, add more tortilla strips, cook, and purée again. If too thick, add a little chicken stock.

To serve, ladle into bowls and top with queso fresco, chopped avocado, and tortilla chips.

What to eat at the airport at LAX

Puck breakfast pizzaOver the years we’ve bypassed a lot of Wolfgang Puck Express eateries in many an airport in our quest to find restaurants and meals that truly speak of their place. But finally we found ourselves in the right place at the right time: LAX at breakfast. Or more specifically, LAX Terminal 7, the location of one of the two Wolfgang Puck Express restaurants at the sprawling airport (the other is at Terminal 2). Although Puck long ago went global with his fine dining, we think that his casual yet inventive food epitomizes the lifestyle of southern California, where he’s been based since 1975.

Luis delivers Puck breakfast pizza His Breakfast Pizza, which is big enough for two to share, is an easy-to-eat remix of of the bacon-egg-toast breakfast. The nicely chewy thin crust is topped with scrambled eggs, mozzarella, cheddar, bacon, caramelized onions, and chopped chives. It’s available to eat in or take out. The kitchen exercises restraint with the toppings, making it possible to consume the pizza in cramped airplane seats without mishap. But we had enough time before our flight to sit down and relax in the restaurant and spread out over breakfast.

“Would you like some dessert?” our waiter asked us when we had finished. “A nice latte would be perfect.”

He was right.

15

11 2013