Admiral Ackbar's Guide to Holiday Wine+Food

When I'm not leading the Rebellion you can find me at home making bite sized Admiral Ackbar's snack bars. They make a great finger food to serve as guests are coming out of hyperdrive and docking at your ship. I like to serve them with Rylothian Yurp so you won't get too filled up but will enjoy spice on spice action.

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The History of Restaurants & Dining

Although public eateries existed as far back as Ancient Rome and the Sung Dynasty in China, today's modern restaurants originated in 18th century France.  The word, Restaurant comes from the French word, restaurer which means "to restore".  Early establishments were built as a place where people could come restore their energy and strength.  The establishments weren't fancy nor did they have tables with linens.  They were basically rooms where someone could come and consume meats that would restore one's health, especially when someone wasn't feeling well.

The modern Café originated in Constantinople in the 1500's and served as a place where educated people could come meet.  Coffee was big in Constantinople, so the term coffee house translated into café.

During the French Revolution restaurants evolved into something like today's establishments where food and drink were served.  One of the first restauranteurs was a man by the name of Boulanger, who opened a spot near the Louvre where people could stop and restore their health.  Another restaurant called the Grand Taverne de Londres was opened by Beauvilliers in 1782.  Until this moment in history, meals weren't prepared for individuals by a chef.  Patrons ate what was offered.  Beauvilliers and Boulanger created the first menus with dishes that could be prepared individually by a chef.

History's first sommeliers came from the same time period.  The word, sommelier came from a French word that was for designated court servants who were responsible for transporting supplies.  Over time, the word evolved to represent a steward who was responsible for stocking and serving wine, beer and spirits.  Today, a sommelier needs to know what the wines in their restaurant taste like and be familiar with how the wines would pair with foods.  Sommeliers also need to be familiar with beers, cigars, spirits and represent a high level of service.

I became a Certified Sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers because I wanted to be an educator, a student, a servant and a reference for wine+food.  Hope you find this information useful for the next time you're dining out.  Happy dining!

A Trio of Spanish Cheeses

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Rich and buttery with a wood-smoked nutty nuance along with citrus undertones.  Made with raw sheep's milk.

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Made just 50 miles west of Madrid, this is technically a blue cheese — tangy, salty, and robust.  You'll even find hits of juniper.  In fact, that's what the word "Enebro" means.

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A firm textured cheese with a rind washed with fresh rosemary and olive oil, this cheese is then aged in an open cave for 8 months.

HOW the Wine Industry can Recover in 2011: Use Less Oak

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Oak wine barrels at the Robert Mondavi vineyar...
Image via Wikipedia

Positive signs of recovery for the wine industry in 2010.  We can all breathe a sigh of relief that consumers are drinking again.  Well, they never stopped drinking, just now they're drinking the good stuff.  Consumers are now buying $25-$50 bottles of wine whereas last year and the year before they were buying bottles under $15.

I got to thinking about what it costs to produce a bottle of wine.  Things that factor into the price have a lot to do with the work done in the vineyard.  Each time vineyard workers go through the rows and touch the vines, it costs money.  In good vintages, a winery will get good fruit with less touching of vines, hence, less cost basis.  In a bad year, a winery might have to do a significant amount more work just to get fruit to a good place by harvest.  From vintage to vintage, these are unfixed costs that can't be controlled.  If a winery is buying fruit from another vineyards, there might also be a fluctuation of what the fruit costs per ton.  In 2010, many vineyard in Northern California lost 20-30% of their crops because it was a cool summer.  Grapes weren't getting ripe, so vineyard managers cut leaves off the vines that normally act as shade from the sun.  Mother nature, it seems, has a sick sense of humor.  Shortly after leaves were cut off, there was a heat spike over 100 degrees for a few days.  That turned 20-20% of grapes into raisins.  Without the normal leaf shade, the grapes didn't stand a chance.

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One (somewhat) fixed cost in wine is the cost of oak barrels.  A brand-spanking new French oak barrel costs somewhere around $800-1200.  A barrel can be used a few times before it becomes "neutral," or doesn't impart oaky flavor.  American oak is an option, but French oak is the preferred choice.  Wineries order pallets of oak barrels each year.  Do the math with me.  If a winery buys 500 new oak barrels at an average of $1000 per, that's $500,000 in barrels.

Here's where my brilliant idea for financial recovery comes into play:  Use less oak.  Simple, huh?  In 2010 I tasted more overly oaked wines than I cared to.  Why on God's green earth are winemakers oaking the shit out of their wines?  This is a debate that's been around for years, but I'm really baffled.  Cut the amount of oak down 25% on your next barrel order.  Actually make wine that expresses the vineyard and don't cover up flaws with an orgy of French oak.  Not only could wineries save a few hundred grand, but they might actually make a better wine.  Why has nobody done this?

Take for example the 2007 Quilceda Creek Red wine from Washington state.  For years I've been a lover of QC wines, and have ordered from their mailing list.  After drinking (or trying to drink) this wine, I decided to drop off the list.  At 15.2% alcohol, the lower tier QC resembled Vodka and Robitussin rather than a world class wine.  There was so much oak on this wine, my wife and I literally could not finish it.  We ended up making a sauce instead.

In Napa and Sonoma I've experienced something similar.  Dozens of overly oaked wines that really have no reason to be so oaky.  Robert Parker isn't helping any by giving these behemoth's inflated scores, and essentially rewarding them for oak.

So there it is, use less oak.  That reduces the carbon footprint for shipping.  It saves more trees.  Wineries save on costs and wine drinkers get a better wine.  What do you think?

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Mini Me Crab Cakes w/ Spicy Sauce

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Last week I picked up a fresh Dungeness Crab (and this recipe) from Whole Foods that was caught that morning from Bodega Bay, and was cleaned as well as cracked....all for $4.99.  Gotta love this time of year in the bay area!

These tasty little gems are great for parties.  They're two bites of sheer awesomeness...make ahead of time and reheat or make 'em fresh.  Please share you wine pairing suggestions below in comments.  Cheers!

INGREDIENTS 1 LB Dungeness Crab (or lump crab meat) 2/3 cup bread crumbs (wheat crumbs work well) 4 green onions, sliced thin 1 egg 1/4 TSP fresh ground pepper 1-1/2 TSP Old Bay seasoning 1 TBSP Dijon mustard 6 TBSP mayonnaise, divided 1/4 cup roasted red bell pepper, chopped 2 TBSP hot sauce 1-1/2 TSP grated lemon zest 1 TBSP canola oil

Place crab meat in a large bowl and use your fingers to gently feel for and remove any pieces of shell or crab cartilage. Add green onions, bread crumbs, Old Bay and pepper, toss to combine. While that's going on, get out a smaller bowl and whisk together dijon, egg and 2 TBSP of mayo, and pour over the crab mix. Toss until combined. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes

Meanwhile, take a sip of the wine you're thinking of pairing :) And also, make the sauce while you're at it. Nobody wants to be a total lush. In a blender, combine bell pepper, hot sauce, lemon zest and remaining mayo. blend until it's silky smooth. Cover and refrigerate until it's ready to use.

Form the crab mixture into 24 small 2-bite crab cakes...each about 1-1/2 inch in diameter. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, fry the cakes until nicely browned and cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Drain on a paper towel and serve warm with sauce.

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HOW coffee is made

According to research done by the National Coffee Association, approximately 112 million Americans were "every day coffee drinkers" in 2006.  Each year another 3-5% of the population joins in as an every day drinker racking up $18 Billion a year spent on coffee by Americans.  The average coffee drinker has 3 cups a day, which means about 336 million cups of coffee are consumed every day in America.  That number grows exponentially when you look at worldwide consumption.  Coffee is the second most popular drink after water at a staggering 1.4 billion cups of coffee consumed every day around the world.  Over 100 million people depend on coffee as a source of income.

I recently had a chance to visit one of the world's best coffee producing regions.  Kona, on the big island of Hawai'i is 22 square miles of ideal coffee-growing "terroir".  That's a wine term meaning the combination of weather, soil, climate, slope and all other elements that give a place its "placeness".  It's what makes a place unique.  Terroirs are like snow flakes, no two are the same.  Kona coffee fetches upwards of $20-30 a pound compared to the $6-$10 a pound you pay at the grocery store.  Kona coffee is known for rich, bold flavors without high levels of acid or bitterness.

Greenwell Coffee Farms is the oldest family-owned coffee producer in Kona.  Henry Nicholas Greenwell arrived in Kona from England in 1850.  He lived with his wife and 10 children where we built a successful coffee export business.  Over time, Greenwell became well known in Europe and America for having reliable quality Kona coffee.

Today, Greenwell Farms is run by fourth generation family members who still farm 35 acres of prime coffee growing land at about 1,500 feet elevation.  During my visit I learned there are a number of similarities between growing coffee and wine grapes.  For example, wine grapes and coffee trees both do well in volcanic soil, both do well in altitudes of 600-1,200 feet in elevation, both need some sun exposure (but not too much), both get pruned down to the stump after harvest and both go through flowering before they produce fruit.  Coffee trees are technically fruit trees, and the coffee fruit it called cherries.

Watching the harvesting and processing of the coffee beans was a unique experience.  The end result was a coffee every bit as good as advertised.  Greenwell's 100% Kona coffee's were rich yet smooth without any of the bitter acid reflux.  Kona coffee is famous for being low in acid.  Because Kona coffee is so popular, yet expensive, you might find coffee's that say 10% Kona on the package.  They do this to keep the price down, yet get the name on the label.

Sadly, many of the growers barely make any money even though they're selling their coffee at $20 a pound.  The reason it's so expensive is all the labor that goes into producing some of the world's best coffee.  From picking, to drying, to sorting and roasting—every step of the way requires doing it by hand.  Machines aren't used for anything during the process.  Because of that, the Kona coffee can't be made by automating any step of the process.  Greenwell employs 50 people in the production facility, which is a significant number considering they farm 35 acres.

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Rick's Pick: 2005 Maison Bouachon Gigondas Duc de Montfort

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The Rhone Valley has two part: the Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone.  Northern Rhone is known for 100% Syrah or Viognier wines whereas the Southern Rhone is known for Grenache based blends.  Gigondas is an area within Southern Rhone, which means the wines are predominantly Grenache blends, but have a unique characteristic all their own.  The 2005 Duc de Montfort from Maison Bouachon is a great example of typicity.

APPEARANCE

Color: Clear Brightness: Star Bright Red Color: Ruby Rim Variation: Pink representing a few years of age Viscosity: Medium Plus with minor tear staining

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NOSE

Condition: Clean Intensity: Medium Plus Aroma: Youthful Fruit: Black Cherry, Red Cherry, Plum Earth: None detected Other: Violets, Cola, Leather

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PALATE

Sweetness: Dry Body: Medium Fruit: Black Cherry, Red Cherry Earth: None Detected Alcohol: Medium Acidity: Medium Plus Complexity: Medium Plus Finish: Medium Plus

Black fruits and red fruits come together one one of my favorite wine regions.  Gigondas is like the little brother to Châteauneuf-du-Pape with a little bit of Rosé production, but dominated by red wine.  Gigondas has a Mediterranean climate, unlike Northern Rhone, which has more of a continental climate.  The main geographical identifier of Gigondas is the Dentelles de Montmirail, which is a small mountain range dividing the region into two areas.  One area is hotter, while the other is cooler.

I found the 2005 to have just the right amount of age (although it'll get better).  Food pairings with this wine can be fairly easy—tonight we opted for grilled pork tenderloin with balsamic fig reduction sauce, and it was off the hook!  Let me know your suggestions in the comments below.

Cheers!

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Wine+Food Pairing at the Indy Car Races

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Wine and food pairings can happen every day, but whether or not they're a good pairing is a different story.  Part of my shtick is taking the snootiness out of enjoying wine.  What better setting to test that than in the IZOD Indy Car press box at Infineon Raceway, located in Sonoma.  I'm always on the look out for good, flavorful food no matter what price range or style.  Your taste buds don't care.  Your taste buds care about sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami.

Here's what I found today:

Meatloaf used to creep me out as a kid.  But as I got older I realized you can make meatloaf with quality ingredients and flavorings.  My Gramma used make something similar called Grandma Jay's Hamburger Steak in Mushroom Gravy.  Today's wine+food pairing goes to show you can find good, balanced combinations just about anywhere.

Not only was the meatloaf surprisingly good, but check out the desserts!

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Vintage 2010 in Napa Valley: Sugar and Acidity

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Napa Valley
Image via Wikipedia

Two of the important things to look for in a wine are the fruit and the acidity.  There are a few easy ways to detect these markers in a wine.  You may have heard a wine described as "New World" or "Old World".  When you hear that, it's another way to say the wine is fruit-driven or acid-driven.

Basically, hot temperatures raise sugar content, and cold temperatures raise acidity.

But what do those things taste like?  Sugar content is perceived in New World wines via fruit-driven structure, and can describe wines from regions like the U.S., Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.  Acidity drives the structure in wines grown in colder climates like France, Germany and other European regions.  Many of those soils tend to be Limestone or gravel, rather than a volcanic soil like you might find in the U.S..  The way you sense acid is on the roof of your mouth towards the back.  If you swallow the wine and you get a lingering sensation in that area, you are picking up acidity.  Fruit driven wines tend to be sweeter and jammier, showing up on the front of the tongue (or palate).

In Napa Valley, there's a nice mix of temperatures that give the wines heat during the day, and cold temperatures at night.  The fruit and acidity live in concert with each other, but overall the wines are fruit driven.  This year, however, Napa is experiencing one of the coldest summers on record.  Know how you know that?  Well, besides the weatherman telling us so, Napa is usually starting harvest at this time of year.  But this year, grapes are still hanging on the vine because the fruit isn't ripe enough yet.  Harvest may not start for another three weeks  almost a month behind schedule!  That could be perceived as a bad thing, but it's not if you have the right wine maker.  What Napa may end up with is a rarity they don't have very often, which is higher than normal acid levels in the wines along with the higher sugar levels.  A winemaker who knows what they're doing may find their fruit has the best of both worlds.

Usually, Napa Valley gets a morning fog influence from the San Pablo bay that cools the grapes at night.  That blanket of fog is consistent almost every day in the summer months as the center of California heats up.  By mid day the fog burns off providing the right amount of heat and sunshine to increase sugar levels.  This is different than say, Walla Walla, Washtington where longer days at a higher latitude provide more sunshine for ripening, and cool temperatures at night.  At that latitude you're getting closer to Alaska, where summer days seem to last until midnight.  The sun is lower on the horizon, which means the heat isn't as intense.

So when you get to try any 2010 vintage wines from Napa, look for the acidity on the roof of your mouth toward the back.  The verdict on vintage 2010 will be out until the reds get released into the marketing some time in 2013.  Cheers!

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Rick's Picks: 2009 Domaine Breton Bourgueil Cabernet Franc

Catherine and Pierre Breton are leading a new movement of organic viticulture in the Bourgueil appellation of the Loire Valley.  I've had a few of their wines and have been impressed each time.  Their sparkling wine made from Chenin Blanc is one not to be missed.

I came across Domaine Breton wines at Kermit Lynch, one of my favorite wine shops in Berkeley.  The 2009 Domaine Breton Bourgueil Cabernet Franc demonstrates why this producer is gaining popularity in trendy shops and restaurants in Paris.  There was some distinct chalkiness in this wine as there is in wines grown in Limestone soils.  Limestone is prevalent in the Loire valley, which is nice.

It's a red and it's 2009 vintage.  Do the math and you'll see this wine was harvested about 10 months ago, give or take.  Although young, this Cab Franc was singing like a bird right out of the bottle.  Rich, full and well made.  Here's a few notes:

APPEARANCE

Color: Clear Brightness: Star Bright Red Color: Garnet Rim Variation: yes, pink at the edges Viscosity: Medium

NOSE

Condition: Clean Intensity: Medium Plus Aroma: Youthful Fruit: Red fruits, black cherry, quince Earth/Chalk/Forest

PALATE

Sweetness: Dry Body: Medium Fruit: Black cherry, stewed plum, cola, olive Earth/Chalk/Forest Alcohol: Medium Minus Acidity: Medium Complexity: Medium Plus Finish: Medium

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ONE YEAR!

Hard to believe how fast a year went by...  On August 1st of last year the Bakas family moved west to pursue a dream.

In the past twelve months I've had the privilege of meeting so many people across the country and share great wine.  Many of the people I've met are on this list you can 1-click follow on Twitter.

I've cooked up a deal for online friends to get the wine I'm going to celebrate with.  The newly released 2006 Napa Valley Merlot goes for $28/btl at the winery but on Thursday and Friday you can get it for about $16/btl including upgraded shipping!  Orders are in full cases (12 btls) only.

Here's the link to get the Merlot Use coupon code ONE YEAR when checking out to get the FED EX priority overnight shipping included at no charge.  When the order is filled and it ships out, it'll get to you the next morning.  Enjoy!

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5 Social Media Tips for Wineries & Wine Shops

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Few things bring people together like food and drink.  From the Roman empire on up through the ages to now, wine has served as the common thread that weaves together society though social gatherings.  Birthday parties, annual holidays, business functions, family dinners or just hanging with friends are settings where wine and conversation are likely to be found.

That bodes well for wineries and wine shops wanting to build their brand in social media.  The wine industry has a bit of an unfair advantage over other industries.  If we were using social media to talk about tires it wouldn't be nearly as sexy as talking about Chardonnay.

I've seen dozens of wineries who are trying to make sense out of social media and utilize what limited time they have to do something, anything just to avoid being left behind.  Well open up your mouths baby birds, because I've got a big fat night crawler for you.  Well, five actually.  Here's some answers to the test:

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1. Be Patient - It can work.  But it's not going to happen overnight.  The best analogy I can give is the example of planting vines.  You don't plant vines, then turn around and say, "where's my grapes?".  You have to wait 3-5 years before your vines produce fruit you can use.

Luckily, you don't have to wait 3-5 years for your social media vines to produce fruit, but you do have to nurture it and let your social presence grow organically.  If you do that, your social media presence will produce fruit consistently.  It's hard for winery owners to commit 100% to this concept, which is why some of them are failing at it, and ultimately writing off social media as a fad.

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2. Build Trust First, Then Sell Wine (maybe) - This is the secret.  It's the answer to the million dollar question.  It might blow your mind when I tell you in the past 12 months St. Supéry winery has offered to sell wine through social media a total of three times.  Yet, people are buying our wine and sales are up.  They're buying for a number of reasons, including the hard work of our CEO, VP of Sales, National Accounts guy, price adjustments, new winemaker and our stellar visitor center.  Social Media and Marketing is one cog in the engine.

The worst thing you can do is get online, then start pushing your product.  Nothing will dissuade trust faster.  In fact, that's literally the opposite of what this is all about.  As soon as someone opts in either by following on Twtiter or becoming a fan on Facebook, that is the beginning of a personal relationship.  That's the beginning of trust building.  You have to put faith in knowing your trust will create a tighter bond with consumers, which in turn will lead to sales.

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3. Establish a Personality - Wine drinkers would prefer to see a face or hear a voice.  If it's the winemaker, even better.  If it's the chef or owner, that's a great start.  Just putting the winery label out there is okay, but it's not very personal.  The consumer wants to get to know the people behind the brand.

Videos and photos are going to happen.  Attending wine and social media events is going to happen.  Before a consumer opens up their wallet, they want to know who they're buying from.  Adding the human element to interactions with customers through the face(s) of the winery allows the winery to show they care and are transparent.

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4. The Right Person isn't a Millennial - One of the biggest misconceptions is you need someone in their 20's.  It might seem like a good idea because twenty-somethings are cheaper to hire and are the main users of social media, right?  Wrong.  The largest demographic of wine drinkers online are women 35-55.  I'm a 40-year old male, and having some successes in this arena.  Gary Vaynerchuk is a 30-year old male and definitely having successes.  The right person is someone with emotional intelligence to responsibly represent a brand publicly.

I'm not saying someone right out of college won't work, just get someone for the right reasons.  This person is going to be holding your brand in their hands, which is why I tend to lean towards hiring someone internally rather than a so-called social media marketing firm or social media "guru".  Anyone who refers to themselves as such should give you reason to run in the other direction.

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5. Promote Everyone but Yourself - I'm really fortunate to work for the Skalli family at St. Supéry.  They understand we can't just talk about ourselves all day because that would be boring and one dimensional.  We often talk about everyone and everything but ourselves.  It blows people's minds when we promote our competitors online.  We do it because we're stewards of a legacy of collaborators.  Before any of us were born, grape growers used to work together and help each other out.  Luckily, in the realm of social media, you're rewarded for doing that.

If I had to guestimate, I'd say a winery's brand has little better than a 1:1 return on effort when self promoting.  But you get better than 2:1 when promoting members of the community.  Imagine that, you get rewarded for being positive and supportive.  Pretty cool concept.

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