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Monday, June 13, 2011

What a Difference a Year Makes...

I’ve heard the saying ‘what a difference a year makes for,’ well, years.  It always sounded so cliché, so trite.  It’s a year, people.  A mere 365 days.  How much can actually happen? 

A year here and a year there had blurred together into nine years in publicity at HarperCollins Publishers.  A starter studio in Manhattan turned into a ten-year holding tank.  A year ‘round the world become five years filled with the best moments of my life, as well as a lot of head-banging as I tried to pen the next great memoir about an American abroad.  Year, schmear. 

Then, the oddest thing: my year actually happened. 

Circa January 2010, I was lamenting the state of my life with daily visits to the ice cream freezer at my local Food Emporium. I had no boyfriend to speak of (well, besides Ben and his best bud, Jerry), no job, no desire to keep working on my book, and if I’m being honest, little desire to get out of bed every morning.  I’d bagged the New York City Marathon to witness the birth of my nephewone of the best decisions I’ve ever madebut in the months afterwards, I had let that discipline wane.  I usually lived my life with an emphasis on the highs.  So, when my lows blew through town, they were usually really, really low.  I was depressed when my friend Darryl called one random afternoon.  (She might or might not have been equally depressed.)

“Wanna climb Kilimanjaro with me?” she asked.  “It’s for charity.”

“Sure,” I responded, not really thinking about the fact that a) I’d never really camped for more than a night, and b) I was a mess of a girl with no drive, ambition, or feeling whatsoever.  Yet, I was agreeing to tackle the world’s highest freestanding African mountain.  I reasoned it was something to look forward to.  Besides, Darryl often had big ideas.  I wouldn’t really wind up scaling a mountain.  In Africa, no less.

 “You sure?” she responded incredulously. 

“Yeah, why not? I’ve got nothing else going on…”

That phone call was the turning point.  It was followed by another phone call from Flying Kites, the organization in Kenya that was organizing the climb.  They were looking to expand their reach to New York City, and throw a fundraiser to highlight their children and their cause in Njabini, and they needed help in making those dreams into realities.  I signed up.  I had nothing else going on, remember?

All of a sudden, I had a lot going on.  And it felt great.  I was creating an event in New York City that had to deliverthis tapped my publicity bone.  I was working with new people and new organizations on a daily basisthis reaffirmed my social abilities.  I was attempting to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro over the summerthis would put me back on the road, and challenge my body.  It was all for the good of a charity in Africathis put it all into perspective.

April 20th—the night of the Flying Kites fundraiser—rolled around. For the first time in almost 5 years, I was on a work high.  The night was a wild success in terms of money raised, then the great-event-afterglow set in.  I needed to get back in the game. It was time to figure out how to mix my passion (travel) with my skills (networking, and I hoped, writing).  A hard few months logged with Flying Kites, and a challenging summer upcoming, I decided I needed a break.  I’d never been to the Riviera Maya in Mexico, and my dad had a timeshare property.  Why not? 

Still holding tight to my promise to keep my rediscovered confidence in focus, I threw my hat into the ring as a freelance writer.  I had tons of contacts from my book publishing days, I would tap them to make travel editor introductions, and pitch some stories—Mexico and Africa, for starters.  Newsday bit immediately.  Mexico!  I would get to publish a cover story on Riviera Maya.  A year ago, that story ran, and with it a fire had ignited within me.  Travel writing, huh?  I can do this, I told myself.  An excerpt from my book for Women’s Adventure, a piece on Uruguay for the Miami Herald, and then an assignment on Dubai for the Wall Street Journal followed.  I was on top of the world.  I signed up for Twitter, created a new Facebook page for my work, and began to go after more editors and snag bigger jobs.

Cut to today.  Fifteen print pieces, over a hundred online pieces, and a solid resume.  A trip to Africa, and a Kilimanjaro climb, and a year of traveling and writing—the two things I set out to conquer as my career.  I’ve just begun to branch out into the culinary world, doing reviews, and covering the intersection between travel and food, attended the James Beard Awards (!), am exploring intellectual travel reality production, and reconsidering my book.  I can finally embrace the cliché: what a difference a year makes.

Of course, I’m never satisfied with just minor success, so I can’t help but wonder what next year holds.  (Or do you only get one?) My own travel column. International bestseller. Television pilot. A townhouse in the West Village.  A pied-a-terre in Buenos Aires.  Prince Charming (rocking a laid-back travel vibe). The happily ever after…

What?  A girl can dream, can’t she?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Maize, Blue and Beard

When I received word that I’d been cleared to attend the 2011 James Beard Awards, I had to sit down and compose myself.  Like the rest of you, I’ve been overspending my paychecks on good food and wine for the past fifteen years in the name of quality culinary experiences. For the better part of the 90’s, I studied the NYC Zagat Survey with the due diligence of a medical student studying for the MCAT. In the early 2000’s, I wined and dined my media clients based on the latest opening deemed fashionable by New York Magazine. I fancied myself a bon vivant, and quickly became the go-to girl in my social circles for advice, reservation, and night out suggestions on anything and everything food.  I obliged. Please, I relished the role.

In 2005, I took that act on the road, and began munching my way around the globe, slowly uncovering the world’s culinary canvases over the course of a few years—India, Vietnam, Peru, Thailand, Mexico, Spain, Zanzibar, Puerto Rico, France.  That’s when it hit me: I was a total novice.  New York had nothing on the world.  Returning to the States, some of my best meals taken from carts on nondescript streets that snaked along the Mekong Delta or no-name cafes that fronted tiny European village towns, I realized that a whole new food experience existed for me in my home city.

Fresh from the global table, I found myself craving some hard-to-find flavor palettes. I wanted a Pad Thai from Bangkok’s Khao San Road, a dosa from the tiny storefront outside of the Sunder Nagar community in New Delhi, a Brazilian feijoada, or just-caught green mussels from a pub in Wellington, New Zealand where I mistaken for Meadow Soprano (yes, really).  I couldn’t count on the latest trendy spot to deliver these delicacies or the emotional connections that accompanied them. I had to dig deeper. That’s when I began to really scratch the surface. Not only did I discover new restaurants, I discovered ethnic treasures, I discovered “joints,” and I discovered the responsible chefs. Promptly, I fell in love with many of them.

I just recently started to write about food, and more importantly, the interplay between food and travel.  When I found out that the theme at this year’s Beard Foundation Awards was “The Ultimate Melting Pot,” as cliché as that might be (especially since the awards take place in New York City), I just couldn’t help but smile.  Clichés aside, it makes sense. 

Still, I’m just a bystander to all of this James Beard noise.  So, while I know all of the players by sight, (or Food Network shows), for the most part, nobody knows me. Of course, this works in my favor. I won’t get lambasted like my old friend Alan Richman, or worshipped like Sam Sifton.  Well, yet.  Solely dependent on my taste buds, I’m still undeterred by popular vote (or $100,000 furnished by the makers of Glad). But what I do know is what I like to eat and drink, and I most certainly have a list of favorites. I was thrilled to find that many faces and places I adored were on the list of James Beard Award nominees. Heck, some I’ve even interviewed or reviewed.  Maybe, just maybe, I did know people, after all.

For the first time as a food writer, I donned a little black cocktail dress and my best Louis Vuitton stilettos, and with a tattered notebook sticking out of my evening bag and my iPhone charger as sexy accessories, I spent the better part of the day taking furious notes on the sights and sounds of this highly anticipated affair. I noticed that many of my fellow journalists brought their laptops to save them from the finger cramping and rapidly deteriorating visibility on their smart phone screen (hastened by beverages, of course), but felt confident with my note-taking decision.  I mean, really, what would I do with my laptop at the after-parties? 

I bypassed the green carpet of personalities, too shy to actually command a culinary passerby with the dexterity of an E! News reporter, and slipped into the press room at fabled Avery Fisher Hall.  The Meatball Shop (another review favorite) was catering the affair—succulent spicy meatballs, pillowy parmesan polenta—and as the show began, I took a look at my surroundings. Then, I caught my breath.  In the house was Drew Nieporent, Andrew Zimmern, Bobby Flay, Daniel Boulud, Dan Barber, Michelle Bernstein, Emeril, Floyd Cardoz, Tom Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michael White, Ted Allen, Anne Burrell, Bobby Flay, Jose Garces, Duff Goldman, Marcus Samuelsson, Gabrielle Hamilton, Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, Ming Tsai, and Traci Des Jardins, to name but a few.  Talk about name-dropping.  Gulp.

Though the music was cheesy, the introductions poorly scripted, and the speeches less than Oscar-polished, the James Beard Awards had me at hello. Overall, New York restaurateur Danny Meyer stole the night with a total of three Beards—outstanding restaurant award 
went to Eleven Madison Park, Angela Pinkerton for pastry chef at the same, and The Modern nabbed outstanding wine service award under the direction of Belinda Chang. But tying it all together for me was the Great Lakes region best chef winner (this includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio contenders). Drumroll, please…  Alex Young 
of University of Michigan favorite Zingerman's Roadhouse got the love. Standing up there, representing the Maize and the Blue, my maize and blue, he thanked the Foundation "for recognizing mac 'n cheese and fried chicken." And while I know I ate well in college (I gained way over fifteen pounds), I didn’t know that I ate that well.  Serving as a benchmark for how far I had come since my days in Michigan, both in food and in writing, it was the win that resonated most for me.

While the James Beard Avery Fisher Hall gala was touted as the main event, the 2011 book, broadcast and journalism awards were announced a few nights prior. Being a writer, I think it’s equally important to tip my notebook to those winners, winners I can only hope to emulate one day.  They include Amanda Hesser's Essential New York Times Cook Book, the LA Weekly's Jonathan Gold, Top Chef: Season 7, Twitter handle Ruth Bourdain in the new humor category, 60 Minutes' José Andrés segment with Anderson Cooper, Jordan Mackay and Rajat Parr’s book Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World's Top Wine Professionals, Benjamin Wallace’s New York magazine profile of Keith McNally, Grub Street New York, and the San Francisco Chronicle's food section. 

What a night, what an honor.  Man, I hope I get the nod again next year…

If you want to check out my Huffington Post coverage of the James Beard Awards, you can access that post here. Also check out my reviews of James Beard Award winners on my Restaurant Column and articles on The Huffington Post:

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Bon Jour, Marie!


I know a few things about this place, this country that shares our border and in many ways, our sensibilities.  Canada knows hockey.  Canada’s citizens have free health care.  Canada’s flag is red and white and features a maple leaf.  The Canadian anthem is “O Canada.”  The Olympics were held in Calgary in 1988 when I was in high school (eek!) and Vancouver last year. People in Canada say “eh” in the same way that we say “you know.” You know?  Sadly, this is where my knowledge ends.  Translation: Canada is unchartered territory.

So, when I arrived into the Montreal airport, a mere 53-minute flight, I really didn’t know what to expect.  But man, was the airport clean—I mean Singapore cleanand shit, it was cold.  It was dumping outside, just the throes of a winter dusting in these parts, which was a positive since I was headed up to Mont Tremblant, the #1 eastern North American ski resort for 13 years running, according to Ski Magazine. Automatically, I was impressed.

It took 2+ hours to get from Montreal to Tremblant (usually a 1+ hour journey) because of the snow. I was in the company of Alain Labarre, the sales guy for Chateau Beauvallon, the property at which I was staying.  Owned by friends of friends in Park City (where they have a great spot called Club Lespri), they insisted I check out the Tremblant property, purchased last summer.  As if they had to ask me twice.  I was thrilled for another excuse to take a ski trip, and happy to add Tremblant to my travel writing repertoire.

When I first corresponded with Alain Labarre over email, I imagined an international man of mystery coming to greet me in a long trench with a dashing accent. “I will carry a sign with your name,” wrote Labarre, and when I slid past customs, there he was with the sign, even though only one other person waited on an arrival.  There was a trenchit was bright red, shin length, and insulated.  There was an accentit was French.  His 15-year old son was joining us for the ride north. I quickly let go of the international Canadian man of mystery potential and strapped into the front seat of Alain Labarre’s silver hatchback.  Hey, a girl’s gotta dream…

The drive was a total whiteout, and though I was vaguely aware of traveling through mountains, surrounded by nature, it was lost on me in my first Canadian moments.  I hoped for a sunny day to appreciate my environs.  When we got to Chateau Beauvallon, however, my breath caught.  The website didn’t do this place justice!  A huge yellow barnlike chateau swept across the snowy land.  Red double doors beckoned me inside, an open lobby attended by chattering French Canadian staff greeted me, and then Francoise, my hostess, was introduced.  With all the charm and grace of the French woman, and the down-to-earth ease of a Canadian woman, I knew Francoise and I were going to be fast friends. 

Ensconced in my suite—Beauvallon’s property is all one and two bedroom suites—I waited out the snow, a blazing fire for company.  A massage treatment (Jing Shin Do mind body acupressure—highly recommended if you can sustain belief that lightly touching pressure points can relieve tension), room service and the Bachelor episode later, I woke to the most glorious ski day I’d seen since…Park City.  At 7:00, a shrill ringing pierced my REM.  More ringing.  More ringing.  Oh. My. God. Where is that coming from, I screamed at the wall.  By about the 13th ring, I realized it was my phone. 

“Bon Jour, Marie,” sang Francoise.  “It is me, Francoise.”  Now, it’s really hard to be mad at one of the loveliest women you’ve ever met greeting the day with a perfectly rendered bon jour. 

“Bon Jour, Francoise,” my sleepy voice tried to sing back, though I’m sure it sounded off-key and foul. 

“So, 8:30 is good for you to leave for ski with Guy, my husband, and my kids, oui?” Husband?  Kids?  I had assumed I’d be skiing a leisurely day with…myself.  “Guy used to teach ski, so if you want a lesson, he will give you.  My kids are on school break, so they come with you, oui?” 

Wiping sleep from my eyes, I squeaked out my own oui and threw the covers over my head.  Fuck, I needed to get myself some coffee and a better attitude.  Stat!

Though the 8 AM hour has never been my hour, within minutes of meeting Guy, Marie-Lou, and Guillaume, I knew I was in good company.  Suddenly, I wasn’t worried about personality conflict; I was worried about my skiing. I’ve suffered through the countless rantings of my various ski-perfect friends pushing me toward a lesson (“you’re a good skier, but you can be awesome if you’d just tweak your form”), but pride forbid such nonsense.  I would go through life a semi-good skier with terrible form.  Period.

The first slope was a breezy blue ride. But as we came off the lift for run number two, Guy headed the way of a black diamond.  Oh no!  The last black diamond at Canyons had me crying through an off-course, tree-strewn adventure cursing Darryl as we went. But before I could tell Guy this awful little anecdote, the kids were flying over moguls and blasting through powder in polite wait for the American slowpoke their mom cast on them.  So, I swallowed and followed.  Halfway down, I looked at Guy, and bit the bullet.  “Okay, I’m yours,” I began slowly. “What am I doing wrong?”  In my head, I heard the simultaneous applause of ski friends around the globe.

“It’s not what you’re doing wrong, it’s what you need to do right,” Guy smiled as he leaned forward on his poles in discussion.  And that was all Guy had to say.  When he showed me what I should be doing, rather than what I shouldn’t, my whole game changed.  I was confident, my body felt balanced, and I flew alongside the kids.  The rest of the day was glorious.  Double black diamonds, switchbacks, even Expo, the hardest slope with a severe pitch—you name it, I skied it.  Tremblant?  Peanuts.  Puh-lease.

The rest of my time in Tremblant was spent in exploration.  Surrounded by lakes, Tremblant reminded me an East Coast equivalent of Lake Tahoe mixed with the charm of a Swiss ski town atmosphere.  Coming off the slopes, the colorful architecture of the town painted a playful silhouette on the horizon. Dotted with shops, bars, restaurants, and hotels, Tremblant was a cozy little spot that worked quick magic on visitors.  Add in chocolate, poutine (fries with cheese and gravyI know!), crepes, fresh-baked baguettes, and crocks of French onion soup for sustenance, this was the life!  

When it came time to say goodbye to Francoise, Guy, Marie-Lou, Guillaume, the Chateau Beauvallon, and Mont Tremblant, I wasn’t ready to go.  This was a special place filled with comfort and friendship, all set against the backdrop of a Quebecois mountain.  I knew I’d be back in summer to see the beauty of the lakes, and in winter to continue my mastery of skiing and not feel bad about eating multiple poutine servings a week.  As I got into my car to head back to Montreal for my next adventure, I was excited.  Canada was turning out to be grand.

Note: If you’re interested in a few fun facts about our neighbor to the north, check out this fact sheet I found online.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Spit, Don't Swallow!

I know, I know...

It's been a long time since I've given my Marie's World blog any love. I've been running around countries and cities trying to make a living, but that's a whole other blog. Which I will write. Soon. No, really, I promise. For now, I'm going to stay current and share some of my recent history, rather than the missing three months of entries I have yet to write. So, here goes...

What a whirlwind weekend! A travel and food writer, I’ve been focused on far-off destinations and exotic locales, barely stopping to check out what was happening in my own backyard. Luckily, Leslie Sbrocco and the Thirsty Girl gang were quick to remind me that the New York Wine Expo was taking place at the Javitz Center this past weekend. As a New York Thirsty Girl, I just had to attend. 

Leslie has been informing my drinking palate over the past year, and Kristen, her gorgeous partner in crime, had taken me on a whirlwind tour of Napa and Sonoma during fall harvest. In my continued wine education, the New York Wine Expo was just the thing I needed to keep pushing me in a more savvy direction. It was a perfect one-two hit, as the New York Times Travel Show, the other event on my weekend’s appointment calendar, was taking place next door! Wine plus travel; what could be better?

I arrived on Friday night primed for some tasting. Leslie was hosting a seminar Taste Wine Like a Pro: Learn the Secrets of Tasting Through a Blind Tasting when I arrived, captivating the audience with her easy, fun-loving approach to the enjoyment of wine and tasting. After collecting my tasting glass, I headed off. Over 700 wines, almost 200 winemakershow would I get through it all?  Confession: it wasn’t that hard. Through Leslie and Thirsty Girl I’ve learned that committing to wine is a pleasure, not a chore.

With exhibitors from some of my favorite regions in Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and the Rhône Valley, I stopped in for some familiar sips of Tempranillos, Alentejo reds, Malbecs, and Côtes du Rhônes. I was thrilled to stumbled across the Graham’s & Dow’s Port table, one of my favorite indulgences from Portugal. In sampling these favored regions, I discovered a few new additions to my regular rotation. 

In Spain, I enjoyed the Zagarrón Sandogal Ciranza Selección, an especially lush Tempranillo, and Las Reñas from Dos Familias Importers, cheap and easy everyday reds. In Argentina, I swooned over the Vinorum Bradsen Gran Reserva, a 100% Malbec affair. In the Rhône Valley, I discovered the Côtes du Rhône, Familie Quiot--Château du Trignon and the Côtes du Rhône, Ogier, “Les Moirets.” Both were light and fruity, not too tannic. Hands down, these two were my favorite new wines of the night.

Chatting with the various distributors, I learned about Ice Cider from Vermont (too sweet), Jam Jar sweet Shiraz from South Africa (way too sweet), sparkling Shiraz from Australia (delicious), and a new Pinot from Napa’s Fulcrum Wines. I also turned onto wine regions in places I didn’t know were making wine—The Finger Lakes in New York, Santorini, Greece, and Brazil—and wondered how to work these lesser publicized wine destinations into my work as a travel writer.

At the end of the night, I jumped over to the Thirsty Girl booth to say goodnight to Leslie and company. There, a couple of old favorites like the Ravenswood Zinfandel (Sonoma) and the Matua Valley Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand) begged favor before a hint of bubbles sent me back onto the well-traveled New York City road. Now I admit, I didn’t always spit, so I was a bit wobbly for wear, but I came out of it in one piece and with a fair amount more knowledge about one of my favorite!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ode to the Michaels

The next day, we woke early to meet Michael Terrien, a contact sent my way through an old HarperCollins author named Michael Sanders.  Terrien had assisted Sanders on his wine books, and was a man with his Napa Valley hands full.  Little did we know that by the end of the day, we would find ourselves equally blessed by Terrien’s hand.

Terrien made his own wines under a company called Tricycle Wine Company.  Three wines coming out of the Carneros region that were bottled under the labels Molnar Family, Kasmer & Blaise, and Obsidian Ridge, they had a cult-like following and we were advised not to miss them.  Then, there was Terrien’s highly touted project with Kenzo Tsujimoto, the Japanese businessman responsible for such gaming phenomena as Street Fighter and Resident Evil.  Mention Kenzo and his company, CAPCOM, to my girlfriends and there was no recognition.  Mention Kenzo to any of my male friends and their eyes lit up.  “Street Fighter, duh!  I used to play that for days on end when I was a kid.”  You learn something new every day…

Tricycle operates out of Domaine Carneros, a sand colored, regal property in Carneros.  There on a barrel, amid winemaking staff tending to vats of grapes, Terrien had displayed all of his wines, including the new Half Mile, a Cabernet in its first vintage that I loved.  In contrast, the Kenzo estate is far up in the hills of Mt. George.  When you’re buzzed onto the property—a whopping 4,000 acres—it takes another ten minutes to reach the main winery.  Everything is lush at Kenzo; the grounds are meticulously manicured, the tasting room is impeccable, and of course, visits to Kenzo are by appointment only.  There, we were introduced to another fabled name that would come to resonate over the next 24 hours: Thomas Keller.

Power attracts power, so it follows that Keller’s Bouchon Bakery would supply the bites for Kenzo Estate.  Paired with our $150 Ai Cabernet and $75 Rindo were $10 Bouchon sandwiches.  $60 for the whole tasting/sandwich she-bang.  But it works.  The wines were spectacular (Yes, I bought a couple of bottles; No, I don’t know who I think I am), and the experience fulfilling.  Plus, I was experiencing it before most of the public.  (Yes, really.  No, I don’t know who I think I am).  When our time at Kenzo was finished, I was loath to leave.  When would I ever get to casually sip me some Kenzo again?  I’m just a writer, after all.

Our last night in wine country called for something big and since it’s impossible to get into French Laundry on short notice (sorry, at all…) if you’re not Gael Greene, we decided to hit Ad Hoc, Keller’s highly praised price-fixe joint.  As we sidled up to the bar, we were immediately identified as bait for Chris, an Usher-type in a newsboy cap (30-something tip: the kids are calling this a “newsie”) with a penchant for saying things like “Oh my God, who are you?” or “You are so amazing, I have to know you” in full seriousness.  Did this kind of crap work in the Napa Valley?  Really, Chris…come on!

Turns out, Chris was a food runner at French Laundry who, like most things associated with Keller, elicits a certain confidence.  Ignoring our cues, Chris sent over wine after wine for us to try, while the bar staff served us course after delectable course (cucumber salad, tenderloin with Brussels sprouts, cheese).  Nick, the super-sweet manager of Ad Hoc, finally caught on and befriended us in Chris-less safety.

Re-enter Michael Terrien.

When Nick heard about our day with Michael Terrien and our time at Kenzo, he assumed us more knowledgeable (and privileged) than we actually were.  He disappeared into the back room and, when he returned, it was with a bottle of, gasp, the Kenzo Rindo.  Was Nick kidding?  Did Keller restaurants often open bottles of $75 wine for neophytes?  (Yes, really.  Again.  No, I don’t know who I think I am).  So there, with the staff of Ad Hoc, under the steady gaze of Chris the food runner who continued to spoil us with Billecart Salmon champagne, we dined like Napa Valley queens, once again proving Napa to be a place of generosity and kindness if you just allow yourself to scratch the surface.

After a new morning spent with Bruce Neyers, another Michael Sanders connection, Nick met us at Keller’s Bouchon, a posh (and delicious) French bistro down the road from Ad Hoc.  There, I wound up in screaming cell phone match with my father, which proved to be very un-Napa-like not to mention very unladylike.  Five days in the country had taken its toll and my internal temper was begging for a bit of some hot city action. 

Bidding Nick adieu three cases, 10 vineyards, and countless tastes after we entered wine country, we crossed the Bay Bridge back into San Francisco and checked into the Clift Hotel.  But what a hell of a finish! 

Thank you, all!  
(But especially the Michaels…)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Kindness of (Most) Napa Strangers

A stop at the annual Food & Wine party on our second night made me realize that regardless of the open-armed, accessible experiences in Sonoma, the snooty wine mentality still exists in some circles.  A nameless editrix bedecked in ill-chosen animal print boots shook my hand with, gasp, two fingers when introduced through a mutual friend.  Wow.  As if full contact might have sullied her bony, manicured hand.  Maybe she’s a germ-a-phobe and I’m speaking out of turn, I thought to myself as I sized her up.  Then, I snapped out of making excuses, and went back for more free cheese in consolation.

Though the party was stuffy, the location was divine.  Held at the absolutely stunning Carneros Inn, the night was my intro to the fabled terrain of Napa Valley.  First stop the next morning: Robert Sinskey Vineyard.  An organic and biodynamic operation, Sinskey works with nature to create their wine, employing solar panels, trucks and tractors on biodiesel, and an electric ATV to get around the property.  An organic grower since 1991, Sinskey isn’t the usual stop on the Napa circuit, and I was thrilled that I heeded the repeated recommendation to make the stop.

At Sinskey, we participated in the Farm to Table pairing, a concept developed by Maria Sinskey—part of the husband (winemaker) and wife (chef) team that makes up this innovative label.  The Sinskeys emphasize the interaction between food and wine, preferring to focus on the enjoyment of both, rather than the commercialization of their brand.  In literature that accompanies each wine, Maria offers food pairings (and corresponding recipes) for each label.  At the Farm to Table flight, we popped some of those very recipes: tomato and basil, zucchini and Parmesan tartlets, herbed almonds, and soft cheese crostinis.  The very receptive Kaine, who took us on a tour of the property—a beautiful spot off Silverado Trail—furthered our education by letting us sample each and every wine that Sinskey bottles.  By noon, having not mastered the art of spitting, I admit that I was thoroughly (and happily) blitzed.  Kristen, thankfully a more conscientious spitter, drove.

After lunch in Napa town at ZuZu, a tapas joint that Kaine recommended, we arrived for our blending seminar at the mighty Franciscan.  Here, we would get the chance to play winemaker.  A choose-your-own-Bordeaux-varietal experiment—and a very cool wine activity—we mixed and matched Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc in an attempt to replicate Francisan’s marquee label: Magnificat.  Bottom line: my blend sucked.  Literally, it tasted like dirt juice, which seriously bummed me out.  I had made such wine strides over the past few days, but clearly, winemaking was not my second calling.  Our very serious wine educator tried to make me feel better with lame jokes, but as I saw Darryl struggling to keep her bloodshot eyes open, I knew we had hit our wall.  I finally understood why we were advised to stick to two wine stops per day.  And, I now concur.

Kristen left us to our own devices in our little cottage at Franciscan.  Bigger than my apartment by hundreds of square feet, we needed a nap.  Three days of being winos-in-training had begun to take its toll.   But when, at 9 PM, our internal body clocks woke us up for another drink, we obliged and headed up the road to Farmstead for dinner, wondering just how many alcoholics resided in the Napa Valley.  For the week, we upped that number by two.

Napa is glossy and polished compared to Healdsburg but we soon learned that all you have to do is scratch the surface, and the rest will fall into place.  Sitting at the Farmstead bar—the restaurant associated with Long Meadow Ranch—Doreen the bartender chatted us up.  Dotted around the bar were a bunch of folks drinking from the same bottle: Wicker Vineyards Cabernet.  “Tell us about Wicker,” we prodded Doreen.  “Well, Ron could probably do better than me,” Doreen said as she pointed across the bar to an older gentleman with soft features and bright eyes.  “That there’s Ron Wicker himself” 

Next thing you know, we’re knee deep in a conversation with Mr. Wicker—the man on the label.  Retailing for about $150, Wicker was wickedly out of our price range, but we tasted this glorious wine and got his story during some complimentary tastes from his bottle.  Ron had been in the wine business for 40 years, growing and delivering fruit to other vineyards.  The culmination of a career, in 2001, he debuted his own Cab to stellar reception.   A mailing list only distribution, Wicker was already sold out of the upcoming vintage.  Ron Wicker embodied the persona of the types we had come to Napa to meet.  A true gentleman, he invited us to his home for lunch in the coming days to sample a Chardonnay he and his wife had been saving for “just the right occasion.”  As we closed down Farmstead, we promised we would try to fit in the stop.

Two-fingered handshakes?  Animal print boots?  Puh-lease.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ooooh, Luuuuuccccy!

Ever wake up on a vineyard?  Me neither.  Well, until a couple of weeks ago.  I won’t lie; it didn’t suck.  Sleep in my eyes, my country house bed was super-duper-comfortable, but I just couldn’t linger in quilts and sheets when the clock struck 8.  My usual wake-up ritual (snoozing 6-10 times) didn’t stand up in wine country.  Sunlight shimmered on the rows and rows of vines outside my dew-laced window.  Hanging gently, waiting to picked off for a bit part in some winemaker’s divine inspiration, fields of cabernet called my name.  In flip-flops, pajama bottoms, and a sweatshirt, messy bun high atop my head, I cupped my mug of Joe and headed out to wake myself up…Sonoma style.

 I didn’t want to leave the cozy of the vineyardan abandoned farm off in the distance begged exploration, the tractor looked lonelybut discovery waited patiently for us at Ravenswood.  Day Two would include a quarry visit to the Ravenswood cellars, followed by a lunch pairing and tasting with “Godfather of Zin” Joel Peterson.  Joel was a legend in the industry, revolutionizing the cultivation and sale of Zinfandel in California.  His son Morgan has since followed in his footsteps, playing chemist to his own crops of grapes.  The Petersons were a bonafide wine family and I couldn’t wait to meet them.  Kristen and Joel went back, but Joel and I had our own connection: Dan Halpern, Ecco’s front man, and one of my biggest publishing heyday supporters.  The two shared memories during San Fran’s literary prime, and once I met Joel, with his shock of white hair and easy confidence, it made sense that he and Dan were buddies.  As a result, I knew my day would be a blast.

 After tasting from the barrels while simultaneously ogling all the young Ravenswood boys on harvest internships making their rounds, Joel whisked Darryl off in his Tesla (color: British Racing Car Green) to meet Kristen and I at the Ravenswood winery.  We would be guests of Joel’s for lunch, a pairing that would include Ravenswood’s many Zins, as well as other winery-only offerings. 

After a lively discussion about rosés, and an attempted conversion with a tasting of a dry Ravenswood sampling—no dice, I still dislike rosé—we began a three-hour feast set against the backdrop of the Mayacamas mountain range.  Again my palate had a mind of its own, reacting strongly (and positively) to the buttery San Jacomo 2008 Chardonnay.  I knew I would fall in deep, passionate love with the 1993 Belloni Zinfandel (of which I purchased the 2007 vintage), and the Icon 2007, a mixed black varietal that did somersaults on my tongue.  We finished with a 2009 Moscato, and as with the rosé, I couldn’t be swayed.  But if you think Ravenswood is just a house of Zinfandel, think again.

Circa 3 PM, we headed to Kutch Wines where a steel tank of pinot noir waited on our arrival.  It was stomping time—to my surprise not just a funny scene in an old “I Love Lucy” episode!   Huge steel bins loomed large, and after a quick change into jean shorts and tanks, up onto the boards we went.  Yes, yes…alcohol was used to clean our bare feet before entry, but once we sank down into layers of fermenting pinot noir, I couldn’t help but enjoy myself.  Stems tickled my toes, full fruit squished under my body’s weight, and slowly, I stomped.  It’s harder than it looks, and the sloshing liquid seeping towards my gams, surrounding my calves, knees, and ankles was freezing.  Within a couple of weeks, the activity from the grapes would naturally heat up the tank, but we got there early, so we got the ice-cold stomp.  Figures…

Stomping was followed by tasting from Kutch’s barrels.  Using a thief—which looks a little like a turkey baster—Jamie stole a bit from this barrel and a bit from that one, mixing into our glasses what would ultimately become bottled Kutch wine.  The fruits of one barrel might be from one farm, whereas the grapes from another barrel were from a different region, he explained.  Blending the barrels took patience and savvy.  We were amazed watching Jamie.  All I kept thinking was: how do you know what you’re doing?   See, Jamie was once a finance guy!  Your typical run-of-the-mill Merrill Lynch suit.  Then, he gave it all up for a dose of the good life out in Cali.  He posted his plans on Robert Parker’s chat room board, and the rest is history.  His first vintage got 93 points from Wine Spectator!  He’s become quite a Sonoma star.  Watching him was like watching a great chef at work.  Only his dish is liquid.

Being a small label, Kutch Wines are only available by mailing list.  Normally, Kutch sells out quickly, mere days after going on sale, but you can access it here and pre-order now.  The wines in the barrels (and in the steel tank) will be bottled in February, and I’m already on the list for a good sampling, including the limited edition Marie/Darryl Pinot blend!