Monday, August 29, 2005

Brother Timothy's Corkscrews

Brother Timothy, world reknowned cellar master for the Christian Brothers and pioneer of Napa Valley winemaking, had apparently a love for novelty paraphenalia. This impressive display of some of the near-2000 bottle opening tools from around the world (some dating back the the 18th century) is one of the most fascinating things about the Greystone campus and great for avoiding nerdy conversations before class.

How fabulous are these guys? I love the look on the waiter's face. The heads come off and are the handles of the screws.

Good thing he collected these before the PETA people found out....

OMG! Love the bulldogs!

A rare set of corkscrews belonging to members of the Spanish Inquisition...

It's a fishy! Yay!

Fun stuff. Much more fun that the 'Spice Islands Marketplace', also known as the campus Gift Shop, where you can buy your rubber chef clogs or a sweatshirt to prove to the folks back home that you the gift shop.

More on the campus soon....


Friday, August 26, 2005

Casa Nuestra Winery and Vineyards

Alder Yarrow of vinography suggested this destination. I drove into St. Helena on a Sunday, and all the Big Boy wineries were crammed with white-haired tourists, so I headed up the Silverado Trail instead. As it turned out, I would not have time to visit wineries during my class days, since class let out closer to 4pm (and by that time, all I wanted was to let my throbbing palate rest). So Casa Nuestra was one of only two tasting rooms I visited.

Ah. Yes. So much more my speed. A little yellow house canopied by trees, with a warm, rural "come on in" feel to it. What a contrast to the overwrought pretentions of so many other wineries in the valley. Could the wines likewise be charming? I couldn't wait to find out.

Only two other people were tasting when I walked in--a nice couple from somewhere up north on a weekend excursion. People who are unafraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger are a dying breed, so I love to find them when I can. The host on duty, Steven Bailey, was a perfect gentlemen and shared some of the low-down on water concerns in the valley. Casa Nuestra prides themselves on their responsible, eco-friendly agriculture (weed control is partially handled by two handsome Nubian goats).

The first pour was a rosato: 2004 St. Helena Estate Rosado. After tasting this, I knew I had found a winery that loved Old World French style wines as much as I do. This is rare in Napa valley, people. The blend on this bright, Loire valley style pinkie is 66% Merlot and 34% Cab Franc. It was light and soft, with bright strawberry fruit and ample minerality, and a good, long, clean finish. Nice.

My next wine was the 2002 St. Helena Estate Meritage, a St. Emilion style: mostly Merlot with Cab Franc and Cab Sauv. Oh, man, this was good: subdued, earthy, balanced, for the people. I'm guessing this wine would cellar very well for a few years.

Finally, I tasted the 2002 Cabernet Franc (100%). Less impressive than the first two, but still solid. Dusty dark berry fruit and nice minerality. Might improve with a few years.

Of all the Robert MonDuckhorn Whitehall Staglin Home wineries I could have visited, I'm glad I ended up at Casa Nuestra. Currently, they sell only on the premise and through their wine club, and if I hadn't been traveling, I would have stocked up. I highly recommend this as an off-the-beaten-path destination for those who really love great, traditional style wine.

Much, much more to come...


Thursday, August 25, 2005

Down in the valley

The CIA Greystone

View from the CIA Greystone Campus

Ah, Napa Valley. Beautiful, verdent, fertile, white, rich Napa Valley. She is a wonder to behold: every type of tree frames the valley floor, carpeted with acres upon acres of the Noblest of the Noble grapes. As one passes through Napa, Yountville, Oakville and Rutherford on a sunny but cool Sunday afternoon, one cannot help but marvel at the multitude of wineries, septuagenarians, and zeros behind fives on new development billboard advertisements.

Okay, I kid. Napa is lovely, and I met some great people there. But if all the Mexicans left en masse one day, there'd be a whole bunch of trembling white people, huddled in Dean and Deluca, wondering what the fuck to do next. That's all I'm saying.

Three Palms Vineyard

The class I attended at the CIA Greystone was part of a month-long intensive program intended to prep wine professionals for an exam that would earn them a certification from the CIA as a Wine Proffessional (CWP). I was unable to do the whole month (expensive and way more time off work than I can weasel out of my company) but wanted to check out one class and see if I couldn't learn a thing or two. I chose Mastering Wine II, since Mastering Wine I was closed and MWII could be taken without the first part. MWII dealt with some of my favorite varietals: the aromatic whites and the Rhone varietals, and also Zinfandel (which, in its popular port-like vinification, I can pass up quite happily).

I did learn a thing or fifteen, including the stinging lesson that I am not a bad-ass blind taster. Well, not yet. I hadn't yet truly blind tasted, for the sake of identifying varietal, country of origin, oak treatment, and boy did I bomb. (Northern Rhone syrah is nowhere close to Willamette Valley Pinot Noir! Who knew?) But I figured out why: I am the Queen of Overthinking, and now that I know this, I can trust my instincts.

Our instructor was Tim Geiser, Master Sommelier and head of Education for the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers. What he lacks in patience he makes up for in thoroughness, accuracy, frankness, and dry wit. Not your stereotypical MS: you do not want to get between this man and his ESPN (as I learned in the lobby of the El Bonita Inn).

We tasted around 16 wines a day, except for the day we drove up to the tippy-top of Rattlesnake Hill to visit the gnarly old Zinfandel vines. The soil is volcanic and super-rich in iron. Looks like freakin' Oklahoma up there. I'll write more about this vineyard later.

My next few posts will fill your hearts with California Dreamin' as I snatch the time from my schedule to report.

Clinkies for now...

Saturday, August 13, 2005

I'm leaving on a jet plane, people!

This time tomorrow, I'm on a plane headed to San Francisco, wherefrom I shall drive my little self in my rental car to St. Helena for a four-day varietal class at the CIA Greystone. I've never been to Napa; what will it be like? Will people be laid back, basking in the noonday sun, or sitting up in some swank-ass cafe, nibbling on Cal-Asian fusion cuisine and talking about labor problems with the Mexicans? Will I be able to purchase a sandwich for under ten dollars? Will there be any shop, hotel, or gas station bathroom not playing Vivaldi? I can't wait to find out.

After my class, I drive back to San Francisco, pick up my sistah over at Japan-O-Matic, and together we begin the 2005 Food, Wine and Kanji Tour of the city. I promise a full report!


Thursday, August 04, 2005

Texas Sugar Fig Grappa by Chef Will Packwood

Texas Sugar Fig Grappa

The girlies and I went out to Seven last night, a favorite destination for delectable fruits of both sea and vine. They have just recently opened their bar, which is a vast improvement to what was once a rather claustrophobic space. Seven has one of my favorite wine lists in all the land, with selections that compliment the food rather than comply with the lazy "I'll have a Chardonnay" diner. Crisp, bright Vermentinos, lovely Sancerres, and seductive White Burgundies are all there by the glass, just waiting to get next to some immaculately sauteed monkfish. There's even a Grignolino by the glass. Grignolino, if you've never come across it (it's pretty rare here) is an unusual light red with an almost orange hue, bright acidity, and heady aromas of white pepper, orange peel and flowers. It loves most lighter fish like Jesus loves Mary. God, I love Italian wine.

Anyway, I had been meaning to ask Chef Packwood to allow me to blog about an experiment in grappa that he's been working on, and after us ladies finished our wining, dining and dishing, I got the scoop.

When asked what kind of grappa he chose for this experiment, he told me the story of Julia Grappa, an Old World, remove-paint-from-surfaces kind of spirit that his Grandfather used to put the correcto in his cafe. He had seen a number of traditional grappa macerations, including golden raisins, black walnuts and even cumino, and decided to try his hand at concocting a few. His first is this Texas Sugar Fig Grappa, which I've been periodically nipping at since it was introduced to me a month or so ago. The macerated fig grappa is now three months old, and has probably developed as far as it will, according to Chef Packwood. I am really enamored with it. It is smooth and rich, and full of figgy goodness, and went quite well with the Maytag on our cheese plate.

If you ever find yourself in Austin, check out Seven on South Congress. It does not suck.

Clinkies, and thanks to Chef Will!

Monday, August 01, 2005

2002 Cusumano Sagana and Noa: Yawn.

I love Nero D'Avola because it has a peculiar, brooding personality. At its best, it smells of tomato leaf and dark, stewed fruit, with something savory lingering around the edges. At not-so-best, it gets stretched out of proportion in an attempt to make it Cal Cab-like.

The Cusumano wines came to us as direct import, although it didn't seem to make a difference in their retail (which I thought was the damn point). The low-end varietal wines, which retailed around eleven bucks, were fairly good. They sold well (once I put a sign on them that explained what the p-funk Nero D'Avola and Insolia were) and people came back for more. The higher end Chardonnay 'Jale', which was unoaked and quite nice, floundered until an eccentric, moneyed man fell in love and bought three cases of it (people are still reluctant, in my neck of the woods, to spend thirty bucks on Chardonnay from anywhere but California or France). The Sagana and Noa, however, have ended up on the sale rack as of late, so I grabbed one of each and brought 'em home.

Now, just check out the handsome bottle. I have a pic of Sagana here; Noa is the same, but with a black label. A stylishly bold label and heavy bottle boastfully pronounces itself a competitor in the Big Red Wine world. Okay, then, let's see what you're made of.

This wine is like going on a date with a tall, gorgeous, well-built man who is an absolute bore: nice package, nobody home. In an attempt to fit in to the demands of ratings and New World style, this wine is devoid of the dark, brooding beauty of Nero D'Avola. The palate is unecessarily fat with plush, dark fruit and little else. The finish is disappointing. And like a bad date, I tried to hang with it, thinking it might open up a little bit, reveal something complex, something worth the extra time. But no. Just a lot of empty posturing with nada to back it up.

Oh, Sicily! Why do you try to make Nero D'Avola into Cabernet? WTF with the malolactic fermentation? Please, for God's sake, spare this lovely grape!

I am almost too depressed to make note of the Noa. But I'll try. As a Cabernet/Merlot/Nero D'Avola blend, it makes sense that it is a fat, malo-tacular affair. This wine is actually more palatable to me, being chock full of cassis and blackberry, with nice soft tannins. Nevertheless, more than a couple of mouthfuls and I'm having those fantasies about Luan Bodegas 'Equis' again.

So these dullards, however well-rated, are definitely not on my list of fine Sicilian juice. I'm glad they're getting themselves on the map and all, but at what cost?