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Nov 23, 2009

Monterey’s Great Wine Escape Weekend

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Earlier this month I attended Monterey's annual Great Wine Escape Weekend and had a fabulous time. But who wouldn’t? The scenery is gorgeous everywhere you go. Outdoor and cultural activities abound. The cuisine is splendid, with top-rated chefs taking full advantage of just-picked produce in the region known as America's "salad bowl.” Not to mention just-caught fish landed by the local fleets, and locally-raised farm animals.

And, of course, there was the wine. In the last decade or so many of California's wine-growing regions have emerged from the huge shadow cast by Napa and Sonoma with strong contenders of their own. One of the greatest success stories is Monterey County, which is producing sensational wines with intense varietal flavors. In an upcoming post I’ll discuss a few of these wines in more detail, but right now I’d like to pass on a few highlights of my trip just in case you’ll be heading coastward sometime soon.

Monterey Plaza Inn and Spa

Monterey Plaza Inn and SpaI stayed at the luxurious and excellent Monterey Plaza Inn and Spa, located on the bay side of Cannery Row. Whoever designed this hotel had the priorities straight: no matter where I walked or stood I was confronted with a view of that big blue bay and the endless Pacific stretching beyond. Throughout the public area are dozens of viewing platforms, balconies, plazas, umbrella tables, benches, and chairs where you can lounge while gazing outward. The huge lobby offers a veritable surfeit of comfy couches, all arranged in cozy conversational groupings with full-on views.

I criss-crossed the outdoor piazza half a dozen times a day as I came and went, catching those awesome views at dawn, when the sky turned pink with the rising sun; at mid-day, when everything seemed to be one shade or another of blue; and late at night, when lights twinkled all the way down the Monterey Peninsula.

My room was quite spacious and beautifully done. Even the best hotels seem to have boring art on the walls, but there was something here—a reproduction of an ancient Monterey Bay map—that I would like to own. I had a pretty garden view (water views are much more expensive). The highly-rated Duck Club Grill is here, as well as the more casual Schooners Bistro. A full-on spa and a fitness center are resident, but, alas, I never had time to use either one.

River Road Wine Trail

hahn_estates If you’re into visiting wineries, you can’t miss with the absolutely beautiful drive along the River Road Wine Trail in the Santa Luca Highlands, where a dozen or so wineries—including Paraiso, Sleepy Hollow, Smith & Hook, and La Estancia—reside in bucolic splendor (many are open for tasting). Spending some time here, sampling wines and enjoying a picnic, would make for a memorable experience.

The Highlands became an AVA in 1991. The vineyards planted high in the southeast facing terrace of the Santa Lucia mountains, looking out toward Salinas Valley, experience long sunny days tempered by elevation and cool maritime breezes in the afternoon—particularly good conditions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In the warmer canyons and slopes, Syrah and other Rhone-type grapes do quite well.

As always, I encourage winery goers to drive with care. If you know you’ll be sampling a lot, consider going with a professional driver. In Monterey, as in many wine regions, you'll find something to suit just about any pocketbook, from private limos to van tours. Our media group was very happy with Ag Venture Tours; they have pre-set tours you can join, or can work with you to craft a personalized itinerary.

Carmel Valley Wineries

chateau_julienAnother great wine adventure awaits on a drive through Carmel Valley, where many boutique wineries and tasting rooms have sprung up in recent years.

Our group of writers visited the tasting rooms for Heller Estate Organic Vineyards, Joyce Vineyards, and Robert Talbott Vineyard and Winery.

At the impressive Chateau Julien Winery Estate (pictured to the left) we sampled not only their excellent wines, but those of Galante Vineyards and Cima Collina. We also had a knockout lunch in one of the private rooms.

All the wines we sampled that day were excellent—not just my opinion but that of most of the other writers—but my favorite wines of the day were from family-owned Joyce Vineyards. The story about how this family got into winemaking to begin with is pretty interesting: after buying land high on a Carmel Valley hillside, they determined that the slope behind their house was so extreme that a landslide might wipe them away, so they decided to plant vegetation to hold down the soil. Grapes seemed a logical choice, given the southwest facing slope and loamy chalk rock soil, and so in 1987 they planted their first grapes.

As it turned out, Dr. Joyce had a talent for making wine. The winery now produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. We tasted only Pinots on our visit, and they were among the best I’ve ever had: extremely berry, sometimes cherry, notes; soft tannins; always elegant, with layers that just keep coming. Marvelous! The wines have won many awards.

The tasting room is in the Lyonshead Art Gallery in Carmel Valley Village (see below), with tastings Friday through Sunday. More details


Carmel Valley Village

Carmel Village On our Carmel Valley wine exploration we spent a few really delightful hours in Carmel Valley Village. Though I’ve lived in Northern California for a long time, and traveled in and around Monterey/Carmel/Carmel Valley countless times over the years, I had never heard of Carmel Valley Village.

This charming, bohemian place has evolved on its own over the years; there’s nothing even remotely commercial about these two short streets of small, simple bungalows that date from (I’m just guessing here) sometime in the 1920s to maybe the mid-1950s. Many have courtyards and arbors, all are surrounded by long-established trees and gardens. They hold shops, cafes, an antique shop, art galleries, and, of course, wine tasting rooms.

If this sounds good to you, the Village is about 12 miles in on Carmel Valley Road after you turn off Highway 1.

The Farm

sculpture - the farmIf you’ve ever driven through the Salinas Valley on your way to and from Highway 1, you’ve probably seen the giant, 18-foot tall cutouts of farm workers beside the highway (left). That’s the outdoor art gallery of The Farm. The figures, by Salinas artist John Cerney, show men harvesting lettuce, one of a great many products grown here.

This high-energy agricultural showplace is not only a farm but an education center where school groups and others come to learn about farming in today’s world. You can also buy fresh produce, take a tour, pet farm animals, and more. This is an enjoyable stop for anyone, but I imagine that kids, in particular, would really love it.

Cannery Row Tasting Rooms

cannery row Cannery Row has a few tasting rooms these days, and I managed to visit two.
  • Scheid Vineyards Tasting Room, 751 Cannery Row: A relaxed and convenient way to sample Scheid’s superb artisan wines. You’ll find a tasting and lounge area with a fireplace made of local stone; wine-related items are also for sale. Classes are given (winemaking to blending), as well as food and wine seminars, and you can arrange for trips out to the vineyard. Scheid makes delectable wines, many in the $50 range. But when I visited, the big hit among a group of wine writers was the $19 2007 Odd Lot Red. It was delish—and, as it turned out, consisted of a happy blend of various lots of wine that “highlights the best traits of each to achieve a harmonic whole.” That’s not marketing hype; it’s true! 
  • Pierce Ranch Vineyards Tasting Room, 499 Wave Street: Just off The Row and just opened, this attractive and friendly tasting bar is the place to go if you want to try something new. To be sure, Pierce offers wines you know about such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, but you’ll also find an eclectic mix of Bordeaux, Rhone, and Iberian varietals you may not know: Tempranillo, for instance, acknowledged as the flagship wine of the Iberian Peninsula. Or try Touriga, Cosecheiro, Vinho Doce, or Albarino. These varietals have been chosen because they grow quite well in Monterey County.
So, there you have it—a few good ideas, I hope, for your next Monterey County visit. You’ll have to wait until 2010 for the next Monterey Great Wine Escape Weekend: November 12-14, 2010

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The Culinary Gadabout Recommends: For a trip to any of California’s wine countries, bring along a copy of Backroads of the California Wine Country: Your Guide to the Wine Country's Most Scenic Backroad Adventures. The gorgeous pictures by Gary Crabbe and the lively text by award-winning travel writer (and my friend) Karen Misuraca make this book a “can’t miss.”

Photo Credits: MCVGA/Steven Gunnerson (Chateau Julien, Directional road sign for wineries, Hahn Winery); Suzie Rodriguez (Carmel Valley Village); The Farm (farm worker)

Nov 11, 2009

Fast Food, Obesity, and the USA


Click the chart to see its entirety

I just came across a fascinating New York Times article from last May. Written by Catherine Rampell, it refers to a report entitled "Society at a Glance" by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This report offers an overview of social and policy trends in the 30 member countries.

One of the trends tracked is how much time people in these countries spend eating and drinking. The French are at the high end, with nearly 140 minutes devoted to the table each day. Countries on the low end include Mexico, Canada, and--yep!--the USA. Americans rank third from the bottom with about 75 minutes per day spent on eating/drinking.

Rampbell plotted out the relationship between the time an average person in a given country spends eating and that country's obesity rate (measured by the percentage of the national population with a body mass index higher than 30). As you can see from the chart, Americans rank at the top, with nearly 35% of the population having a 30+ BMI. Korea and Japan, with less than 5% of the population reaching those BMI levels, ranked at the bottom.

Looking at this chart, it's difficult to deny the connection between eating speed--i.e., fast food--and obesity.

Viva slow food!

Nov 1, 2009

St. Helena Media Wine Tasting

CIA's Rudd Wine Center
Last week St. Helena held its annual media wine tasting, and I was there---lucky enough to sample five separate flights of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, a few other red varietals, and a few red blends. Nearly 50 wines in all, and with two exceptions they were all 2006 or 2007 vintages.
The tasting was held in the multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art, sleekly-modern Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies, on the California campus of the Culinary Institute of America, just north of St. Helena.

St. Helena AVA: An Overview

ASH boundaries Courtesy Appellation St. Helena
The birthplace of Napa Valley’s wine industry, St. Helena has been an official appellation since 1995. Appellation St. Helena (ASH) is one of 14 sub-appellations within the Napa Valley Appellation. To see an interactive satellite map of ASH, with hot-linked wineries super-imposed, go here.
According to the association of Napa Valley Vintners, vineyards in this appellation are largely protected by the western hills from incursions of fog and wind. This helps to keep growing conditions warm, with mid-summer temperatures often in the mid- to high 90s.
St. Helena elevations range from about 150’ (the valley floor) to 600’ (in the hills); and soils are primarily sedimentary/gravel clay with low fertility to more fertile volcanic. With its Mediterranean climate, the valley has moderate rainfall primarily in winter.
Principal varieties/characteristics grown here include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot (deep, ripe, often jammy flavors, with firm tannins for structure, and appealing aromas of currant and black fruit); Rhone varieties such as Syrah and Viognier (fleshy, supple and slightly earthy); and Zinfandel (blackberry-like, well-structured).

So, anyway, the tasting…

St Helena 10-09 (2) (Large)Place Setting for the First Flight
Bob Dye, ASH President and co-owner of Charmu Winery with his wife, Louise, got the ball rolling with a quick welcome and then introduced three winemakers.
Mark Porembski, winemaker of Anomaly Vineyards, Charmu, and Zeitgeist, discussed the 2006 vintage, which he described as a “bit of a sandwich vintage” between the ‘05 and ‘07---a very good vintage, as it turns out, but one that apparently had had everybody worried at one point, since it had to work its way through massive rains, a delayed growing season, etc.
Bob Biale of Robert Biale Vineyards talked about the 2007 vintage, which he described as the sort of “idyllic vintage winemakers hope and pray for.” Everything about the growing season was ideal, from elevated temps at the end of January, a slightly early bud break followed by perfect weather (moderate), and the harvest coming in a little early.
Pam Starr. owner/winemaker of Crocker & Starr Wines, discussed the 2009 vintage, just coming to the end of its harvest. Another wonderful year, with a dry-season start, followed by a burst of rain and then warm weather. A mild summer, with splashes of heat followed by cool-downs. And an early harvest: when the surprisingly early heavy rains hit on October 13th, most of the harvest was in.

The Wines

A few of the wines from the St. Helena media tasting
A few of the wines poured at the media tasting
When you’re talking Napa Valley wines, let’s be honest: there usually isn’t much, or even anything, to complain about. And that certainly held true for this tasting. A couple of wines tasted somewhat sour to me, but I’d need to try them again under different circumstances before I’d venture to pass judgment publicly. I don’t know what it’s like for others, but when I taste so many wines at once I find that negative taste feedback isn’t always accurate (on the other hand, when a wine strikes me as outstanding in the midst of such a tasting, it almost always holds up on later inspection).
Anyway, here’s a general comment about the tasting: with some exceptions, most of the 2006 and 2007 wines needed another year or two before drinking, and a few needed more than that. But for most of the wines, everything a wine should have was right there; that all-important structure was firmly in place. A little maturity and they will do very well; a few will do brilliantly.
Looking at my tasting notes, a few wines that stood out to me include (in no particular order):
  • Charles Krug/Peter Mondavi 2007 Limited Release Zinfandel St. Helena
  • Bressler Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Jaffe Estate 2006 Metamorphosis (a blend of 85% Cab and 15% Merlot)
  • Robert Biale 2007 Varozza Vineyard Zinfandel
  • Salvestrin 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Spottswoode Estate Vineyard 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Vineyard 29’s 2006 Aida Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and its 2006 Clare Luce Abby Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Charmu Winery’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Whitehall Lane 2006 St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Wolf Family Vineyards 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Crocker and Starr’s 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Chase Family Cellars 2007 Zinfandel (which comes from 106-year-old vines).
By the way, bottle price of wines tasted ranged from $25 (Charles Krug/Peter Mondavi 2007 Limited Release Zinfandel St. Helena) to $175 (Vineyard 29 2006 Aida Estate Cabernet Sauvignon). Both of these wines made it onto my informal “favorites” list before I had any idea of their price.
If you’d like to see a list of all wines tasted, as well as the winemaker’s tasting notes for each, go here.
All photos: Suzie Rodriguez