Mar 31, 2010

In London: Dining in Secret Thrives

Have you heard about the “secret supper” rage? Also known as underground restaurants, anti-restaurants, or supper clubs, they are essentially paid dinner parties that (usually) take place in a private home. Notice of upcoming suppers is disseminated by word-of-mouth or via online social media.

Maybe you're asking yourself "What’s the point?" Well, for one thing, it's fun and different, providing an opportunity to experience dining in a non-ordinary manner. The host—nearly always a serious amateur chef (but sometimes a professional)—gets to have fun preparing a restaurant-quality meal without all the heavy responsibilities that come along with running a real eatery. Interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle, one host noted that “It’s literally like playing restaurant.” Not only that, but a secret chef can be indulgently eclectic with the menu. As for the guests, they not only dine on gourmet goodies at bargain prices in an informal environment, but get to meet other people interesting enough to gravitate toward underground dining. All in all, a win for everyone involved.

I knew that Secret Dining had become popular in the U. S., Europe, Asia, and Latin America (where underground eating establishments are known as restaurante de puertas cerradas, or locked-door restaurants). Still, I was a bit surprised when a London-based American friend—a successful entrepreneur and former CEO taking a hiatus from the ordinary—informed me that she had started a secret supper club, The Nomad Chef, in her home in London’s Holland Park.
“Cooking is my passion and I love hosting dinner parties,” Shelley told me. “So this is a perfect pastime and a great way to meet new people. In fact, the people are the best part! Most of them live in London

Mar 26, 2010

Rubicon Estates Winery: The Joys of Vertical Tasting

 Rubicon Estate: A Winery in the Grand Style

Yesterday I took a short hop over the hill from Sonoma to Napa Valley's Rutherford. My destination: Rubicon Estate Winery. The purpose: an extraordinary 2000-2005 vertical tasting of the winery's flagship Rubicon, followed by a lunch paired with the recently-released 2006 vintage.

I find vertical tastings to be valuable because they stretch my wine knowledge and educate my palette. The basic goal is to sample and compare different vintages of the same wine, trying to discern similarities and variations from one year to the next. Once you do that--something that's not always easy, at least for me--then you try to account for the factors that created those differences, including weather, harvest dates, a new winemaker's methods, or the same winemaker trying something new. With a Bordeaux blend like Rubicon, variations in the Ensemble (Cabernet Sauvignon, with additions that may include Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and/or Petit Verdot) also play a big role.

With Rubicon, one element that always remains the same in each vintage is the historic #29 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Garden Vineyard. Laboratory analysis has confirmed that this clone is of the same genetic material as the vines planted on the property by the original vineyard's creator, Gustave Niebaum, back in the 1880s. Unique to Rubicon Estate, #29 is a true heritage clone and lies at the heart of each Rubicon vintage.

Anyway, back to the tasting, in which I discovered distinct differences between vintages. Time constraints allow me to compare only the first and last:

Rubicon 2000
Rubicon 2005
  • Rubicon 2000: 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot, 2% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc. Aged 28 months in 93% New French Oak. Harvested in late October (two weeks later than normal). The 2000 vintage seemed balanced and structured, with lots of blackberry, sour cherry, currant; and lesser hints of sage, herbs, even a bit of tobacco. It possessed the gorgeous red/purple color I associate with Rubicon. It was delicious, but I found it to be a bit closed in.
  • Rubicon 2005: 98.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.5% Petit Verdot. Aged in New French Oak for 22 months. Cooler temperatures and more rain than normal through what turned out to be an extended growing season. Big, vibrant and alive, rich and supple, immense but mellow tannins: all perfectly pulled together with a complex and long-lasting finish. A powerful, elegant wine, it seemed to say "I am California!" I truly loved this wine. 
It's fun to analyze why these wines might differ. Right off the bat you can see that the Ensemble in each is different: 93% Cabernet in the 2000 versus 98.5 in the 2005; a mix of Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc in the 2000 and only a small addition of Petit Verdot in the 2005. Both wines were aged in the same new French oak, but the older wine aged 28 months; the younger, a mere 22.

Rubicon winemaker Scott McLeod

Mar 25, 2010

Art & Wine in Sonoma County

Visiting California's wine country isn't only about food and wine--the Arts play a huge role here, too. Both Napa and Sonoma Counties are crammed with galleries, museums, theaters and concert venues; and many wineries contain excellent (occasionally world-class) art collections.

I'll be writing more about Arts venues in the two counties in the future--part of my gadding about, after all. But for now, here's a peek at what Sonoma County has to offer you, arts-wise, on an upcoming visit:
  • Art at the Wineries is a joint venture between Wine Road (an association of Sonoma County vintners and lodgings), and Art at the Source (West Sonoma County’s self-guided open-studio tour).  Held during April/May 2010, Art at the Wineries will preview local artists’ works in advance of June's Art at the Source event. You can download a PDF to see learn more details, including which wineries will be participating.
  • C. Donatiello Winery, a certified organic estate producing small-lot and single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the Russian River Valley, is entering the third seasons of its singer/songwriter music series, Live from the Middle Reach. The acoustic concert series with an unplugged theme strives to offer its guests new twists on the classic singer/songwriter genre.  The concerts, free to all winery patrons, will run Sunday afternoons from June 20-October 10, 2010.  Songs from performing artists will be compiled into a C. Donatiello Wineries music compilation CD.   
  •  Artiste Winery incorporates impressionist art into each of its wine labels. Each wine blend is named after the title of the painting that graces its bottle. Taking inspiration from the colors, imagery and story behind each wine label, Artiste's winemaker blends and weaves different wines together to create Artiste's Impressionist CuvĂ©es. Visitors can further their art experience by painting on the winery’s community canvases or by sketching and writing in art journals while sipping wine and strolling through the winery’s charming tasting room, reminiscent of an 1880s working art studio.
  • The vibe at Imagery Winery is one of wine, art, and nature. The tasting room features a permanent display of more than 200 pieces of art commissioned from notable contemporary artists. The program allows artists almost total creative freedom, requiring only that an artist include somewhere in their image an interpretation of the Parthenon symbol, which serves as the winery's signature. Visitors can bring a piece of the art home, collecting bottles from different varietals and vintages. Nature lovers will enjoy walking the beautiful grounds of this bio-dynamic winery.
  • Paradise Ridge’s hillside tasting room offers an amazing view of the surrounding vineyards. The grounds of this family-owned winery reflect the owners' passions: wine, art, and family.  Sculptures by local artists are placed throughout the 5-acre grounds; changing annually, these exhibits explore the synergy of art and nature, offering a unique experience for visitors.  The winery's Champagne Cellar contains an historical exhibit featuring Kanaye Nagasawa, the first Japanese winemaker in the United States.

Mar 14, 2010

Product Review: Agwa Cocoa Leaf Liquor

Since its recent introduction, Agwa de Bolivia Herbal Liquor has attracted many enthusiastic followers. But, then, how could it miss? Anything made from hand-picked coca leaves growing wild in the Bolivian Andes is practically guaranteed to have enthusiasts...even if, as in the case of Agwa, the liquor has been "de-cocainized" in the process of turning it into a spirit.

After picking, the leaves are shipped under armed guard in 2000-kilo bales to Amsterdam. Once there, they undergo a de-cocaining process before being infused with alcohol and steeped for a time with 36 herbs and botanicals. The result, according to the marketing material, is the "AgwaBuzz."

Agwa's Buzz has a slightly different effect when compared to other liquors--particularly when mixed in a cocktail with lime juice, which supposedly activates the various coca leaf alkaloids.

In the Andes, coca leaves have been used for centuries to improve stamina, ward off hunger, and, I suppose, provide a pleasurable buzz. Drinking coca-leaf tea is common there, and the leaves are chewed for nutrients like calcium, iron, and Vitamin A. Years ago I hiked the infamous Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu. On the most difficult day of our 5-day trek we hiked up Dead Woman's Pass, which tops off at a bit under 14,000 feet. Before starting off that morning one of the porters offered me some coca leaves and mineral lime, indicating that chewing them together would provide me with energy for the ascent. He was right.

The mineral lime I chewed certainly activated the alkaloids, but I don't understand how lime juice can accomplish the same task--especially when the zap has been removed from the leaves. But what do I know? Maybe there's some chemical similarity that does the trick. At any rate, Agwa definitely has a buzz, though that may be attributed more to its 60-proof strength.

Imbibed by itself like a traditional liqueur, Agwa has a medicinal taste that's not unpleasant, but I'm not about to tell you it's delicious. It isn't. However, mix it into a cocktail and Agwa shines.

And you simply cannot overlook the fun quotient involved with this unique addition to the marketplace.

Here's a recipe to try:

Bolivian Mojito
This summer refresher is made with Agwa instead of rum. This recipe makes one Mojito.

1 teaspoon powdered sugar
Juice from 1 lime (2 ounces)
6 mint leaves
1 sprig of mint
2 ounces Agwa Coca Leaf Liquor
2 ounces club soda

Place the mint leaves into a tall mojito glass. Add lime juice. Add the powdered sugar. Muddle mint into the lime juice and sugar, using a muddler or the back of a spoon.  Add crushed ice and rum. Stir, topping off with club soda. Garnish with mint sprig

Read complete details of Agwa's distillation process
Here's a huge list of Agwa recipes

Mar 2, 2010

California's Central Coast, Part 3: Avila Beach, Pismo Beach, Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes

Pismo Beach is a classic California beach town    Credit: Suzanne Rodriguez

This is the final post in a three-part series about traveling on the California Coast.
  • Part 1 of the series discusses Hearst Castle and Cambria
  • Part 2 covers Morro Bay, where visitors can go whale watching, Embarcadero shopping, winery tasting, check out the Museum of Natural History, and cruise/dine on the luxury yacht, Papagallo II.
  • Part 3, which you're reading, discusses Avila Beach and Pismo Beach.
Avila Beach

We spent the final night of our Central Coast trip in the small surfside town of Avila Beach, about a 25-minute drive southwest of San Luis Obispo. This little town was founded as a shipping port in the middish 1800s and was known for its funky charm for decades. But in the early 1990s, a massive oil spill from resident Unocal oil storage facilities created huge contamination issues. After a $30 million settlement, the contaminated soil was removed and replaced with clean fill—a process that took years and involved the destruction of many buildings (a few old wooden buildings were moved away for the duration, and then put back into place).

But the “new” Avila Beach was worth waiting for. It offers three long piers--two are open to the public--clean sands, views stretching far out to sea, a pedestrian plaza, shops, restaurants, coffee