Sep 20, 2011

California wine history on Christie’s auction block

Earlier this year, California wine expert James Laube wrote that “Inglenook is to Napa what Margaux is to Bordeaux – one of wine’s crown jewels.”

This Saturday, September 24th, Christie’s New York will offer wine collectors a unique opportunity to bid for some of these “crown jewels.” The auction house will present a selection of rare bottles from the private cellar of Inglenook owner Francis Ford Coppola, including two bottles of the legendary 1941 vintage. All wines in this special offering were acquired by Mr. Coppola when he purchased Inglenook in the 1970s and have remained undisturbed all these years.

Inglenook Vineyards was founded in 1879 by Gustave Niebaum, a Finnish sea captain who used his enormous wealth to import the best European grapevines to Napa. Over the next several decades, under the guidance of the legendary John Daniel, Inglenook built a reputation as the source of some of the finest wines ever made.

By 1975, however, when Francis and Eleanor Coppola first purchased part of the famed property, the Inglenook Estate had long since been broken up and its name sold off. The Coppolas spent the next twenty years reuniting the vineyards and restoring winemaking to the historic Inglenook Chateau. Today, in addition to the Cabernet Sauvignon that dominates the Estate, the Inglenook acreage is also planted with Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, and six acres of white Rhone varietals that produce the estate's flagship white, Blancaneaux. Inglenook is now completely restored to original dimensions and is once again America's great wine estate.

The Christie’s auction now offers fine wine collectors the opportunity to purchase bottles so rare that only a handful remain in the original cellars at Inglenook. To mark the occasion for posterity, successful bidders will receive a handwritten note from Francis Ford Coppola with each bottle purchased, in custom-made wooden box designed specifically for this sale.

Here are some highlights of Christie’s day-long September 24 auction:
  • One  bottle of the rare 1935 vintage from the “Golden Era” of John Daniel Jr. wines (estimate: $600-800).
  • A two-bottle lot of the celebrated 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon (estimate:$8,000-12,000). Christie’s wine specialists note that the 1941 vintage can rightly take its place among legends like the 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, 1982 Lafite Rothschild, 1900 Margaux, 1961 Latour and 1989 Haut Brion, some of the most celebrated, most valuable and longest lived Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines in the world today.
  • A vertical of 12 key vintages from the years 1946 – 2008 presented in a bespoke wooden case signed by Mr. Coppola (estimate: $3,000-4,200). Proceeds from this lot will be donated to Shigeru Ban Architects + Voluntary Architects Network, a charity that helps build temporary housing for tsunami victims in Japan. 
To view the complete e-catalogue for this sale, please visit this site.

Sep 12, 2011

Simple pleasures

Yesterday after a 6- or 7-mile hike through classic Northern California landscape -- rolling hills, oak trees, killer views from  the high spots -- I ended up in the garden of my hiking companion.

A landscape gardener, he has the kind of extensive, highly-productive garden you might imagine: eight different kinds of tomatoes, and a few different kinds of everything else (eggplant, squash, peppers, citrus, herbs, beans, and on and on).

But it was the melons that amazed me. I've never been able to successfully grow a melon, but David's garden contained at least half a dozen varieties. The dense vines sprawled across the ground, strong and healthy, with the fruit hidden below.

For about half an hour we tasted melons, slowly making our way up and down the rows. David would reach down, pluck a melon, cut it in two, and empty the seeds onto the ground. Then we'd stand there, straddling the melon vines, the late-summer sun nicely warm on our backs, tasting and comparing notes.

The most remarkable was the banana melon, which resembles and smells like it's namesake. The French charentais wasn't ripe enough; given the cool temperatures in Sonoma this summer, it may never get there. The honeydew needed another week, but was still excellent: crisp, clean, sweet. The yellow-skinned watermelon was a total winner.

I came away with a honeydew and a watermelon, and a few perfect veggies.

Sometimes the simplest things are the best things.

Sep 8, 2011

California Foie Gras ban is months away

It's delicious, but... Where do you stand on Foie Gras?

This week Bloomberg took an interesting look at both sides of California's Foe Gras ban, which is set to take effect next July. The law was passed in 2004 and signed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, enforcement was put off for eight years to give producers time enough to find force-feeding alternatives. Those alternatives haven't appeared.

Opponents of forced-feeding include major animal rights organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), famous chefs (e.g., Wolfgang Puck, Charlie Trotter), and high-profile celebrities such as Paul McCartney, Alicia Silverstone, and many others. All cite the cruelty and inhumanity of forcing feed into the esophagus of a duck or goose through a funnel, a process that takes only 2-3 seconds but is thought to be painful. Studies have shown that mortality rates among force-fed birds can be elevated in the latter stages of fattening.

Those in favor of forced-feeding -- chefs, foie gras purveyors, and gourmands of all stripes -- say that the forced-feeding process is not painful, and that it imitates the gorging behavior of birds in the wild as they prepare to migrate.

Force-feeding is not new. Evidence exists that, as early as 2500 BC, ancient Egyptians force-fed geese. The process spread rapidly across the Mediterannean and into Europe and has been widely used ever since.

The Bloomberg article by Allison Vekshin, Foie Gras Lovers in California Will Soon Become Victim to Rights of Ducks, interviews people on both sides of the issue. Among them are chefs who serve Foie Gras, some of whom intend to ignore the ban, and others who plan to reluctantly comply.

Perhaps the most interesting factoid in the article is this: San Francisco chef Gary Danko, who has won a Michelin star for his namesake restaurant, usually sells 40 orders of Foie Gras each night, but when protesters show up the foie gras orders double.

Where do I stand? I've enjoyed Foie Gras perhaps a dozen times in my life, mostly in France. It's always delicious, whether prepared and served simply or gussied up with a fancy sauce and other ingredients. No matter how it's prepared, it tends to melt in your mouth.

However, I stopped eating it long before I realized there were ethical issues involved, because it's one of the foods highest in choleseterol -- a whopping 255mg per 100g.

But even if I didn't have to keep an eye on my cholesterol level, I still wouldn't eat it now. I'm not sure that forced-feeding is painful, but it might be. That's enough reason to kill my appetite.

Sep 6, 2011

A dinner where all pairings worked

Getting settled in for dinner at Arrowood Winery
Last Friday night I enjoyed a dinner of extraordinary pairings—every combination worked exactly right, with sip and bite interacting in ways that brought out the best in each other. Nothing unusual about an excellent pairing, to be sure; but it is rare, for me at least, to sit through 5 courses in which each pairing is a winner.

The event was a winemaker dinner at Sonoma Valley's Arrowood Winery, part of the annual Sonoma Wine Country Weekend—a three-day, blowout affair that includes dinners and lunches throughout the county on Friday and Saturday, Saturday afternoon's impressive "Taste of Sonoma" (160 wineries, 60 chefs) on the grounds of MacMurray Rarnch, and a mega-fun auction on Sunday at Cline Cellars. Proceeds benefit charities, so it was nice to see that, going into the weekend, events were sold out (gross proceeds for the weekend amounted to $1.4 million).

Arrowood's winemaker, Heidi von der Mehden
Our host at dinner was Arrowood's convivial winemaker, Heidi von der Mehden, who did a nice job of introducing each wine as it was poured. I was having such a good time that I forgot to take note of vintages, but all were either 2006 or 2007.

Dinner, catered by Sonoma's the girl + the fig, was splendid, incorporating the best in local foods. Here's the menu, with accompanying Arrowood wines:

First Course
Chilled Corn Soup with Crab and Basil Oil
Wine: Chardonnay, Russian River Valley

Second Course
Frisée and Mâche salad
Asian Pear, Toasted Hazelnuts and Pear Verjus Vinaigrette
Wine: Viognier, Russian River Valley/Saralee's Vineyard

Third Course
Tea-Smoked Squab Breast with Black Pepper Spaetzle, Mushrooms and Pomegranate Reduction
Wine: Syrah, Dry Creek Valley

Fourth Course
New York Steak with Caramelized Ratatouille, Bread Salad and Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, Smothers-Remick Vineyards

Summer Dessert
Grilled Peach Tart
Cream Cheese Pastry Cream and Brown Butter Crust
Wine: Late Harvest Riesling, Russian River Valley/Saralee's Vineyard

The impeccable chilled corn soup with crab and basil oil!
My favorite course was the steak. A perfect piece of meat grilled medium-rare, it was familiar in the best of ways. Ratatouille is familiar, too, but it was made new again by being caramelized, and then enhanced with the way-out inclusion of a small bit of bread salad. The combination of all three resulted in a taste that was totally new and, to be precise: scrumptious. And chasing it with that perfectly-balanced Cab with its black fruit overtones...

My favorite surprise pairing was the grilled peach tart with the Late Harvest Reisling. The peaches were the kind you buy in early July in a small outdoor market in an out-of-the-way village in the south of France—that is, they were absolute perfection, exactly what peaches should be but so rarely are. They were grilled so little that they were practically raw. The tart crust was light and airy. The reisling was fruity, with a hint of sweetness. The whole course was a sip-and-sigh. I don't normally even like dessert, but I sure liked this.

Eat local and be happy.

Sep 2, 2011

Food really does affect your mood

This black bear may not know it, but she's warding off pessimism and depression by chowing down on that chum salmon.
An article in U. S. News summarizes various findings about the way in which the food you eat affects your mood, ability to ward off depression, and a lot more.

Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietitian and the author of Eat Your Way to Happiness (2010), notes that most people understand the link between diet and physical health. “But,” she continues, “the link between what you eat and your mood, your energy, how you sleep, and how well you think is much more immediate.”

The article looks at various ways diet could affect your mood. A few brief highlights:
  • Not eating regularly can make you feel “tired and cranky.” That’s because not eating causes blood sugar to sink, which in turn creates mood swings.
  • Being carb-phobic reduces your body’s production of the “feel-good” brain chemical, serotonin. According to research, low-carb eaters are more likely to feel tired, angry, depressed and tense.
  • Not getting enough Omega-3s, found in fatty fish like salmon and sardines, can lead to pessimism and depression.
  • Eating too much fat doesn’t just add pounds—it can lead to depression and even dementia!
There’s more, and it’s all interesting. Check out the article.

Sep 1, 2011

Just in: Top 3 Fast Food Chains in USA

2011 has been a very good year for Five Guys Burgers and Fries, as it again tops consumers’ favorite quick-service restaurant (QSR) list, according to the annual consumer restaurant chain survey conducted by Market Force Information. It's followed by long-time West Coast favorite In-N-Out Burger (#2) and Chick-fil-A (#3).

The study also revealed that each of the top three restaurants excelled in friendly service, the category with the most differentiation among all contenders.

More than 4,500 consumers across North America participated in the survey conducted in August 2011. It examined which QSRs consumers prefer and which attributes are most important to them. Market Force first calculated the favorites based on pure number of votes, and then factored in the number of locations for each chain for a more level view of the results (see chart below).

 The bottom three QSRs on the list are McDonald's, Subway, and, in last place, Burger King.

The study also asked respondents to rate QSRs by attributes such as food quality, taste, speed of service, cleanliness and value. Friendly service was the category with the most differentiation, and it was dominated by Chick-fil-A, In-N-Out Burger and Five Guys. The least variation was found in the taste category, which suggests that consumers see the most differentiation—and value—in those restaurants with the best service and friendliness.

While consumer-favorite Five Guys didn’t dominate any of the categories, it performed consistently well across most of them. Similarly, In-N-Out Burgers scored highest in food quality and second highest in friendly service and value. Other chains were less consistent. For example, McDonald’s scored poorest for quality of food, but ranked second for speed of service behind Sonic. Similarly, Taco Bell was lowest in cleanliness, but highest in overall value.