Monday, November 30, 2009

Jalama Vineyards - Mark Cargasacchi's Wines

Maybe 2 years ago or more, I had met winemaker Mark Cargasacchi at a wine dinner "offline" as they call it on the boards ("e-bob") - Mark was down in Long Beach selling the very wines he makes from his winery Jalama, and there happened to be a South African wine off-line going on at Springbok, a South African bar and grill right in one of the harbors in Long Beach, a pretty setting but with disappointing food - but nevertheless, we enjoyed an array of great South African wines that evening, more than 20 if I recall correctly, and I recall tasting Mark's El Capitan Red wine that evening and talking to the winemaker about what it was like to be making wine in Santa Barbara County, and I recall him saying it was great. He shared that it was fantastic that the region was being recognized for its wines, and that he had grown up in the region before it was wine country, and his parents had a farm and it was mostly about having cattle and growing fava beans, and he thought when he was younger that that would be his future too, cattle and fava beans, until he became a winemaker.

This I remembered about Mark, and fortunately I kept his business card all this time, and when it came time to head up to Santa Ynez and toward Santa Rita Hills, I saw that his address was Lompoc, and so was our appointment with Clos Pepe, so why not hit both wineries in the same morning? I called Mark up and he invited us right away.

To be honest, it was not that easy finding the place. Mark's place is more his home than an actual winery, though there are vines on the property. Mark makes wine in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, which sounds to me like a winery facility where a number of winemakers make there wine, and it is located in downtown Lompoc behind the Home Depot. We didn't make it over there to do a tasting, but I believe you can go to the Wine Ghetto (love the name) to taste some wines, and we heard that until recently, Sea Smoke was made there. I had just tasted what I believe was my first Sea Smoke Pinot Noir from the Southing vineyard a couple weeks ago when we hosted a movie night to re-watch Sideways, and the Sea Smoke was quite good I must say! Quite tasty and almost worth the price tag (probably $80), though of course I would hesitate a bit. But I did enjoy it. At any rate, we did get a bit lost trying to find where we were going on Jalama Road, a windy country road that goes up a crest then goes down toward the ocean from the 1 Hwy. After calling Mark when we were lost and getting assistance, we did end up finding their beautiful property surrounded by happy, happy cows, several excitable dogs, and a gorgeous rooster who kept cock-a-doodle dooing.

It was in this charming countryside setting that we were invited into Mark's house to taste his wines in the kitchen. Out came platters of cheese and meats and olives and bread and crackers and hummus, in case we were getting hungry, which I found to be so nice and inviting. We met Clinton also, who joined us for the tasting. Clinton is responsible for the new, classy labels on the Jalama wines, which replace the former more psychedelic labels, but the new label captures the same blue-green color scheme from the old label which is nice.

There were 6 wines to taste, and unlike the tasting we just came from at Clos Pepe, there were all different grape varieties to sample, from all different vineyards where Mark sourced the fruit. Now, I wish I took notes at the time, but I didn't, so I am going by memory alone...

2007 Jalama "Giallo" - this is a white wine, and Giallo is the proprietary name for it, and though the wine is a 100% Pinot Gris, nowhere does it say this on the front or back label - the reason? It is not what one would expect a Pinot Gris to taste like or look like - it is a barrel fermented, barrel aged Pinot Gris that goes toward Chardonnay in its look and feel, though I think it is more like what one would think of a Fume Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc that is done in barrel instead of in stainless steel) - it is a clean and lovely wine, and I would love to enjoy this one with some seared sea scallops and rich buttery potatoes.

2007 Jalama Pinot Noir - this is a different clone of Pinot Noir from what we tasted at Clos Pepe, I believe Mark said Clone 114, while more commonly is used Clone 115 which is more fruity.... Clone 114 is less fruity, and this is where I found the Pinot Noir to be more savory than what we tasted at Clos Pepe - and I liked it. Though I like fruitiness in wines quite a lot, I enjoyed the savory aspect of this wine, a touch of black olive and mushroom though not quite that earthy since this is still a pretty young wine. An interesting and very good Pinot Noir after all the other good Pinots we just experienced down the road, this Jalama Pinot Noir again reflects the good, long and even growing season of 2007, though I believe I heard Mark say 2008 was good too, even though it was less even and had a few more heat spikes.

2007 Jalama Mourvedre, Camp 4 - This was my favorite wine of the bunch, this Mourvedre. I like Mourvedre, I do believe, and this one is a clone from Tablas Creek, and I like Tablas Creek so this all makes sense. The wine is so nicely balanced, again with the savory qualities I found in the Pinot Noir but here even more so. The wine is interesting and like no other variety. I believe the Camp 4 vineyard is part of the Fess Parker holdings, and gives me an idea that Fess Parker bought and owned a lot of land up in these parts back in the day. Who knew he had Mourvedre vines?

2006 Syrah, Paradise Road - This is the first of 2 Syrahs we are about to try and they are over 15% alcohol, which I am looking at at this point in the tasting because I can feel it. I reach for a couple of slices of cold meats which taste good and help take the edge off. This Syrah is a solid number, with some dark red brooding fruits on the palate, but still some of that savory quality that seems to be something that Mark likes in his wines. I like it too but I worry that high alcohol wines will put me over the edge so I pour out my taste and move on to the next Syrah.

2006 Syrah, La Presa - this feels like Mark's favorite, and my husband Johan seemed to like this one also a lot - Mark talked about this La Presa vineyards which is a steep hillside vineyard where all the work is done by hand because you can't get a machine up there.... this is what I'm more used to dealing with when it comes to German wines - all hand done! This Syrah is a bit more grippy and powerful but not more alcoholic, just the flavor components are more balanced and richer somehow and less fruity than the Paradise Road Syrah.

2006 Jalama "El Capitan" - this is the signature red wine, terrific with olives, I found, just a solid great blend with some Syrah, some Cab, and some other components... bring on more olives and maybe a juicy rib eye steak.

So that was the line-up. An amazing experience and some really nice people, gorgeous countryside and an adventure just to find it. We left there happy and hungry, heading for the Hitching Post for some pre-dinner grub.... a pricy but very classy happy hour.

Clos Pepe in Sta. Rita Hills - A California Pinot Noir Estate

I was in The Wine Country one afternoon recently, and what I know is that it was a Friday, because two winemakers were getting ready to do a wine tasting class with wine specialist Bennett, who had set up the event. As I was milling about, Bennett introduced me to Wes Hagen, at which time I said to him as I shook his hand, "You sound familiar....." and Bennett told me, "That's because he is the winemaker at Clos Pepe!" and then Clos Pepe began to sound familiar to me, and then I found myself at a loss, because I had never tried the wines, didn't know anything about the estate, and all I knew was it sounded like a producer that Bennett was a huge fan of.

It could have stopped there, but it didn't. It could have been just another of many winemakers to come through the doors of The Wine Country, it could have been another interesting person here selling his wines, but it wasn't - Wes soon launched into a quick summary of his winemaking philosophy, which was neither organic nor conventional, but it wasn't biodynamic either, and it got me hooked, because I am personally not a huge fan of organic this and organic that, which doesn't make me a huge fan of ingesting a large amount of chemicals either, but I am very suspicious of certified organic, and I am much more impressed when a winemaker does not follow one narrow-minded doctrine that allows him to market his wine as organic..... and indeed Wes seemed to engender that philosophy, followed by a very open and welcome invite to Clos Pepe if I was ever in the area.

Well, after also talking about how I sell German wine, and how he is a huge fan of German wines and how he admires German white wines, well, I had to say, "Actually, I am going to be in your neck of the woods the day after Thanksgiving - are you there that weekend?"

And as luck would have it, he said yes, we are doing a tour on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and if you want to be a part of it, then you must send me an email! Cards were exchanged, and a couple of weeks later, we found ourselves on the estate of Clos Pepe, located on Route 246 toward the town of Lompoc, just west of Buellton.

Needless to say, the sprawling estate is gorgeous, hilly, expansive, sunkissed, showing the best of Autumn's colors ranging from curry yellow to burgundy. While the grapes have long been collected, the fall leaves still cling to the brown vines, coloring the landscape. Round rolly-polly sheep munch the ground cover between vines, offering a natural weed control that requires no chemicals, just a well-trained sheep dog that round up the sheep when you need them to move where they don't want to go.
The tour starts outside among the vines and the sheep and a full historical background of the area dating back several hundred thousand years when this region, the Santa Rita Hills AVA, established only in 2001, was deep under sea water in the Pacific Ocean before the plates bumped into each other and created mountains and hills on which we can stand on and plant on today. Diatomaceous earth covers the soil now, a result of small shelled organisms who used to live in this area when it was sea, their fossilized bodies now contributing to the soil that contributes to very good Pinot Noir.
Wes Hagen's history lesson also includes a personal story, with dots of humor, about how he happened to be in the right place at the right time, leaving a lucrative profession with the department of education (teaching kids!) to becoming a winemaker... though he did leave out how he was able to make that jump.
Politically speaking, he is interesting to listen to - he talks about how Greenpeace hurts people in developing countries by insisting that people who are on the brink of starvation reject genetically modified foods that may actually save the lives of many people - he talks about how conventional farming has its place because it feeds the masses and feeds them well, and that if all farming switched to organic tomorrow, then 2 billion people would die. The way Wes speaks, he is not afraid of offending, and at the same time, he does not offend (at least not me!) because he speaks what he knows.
After some philosophizing, we are all in the mood to taste some of his wonderful wine, wine which he says he makes in not a big heavy Parker style. The estate produces Pinot Noir grapes and sells some to other producers, some of which, Wes says, make bolder Pinots than he does, but he does not believe in muscular Pinot Noir. I like the sound of that.
The tasting consisted of a vertical of his estate Pinot Noir, from his 2008, which is not quite ready yet to be released, to his 2005 vintage, which is sold out. Here are my tasting notes from these 4 wines:
2008 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir - beautiful floral and fruit-scented nose, bright on the palate, reminicent of cranberry and raspberry, zippy acidity, too young at this time, but shows the potential for a lovely Pinot Noir that is not oaky or heavy.
2007 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir - gorgeous nose, richer in aroma and very enticing and inviting. On the palate, perfect, with lots of fruit, weight, density but not oak or extract or tannin. Shows its long perfect growing season. Delicious and my favorite of the bunch.
2006 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir - deeper and earthier nose. Developed palate showing more "French" characters, deep, black cherry and losing some baby fat and fruit, would be great with some lamb or game meat. But clunckier and not as focused to me as the 2007.
2005 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir - Wes claimed this rivaled French Burgundies with much higher price tags (Grand Crus) but said he could talk smack because he was sold out of this wine... indeed it has this French aspect to the wine, maturing well, would be interested to taste this blind.... I think I would still guess this to be Californian but made with a French style to it because it still seems fuller and fruitier than a Burgundy, but very nice and way more serious than the other Pinot Noirs. A great, noble wine for drinking with dinner, something to be savored and enjoyed slowly. We were very, very lucky to get a bottle of this sold-out number - thank you Wes!
2008 Axis Mundi Syrah, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard - This last wine is Clos Pepe's second label, Axis Mundi, which is labeled in a modern look with a screw cap to indicate "drink me young" and is more of an everyday wine, a more extracted Syrah. Honestly, a bit of a difficult wine to taste after those much more elegant, ethereal, pretty wines which are the Clos Pepe Pinot Noirs, but then again, one probably wouldn't want to taste them before the Pinots either, so one is stuck with tasting a more clunky, basic every day red after the Pinot Noirs which are twice the price and more than twice as nice. Since we got a bottle to take home, we look forward to tasting this wine by itself where it will have a chance to be very enjoyable, we are sure. But at the time of tasting this Syrah, I wasn't really wooed by it. I'll be sure to post a tasting note again in the future when we open it!
Here we are posing with Wes - he was a gracious host, serving us water and cheeses and bread and coffee afterwards. If you get a chance to go up to this area, I seriously recommend visiting this estate and getting the full tour! They don't have a drop-in tasting room, everything is by appointment, so call first!

Thanksgiving Week - A Gourmet experience

Hi Everyone - I hope all had a terrific Thanksgiving! I did, and it was a gourmet experience all the way. In fact, all week was a big giant lovely fest of wine and food and people that love wine and food, so things were very good indeed.

I took lots of pictures from things done this week, and want to post them and write about them, and will do so in a separate post, but in this one, I will focus on what we actually did on Thanksgiving day.

Thanksgiving day was spent at our friends' house in Irvine, self-proclaimed "foodie friends" who love a good time and an 8-hour enjoyment of food and wine without excessive wine talk, more talk about food, so it was very wonderful and nice. This year's celebration also involved toasting a recent wedding, so there were more bubbles being poured than usual. There was a Gloria Ferrer California sparkling wine that was particularly refreshing in a fruity sense, and perfect for the 2pm start time, followed by a Cremant de Limoux poured from a giant magnum - it had a darker color and richer, almost more oaky feel about it - followed by one of the greats - 1999 vintage Billiot, a Champagne that never lets anyone down. The wine is full of richness and succulent fruit and a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that makes it oh so elegant and full in the mouth that it demands love.

All the sparklers were perfectly paired with an assortment of caviars and roes, which were such a pleasant and fun afternoon snack, especially with the well prepared roasted, cooled and sliced red potatoes on which we placed the little eggs.

Later on came the onslaught of appetizers that would precede the turkey dinner - one of the participants who is an excellent chef and used to own a restaurant in Hawaii made a terrific swordfish dish, which I did not take a picture of (I must have been too busy wolfing it down - it was really delicious). This was paired with 2007 Byron Pinot Noir, which I thought was only okay in my book.... not really my style of Pinot Noir. It had a heaviness to it that reminds me of California Pinot Noirs that I do not like (I will be posting later on about California Pinot Noirs I do like, so stay tuned!)

And just like last year, there was a special turkey bread made from sourdough that graced our table. I didn't partake though, since I didn't want to fill up on bread.... pretty though.

I did, however, partake in these delicious, hot-from-the-oven corn muffins with a bit of cheddar on top. The fresh corn in the muffins went really well with the fresh corn in the corn chowder.

My contribution in terms of wine were my favorite 2007 Cotes du Rhone, La Cabotte, and 2008 Monchhof Urzig Wurzgarten Riesling Kabinett.

Both of these wines were for the turkey course, and they went really well! Of course! I would choose those two wines again in a heart beat. Everyone waxed poetically about how good the Riesling was. I'm glad I brought that because there was no still white wine besides it at the dinner.

And this is how that course looked like. Here, first, is the homemade chutney, which replaced cranberry sauce.

And the turkey course was beautiful, replete with spiral-cut ham, fluffy mashed potatoes, tasty gravy, stuffing, and green beans. Classic.

Following this parade of food were a few desserts, one which I made that could have turned out better than it did, but oh well!
It was a wonderful setting. 80 degree weather and everyone wearing their summer best for the first few hours of the party, followed by people bring out their hats and jackets and blankets when the sun went down around 4:30 pm. That's southern California folks.
Conversation topics ranged from the silly economy, work, Gary Danko (a restaurant I really want to go to in San Francisco), relationships, Christmas holiday plans and other things I don't remember.
We were ready to go by about 9:30 pm, which was good because the next day, we were headed up to the beautiful Santa Rita Hills wine country.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Recession Menus

It's a phenomenon I've noticed this past year, maybe year and a half since this recession began - recession menu items, and its rampant, a sign of the times, a sign that this is what we can afford to eat now, what restaurants can afford to stock in their pantries and not be left holding the bag if customers don't come in... they don't end up with a bunch of fresh lobsters on their hands, or wild game, like elk tenderloins and buffalo rib eye steaks. All they will have is some hamburger meat and dinner rolls and some other cheap cuts of meat that people never saw on menus before, but now... now it is everywhere.
First, let me list what I am talking about - you see these menu items EVERYWHERE!
Sliders - ubiquitous. There's not a menu in a restaurant or restaurant bar that won't feature these little mini-hamburgers done with cute buns and a tiny patty. And most people like them because they are a fan of burgers, and this is a way they can eat burgers in a bar instead of in their car after going through the drive-through.
Braised pork belly - no one ate this fatty cut of meat before, but now, it is a staple on almost every menu - everyone puts this puppy in a crock pot, fills it with a braising liquid and leaves it there for several hours, and voila - braised pork belly, nice and lush and rich and never dry.
Braised short ribs - the other day, I heard a radio ad for a big high end steak house chain inviting folks to come in for their value menu which features this new addition - would you want to go to Ruths Chris and eat braised short rib?
Braised lamb shank - you see the pattern here - braised meats. Cheap cuts cooked long and slow, just like your momma used to make 'em!
Truffle mac n cheese (or 4 cheese mac n cheese) - this is Kraft dinner all grown up, in other words, macaroni or other short pasta in a casserole with cheese sauce and grated cheese, with a light drizzle of truffle oil.
Okay, that's all I can think of at the moment, but you get the idea. It isn't that I don't like these foods, it is that these menu items seem to crop up everywhere these days, even when it doesn't really fit the restaurant. But it is what restaurants must to these days to keep up with the demand for inexpensive menu choices - so I don't blame them. It just makes me want to throw up my arms when I see sliders, pork belly, short ribs, and mac n cheese on pretty much every menu I see these days!
Let's hope for better days in the near future so our menus can show a little more diversity again. Thank you!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Choklit Shoppe - Chocolatt from Belgium - in West Los Angeles

Been a while since I have been inspired to post anything, as you can probably tell. Today, I decided, I might have something, not about wine, but about something else almost as delectable.

I'm speaking about Chocolate, real Chocolate, the good kind, the fresh kind, the artisan kind. Belgian chocolate, called pralines, filled with a variety of goodies including ganache, all sorts of liquor such as Poire William (an eau de vie), Kirsch (cherry)... dark chocolates, milk chocolates, and even some white.

You can find these authentic Belgian chocolates at a very unique store on the west side of Los Angeles called Chocolatt from Belgium - 12008 Wilshire Blvd, near Bundy, in Los Angeles, 90025. It is hard to resist the goodies in this store when you enter - you will find yourself ordering a cup of their unique hot chocolate, which tastes literally like melted slabs of chocolate... they have some baked goods that are directly in from Europe - I believe the owner buys the frozen dough from France and bakes them in house... and then you can choose the chocolates for gifts and have it hand wrapped in front of you.

The owner is Tarcis - he is Flemish and from the town of Kortrijk (pronounced Kor-trek) in Belgium and he knows quality chocolate... one taste of his selections and you will too.

So if you are like me and enjoy good unique artisan products, and original gifts, and like supporting small businesses, check out this store on Wilshire Blvd and let me know what you think. They've been in busines for 7 years and are still going strong because their product is excellent and the service - very European and a pleasure.