Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Friends of James Beard Dinner

Magic and challenge are key ingredients that elevate wine dinners beyond merely good food and drink. Last night's Friends of James Beard Dinner at Spencer's Restaurant had plenty of magic to go around. Mother Nature provided a majestic natural setting up against the mountain and perfect weather. A talented team led by owner Harold Matzner and Executive Chef Eric Wadlund dished out a stellar event, down to impeccable stemware and service.

As a second ingredient, challenge can be dicey. Chefs and sommeliers want to create something innovative and provocative, beyond the fine dining mold. But how far can they go without losing diners waylaid by unfamiliar flavors, textures or combinations?

Our table of hospitality and food and beverage professionals were swayed by the setting and each of the savory courses. With five talented chefs at the helm, each course brought surprise and intrigue, followed by delight and satisfaction. This tough crowd was moved by one or another component of each course, whether it was the added delicacy of chanterelles in Chef Mitchum's sea scallop dish or Vidalia's Jeffrey Buben's espelette pepper coulis and arugula pesto with Shenandoah lamb loin. Another couple savored Andrew Copley's choice of braised hearts of palm with Hawaiian onaga while Eric's braised rib cap shuttered a few eyes in culinary heaven. Spencer's pastry chef Michael Weeks won all of us over with his inventive chocolate-crowned creme brulee - and taught a few that sable is not just fur.

On par with the cuisine were B Cellars wine pairings by guest sommelier George Riffle, who learned a thing or two about great food and wine at New York's Picholine. Our crowd knew about the winery's penchant for blends and seemed curious about the choices listed on the menu. Riffle silenced the skeptics with inspiring selections that coupled seamlessly with each course. Blend 23's Viognier highlighted lobster nugget sweetness while Sangiovese in Blend 24's lighter-weight Super Tuscan was a perfect foil for onaga's tomato-tarragon coulis. The pairings had the entire table abuzz and in agreement: They were totally spot-on.

We left with new appreciation for our chefs' talents, and the magic each member of the team brought to this first-of-its-kind desert event. We're looking forward to our Winewomenpsp event at Spencer's later this year. Encore!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Aromas in the Air, Cab Franc in the Glass

Every year around this time, the Coachella Valley is perfumed by citrus blossoms, one of the most intoxicating airborne scents you'll ever breathe in. Perhaps that's why we have a hankering for aromatic wines these days. Besides floral-scented whites such as Viognier or Riesling, red wines can also be bloomy in aroma or taste as in the violet scents of Cabernet Franc. This varietal is more often used as a blending grape but it can shine as a single-varietal or one-grape wine. Two we've tasted in different price ranges lately are worth checking out. The 2006 Franc by Cosentino Winery's Crystal Valley Cellars is made from Cabernet Franc grapes from Mandeville Island, Napa and Lodi. More fruity than floral, it's a wine you can enjoy when you don't want the more aggressive flavors and tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon, Franc's grape offspring. Try it with grilled meats or use a dusting of cinnamon-based dry rub to pick up on the wine's rich plum overtones. Stay away from too much heat in the foods as this wine comes in at 14.9% alcohol. We found it for less than $12 at Los Angeles Wine Company in Palm Desert. Next, a Cab Franc splurge to remember.

Friday, March 20, 2009

2004 Meyer Vineyard Syrah: Berry Good

The February forecast for Napa was rain day and night but we were undeterred. Between winery visits in St. Helena, we ducked into Dean & DeLuca to find off-the-beaten-track wines to take home. Wine specialist Spencer was ready to take us on so we filled him in on what we eat (lots of grilled meats and vegetables), what we like (Syrah, big reds) and a wish list wine that's hard to find in the desert (Cabernet Franc).

Spencer's Syrah pick was the 2004 Meyer Vineyard by Hestan ($34), a relatively new producer we didn't know. Vintners Stanley and Helen Cheng released their first Hestan wines in 2005 along with their second label, Meyer. Once home, we paired the Syrah with grilled New York steaks seasoned with lots of salt and pepper. The lead-off swirl and sniff told us we had a winner. The first sip gave us a mouthful of berry pie – rich and juicy with a hint of tea to tone down the fruit. While not as peppery as many Syrahs, the wine's full-bodied mouthfeel worked seamlessly with the steak. Tannins were nicely integrated into the velvety texture and a long, smooth finish. The 14.5% alcohol content surprised us as the wine's pleasures seemed balanced and satisfying, not hot. So far, Spencer is batting a thousand. Next up: Cabernet Franc.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Wine Shop Savvy

Step into a wine country wine shop and you'll meet all kinds of attractive bottles from small and lesser-known producers, beckoning you to take them home. Between unfamiliarity and hefty price tags, it can be tough to make right choices - and these days, no one wants to blow money on wine you don't truly enjoy. Your best bet is to enlist the help of the wine specialist. Talk about wines or grape varietals that you've enjoyed in the past, as well as flavors or wines that don't do it for you. Like big fruit, in-your-face reds? Or are you more of a medium-bodied aromatic white wine kinda person? If you have a special dish or dinner party in mind, share that too. Describe key facts about preparation (outdoor grilling or poached?), sauces (butter-sage or chile verde?) or theme (summer salad with the girls or meat-and-potatoes for Monday night footballers?). These clues help wine specialists hook you up with wines to match your palate and needs. Finally, be honest about what price range is comfortable for you. Fifteen bucks your limit today? Perhaps a value-priced Spanish garnacha (grenache) is just the ticket. The more you share with an in-the-know wine specialist, the better your chances of popping the cork of a wine you won't soon forget.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ahead of the curve

How cool to open up Wine Spectator's Sips & Tips e-newsletter this morning to find their featured Wine of Week was also a Winewomen PSP pick - a year ago! Those of you who came to our Spa & Sauvignon Blanc event last March at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort, Villas and Spa will remember it: Brancott Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough. We loved its refreshing lime and grapefruit flavors, so perfect with our food that night. Spectator gave the 2008 a respectable 89 rating. We were treated instead to the 2006 Brancott Reserve, which was just a bit extra special. Thank you, Hyatt for keeping Winewomen PSP ahead of the curve!

Monday, March 16, 2009

How To Learn About Wine (just drink it!)

I met E over a glass of wine at Christian's Movers+Shakers party at the Esmeralda. Her eyes lit up when I told her about our 3/20 Ace wine party. She really wants to come and asked a question we hear a lot - how could she come to a Winewomen event if she doesn't know anything about wine?

E, you are just the person we want to see at our events! Winewomen PSP is about getting together around wine to have fun and learn about wine with smiles, not pain. Forget wine snobbery - we just want to enjoy new tastes, learn and heighten our wine appreciation, whether your starting point is zero or wine-geek level.

While it's great that wine is finally big news in America, there's still too much wine anxiety swirling around. Drinking and enjoying wine is not a test. What you smell and taste doesn't have to match what's been written in a review or the flavors the lady next to you is reciting. Wine is personal, like food - what you taste and enjoy is uniquely you. You own your palate, and that's what makes wine enjoyment so special, so right. Come find out for yourself, E - hope to see you again at Ace!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Welcome to the party!

Welcome to our WinewomenPSP blog! We've grown so fast in the past year, it's time we start blogging to keep everyone on board with wine haps, great pours, culinary events, travel and more. Our next event is 6-8 PM Friday, March 20th at the new & fab Ace Hotel and Swim Club in Palm Springs. Be there! You remember general manager Jonathan Heath from our Feb. 2008 Viceroy event with Upright LA Cabaret - a huge wow. We hear his new hotel and restaurant are incredible. Join us to see what all the excitement is all about. It's casual, with good wine and appetizers so come by ready to unwind and relax. Non-members and guys are welcome too. Call Kathleen to reserve at 760.799.7076. See you at the Ace!