Spring Has Sprung – Notes from a wine club shipment

Spring came early to wine country this year.  As I write this, the short-lived lupines are out in abundance, providing a purple-blue stage for the prima-donna golden poppies springing up in their midst.  And in the vineyards, bud break came early too.  Now the growers are sweating out the possibility of frosts for another month – we should be out of the woods if we can make it through Memorial Day without falling below 32°.  It was 36° last night.

Serving temperature guildelines

And gardens are burgeoning with fava beans, asparagus, snow peas and edible greens – springtime vegetables providing a welcome change from winter fare.  And when our foods change, so do the wines that go with them.  So this month’s selections were chosen with an eye (or tastebud?) toward springtime ingredients – a Sauvignon Blanc (always a favorite), Chardonnays, a lighter style Cabernet, and of course, the ever-flexible pinot noirs, among others.

But with Spring comes the promise of heat.  If it hasn’t already arrived in your neighborhood it’ll be moving in soon.  And heat impacts how we experience a wine.  As “room temperature” increases to its summer-time norm, a wine quickly becomes too warm to show its best stuff.  And for those of us without wine cellars, that means calling your refrigerator into duty for calculated periods of time until your wine reaches its ideal temperature.

To make this task as easy as possible, I’ve provided the following guide (right).  In summary, to move a bottle of wine from room temperature to its ideal temperature, count the number of degrees you need it to move and multiply by five minutes – that’s how long you’ll want to leave it in the refrigerator.  Easy.



My “Grand Cru” Club Selections ($150/quarter)

Crocker & Starr Sauvignon Blanc Crocker & Starr, 2012 Sauvignon Blanc.  $32 (all prices before member discount)

What were you doing in 1971?  Charlie Crocker was planting grapes in Napa Valley.  You would have too, if you were a 3rd generation Californian and great grandson to the railway magnate.  Charlie’s family has a Midas touch. Great Grandad helped bring the world to California, turning it into an economic behemoth.  And there was something about a rather large bank too.  And he created and sold some successful technology companies.  You might say the Crockers were visionaries.  Which is why he planted grapes in an unknown place called Napa, way back in 1971.

The “Starr” of the show, however, is Pam Starr, noted winemaker and co-founder of this blessed venture in 1997.  I still remember the buzz surrounding this new partnership back in 1998 when I was working weekends in a Napa tasting room.  Though one can find delicious Sauvignon Blanc for a lot less, I think you’ll agree this is an intriguing and memorable rendition.  And a perfect wine for the foods of Spring.

Ghost Block Est. Cab LabelGhost Block, 2010 Oakville Estate Cabernet.  $66

If you’ve toured Napa Valley, you know the town of Yountville.  Home of the French Laundry, Bouchon, Bistro Jeanty, Chandon… and Napa’s first wine grower, George C. Yount.  This wine comes from a vineyard that abuts the historic Pioneer Cemetery, and the wine’s name comes from the local lore in which Yount’s ghost wanders the area “overseeing” the modern development of the industry he began.  Sounds to me like the sort of local lore a marketing department might create.

The very antithesis of ghostly, this wine is typical Napa – big and bold, expressing blackberries, cherries, mocha and sweet pie spices.  A sure hit with any Cab lover, and a candidate for meats and veggies off your summer grill.

The winemaker – Rob Lawson – is very much alive and well.  Hopefully, he has many more years before he joins Yount on his moonlit tours as ethereal overseer.  This wine has just been released, after spending 24 months lounging in oak before bottling.  Always allocated, it’s particularly rare this year, when only 800 cases were produced.  Sadly, I have very little left, and with the approach of graduations, Mother’s/Father’s Day, and weddings, I suspect it will soon be as ethereal as Yount’s ghost.

David Fulton P.S. label 2David Fulton Winery, 2009 Petite Sirah, Old Vines, Napa Valley.  $45

Another wine of historical significance in Napa, this rare gem hails from “the oldest continuously owned and operated family vineyard in the state of California”.  Today, David’s winery is run by his Great Grandson, Fulton, and his wife, Dink.  Yes, Fulton and Dink – names almost as rare as their wine.  When I read about this wine and its historical significance, I called to see if any were available for you.  Sadly, it was not.  But then Dink contacted me with the good news that they could provide just enough for my club members.  Rare in more ways than one, Petite Sirah can age like nobody’s business.  If you can resist the urge to open this wine, lay it down for ten to twenty years.  You’ll be amazed by the complexity it develops, and only wish you’d been able to buy more.  Me too.

 Love their tagline “One vineyard.  One wine.  Made great.

Pinot Selections ($75 bi-monthly)

Affordable anderson valley pinot noirElke Vineyards, 2010 “Croppy Fetcher” Anderson Valley.  $29 (all prices before member discount)

Scene: You’re touring Anderson Valley wineries, sitting at a picnic table in Boonville as you wait for your travel partner (TP) to come out of the local coffee shop with picnic provisions.

(TP sticks head out door) Do you want a horn of Zees

(You) Whaaaaa???

(TP) You know, to ward off the chill before these Brightlighters drive out to the briny to visit the Fog Eaters for a while before checking into our hotel for a little bilching.  You can even break out the branding irons if you like.  Then we can go for a drive and watch the croppy fetchers train for the upcoming trials, or maybe even join the abbers.

Clearly, your travel partner found the crash course in Boontling while shopping for provisions.  Boontling is a dialect created by the residents of Boonville in the 1800’s.  Local winemakers often pay homage to the dying language, now spoken only by aging hippies and cunning linguists.  I can tell you that “Croppy” is the Boontling term for sheep, and a “Croppy Fetcher” is a sheep dog, but to decipher the rest of your travel partner’s paragraph, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boontling

The Croppy Fetcher shown on the label was Mary Elke’s sheep dog, Ben.  He patrolled the Elke vineyards for years before his demise last year, just a week before the wine was bottled.  This wine pays homage to Boontling as well as Ben, so enjoy it with his spirit in mind – joyful, simple, smart and full of life.

Rusian River PinotSmall Vines, 2011 Pinot Noir, Russian River  $55.00

When I read about a wine over and over, I want to know about it.  Especially when what I’m reading comes from multiple sources.  And they are all credible, and all say good things.  That’s how I came to spend a Friday afternoon in a small office/tasting room in remote Sebastapol sipping the Sloan Family’s pinots. 

I know the label to the right is a bit too small, but can you see the logo at the top?  At first glance it looks like a mirror reflection of two opposing grape vines.  Look closer and you see a grape vine and its ROOTS – not surprising once you learn that Paul Sloan started his wine career with a vineyard management company.  His firm still manages vineyards for some of Sonoma’s top properties, and the grapes for his wines come from these hand-picked growers.

Their wines are not the typical Russian River pinots, notable for their fruit-forward personalities and relatively short-lived (5-7 yr) aging potential.  These are wines for the ages, and will improve for years to come before stabilizing and then slowly diminishing – beginning ten years from now.  Only 300 cases produced.  Unfined/unfiltered, 13.9% alcohol, 15 months in oak (33% new).

Collectible Selections ($55 bi-monthly)

Dry Creek ZinfandelOusterhout Winery, 2010 Zinfandel, Bradford Mountain (Organic).  $31 (all prices before member discount)

Gamine – French for “a girl with mischievous charm”.  In San Francisco, it’s also the name of our local French Bistro, where Stephan, Susannah and Alex cater more to regular locals than tourists. And, oh by the way, they make the perfect French fry.

So I’m there a lot. Such as the day I stopped in for a quick lunch at the counter. Not particularly memorable, but on this particular day, at that particular time, a particular wine salesman made a delivery. Turns out he dropped off the Joseph Jewel Pinot Noir.

What are the odds? Earlier that week, our “Pinot Selections” club members had received that same said wine. It proved quite popular. So I stuck out my hand and struck up a conversation. Turns out JJ’s partner/winemaker, Micah Wirth, also crafts a Zinfandel for a San Francisco cosmetic surgeon, name of Ousterhout.

Turns out the wine is good. And so’s the price. Turns out I decide to use the wine for my “Collectible Selections” club members. And finally, turns out you made it far enough to read about it. Now it’s time to buy the wine – you won’t regret it. If you like Zins, that is. This one is classic Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel – cracked black pepper without over-the-top fruit. Delicious and satisfying.

South Africa red wine blendRED ONLY – Fable Vineyard, 2009 Syrah/Mourvedre “Lions Whisker”, South Africa (Biodynamic).  $29

First, there’s the package. Striking. Beautiful. Enticing.

But that’s just the outside. Inside is the wine. Distinctive. Nuanced. From Biodynamic vineyards. Following ‘Rudy’ Steiner’s strict practices is challenging enough. But doing so in South Africa, in a vineyard 1/3 of a mile high, where leopards, baboons, venomous snakes and brush fires add challenges of their own… well, that’s just bonkers.  One taste and you’ll be glad that partners Rebecca Tanner and Paul Nicholls are just bonkers enough to persevere.

A blend of Syrah and Mourvedre (83/17), note the flowery, dusty fruit in the nose that gives away the wine’s feminine side. Then taste the fruit, tobacco and mocha that brings a masculine yin to that yang.

As the name implies, ‘Lion’s Whisker’ has a fable behind it. “Two sisters, who had always been very close, found out one day that they would be marrying men from different villages. Distraught that they would be separated by some distance and concerned they would grow apart, the sisters went to the village healer and asked if he had any potions to help cement their bond for life. He told them that yes, he did, but he would need a lion’s whisker to make it. The two sisters spent many weeks lingering near where the lion drank from the lake so that he would eventually trust that they meant him no harm. After many weeks, one of the sisters finally reached out and pulled a whisker from the lion, and they took it to the healer. “Alas,” he said, “there is no potion after all, but if you have the dedication and bravery to make a lion trust you, you already have everything you need to keep your relationship strong forever.”

Carneros chardonnayMolnar, 2011 Chardonnay, Carneros.  $25

After more than a decade of eschewing Chardonnay, I’m coming back into its fold.  It’s not me who is changing, it’s the wine – lower in alcohol and post-harvest manipulations, the wines are more nuanced.  These layers of flavor make a wine interesting beyond the first glass.  And the 2011 vintage helped – long and cool, it allowed flavors to develop while maintaining natural acidity without spikes in sugar.

Look for Chardonnay’s tell-tale citrus zest, orange blossoms, caramelized sugar and warm vanilla cream.  Molnar is a Hungarian family, and the only winery I know of that uses only Hungarian oak barrels (33% new, in this case), which bring a uniquely delicious sweet spice note without being over-powering.  1,070 cases produced, 14.3% alcohol.

Crowd-Pleasing Selections ($35 bi-monthly)

affordable california cabernet Heron, 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendocino.  $14

Think climate change hasn’t impacted your wine?  Here’s a sobering stat – Since 1980, the average Napa Cabernet has increased from 12.5% to 15.5% alcohol – a 24% increase.  But Laely Heron marches to her own drum.  Seeking Cabernet from cool, high-altitude vineyards she crafts lower-alcohol food wines that still boast of phenolic ripeness.  That’s a snooty way of saying they don’t taste weedy. 

What would you expect?  Laely learned about wine in France, where alcohol levels are more reasonable.  These are food wines at a price that makes them an everyday treat.  Unlike most Cabernets, this wine easily treads the tightrope between bold and delicate – comfortable with stews, roast meats and braised dishes as well as lighter meals such as pork, roast poultry, pasta or grilled fish and veggies on the grill.

Affordable cabernet from paso roblesRED ONLY – Rock Hollow, 2010 Cabernet, Paso Robles.  $23

Cabernet.  You’ve tasted, what, maybe several hundy?  God, it’s a great grape.  King of Bordeaux and Napa.  Makes it difficult to introduce a notable Cabernet.  Which is what I’m always looking for – one that’s just a little better.  Unique.  Good value.  More than just fruit and alcohol and a high price.  Sameness stinks.

Well, this one is unique.  Affordable.  With 15% Cabernet Franc for greater complexity.  Alcohol under 14%.  So you can enjoy it with more than just steak.

Its Pedigree?  This is the value label for the Firestone family’s Curtis winery.  Yeah, THAT Firestone.  Tires.  The Bachelor.  Breweries.  Restaurants.  Wineries.  Guess I should say “THOSE” Firestones.  The family that brought fine wine – and Andre Tchelistcheff – to the Central Coast a few decades back.

I’d say we owe them a little gratitude.  You will too, once you separate the cork from this bottle.  Why are you still reading this?  Go get a corkscrew.  And don’t worry, there’s more where this came from.

affordable california chardonnaySonoma Oaks, 2010 Chardonnay, Sonoma.  $18

Rounding errors.  If you’re like me, you pay your bills to the nearest even dollar amount.  Anything less is just a rounding error.  If you’re like the government, anything less than a million is a rounding error. And if you’re the Bronco Wine Company, the production numbers on this wine are a rounding error.

But Chardonnay fans will find here an affordable friend. Despite the use of certain winemaker’s shortcuts, or perhaps because of them, this wine offers the iconic Chardonnay experience without breaking the bank. Hints of vanilla cream balance nicely with the more austere citrus; and its lower alcohol level makes it a well-behaved dinner companion for a wide range of lighter fare.

Braised Pork Shank with Soft Polenta & Horseradish Gremolata

After moving to the Bay Area from the Midwest in 1994, most weekends were spent fueling my wine passion in Napa or Sonoma.  Being single and new to the area, these were often solo trips, which meant I had to confer with no one about what wine to taste, where to eat, or how much to spend.  This freedom was greatly appreciated until it came time for dinner, when it would have been nice to share a meal with someone and rehash the events of our wine-soaked day.

But one solo dinner I recall fondly was eaten in a small restaurant called Girl & The Fig.  At the time, it was situated in Sonoma’s Valley of the Moon, and its warm glow rekindled memories of bistros enjoyed while biking through the Provencal wine country.  Every wine on their wine list was either from the Rhone valley or made from Rhone varietals, and their menu was crafted to match the warm and welcoming foods of Provence.

Sondra Bernstein and John Toulze at "the girl & the fig"
Sondra Bernstein, John Toulze at "the girl & the fig"

Although “French Bistro” is one of the most over-used restaurant concepts, this one was different. Owned by the very special Sondra Bernstein, Girl & The Fig was infused with the spirit of the Rhone and  I was smitten.  The Bistro became my preferred dining spot for many future trips – and I became something of an evangelist for it.

I watched with pleasure as Sondra tirelessly added successful venture after successful venture – cook books, an iPhone app, a line of packaged food products, a line of body products, two restaurants, bio-dynamic farms behind each of her restaurants, a catering company and probably several more things I’m forgetting.

I’ve become casually acquainted with Sondra and her business partner over the years, and was most pleased that she agreed to provide a recipe to pair with domestic Syrah-based wines.  I think this dish would work well with a broad range of red wines such as Cabernet, Zinfandel and any red Rhone blend.  This dish can be made year-round, but it resonates for me during the cold Fall and Winter months, when oven braising fills the home with warmth and aromas that beat back Winter’s chill.

Ingredients for Pork Shanks (Serves six)

  • 6 Pork Hind Shanks (we prefer Niman Ranch)
  • Salt & black pepper
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, quartered
  • 2 stalk celery, rough chop
  • 1 small carrot, peeled, chopped
  • 4 crushed cloves of garlic
  • 1 bottle white wine (unoaked, preferably)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 5 black peppercorns
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 2 quarts pork or chicken stock

Procedure for Braised Pork Shanks

Preheat oven to 350’.  Season the pork shanks heavily with salt and black pepper. Over medium heat, add the oil to a hot sauté pan and then sear the shanks until browned on all sides.  Remove from pan and keep warm.

Meanwhile, heat a braising pan (deep-sided roaster) over medium heat and then add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic and half the bottle of white wine.  Bring to a boil and reduce until almost dry.  Add the seared shanks to the braising pan along with the bayleaf, peppercorns, thyme and enough stock to just cover the shanks and vegetables.  Cover the pan with aluminum foil and move to the heated oven for 1-1.5 hours or until the shanks are just tender.

Remove from oven and when sufficiently cool, remove the shanks from the braising liquid and set aside keeping warm. With a fine mesh sieve, strain the braising liquid and skim any remaining fat from the top.  Add the remaining half bottle of white wine to a large saucepan, bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and continue reducing the wine until almost dry. Add the braising liquid and simmer while continuing to skim off any fat that forms on the top.  Reduce to a thickened consistency.

Ingredients for Soft Polenta

  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups milk
  • Salt
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup polenta
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • White pepper

Procedure for Soft Polenta

Add the water, milk, olive oil and butter to a medium saucepan, season with the salt and bring to a simmer. While stirring with a wire whisk, slowly add the polenta and beat into the liquid. Simmer and continue to stir for 10 minutes. Add the Parmesan cheese, adjust the seasoning, continuing to stir, cover and keep warm.

Ingredients for Broccolini

  • 3 Bunches broccolini, tough stems removed
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • Salt and white pepper

Procedure for Broccolini

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Blanch the broccolini for no more than 60 seconds, then shock in an ice water bath until cool and drain. Heat the butter in a large sauté pan over medium low heat until melted; add the broccolini, season to taste and heat till warm.  Alternatively, roast the broccolini in the oven until just crispy, and once plated, top with a small amount of the Gremolata.

Horseradish Gremolata

  • 1 bunch Italian flat leaf parsley, cleaned from the stems
  • 3 tablespoons capers, chopped
  • 2 lemons, zested
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 horseradish root, peeled & grated
  • Sea salt

Mix the parsley, chopped capers, lemon zest, garlic, olive oil, and grated horseradish.  Season with sea salt.

To plate:

Spoon the warm polenta into the center of a warm bowl, place a sixth of the warm broccolini onto the polenta, top with a braised pork shank. Nap the shank with the white wine braising sauce and garnish with the gremolata.

“the girl & the fig” • 110 west spain street • sonoma, ca 95476


Steak “au Poivrade” – Cracked pepper sauce (easy)

Sometimes one must eat dinner alone, though I must admit I don’t care to.  To offset such misfortunes, I turn solo meals into a treat with a recipe that’s satisfying but easy enough to justify cooking for one. This is such a dish, a favorite from my bachelor days.  But please don’t feel compelled to save it for a night on your own – it works just as well for two.  Or a crowd.

There are two keys to success here.  A heavy pan (a well-seasoned cast iron skillet is ideal) and freshly ground peppercorns.  I recommend green peppercorns here, as they are significantly milder than their black counterpart, and won’t fight the wine.  If black peppercorns are all you have, use half the amount called for.  And while steaks are welcome at my house in all seasons, the backbone of mild heat that runs through this sauce will warm the cockles of the coldest Winter-chilled heart!  A great cold-weather dish.  (Image from Shawna’s Food Blog – click to find another recipe for comparison)


1 Steak / person (about ¾ pound if bone-in)
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Shallot – minced
¼ Cup cognac (or red wine, in a pinch)
¼ Cup red wine
2 tsps green peppercorns, roughly smashed
1/3 Cup cream (or a bit less, with a good pat of butter whisked in at the end)
Salt & freshly-ground pepper to taste

Heat a heavy frying pan over medium heat for several minutes.  Season the steak with salt & pepper and prepare your ingredients.  Remove pan from heat, add oil and quickly tilt to coat evenly.  Return to heat and add steak – do not move until it is time to flip!  Cook to preferred doneness, remembering the meat continues cooking after removing it from the pan.  Cover and place in warm oven.  (Alternatively, grilling the steak adds nice complexity)

In the pan, adjust the fat so there is a scant tablespoon.  Add the minced shallot and sauté a few minutes until lightly browned.  Pour in cognac and deglaze the pan. Add the red wine, raise heat to med-high and reduce liquid by ¼.  Add the peppercorns and whisk in the cream.  Reduce sauce until it coats the back of a spoon.  Whisk in cold butter, if using, and serve as desired – this sauce is nice whether served as a base, a topping or on the side.  And don’t under-estimate its deliciousness when used to top potatoes or steamed vegetables!

Wine Pairings – Pair this with bold reds such as Zinfandel, Syrah, Rhone blends or new world Cabernets or Bordeaux blends.