Authors Posts by Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson

Ilona Thompson
Ilona grew up in St Petersburg. Awestruck by the beauty of Napa Valley, she moved to SF Bay Area to pursue her undeniable passion for food & wine. She spends a lion's share of her time traveling California wine regions and attending a wide variety of diverse tastings held in San Francisco. She knows her way around some of the most prestigious & exclusive wine & food events in the country. Her inner wine geek led her inside the cellars of highly notable, sought after, elusive, fascinating wineries in California. Follow her whirlwind adventures on twitter @PalateXposure

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Paso Robles | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Paso Robles | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Paso Robles has over 200 wineries; 95 percent are family owned small businesses

Paso Robles | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Paso Robles | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Paso Robles is home to over 200 wineries and 32,000 acres of vineyards, 95 percent of which are family owned. Cabernet Sauvignon is a dominant grape, followed by Merlot, Rhones and other red varieties. It is the largest and most topographically diverse wine region in California; with wild temperature swings and the longest growing season. Wineries from this region produce innovative blends from Bordeaux, Rhone and Spanish grapes.  The region boasts the largest coastal Syrah, Viognier and Rosanne plantings in the state. Although slightly challenging to traverse, due to its geographical spread, it is well worth exploration. A number of notable wineries produce world class wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhone varietals.

Paso is home to many producers who enjoy cult following, such as Saxum, Linne Calodo, Villa Creek, Justin and not the long revered Tablas Creek. Some of the more recent cult producers, such as Denner and Booker Vineyards have been gaining momentum; occupying prominent spots in many domestic Rhone lover’s cellars.

Barrelhouse | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Barrelhouse | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

My most recent visit to Paso Robles differed from my usual wine meanderings and featured an itinerary that required closed toe shoes and a harness. It started at Barrel House Brewing, a rather charming local artisanal brewery. They knocked my socks off with concoctions such as Templeton Session Style Ale, with its seductive

Bob | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Bob | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

gooseberry (a la New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc) and exotic aromatics. Also noteworthy was their bourbon barrel aged “Curly Wolf ” Imperial Stout, with its full body and big, bold, opulent flavors. I had an opportunity to barrel taste young beers in the cellar and to meet Bob, the resident skeleton, hunched over a table, clearly having had

a few samples too many. A fun, playful atmosphere has been created by the owners, who take their craft very seriously, but not themselves. Even though I am not an avid beer drinker, after tasting a dozen of their creative, delicious beers, I would gladly rush back.

I then moved on to a planed activity that had caused significant trepidation over the preceding few days – zip lining at historic Santa Margarita Ranch, one of the oldest continuously operated cattle ranches in the state. The ranch was established in the late 1700s as part of Father Junipero Serra’s famed Mission Trail.  Father Serra planted the ranch with Spanish Mission grapes, a varietal that dominated wine production in the area until the 1880’s. The area’s Ancient Peaks Winery, Margarita Adventures and Santa Margarita Ranch are now owned by third generation ranching and grape growing dynasties: the Filipponis, Rossis, and Wittstroms.

At Margarita Adventures, an adventurer can take a break from wine tasting and zoom down five separate zip lines spanning over 3,000 feet; culminating in the 1,800 ft “Pinot Express” section that soars over a lovely Pinot Noir vineyard. Admittedly, my prior idea of extreme sport was more along the lines of tasting a few dozen wines on the same day, so this pending adventure was well out of my comfort zone. I found myself being strapped into a stout harness, outfitted with helmet and gloves, and being told to “have fun” as I stepped off a perfectly good concrete ledge into a free fall and unruly gusts of wind. I am happy to report that my fears were unfounded and I had a boatload of fun. The staff was very friendly and supportive, so novices, such as myself, felt quite comfortable.

I discovered that stepping on the ledge mimics a metaphor for life, when you just let go and let the metal cable carry you through to thrill and safety. It was a liberating experience that I would recommended to everyone.

After my adrenalin filled adventure, I moved on to the Ancient Peaks Tasting & Blending Experience at the Margarita Vineyard. The name, Ancient Peaks, refers to the mountain peaks that surround the vineyard, formed by a collision of tectonic plates. My gracious host, winemaker Mike Sinor, discussed the unique aspects of grape growing challenges of this spectacular site. He provided a mini-tutorial on blending; utilizing the examples of their flagship wines: Renegade and Oyster Ridge. As a very special treat, I was provided with an assortment of varietal components  (Zinfandel, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet) and challenged to create my very own blend; which then was bottled, corked and labeled right before me. The name? Writer’s Block; of course!

Ancient Peaks | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Ancient Peaks | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
​Peppadews at Thomas Hill Organics | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
​Peppadews at Thomas Hill Organics | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

My last stop was at Thomas Hill Organics Bistro and Wine Bar, a restaurant that focuses on organic produce and sustainably raised meats. They specialize in lower-alcohol, yet delicious, cocktails made with organic(!) vodka and sake. I had a great meal of stuffed peppadew peppers, rock crab cakes, seared duck breast, pistachio crusted lamb and chocolate marquise paired with wines from Lone Madrone, Austin Hope and Tablas Creek Vineyard.

The next day started with an extensive tasting at Vivant Fine Cheese, located in the heart of Paso Robles. Vivant sells cheese from around the world, however, they showcase local artisanal cheeses. My favorite was the incredibly creamy marinated chevre.

​Villa San Juliette ​| PHOTO CREDIT: IlonaThompson
​Villa San Juliette ​| PHOTO CREDIT: IlonaThompson

Next on my agenda was a visit to Villa San-Juliette winery, owned by former American Idol producers, Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick. If you ever watched their hilarious documentary, “Corkscrewed – the Wrath of Grapes” highlighting their first hairy experiences as gentlemen farmers, you would be pleased to see just how “all right” things turned out. It’s a beautiful property which produces wonderful wines.

Summer Wine and Tapas Affair at the historic Paso Robles Inn, sponsored by Daou Vineyards, was marvelous.  Daniel Daou’s wines never cease to impress. Made with passion and authenticity they emanate the winemaker’s vision and commitment to excellence. Loved his 2012 Rose, 2012 Grenache Blanc and 2013 Chenin de Fleurs – summer in a glass and then some!

​Daniel Daou | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
​Daniel Daou | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

A walk thru the park on my way to dinner yielded a stop at the General Store owned by three ladies on a mission to supply their customers with unique, charming, tasty and useful things from local artisans.

The Artisan Restaurant, where I had dinner, offered a interesting selection of lovely cocktails, wood fired pizzas, and an array of creative and delicious small plates. Try the “pig wings,” or a short rib with grilled peaches and bay blue cheese, or the boar tenderloin in an indulgent morel mushrooms sauce.

When visiting Paso Robles. I recommend staying at the Oaks Hotel, a new property built with the comfort and value in mind.

All in all, it was very apparent that there is much more to Paso Robles than wineries and restaurants. It’s a place that has something for everyone. Between historic hotels such as Paso Robles Inn and thrilling adventures such as zip lining one is certain to find lots to do and experience.

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Tusk's Wine Cellar | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Tusk's Wine Cellar | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Chef Michael Tusk creates tasting menus that oozes sophistication, without an ounce of pretense.

Tusk's Wine Cellar | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Tusk’s Wine Cellar | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

I first leaned about Michael Tusk’s Quince several years ago, from Harvey Steinman, a Wine Spectator critic.  Harvey shared that Quince is one of his favorite restaurants of all time, so I booked a reservation and had a memorable meal there, with a highlight being his signature sublime pasta dishes.

Chef Michael Tusk | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thmpson
Chef Michael Tusk | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thmpson

A critically acclaimed (two-star Michelin, four-star SF Chronicle) San Francisco restaurant, Quince is the creation of Michael and Lindsay Tusk.  It’s a place where grandeur meets comfort, the sort of spot that fulfills the most discerning diner; yet does so casually, with fun and flair. It’s cuisine is a fusion of Italian and French influences, with a hefty nod to Northern California’s largesse.  The restaurant is regularly supplied with the freshest ingredients; meticulously chosen from purveyors of local farm produce, fish mongers, and ranchers.

Pasta used to be a signature fare, however that’s clearly changed, during my recent dining  experience there were only two pasta courses on the nine course tasting menu, (as well as a supplemental course that featured royal indulgences such as smoked sturgeon and caviar.)

Tusk is originally from the East Coast where a chance cooking job led him to a culinary school and subsequent stints at Michelin star restaurants in France and Italy. French classic techniques and Northern Italian finesse made an indelible impression on Tusk.

Michael credits Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli as his most influential mentors. During the time at Waters’ Chez Panisse and then Bertolli’s Oliveto he took multiple trips to Italy. When Chef Tusk was ready to open his own restaurant, he knew precisely the type of cuisine he wanted to present. An intimate, 60 seat, Italian-inspired restaurant, Quince opened its doors in 2003.  Word spread quickly of the fabulous, local ingredient-driven menus, and soulful, creative food.

In 2009, a new chapter in Quince’s history unfolded, as it moved from its San Francisco, Pacific Heights neighborhood,  to Jackson Square.  It now resides in a spacious, historical landmark building, built in 1907. Elegantly appointed, it emanates an upscale vibe without being ostentatious.

Michael, and his wife Lindsay, opened their second restaurant, Cotogna (“quince” in Italian), in the same building, to rave reviews from public and press. Cotogna is an homage to hearty Italian cuisine, and tempts guests with a diverse menu of roasted and grilled beef, poultry and fish, wood-oven pizzas and decadent, luxurious pastas.

Instant success is a myth. Ironically “Myth” is the name of the former restaurant space, which Cotogna now occupies. A medley of Tusk’s stellar work ethic, unrelenting pursuit of top notch ingredients,  and profound dedication to perfecting his craft are the ingredients that created this “instant success.”

Michael’s tasting menu oozes sophistication, without an ounce of pretense. There is a progression to Tusk’s dishes, each guiding the palate into a new discovery of flavors and sensations. Each thoughtful course functions independently, yet is in concert with the preceding and the following ones. His tasting menu is a symphony of revelations.

Spiny Lobster | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Spiny Lobster | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

After weeks of anticipation the ‘d-day’, or dining day, finally arrived and I found myself at Quince’s table, excitedly reviewing their impressive wine list. The evening started with a glass of Paillard Rose which paired marvelously with the “Stuzzichini De Benvenuto” – an array of playful amuse bouche bites.  This was followed by Hawaiian Bonito floating on a cloud of cherry tomato, seaweed and lemon cucumber.   Next came my favorite course of the night, white asparagus resting on morel mushrooms, spring garlic and vin jaune sauce. I knew that asparagus was one of Chef Tusk’s favorite ingredients, but I wasn’t prepared for the simple splendor of this epic dish. Spiny Lobster made an appearance in its complete form before being presented with avocado, padrones and haricot vert. Tagliolini e oro featured real gold leaf gracing its exquisite shape.  This unusual cocoa clam, and melon combination was stunning.  Suckling pig tortellini were impossibly delicious yet it was the Four Story Farm Poussin with sunchoke, pistachio and porcini that was a show stealer.

Dessert by Chef Carolyn Nugent | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Dessert by Chef Carolyn Nugent | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

The dessert was beautifully executed by the Chef Carolyn Nugent, whose delicious creations I recently sampled at Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival. Carolyn’s superstar mentors were Ferran Adria and Joel Robuchon who own some of the most coveted restaurants worldwide, el Bulli and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon; and served as Executive Pastry Chef at Bottega Louie and Bouchon, Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. It consisted of yogurt, Mara de Bois (a hybrid of wild and garden strawberries) and Varhona Opalys. It was a testimony to Carolyn’s creativity, a study in contrasts and her ability to stimulate the palate down to the very last sweet, tangy and savory bite.

The wine program at Quince is a quick pathway to the heart of a card-carrying wine geek. Formidable, diverse and thoughtful, the wine list presents a large number of prominent, world-wide, producers. There is large number of international selections, yet it was the vast California section that won me over. The appearance of 1995 Bryant Family Cabernet on the list made my heart skip a beat.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

I ordered Philippe Melka’s beautiful Sauvignon Blanc creation titled “Entre Nous.” Soft and silky, with hints of white flowers, nectarine and seductive tropical aromatics, it’s core firmly centers around brilliant, fresh minerality. Texturally superb, expansive and layered flavor profile pleased the palate and paired brilliantly with food. Other wine indulgences included Gary’s Franscioni Pinot Noir and some welcome surprises. At the end of the meal I was treated to not one, not two, but three different Amaros, a compelling companion and a powerful revelation in how much I want to learn about the fascinating world of aperitifs and digestifs.

For those who are on the adventurous cocktail path, there is a table-side cocktail spirits cart, where a server will create a cocktail right at your table.

A visit to Quince cellar just about sent me over the edge. Rows upon rows of treasured bottles, Marcassin, Krug, Lafon, Gaja, Araujo… it was breathtaking. I seriously considered applying for a temporary residence in the cool splendor of this corner of the wine world that speaks to every part of my being.

The service was superb, attentive, yet seamless and non-intrusive.

Perhaps it’s Chef’s and mine mutual disdain for truffle oil or the way the silky white asparagus caressed every square millimeter of my enthusiastic palate, but somewhere between Brokaw farm avocado and Marcassin resting gloriously in its wooden cradle I fell in lust. Michael’s food performed an expert seduction of my senses and thoroughly engaged my intellect. It was a complete fine dining experience. Complete with an impassioned desire to return… soon. I now know why Harvey Steinman was so fond of Quince. San Francisco formidable fine dining scene is very fortunate to have a powerful presence of what is now one of my favorite restaurants.

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Bottlerock Napa Valley | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Bottlerock Napa Valley | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Napa residents David Graham, Justin Drago, Joe Fischer and Jason Scoggins produce this year’s Bottlerock Napa Valley festival.

Bottlerock Napa Valley | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Bottlerock Napa Valley | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

A bright blue sky and the Petaluma Bay breeze caressing the Napa Valley Expo grounds spelled perfect weather for this weekend’s much anticipated BottleRock Napa Valley festival.  The event debuted last year with a four day music, wine and food extravaganza. Many Napa residents fell in love with the inaugural experience and the hundred and twenty thousand people who attended last year’s festival were not disappointed.

Napa natives were particularly thrilled about having a major music experience in their own backyard. Things close early in Napa Valley area; one would be hard pressed to find many spots open after 10 pm, so this was a welcome change.

Four Napa residents, David Graham, Justin Drago, Joe Fischer and Jason Scoggins, who are partners in Latitude 38 Entertainment, had produced this year’s festival. Although none of them are experienced in the music business, they have business acumen to spare.  Taking over from last year’s management, they were able to book bands, promote and sell out the event, and coordinate all of the logistics; all within two and a half months! They capped attendance at fifty thousand. At times you could feel the immense crowd’s presence, yet it wasn’t as overwhelming as one may have expected. The clearly defined goal of providing an authentic Napa experience succeeded. Once again, food and wine were stellar and the choice of talent was fantastic. Additionally, their “worst seat in the house = best at any other venue” strategy paid off. The enhanced platinum VIP program entitled 300 lucky guests to food prepared by Michelin starred chefs and wine chosen by a Master Sommelier as well as direct stage viewing.

Tri-Tip Trolley | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Tri-Tip Trolley | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Their selection of bands clearly embodied the festival’s  “something for everyone” motto. Whether you wanted to relax with a glass of Ceja Pinot Noir or jam to an Indie rock band, you came to the right place. The bands performed on four stages. The Whole Foods marketplace featured the likes of Morimoto, Tarla Grill, Napkins, Ca’Momi, Oakville Grocery and many more.  A multitude of food trucks were on hand, with the highlight being the newly launched, Tri-Tip Trolley, which was my favorite bite of the event.

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BottleRock Napa Valley | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

I’m not sure what pairs better with food: great wine or great music.

The partners were passionate about merging music, fine wine, food and fun in a setting of a wine country back drop. The team’s laser-like focus on guest experience and unrelenting commitment to excellence paid off.

They met with community leaders to discuss noise issues, and how to attract more local business activities in conjunction with the event. The noise concerns were alleviated by a creative positioning of amplifiers. They contributed to the Napa economy by promoting after-parties at local restaurants and wine bars. Spreading the wealth and supporting local business were one of the partners core values. The event was run in a tight, very business-like way without sacrificing neighborliness or community values.

The Fray | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
The Fray | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

The crowds took in a mix of indie bands, classic hip-hop and an onslaught of nostalgia from 1990s.  The event featured performers such as Third Eye Blind and Smash Mouth. The alternative rock band Cure was a huge hit with the crowds, as was Outkast, Eric Church, Third Eye Blind, Blues Travelers, Spin Doctors, Cracker, Weezer, LLCool J, Barenaked Ladies, Camper Van Beethoven, Gin Blossoms, Matt and Kim, Sublime with Rome, and TV on the Radio; over 60 bands in all.

Isaac Slade of The Fray, with a bottle of Rombauer Cabernet prominently displayed on his piano, rocked the house; performing a stunning version of his hit “How to Save a Life.”

Howie Day | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Howie Day | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Howie Day was a highlight for me. His performance was extraordinary. Emotionally charged lyrics combined with inspired music have been a hallmarks of his impressive career. He found a loyal and receptive audience at this event. His hit song “Collide” was a runaway audience favorite.

Several of the principles’ dads served in the military, so military-related causes are near and dear to their hearts. Part of the proceeds of the festival going forward will be donated to charitable causes dedicated supporting our troops.

The BottleRock was a very successful event that embraced a variety of genres, both on and off stage. You could have a simple bite with your favorite beer or a sophisticated glass of wine paired with expertly made sushi, all within a few feet of each other. You could come for a concert and stay for three, all for the same admission fee. You could chat with winemakers at their wine booths or relax in a lounge with a refreshing drink. You could kiss your partner passionately under the stars while swaying to your favorite tunes…

Can’t wait for it to return next year.

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Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

The annual Russian River Valley Pinot Classic is a great Memorial Day weekend event for wine lovers.

Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Russian River Valley (RRV) has been known for classy Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays for decades. Nestled in the heart of Sonoma County, the region has 15,000 acres under vine planted to 35 varieties. It is home to over a 100 wineries and produces a number of world-class wines. It’s also a gracious host of the annual Russian River Valley Pinot Classic.

I attended this event last year and was happy to spend yet another glorious weekend in the lush vineyards and picturesque tasting rooms of one of my favorite wine regions. The event took place over the Memorial Day weekend, a somber occasion honoring our fallen troops. It was touching to see how many wineries showed tributes in respect for the day; red, white and blue were on display everywhere.

The event offers guests stops at a series of wineries which host open houses, pour library releases, offer a preview of upcoming vintages and (often), food pairings. I stopped at a number of participating wineries. Here are a few highlights:

Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

My adventure started at Hartford Winery, where I tasted barrel components of their Fog Dance 2013. Especially memorable were the 2011 Fog Dance and 2011 Marin offering which were paired with smoked duck and quinoa accompanied by pickled strawberries in balsamic gastrique.

On to Swan Vineyards where I had a chance to sample 2010 Great Oak Pinot Noir and 2010 and 2011 Trenton as well as half a dozen barrel samples. Their futures program is a savvy way to save a few dollars on some great wines.

Emeritus, one of my favorite RRV producers, generously offered a vertical tasting of Emeritus Hallberg Ranch 2010-2011- 2012, a barrel sample of 2013 and even a sip of 2011 Wesley. What a treat!

Dutton-Goldfield offered barrel samples of 2013 single vineyard pinot noirs, along the finished wines. Library offerings abound.

Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Since I have no will power when it comes to Red Car wines, I felt that an unscheduled stop was in order. Winemaker Carroll Kemp crafts some of the industry’s most delicious wines. His 2013 Rose is a stellar example of a Rose of Pinot Noir. His brand new 2012 Chardonnay knocked my socks off. Both 2012 Sonoma Coast and Falstaff were divine, for dramatically different reasons. Syrah fans can’t afford to miss Kemp’s Syrahs, they are some of the best made in California.

Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Discovering a new wine is always an exciting occurrence in my world, so I was particularly pleased to see DRNK on the participating winery list. The event debuted their 2013 Rose, 2013 Viognier, 2012 Chardonnay, 2012 Hallberg Ranch and 2012 Caver’s Cuvee Pinots. They also offered barrel samples of exceptional 2013 Hallberg Ranch Pinot Noir. DRNK is partnership between O’Reilly Media founder, Dale Dougherty and winemaker Ryan Kunde. Their wines were brimming with character, integrity and class. I highly recommend that consumers check them out.

Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

The marquee event was the La Paulee dinner. Named after a vital chef’s tool, sauté pan, or poile, a “Paulée” is a gathering that celebrates the end of harvest with a simple family style meal cooked in a poile.In accordance with tradition,vintners and their guests share a post harvestsigh of relief, conviviality and special wines from their cellars.Vintners from Arista,Bacigalupi,Benovia, Bucher, C. Donatello, Davis,DeLoach, Hartford, Iron Horse, J Vineyards, Joseph Swan,Kosta Browne, LaCrema, LaFollette, Merry Edwards, Russian Hill,Siduri, Thomas George,Trione and WilliamsSelyem dug deep into their cellars and came out with doublemagnums of their flagship wines. Rare Burgundy made the rounds, courtesy of the attending guests. The classic French menu ofombreohevalier,oeufmeurette aufoiegras, cheese and dessert prepared byMichou Cornu, Chef de Cuisine atBoisset Family Estates was superb.

Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Russian River Valley Pinot Classic | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Having successfully recovered from the opulent festivities, the next day I made my way to VML, which was the highlight of the weekend. Formerly C. Donatello winery, it is now home to some of the tastiest RRV wines. The 2013 Rosé of Pinot Noir, 2012 Chardonnay, 2012 RRV Pinot Noir and the 2012 Floodgate Vineyard Pinot were all fantastic. A tri-tip pairing, served with arugula and divine chipotle aioli, plus live music completed the idyllic ambiance. Especially enjoyable was an impromptu pairing of Pinot Noir and blueberries, straight from the winery’s lovely garden.

Bacigalupi Vineyards, a generational wine grower who sold fruit to Chateau Montelena for the historic Chardonnay that took top honors at the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” celebrated Memorial Day by pairing nana’s red gravy meatballs with their wonderful 2012 Estate Pinot.

The exciting new discovery of the day was UPTick. According to the winery “UPTick” is defined as… “a transaction in the stock market at a price above the price of the preceding transaction.” It can also mean a move forward to a higher level experience in the quality and production of wine.”

They certainly delivered a “higher level” visual experience. Their decor consists of an electronic ticker-tape on the wall with real-time Dow and NASDAQ quotes. In addition an old-fashioned ticker machine and a bull sculpture graced the Wall Street themed tasting room. There were commemorative flags honoring the fallen heroes of 9/11, as Uptick owners lost friends in the tragedy. They support a number of military and firefighter charities and donated 25% of sales made during May 24th-26th event to the Marine Corps Relief Society.

It was wonderful to see the wine world honor the day and the sacrifices our brave man and women made on the battlefield. The wine country is a place for great connections and celebrations of life. Somehow the joys of life seemed more poignant that day.

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New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Summer is upon us, beckoning to take advantage of many opportunities to refresh and tantalize the palate with a variety of white wines, especially New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

A personal favorite, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and I enjoy an ongoing, non-season specific, love affair. After a dozen or so years my relationship getting pretty serious, so I am expecting “The Question” to pop out of a bottle anytime now!

It started innocently enough, with a bottle of Cloudy Bay at a restaurant over some lovely sea bass. The next thing I knew, I was hunting down every NZ producer’s bottlings for comparative purposes. I found myself clearing out my local Costco’s wine department of their entire allocations of St Clair Vicar’s Choice. And the wine gracing my glass by the keyboard while I work in the evenings more often than not happens to be… you guessed it, my NZ boyfriend.

The land of the Long White Cloud sure knows how to treat this particular wine grape, which is known for its unapologetic flavors of citrus, green melon, gooseberry, grapefruit, and, often, a distinct grassiness. Some would say that NZ national image is indelibly shaped by its signature grape. Although varieties such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Riesling have found a welcoming home there, it is Sauvignon Blanc that rules the day.

It’s hard to believe that the first vines were planted only in 1973. Production has grown exponentially over the decades, with most being grown in the Marlborough region.Today, NZ produces millions of bottles of this delicious, racy wine. The varietal accounts for over 80% of New Zealand’s wine exports.

Over the years, I’ve tasted hundreds of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. Here are a dozen for your consideration:

New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

St Clair

Consistently delicious, this brand earned my top Sauvignon Blanc spot as the King of Marlborough. Already known for its “regular” bottling, they launched their individual block program in 1994. Look for the very limited Pioneer Block 3, Block 1 Foundation, Block 18, and Vicar’s Choice.

Cloudy Bay

Widely credited with giving NZ Sauvignon Blanc worldwide recognition, this brand secured a solid spot in my heart and my cellar over a decade ago. Cloudy Bay pioneered barrel fermentation of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand with its Te Koko offering. It is a small production, deeply complex, dimensional, and beautifully textural wine.

Matua Valley

Rich in viticultural history, Matua produced its first wine in 1974 and has been wowing consumers and critics ever since. They produce several distinctly different Sauvignon Blancs, including one of my favorites – Matua Paretai.

New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson


A blend of several unique vineyards, Astrolabe is a poster child of winemaking dedication of Simon Waghorn. Named after a navigational device for locating stars, Waghorn guides your palate through a wondrous adventure of aromatic pleasures.

Kim Crawford

Kim Crawford was founded in 1996 by Kim and Erica Crawford. Their extraordinarily consistent, focused, powerfully aromatic and affordable wines took US by storm. In 2003, Wine Spectator placed them in their Top 100 list. The rest, as they say, is history. This brand has been my house wine for years.

New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson


Created by the original founders of Kim Crawford (they recently sold the brand), this wine winked at me from a wine store’s shelf in Oregon, and has been a steady companion since. I was immediately taken by it’s expansive, broad-shouldered, yet not overbearing palatal presence. Its aromatics are clear and present, yet take a back seat to the unmistakably present mid-palate and finish.

New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Mt. Beautiful

These wines are indeed a thing of beauty. With fruit sourced from hillside vineyards in stunning North Canterbury, it is refined yet decadent. It embodies a pure expression of passion, featuring floral and tropical flavors, slight herbaceousness, and bright, assertive minerality.

Dog Point

The lion’s share of their fruit is sold to Cloudy Bay, the rest is used to produce Dog Point. Fermented using natural yeasts, this Sauvignon Blanc is a breed apart from its peers. Texturally superb and deftly balanced, it’s a delight to consume.


Made by the founding winemaker at Cloudy Bay, Kevin Judd, Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc is wildly aromatic and assertive. Lovely citrus and crisp acidity dominate this perennially balanced effort that boasts freshness, delineation, and a supple mouth-feel. A long finish caps the exquisite pleasure of sipping this wine.

Craggy Range

The Peabody Family decades of devotion to the craft of winemaking has resulted in stellar estate wines. Their Avery Road and Te Muna offerings are some of my all time favorites. Profoundly classy and elegant, these wines feature citrus, exotic tropical and stone fruit as well as a silky texture and chalky minerality.

New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Villa Maria Estate

Started humbly in 1960s, with a five acres leased from his dad, a single minded proprietor was determined to make great wine from Auckland region. Today it has grown to be a worldwide brand with exports to dozens of countries. They produce eight (!) wonderful Sauvignon Blancs, in addition to a large number of other varietals; all of which are stellar. The most readily available bottlings are the Reserve and Private Bin selections.

New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

te Pa

Steeped in hundreds of years of family history and possessing a deep, powerful bond to their land, several generations of the Macdonald family had tended to their beloved coastal vineyard. This wine is powerful and weighty, with seductive citrus aromas, framed by lively acidity and luminous minerality. It reflects a sense of place that is like no other.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs offer exciting and deeply satisfying wine adventures. I highly recommend that you jump in and try them all!

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Ram's Gate | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Ram's Gate | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Where Sonoma meets Napa resides Ram’s Gate, a stunning mix of architecture and fine wine

Ram's Gate | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Ram’s Gate | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

To say that I visit a lot of wineries is an understatement. I have visited as few as 1-2 and as many as 9-10 wineries on the weekly basis. Rarely does a week go by when I’m not in a winery’s cellar or tasting room in order to avoid a painful condition known as “wine country withdrawal.” It is an “achy-breaky” disease, which consumes the soul and the palate and for which there is only one known cure: Visit the wine country as often as possible.

Ram's Gate | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Ram’s Gate | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

A few months ago, I finally got a chance to spend time at a property I had heard lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ about, Ram’s Gate. Given its curious locale, right where Sonoma meets Napa, I felt a tad skeptical. How can such as open space with expansive, yet rather monochromatic views, be all that interesting? Having just passed the lush green vineyards and pastures of Sonoma, it was an interesting contrast.

Having visited hundreds of wineries, I am rarely surprised. I have seen lots of gravity flow, state of the art facilities with the latest and greatest equipment. I’ve seen a myriad of picturesque, postcard-worthy worthy vistas. At some wineries I have been greeted by adorable cats, friendly winery-dogs, peacocks and even an alpaca! However, when I arrived at Ram’s Gate, I wasn’t merely surprised, I was stunned.

Ram’s Gate is the brain child of a group of friends: third generation vintner Jeff O’Neill, Michael John, Peter Mullin and Paul Violich, who found the property at the gateway to Sonoma and Napa entirely irresistible. What they did next was to set out to create the most hospitable, upscale, yet relaxed environment a guest could wish for. They achieved this goal via stunning architecture, a glorious wine cellar, an in-house Chef, and of, course, world-class fine wines.

A small portion of Ram's Gate's fine wine selection | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
A small portion of Ram’s Gate’s fine wine selection | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

With the ultimate wine experience for their guests in mind they hired Jeff Gaffner, a heralded and highly sought after winemaker who had worked with a number of renowned brands such as his very own Saxon-Brown, Xtant, Black Kite, Hestan, and Chateau St. Jean. (Gaffner had a hand in 1996 Cinq Cepages, named Wine of the Year by the Wine Spectator). His wines are as authentic as it gets and embrace the essence of the vineyard. I have followed Jeff’s projects closely over a number of years, and can’t say enough of my fondness for them.

Ram's Gate architecture | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Ram’s Gate architecture | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Designed by the renowned architect, Howard Bracken, the Ram’s Gate facility is a study in contemporary design that integrates well with the surrounding landscape. Clean, crisp, sleek lines, constructed with traditional materials and modern finishes create a stunning visual effect. The modern barn boasts grandeur and spectacular views, yet somehow retains an acute sense of warmth and intimacy. The decor is simple, yet impacts; an eclectic mix of old and new, high drama and soothing calm. One of the most interesting aspects of the design is the unique lighting, with its soft, dreamy, intimate shapes. Finishing touches such as ultra modern, artsy, floral arrangements are just stunning.

Falconer at Ram's Gate | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Falconer at Ram’s Gate | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

By sheer coincidence, during my visit a falconer was at the winery. After loosing part of the harvest to starlings, Ram’s Gate vineyard managers turned to falcons to ward-off these vineyard pests. Tactical Avian Predators brings a team of falcons to patrol agricultural fields and other businesses in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington that suffer from avian annoyances. Proprietor Jim Tigan was on hand with his cast of falcons, which scare the starlings away from the vines. It was a magical experience, watching the lightning bolt of a bird slice the sky in swift, elegant motions.

On the wine side, to facilitate Gaffner’s formidable talent in the cellar, Ram’s Gate sources fruit from the list of growers that reads like who is who of the wine world:

Steve Hill (Parmelee-Hill), Bill Price (Durell), Larry Hyde, Lee Hudson, Sangiacomo Family, Ulises Valdez… In a word, wow.

Ram's Gate's fine wines | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Ram’s Gate’s fine wines | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

I absolutely loved their Pinots and Chardonnays, especially the sublime UV and Durell offerings. Additionally, my palate has become downright obsessed with their 2009 Estate Brut Rosé. It offers fine, delicate bubbles, aromas of stone fruit and fresh red berries, with touches of vanilla cream. Its stunningly pure acidity and alluring minerality made this one of the most exciting domestic bubblys that I have had this year. Impeccable in its youth, it is likely a great candidate for the cellar as well.

Nestled next to the vineyard is an adorable pond that oozes beauty and bliss. I wonder if it was by that very pond where the four friends got together, wine in hand, and decided to combine everything one needs for a satisfying experience. They clearly executed on their vision to provide fabulous wine, great food, gracious hospitality, an attractive, relaxing environment. Every time I drive by Ram’s Gate, my heart skips a beat. I miss it just as much as my green, as-far-as-the-eye-could-see vineyards. May be even a little more.

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Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Meritage Resort and Spa is great starting point for exploring Napa Valley

Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

As an avid wine traveler, I spend my fair share of nights in hotel rooms; some purely oriented towards business traveler, some quite opulent. There is one special place, though that I love to revisit: The Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa Valley.

Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Meritage’s unique location, at the foot of Napa Valley, with the picturesque back drop of a hillside vineyard and the famous Grape Crusher statue affords the visitors a great starting point from which to explore the wonders of the valley.

The resort features Tuscan-theme luxury suites, Trinitas Wine Cellars tasting room with an estate cave, and several eateries, including Siena restaurant. It also boasts a spa where you can take in a massage or relax in the soaking pool after a long day of wine tasting.

The rooms are very contemporary and designed with ultimate comfort in mind.

Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

The most unique feature of Meritage, however, is its lovely, intimate Chapel, complete with an ordained in-house priest. Should you choose to get married there, you have all your needs taken care of – wedding ceremony, reception, guest rooms, and Trinitas wine; all in a gorgeous setting.

Between expansive event spaces, cave, Trinitas tasting room, surrounding vineyards, restaurants, special library wine pairings with Kollar chocolate, bars, indoor and outdoor pools, spa and a bowling alley, you may never want to leave!

Ultimately, a hotel, however wonderful and well located, is just a hotel. It is the people who run it that make it special. From the moment you walk through the door, you take in every moment of the experience and it’s those seemingly insignificant details, such as a warm or upbeat, positive attitude of the staff that make the most difference in the guest experience. I was greeted by every single staff member who passed me by. The employees at the Meritage is incredibly well-trained and take gracious hospitality to a new level.

Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Meritage is home to Trinitas Cellars, which opened its doors in 2002, a realization of a lifelong dream of the Busch family. Trinitas embraces the synergy of sun, soil and humanity as their motto. A core belief of Trinitas’ proprietors is the importance of supporting their community. They live their personal and business lives in a dignified, honorable way, and in service of God. The Trinitas Philanthropy Association and Charity Program is responsible for supporting a number of worthy causes.

Their wine offerings cover a broad range of the varietal spectrum. They source fruit from a number of local vineyards and produce a wide variety of wonderful wines, all of which are worth sampling. I’d like to highlight just a few that stood out during my visit:

2012 Psalms Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc is a blend sourced from grapes grown in Yountville and Pope Valley, respectably. Sensuous tropical and citrus fruit aromatics, followed by creamy, plush texture, it’s light on its feet yet has a nice presence, particularly on the finish. Since it’s barrel fermented in Russian oak (from Sochi!), it’s palatal characteristics are quite sophisticated.

Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

2011 Rose’ary exudes floral aromas (acacia?) framboise, yellow raspberry, Crenshaw melon and light vanilla. Playful, with good acidity, it has a surprisingly long finish. The blend composition is quite unique – Zinfandel, Carignane, Cab and Merlot. Priced at $20 it is a QPR and a great summer sipper!

2010 Meritage is a classic blend of Bordeaux varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet, Petite Verdot and Malbec. This combination results in a complex, full bodied wines. The wine delivers plenty of rich fruit, smooth, classy tannins, and a great mid-palate. The fruit comes from an Oak Knoll Appellation vineyard, known for its intensity and structure.

All of Trinitas wines are made with the utmost care and attention to detail. Prior to joining Trinitas Cellars in 2007, winemaker Kevin Mills was mentored by Sean Foster, the winemaker at Peju Province. With a focus on producing quality wines that deliver outstanding value, Kevin makes a variety of wines under the Trinitas umbrella, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blancs, Cabernet and Meritage.

I recently wrote about the main restaurant, Siena where Chef Karkus crafts his inspired cuisine which is very impressive.

Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Crush, a casual cocktail bar (which also serves delicious food) is located next to the bowling alley. My favorite cocktail at Crush was The Bunny Lebowski: Pomegranate Lemon Drop with Citrus Vodka, Triple Sec, Orange Liqueur, fresh lime juice and fresh pomegranate puree.

My favorite menu items? Dungeness Crab Louie with large chunks of fresh crab featuring a divine house dressing.

Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Meritage Resort and Spa | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

If you are a Mac and Cheese fan, try The Extreme Mac and Cheese: Napa Smith Lager Macaroni, Smoked Cheddar, Swiss, roasted garlic, grilled onions, grape tomatoes, apple-wood smoked bacon, topped with panko crust. Yum.

Meritage, a four diamond resort, is an upscale, lifestyle property with an intimate, understated charm, and boutique ambiance. Quality rest, plus great food, wine and drinks await you upon arrival. The next time you are in Napa Valley, don’t miss this hidden gem.

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Lawrence Fairchild wines | PHOTO CREDIT: IlonaThompson
Lawrence Fairchild wines | PHOTO CREDIT: IlonaThompson

The success of Lawrence Fairchild is defined by the superiority of products he creates.

Lawrence Fairchild wines | PHOTO CREDIT: IlonaThompson
Lawrence Fairchild wines | PHOTO CREDIT: IlonaThompson

I’m fortunate in that I have the opportunity to experience a lot of fantastic wines regularly. Many are drop dead gorgeous, some would even qualify as epic. On rare occasions I get to taste the wines that have the feel and presence of an instant classic. However, what is perceived as an overnight success, often comes from decades of hard work and thoughtful dedication.

I first experienced Lawrence Fairchild wines at the PremiereNapaValley, Napa’s ultimate insider’s wine event. The wine poured by Fairchild during that event was particularly striking. It took me by surprise and remained in my thoughts long after the weekend ended. It exhibited a rare combination of old and new world.

It offered a rendition of fresh, sassy, glorious fruit intricately woven into an old wise soul; a tale of multidimensional delineation, oozing with style and class.

Lawrence Fairchild | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona THompson
Lawrence Fairchild | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona THompson

Lawrence Fairchild came from humble beginnings, growing up on a farm in Nebraska. He later graduated from University of Nebraska with a degree in economics. His career path took him to the House of Representatives International Affairs department. He then moved to San Francisco in the 1980s and began a 15 year stint of a series of small start-ups.  He focused primarily on investment research publishing, service oriented companies, semi-tech ventures.

In the early 90s, Fairchild caught the wine bug,  which slowly mutated from a hobby to a full-time pursuit, complete with a house and a vineyard acquisition. Lawrence is a thoughtful and exceptionally tenacious man. For years, he scouted California wine countries, with a focus on Napa Valley, for a perfect location that would be well suited for carrying out his vision of producing world-class wine. In 1999, Fairchild planted a two acre Cabernet vineyard on the north side of St Helena, above the picturesque Lake Hennessey. He named it “Sigaro” which means “cigar” in Italian. Why? Lawrence enjoys a good cigar while walking his vineyard.

His first commercial release was in 2005. What an introduction to the wine world it was!  Deep, floral, with gobs of lip-smacking wild berries and plush tannins, deftly balanced and impossibly stylish, it was a spectacular début.

His original wine inspiration came from Burgundies. He still remembers how 1990 Domaine Dujac Echezeaux tasted all those years ago.

His vision for his brand however is classic Bordeaux, combined with California’s generous, opulent fruit. He hired a renowned vineyard manager, Jim Barbour, to tend to his young vineyard and a highly sought-after winemaker, who originally came from France, Philippe Melka, to implement his vision. Fairchild’s wines are plush, yet elegant, showing silky, sensuous tannins. They are far more hedonistic than the famed first-growths, yet possess laser-like focus, solid acidity and great minerality; European elegance meets American largesse.

Barbour is to vineyard management what Bono is to music: a rock star. He farms organically and only works with clients who share in his philosophy of low production, high quality vineyards. He continually improves viticultural practices on his client’s vineyards; from canopy management to irrigation regimes. Fairchild speaks passionately about the improvements he has seen in a short few years. His vineyards are farmed by individual blocks, a philosophy that Fairchild adheres to religiously. Ripening, acid development and tannin management play key roles in his grape growing strategy and harvest timing choices. His average yields are 1.5 tons per acre, a miniscule amount that yields a couple of hundred cases of one of the most compelling Napa Valley Cabernets.

Lawrence Fairchild Wines | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Lawrence Fairchild Wines | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Lawrence produces three bottlings, Sigaro, from his estate vineyard; G.III and “Stones” for which he sources the fruit from some of the most coveted, hardest to procure spots in Napa Valley such as To Kalon, Beckstoffer Georges III and Stagecoach Pritchard Hill vineyards.

Philippe Melka works in close partnership with all of his clients; blending decisions are made during a multi-week exhaustive collaborative process. Fairchild and Melka have an easy friendship, facilitated by Philippe’s quick wit and sense of humor. Their collaborative style is built on the a foundation of enormous mutual respect and Fairchild’s unwavering commitment to excellence. His attention to detail and businesslike approach are evident. He spares no expense and is involved in every decision concerning his vineyard and his wines, from planting to marketing.

Despite being in the business world most of his life, Lawrence is exceptionally hands on. Given his agricultural background, he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Interestingly, like any farmer his biggest trepidation every year comes from the uncertain nature of weather.

Like many winemakers, he is an avid cook and loves to make French country dishes such as bouillabaisse and braised lamb shank. His choice of music leans towards Italian classics such Bocelli and Pavarotti.

When asked who of the famous people, living or not, would he like to have a meal with, he came up with a couple of surprises. His choices were Stephen Tyler and Ronald Reagan!  Imagine the three of them, sipping a glass of Sigaro Cabernet while enjoying Fairchild’s lamb shanks!

Lawrence’s measure of success is defined by the superiority of products he creates. His goal is to provide a spectacular experience for each and every time a customer drinks his wine. I believe he’s clearly reached and exceeded this lofty goal. He set high standards for himself. He believes in five or so vintages he will be in a far better place with his estate vineyard. Although entirely logical, given the quality of his current offering, it’s mind-boggling to imagine such a feat.

Fairchild is sold direct to consumer, via mailing list. The word on Fairchild’s wines stellar reputation is spreading quickly. Grapevine is a powerful platform and people “in the know” are jumping on the mailing list. I advise you to do the same.

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Chef Krisztian Karkus | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Chef Krisztian Karkus | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Chef Krisztian Karkus | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Chef Krisztian Karkus | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Chef Krisztian Karkus makes magic happen in the Meritage Siena restaurant’s kitchen.

Last weekend, I found myself in the kitchen of Chef Krisztian Karkus. Krisztian is an Executive Chef at The Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa Valley, Calif. Chef Karkus oversees all hotel food and beverage operations, including the signature Siena Restaurant, Crush Ultra Lounge, The Commons, Blend Café, and all special events. Having tasted his dishes at the “Masters and Makers” food and wine extravaganza at the Meritage in February, I was eager to spend time with him. His food was not only delicious and thoughtful but somehow… soulful. I was intrigued why that was the case. Having been treated to the tasty morsels of some of this country’s most sought after chefs for several days at Pebble Beach Food and Wine leading up to my meeting with Krisztian, I wondered what our close encounter would be like.

Magic did happen in the Meritage Siena restaurant’s kitchen. I got a powerful reminder of why the world of food and wine represents a virtually irresistible and thoroughly authentic force; and I have the Chef to thank.

Karkus is a gentle giant with a bright twinkle in his eye and a kind disposition, who is equally generous with his staff and guests. A self-described old-fashioned fellow who was raised to be a consummate gentleman, he believes in “stepping up,” personal accountability, honor and dignified behavior. We spoke wistfully about transformation of the modern male by our popular culture and reminisced nostalgically of the time and place when a handshake deal meant more than a legal contract and women wanted their doors opened for them. (Sigh.)

Karkus was born in Hungary, in the heart of the majestic Tokay wine country. He spent his childhood summers frolicking in the bountiful wheat and corn fields of the Hungarian countryside. During the long summer holiday, Krisztian went to work at a remote and picturesque Danube River Valley hotel, frequented by hunters. Following doing odd jobs for the first couple of summers, the hotel’s chef offered Karkus an apprenticeship. After finishing school he decided to pursue a career in the culinary arts.

Krisztian credits his mom, an exceptionally talented self-taught cook, with igniting his cooking passion. He credits his dad, who was a professional painter, with his love of beauty, structure, artistry and composition. His food is both perfectly executed and precisely plated, so the influence of both parents is evident.

At twenty-one, and a rising star in the European culinary scene, Karkus was offered an opportunity to study at the ultra exclusive Les Club des Chefs des Chefs, which is widely regarded as the most elite establishment on the planet. The school’s graduates often go on to become personal Chefs to the Heads of State. Krisztian became the only non-French member, and subsequently was offered an internship with the legendary Paul Bocuse, a three star Michelin award winner for the past 40 years.

Karkus is quite humble about his talent and corresponding meteoric rise. The road to his culinary stardom was paved with hard work and dogged dedication. His work ethic is unparalleled, he often worked 15 hour days, going months without days off or holidays. He always tried harder, partly because being Eastern European meant he had a lot more to prove and partly because of his own high standards.

His advice for young, aspiring Chefs is not to be seduced by the limelight, glamor, and fame that today’s food celebrity delivers. Krisztian’s definition of success is not a number, whether it represents a bank account or a number of toys you own. To him it’s about personal fulfillment, creating a nurturing environment, and enjoying a gracious lifestyle in the company of loving family and friends. Do what you love and success will follow.

As his career blossomed, he enjoyed opportunities to work at luxury properties in exotic locals such as Jamaica, Hawaii, and Hong Kong. Eventually, he ended up owning a Hungarian restaurant in Tokyo, Japan for several years. Krisztian longed for a stint in the US and ultimately, an opportunity came along to work at The Balboa Bay Resort in Newport Beach, Calif. After running three restaurants, banquets, room service, special events, and designing/executing glamorous affairs, such as Les Amis des Escoffier legendary gatherings he was ready to move to Northern CA wine country, his ultimate desired destination. Country living is in his blood and the glitz and glamour of Newport Beach didn’t quite do it.

His menu at Siena is inspired by Tuscan flavors, however he is not rigidly bound by them and aspires to celebrate the Napa wine country by using local, seasonal ingredients. He also incorporates inspirations from his native Hungary. Europeans cook seasonally. Karkus’ Hungarian roots motivate him to reach out for the freshest, finest ingredients.

He loves to cook at home and whip things up on the fly. The dish that impressed me the most at a dinner in Trinitas Cellars Cave was inspired by his wife who he teasingly describes as “angry hungry.” She abhors waiting for her food when she is starving so Krisztian performs some serious speed-cooking in his own kitchen with the unpredictable contents from his pantry. The result? An arctic char with sweet potato, sautéed collard greens, tomato caper vinaigrette; one the most sublime fish dishes that I’ve ever had.

His love for food is complete, palpable and consuming. A meal can be thrilling, enticing and simply healing. The finest, most sophisticated series of courses served in the most upscale setting can’t substitute the art of love for life. Karkus deeply believes in the power of a heartfelt meal made with care and goodwill.

Karkus is also a believer in team spirit; it’s one of his core values. He unequivocally states that a dishwasher is as important as the Head Chef; they just perform different duties. He never places himself above the others and always credits his colleagues for consistently outstanding results. Laughter is a must ingredient in Chef Karkus’ kitchen. An open mind, a positive attitude, and a heart full of love are his hallmarks. He aspires to facilitate interpersonal connections through weaving a fabric of food, beverage and camaraderie.

A large part of his culinary philosophy is in “less is more.” Some choose to refine and re-engineer food. An example of this is the molecular gastronomy trend, which appeared seemingly out of nowhere and took hold in some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country. By contrast, Karkus’ desk is graced with a 1967 tome of Escoffier, which he consults regularly; often to refresh his knowledge of basic techniques and “mother” sauces. His faith lies in the fresh, somewhat rustic, homey food. Comfort does not imply heaviness to him. He defines greatness by asking “How can a Chef create a dish that you have eaten a thousand times and execute it in a way that blows your mind?” Same ingredients; dramatically different results. His food brims with familiar comfort and clear, yet subtle, sophistication. No detail is left a chance; from his hearty freshly baked bread and beautiful robust olive oil (made especially for him) to the perfectly season heirloom lettuce wedges and bright, flavorful risotto cooked perfectly al dente, to rich, deeply flavored captivating lamb shoulder with wild mushrooms. Every dish leaving Karkus’ kitchen speaks volumes of his creativity and dedication to his craft, but most of all, captures his generous heart.

Karkus creates perfect pairing of food and soul | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Karkus creates perfect pairing of food and soul | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

Chef’s favorite meal at home?

Fresh roasted chicken with seasonal sides, asparagus being a perennial favorite.

His ultimate restaurant dishes to pair with wine?

Salmon and Morels with Buena Vista Pinot Noir or Lobster and Sweetbreads paired with Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon.

His daily ritual?

Talking about his day over a great glass of wine with the love of his life, his wife.

Chef Krisztian Karkus's magic| PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
Chef Krisztian Karkus’s magic| PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

If you are looking for a perfect pairing of old world soul with contemporary spirit, if you crave the kind of food that stealthily balances on the tightrope of classic and modern sensibilities, if you desire the seamless integration of both old and new worlds, Chef Karkus cuisine is for you.

Michelin star is the highest honor achievable in the restaurant world. Krisztian Karkus not only is a deserving contender for his marvelous food, he is a three star winner for his life’s philosophy. Bon Appetit!

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Robert Irvine speaks with Soldiers and Red Cross workers | PHOTO CREDIT: Wiki Commons
Chef Robert Irvine speaks with Soldiers and Red Cross workers | PHOTO CREDIT: Wiki Commons
Robert Irvine speaks with Soldiers and Red Cross workers | PHOTO CREDIT: Wiki Commons
Chef Robert Irvine speaks with Soldiers and Red Cross workers | PHOTO CREDIT: Wiki Commons

Executive Chef Robert Irvine is a former Royal Navy officer, where his initial culinary training started. Perhaps that’s also where he learned values such as honor, discipline and loyalty.

Many late nights when the sleep fairy gets lost on her way to my bedroom I become an avid Food Network fan. Cooking has become my sport of sorts, so watching chefs compete is both entertaining and educational. “Restaurant: Impossible” combines two things I am passionate about – cooking and business/marketing acumen.

While attending the Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival, I had a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with one of my favorite TV Chefs, Robert Irvine. Watching him “get real” with folks whose lives he is tasked with transforming in 48 hours can be somewhat intimidating. I was a little nervous but mostly excited. It turned out to be the most meaningful conversation I have had all weekend and perhaps will have this year.

Robert Irvine is a former Royal Navy officer, where his initial culinary training started. Perhaps that’s also where he learned values such as honor, discipline and loyalty.

He then became an Executive Chef on a number of luxury cruise lines and subsequently was asked to host a TV show called “Dinner: Impossible,” which quickly found an audience with Food Network fans. Several restaurant, product lines, cookbook launches later, having earned multiple awards for excellence, as well as multiple appearances of “Iron Chef” and the “Next Iron Chef”, Robert Irvine is a celebrated host of “Restaurant: Impossible.” The show just taped its 105th episode. It is based around the premise where Chef Irvine swoops into a failing business and in the span of 48 hours, with a budget of $10K, overseas the physical renovation of a failing restaurant as well as changing the psychological landscape of its proprietors. Robert steps into an a complete unknown and takes charge of fundamentally transforming minds and hearts; he has to figure out a winning strategy to help business owners get back into profitability and lasting personal and commercial success.

The tell-it-like-it-is, no-nonsense approach yields astounding results. Robert’s success rate is a staggering 78 %.

Imagine for a moment that we gave Robert and his team a budget of 16 Trillion, 48 months (instead of 48 hours,) and a country to restore? We would wake up to not just to a “Morning in America” but more like “Renaissance in America” scope of restoration. That would be really something.

Robert shared that if he wasn’t a professional chef he would be a firefighter. In a way, that makes perfect sense, given that’s what he actually does. His pal Guy Fieri jokingly refers to Irvine as “Obi Won’s Last Hope”. He is the failing business’s “last hope,” entering a wasteland, putting out emotional fires that are destroying lives and scorching prosperity out of existence. Wise observation it is.

What gives the individual the confidence to take on a seemingly impossible task and pull it off seamlessly and gracefully? It has a lot to do with caring, faith in yourself and others and a deep, genuine desire to help.

I asked Robert if he ever felt helpless, if his mission felt “impossible” to him. His answer was simple. Sometimes there is literally nothing you can do but actively listen, and just be there for someone.

What helps him restore his own emotional state after he walked thru the proverbial fire of human tragedy and observed people in a great deal of pain? Faith that what he does is worthwhile, that his hard work makes a meaningful difference in people’s lives. It turns out that he gets up every day and goes to bed with the same thought – helping someone in need.

Speaking of faith, Robert, by his own admission, is a “God-fearing” man and his actions clearly reflect his values. He is humble, unassuming and true to himself. His mission is to help people help themselves, carried out with care and compassion. I say Amen to that.

Watching him interact with his team of sous chefs, cooks and various staff was pretty instructive in understanding his formula for success. He rallies folks, leads by example. In a sportsman-like fashion he huddles with his team, invigorates and encourages them and is quite paternal. “Yes Chef!” shouts were heard throughout the huddles, and the enthusiasm was electric.

The entire time I watched him he hadn’t stood still. It was a dance of sorts, with Robert being in constant motion, his energy contagious to everyone around him. Guests clearly felt trepidation in the presence of celebrity, and Robert broke right thru that wall, hugging folks, smiling, talking to them, and answering questions with sincerity. He has great fun with life, people that he meets, with anything that he does personally and professionally; and it shows.

BBN's IlonaThompson and Chef Robert Irvine | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson
BBN’s IlonaThompson and Chef Robert Irvine | PHOTO CREDIT: Ilona Thompson

I never take photos with celebrities. Out of the blue, for the first time in my life (I suspect due to his warmth and humanity being so darn compelling!) I found myself wanting a picture with Robert.

Physical fitness is clearly one of Robert’s values, according to him, he works out daily. His physique is indeed, impressive, yet I didn’t get a whiff of vanity from him.

I suspect one of his core beliefs is that fit mind resides in a fit body. That philosophy would explain how phenomenal his mind is along with his toned muscles.

He seems to have struck a perfect balance between the two, something we all strive for. Add a large doze of heart and there is a healthy dish that I would happily consume daily.

By all appearances, with Chef Irvine what you see is what you get. By his own admission, he’s made mistakes, but which one of us hadn’t? The difference between him and some of us is that he learns from his.

It’s impossible to write about Irvine without mentioning his love for our military men and women. During dinner, he requested that anyone who served would stand up, followed by asking the crowd to applaud our heroes. Very touching moment.

Robert spends much time with our active duty military. He is also active with a number of charities and dedicates a great deal of time as well as quietly, without fanfare, transfers large amounts of personal wealth to several charitable causes.

As a Dad to two girls, he knows all about responsibilities that come with fatherhood, being an entrepreneur, a businessperson, a community leader. Many folks count on and look up to Irvine. He stated that his children are no strangers to the soup kitchens and homeless shelters, where he takes them to teach values of humility, empathy and gratitude.

Love your children, your family, your community, do the right thing. Simple, right? Imagine if we all did just one thing every single day to help one another, to pay it forward, what a real paradise we would all live in…

Last but not least, it’s important to talk about Robert’s cooking skills. By now I could be accused of bias towards Chef Irvine, and I will happily own up to being entirely impressed with what I saw and heard. However, as a card-carrying foodie, I would never break the honor code. If I wasn’t enamored with his food, I would have simply stayed mum on the subject.

His duck rendition was nothing short of magnificent, one of the most exciting bites I have had in months. His velvety scallop was a highlight of the event; balanced, brilliant food.

I would never watch “Restaurant: Impossible” the same way again. It’s mission has become a metaphor for life for me. Nothing is impossible if you lead with love and compassion. Thanks, Chef.

You can learn more about Robert and his passion for life, health, food and fitness at


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Retail Wine Area w/ ratings | PHOTO CREDIT: Wiki Commons
Retail Wine Area w/ ratings | PHOTO CREDIT: Wiki Commons

There are many voices in the wine world, but there is only one Robert Parker.

Retail Wine Area w/ ratings | PHOTO CREDIT: Wiki Commons
Retail Wine Area w/ ratings | PHOTO CREDIT: Wiki Commons

A few days ago, while lying in bed and flipping thru the channels, I came across a documentary about Johnny Carson. I had watched him on the Tonight Show for years. I remember the night when Johnny Carson retired. He was a legend, an institution. Every single famous comedian interviewed on the documentary said the same thing: They was obscure before Johnny’s stamp of approval and a runaway professional success afterwards. He made the careers of just about every comic you can name. Moreover, he never destroyed any, when he easily could have.

How can one boy from an average Nebraska family develop such a Midas-touch? How  such a humble man transform late night TV? The answer is simple.

He was flawed, as we all are, but he had a solid work ethic, integrity, class, and style; attributes to which we nostalgically refer to today as “old school.” Despite being a recluse in his private world, he loved people. He particularly loved his fellow comedians. He  offered them copious amounts of support and goodwill. He sincerely, and generously laughed at other people’s jokes. He was honest and loyal.

Measuring up to greatness is daunting. Being a profoundly decent human being appears even harder.

So what does Johnny Carson have to do with the renowned wine critic, Robert Parker?

Robert M. Parker Jr. | PHOTO CREDIT: Wiki Commons
Robert M. Parker Jr. | PHOTO CREDIT: Wiki Commons

My first encounter with Robert Parker occurred at his favorite restaurant, Daniel.  While waiting for a colleague at the tiny bar in front of the dining room,  I turned in my chair and saw a man smiling warmly at me; nodding hello. I instinctively grabbed on to my chair for fear of sliding off due to sheer shock. A man whose newsletters I had fallen asleep with nearly every night for several years, was right in front of me. I incoherently mumbled hello. I was so star-struck, that, to this day, I can’t remember what I said next. What I do remember is the kindness he showed me, a complete stranger. Several brief encounters later confirmed that he was an accomplished man, with no ego.  He projected class, integrity and humility, in a simple, and authentic way.

I doubt he remembers this mesmerized, stuttering blonde. However, he had a greater impact on my world than he could ever know. He taught me, by example, how to be unapologetically passionate about things that matter. His childlike excitement about wine (much like Johnny Carson’s infectious, sincere laughter over other comedians’ skits), was encouraging in ways I can never quantify.

There are plenty of trends in the world of wine.  There was the Chardonnay trend, and then a Merlot movement which, spurred on by the movie “Sideways,” was replaced by the Pinot parade.  There is the “biodynamic trend”, which sounds impressive, but few really understand what that means. The trend d’jour is “low alcohol;” which promotes the dubious concept that low alcohol level equals balance. Half baked, self-professed, “experts” are busily indoctrinating unsuspecting consumers with their peculiar brand of wine-dogma.

Today there are those that professed to save us from “Parkerization,” a backhanded acknowledgement of Parker’s influence. There are those that call for him to get into social media and interact with all of his critics. (Perhaps they want to become his new “BFF”). Parker, thus far, has stayed above the fray, and firmly rebuffed any notion of stylistic preferences that are exclusionary. Owning a palate does not make you a mercenary on its behalf, it makes you human.

Given the wine world’s wild mutations, Parker’s consistency is pretty remarkable. Despite being self-professed “Francophile”, he elevated the awareness of New World wines.  He has particularly helped bring California wine to the world stage.

Does personal integrity have bearing on a professional success, does it translate? Absolutely. Does it matter in a wine critic? I would argue that it matters more than having a super-palate.  His simple goal is to help consumers find the worlds best wines; regardless of style, appellation or price. This focus on excellence can be controversial.  Often, his harshest critics appear to have rather obvious, self-serving agendas. His only agenda is to find and celebrate the world’s finest wines.

Parker is a profoundly gracious human being. Like Johnny Carson he never buried anybody. Like Carson, people famously and callously betrayed him. However, they both handled such incidents with style and grace.  That’s why there likely won’t be another Johnny Carson. And that’s why there won’t be another Robert Parker. These are the “real deal” human beings, real stars, with lasting, timeless appeal.

There are many voices in the wine world, but there is only one Bob.

Parker has earned the awesome power he holds within the wine industry; yet he has never taken advantage of that power or used it  destroyed others in the process.  He understands the responsibility that comes with being an industry luminary.  If one could bottle his integrity, it would rate 100 points on my scale!

Carson gave way to Leno who has since been followed by Jimmy Fallon.

Wine Advocate has a fantastic team of writers, but whomever emerges as heir apparent will have larger than life shoes to fill, and will be privileged to continue the legacy of bottled prose.

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Port_wine2There are definitely more than 10 interesting things about wine. But here is a compilation that everyone might find fascinating and enlightening. Great quotes, further highlighting some of the most interesting things about wine, offer an exciting way to begin a wine centric article.

“In wine, there’s truth.”

Pliny the Elder, Natural History

“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”

Ernest Hemingway

Wine is something that a person is passionate about. Last weekend, Jeff Fink of Fink Family Vineyards and I debated about the reason wine is so special. Both of us have observed wine’s emotional impact on drinkers with much curiosity, fascination, and sometimes bewilderment.

What is it about wine that gets under people’s skin?

Independently, we came up with a similar theory about wine correlating with the span of human experience. People begin life as hopeful, exuberant and slightly awkward beings. In middle years, most people relax and seek harmony and balance. As one declines, there are often a few moments of brilliance. Towards the end, as one becomes wise, corresponding exhaustion sets in. Perhaps it’s this subconscious awareness that causes us to relate to wine like no other beverage.

Wine has always held enigmatic powers. For centuries wit, wisdom and hedonism defined wine. It has also carried an aura of mystery.

Some cultures have inherently embraced it, while some have shunned it. In this young country of ours, wine culture hadn’t taken hold of the average consumer until a few decades ago. Once it did, it became an occasional beverage for many, and an exemplary loyal endeavor for a select group of hard-core oenophiles, that is growing steadily in numbers. Overall, US per capita wine consumption has increased by 14% (compared to <1% in France!) in the last few years.

Moreover, there has been a palpable shift in the world of wine and food towards a more refined, degustation-style and artisanal approach, that is now being scaled by larger entities.

Wine and food have come a long way and are closer than ever. In that vein, wine food pairing is an obvious list item:

1. Coupling

Sure, there are beer pairings, sake pairings, cocktail ones, etc. However there is nothing like wine. A great dish and a great glass of wine is like a strong couple with each individual bringing unique merits to the table. In other words, 1+1 becomes 3.

2. Range of possibilities

Wine, unlike any other beverage, has an unparalleled flavor range. From light and effervescent, to intense, raw and nearly obscene, it has it all.

3. Life

Wine is a living, breathing thing. If you hold on to it in your cellar, it changes. In fact it changes right before your very eyes, over a course of an hour, or an evening, right in your glass. Nothing else does that.

4. Purity

Wine cannot be mixed, blended, whipped or manipulated after bottling to add flavor, character, or personality. It stands on its own.

5. Healthfulness

Wine can have many health benefits in preventing  diabetes, heart disease, cancer, age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and even promotes longevity. In the next five years, scientists will create a new medication based on reservatrol, a substance contained in red wine. It is said to be able to extend life expectancy to a whopping 150 years!

6. Emotion

Whether you are a hardcore wine geek or a novice, wine guarantees to inspire passion. Good wine has an uncanny ability to cause a person to emotionally attach to it. Just watch the patron’s eyes roll back in their head at the next dinner, or a sommelier discreetly quietly petting a special bottle. Those are not intellectual exercises, they come from emotion.

7. Storytelling

Wine is a story, that transports you into a different realm, poetry, or prose. Each individual can decide, but it’s a revelation either way.

8. Matchmaker

Wine is a great social facilitator. Many people have witnessed how wine turns a group of strangers into new minted BWFFs (Best Wine Friends Forever).

9. A valued experience

One of the most notable, highly sought after growers, Gary Pisoni recognized it early. When trying to convince his Dad to grow grapes instead of vegetables, he asked: “Dad, do you know anyone who would want to pay $250/plate for a lettuce dinner?” Those words were prophetic. Today $250 is an average you would spend at a high-end restaurant for a wine and food pairing, and patrons are happy to pay for the right experience.

Conversely, some wines sell for thousands on open markets, and auctions. Ever hear of a head of lettuce going for $10K?

10. Loyalty

Like a good friend, great wine will never let you down. It will be there for you on a random lonely Tuesday night or snowy Wednesday afternoon. After a gut wrenching breakup, or to celebrate a promotion that’s richly deserved. You can share your secrets, confessions and laugh with or at yourself over a glass of wine.

Frankly, I can make all sorts of reasonable arguments about the benefits of loving and living in the wine world. Yet all of them would be relatively meaningless in the face of sitting down to a wonderful meal with a glass of wine in hand, with a friend or lover, looking at them from across the table, and feeling euphoric bliss.

So here is to 150 years of palate-roaring, soul-moving wine adventures – Cheers!

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Everyone needs to know the ins and outs when attending a wine tasting event. Today is an exciting time for wine enthusiasts. Regardless of personal preferences or level of sophistication, people are drinking better wines by default. Sound viticulture practices, new technologies, information sharing and plain raw winemaking talent, honed over years of experience, all make for an exciting time for wine lovers.

IllonaEvery person has a “palate” and it is as valid as anyone else’s, including the famed Robert Parker‘s. The only thing separating amateurs from professionals is the sheer number of wines an “expert” gets to sample. However, experts are mere guides. Don’t underestimate one’s own tasting skills. Tasting wine is a very personalized experience. Drinking with a critic’s or local shop purveyor’s palate is like wearing the same suit as Johnny Depp at the Oscars. It requires the same body type and an army of fashion assistants.

Attending a wine tasting event is a very productive way to learn about wine, because it offers a chance to sample a variety of wines. Such events offer a practical and fun way to gain knowledge, and to meet like-minded wine enthusiasts. More importantly, it is an opportunity to learn about one’s personal palate. They are often populated with winemakers and vintners, who are the best original sources for your wine education. Most winemakers are full of goodwill and eager to share their story.

Here are a few suggestions when attending a wine tasting event:

1. Come early, with some caffeine and food. It’s important to be alert and ready to go.

2. Have a strategy. If it’s a big public event, a person can only partake in a small part of the wine offerings. Prioritize by variety, producer, appellation or whatever strikes your fancy. Taste according to a personal wish list first, then roam free.

3. If there is a seminar offered before the event, attend it. Yes, some parts of the seminar will be highly technical. However, in the end, the information retained stays.

4. Spit. It’s not rude or disgusting! However, if safety is paramount, there is nothing wrong with a little discriminate consumption.

5. If choosing to take notes, do it in a fashion that is personally suiting. Don’t feel forced to describe, label, categorize or document every detail. A smiley face or a plus sign is just as valid as exhaustive tasting notes.

6. Drinking wine causes dehydration, so drink lots of water. Being dehydrated will make attending a wine tasting event miserable.

7. Don’t dress heavily or carry lots of stuff. As the room fills up with bodies it will get progressively warmer. Plus, it’s challenging to juggle a glass of wine, a piece of bread and a tote bag.

8. Listen and ask insightful questions. Avoid the temptation to tell the vintner/pourer a personal story. Don’t waste a valuable learning opportunity. Listen vs. talk.

9. Remember to relax and enjoy. Attending a wine event can sometimes be intimidating, especially for novices. Winemakers, who pour samples at these events, want tasters to have a pleasurable experience. Learning about their wines makes a person more likely to buy, especially if the event is enjoyable.

Learning what one doesn’t like is just as important as knowing what one does like. Invest the time, and it’s a wonderful opportunity. Soon every wine taster learns which wines have genuine seductive powers, or which ones are better to spit out.

The wonderful wine world is everything a person chooses to make of it. Personally, I’ve enjoyed every sip, and I couldn’t be happier.

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“The true worth of a man is to be measured by the objects he pursues”Marcus Aurelius

Wikipedia’s definition of cult wines reads: “Cult wines are those for which dedicated groups of committed enthusiasts will pay large sums of money.” Such a California cult wines list would include Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin, Bryant, Araujo, Dalla Valle, Scarecrow, and a few others. The consumers that were savvy enough to get on the mailing lists before the critical accolades were able to purchase these wines at release prices, or even re-sell these wines at a hefty profit at auction.

By the time a wine achieves a cult status it often becomes unattainable. Enthusiasts that discover cult wine too late face long waiting lists and/or very high prices on the secondary market. The secret is to get ahead of the curve and get on the mailing list for wines that haven’t yet achieved cult status.

Here are some very distinct Pinots and Cabarnet blends that will make it on a California cult wine list in the near future. The list includes half a dozen Pinot Noir and Cabernet producers. They were chosen based on the track record of the winemaker, the vineyards’ reputation, and viticulturalists’ skills. To my knowledge, all but one of these mailing lists is still open. It won’t stay that way for long!

Pinot Noir


Winemaker Gavin Chanin is a rising star, who has earned critical and sommelier acclaim by crafting wines of elegance, varietal purity and restraint. He began his winemaking career as an intern at Au Bon Climat and Qupé, and counts Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist as his mentors. His brand launched in 2007 with offerings selling in record time.


Cirq is a partnership between Michael Browne of Kosta Browne and Charlie Chenoweth, a celebrated grower who sells fruit to the likes of Patz and Hall. Their wines celebrate Charlie’s extraordinary vineyard. Collaboratively, they strive for ultimate balance using their instrument of choice, Pinot Noir.


Owner David Hejl is Kosta Browne’s GM. He is launching his own brand, Della later this year. Naming his label after his late beloved Mom, David set out to make wines of harmony, purity and intensity. Boasting Michael Browne as a mentor, and partnering up with some of the best growers in the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast, this is a wine to watch.

Paul Lato

A Polish immigrant who started his wine journey at Talley Vineyards, Paul Lato’s wines are now sought by some of the country’s finest restaurants. Critics and a few lucky consumers can’t get enough of his soulful wines. Paul’s meticulous fruit selection (he often sources from specific blocks of the vineyards) and his relentless pursuit of perfection results in wines that will take your breath away.


Lutum is a partnership between Gavin Chanin and Bill Price. Their focus is on small, meticulously crafted lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Gavin Chanin is the winemaker. Price is the chairman of Kosta Browne and Gary Farrell Winery, among many other hats he wears as a partner in Vincraft.


Tim and Jackie Reuling own a 16 acre property in Forestville. Their doting over their vineyard, meticulous dedication to clonal selections, and organic farming yields extraordinary fruit. Reuling supplied fruit for Mark Aubert and Sir Peter Michael.

Cabernet and Blends:


Buccella, which means “mouthful” in Latin, strives to craft memorable wines of distinction, grace, finesse, and pure pleasure. With Celia Welch (Scarecrow and Barbour) as a consulting winemaker at the helm, they are certain to become favorites in a California cult wines list.


Brand’s vision is to maximize the majesty of their Pritchard Hill vineyard. Philippe Melka accomplished this and much more.


Located on Diamond Mountain, Checkerboard is a composite of four vineyard developments and boasts a variety of soils, sun exposure, and clonal selections. Meticulous talent Martha McClellan is in charge (Harlan, Estate, Sloan), so pay attention to this wine.


Larry Fairchild learned the value of the best farming practices early on in Nebraska. His vineyard? Stunning. His winemaker? Philippe Melka (Chateau Haut Brion), named one of the world’s top wine consultants by Robert Parker. His wines? Mind boggling levels of complexity. This is one of the best Cabs I tasted this year.


Tusk is a luxury wine brand created in a partnership between Phillip Melka, Tim Martin, and Michael Uytengsy. They released their first wine in 2008 utilizing some of the best vineyards in Napa Valley. They source their fruit from prime vineyards in Napa’s Oakville and Prichard Hill appellations.


Fruit for Vineyardist comes from their bucolic seven acre vineyard on Diamond Mountain. Jim Barbour (Grace Family, 100 Acre, Revana) manages the vineyard. Winemaker Mark Herold, of Merus fame, debuted their 2009 and it was incredible. Combining gargantuan fruit with graceful sensibility, it is a wine taster’s dream.

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There are over 3,700 wineries in the state of California. How many women winemakers are taking California by storm? Roughly 10% of California wineries have a woman as either a winemaker or consultant. Without question, some of these women have become wine aficionado favorites. Included in this list of extraordinary women winemakers are:

  • Heidi Barrett, who turns out California’s most sought after “cult” wines, including Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Paradigm, Grace Family, Amuse Bouche, Lamborn, Showket, Fantesca, Kenzo, and La Sirena.
  • Helen Turley, who started out at Turley Cellars, and soon became a rock star consultant to the likes of Pahlmeyer, Bryant Family, Colgin, and Blankiet. She was also a mentor to future wine stars, Mark Aubert and Philippe Melka. Most notably, she’s the owner of a 9-acre vineyard called Marcassin – an Uber-cult on the California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay scene.
  • Mia Klein, a professional chef, turned winemaker. Klein was a winemaker for such critically acclaimed wineries as Araujo, Bressler, Boyanci, Chappellet, Cimarossa, Dalla Valle, Spottswoode, Viader. She has her own well regarded brand, Selene.
  • Milla Handley, trailblazer, proprietor of Handley Cellars who made her historic 1982 Handley Chardonnay.

Perhaps just as renown, Celia Welch, recently made news at Premier Napa Valley. Her “Scarecrow” bottling fetched $4,333 per bottle at this prestigious trade auction. Her other clients include such notable brands as Barbour, Kelly Fleming, Keever, Hollywood & Vine, Lindstrom and Bucella. Welch’s own brand, Corra, was born in 2004, and has been earning accolades from retail and critics alike. Her love of the science and artistry involved in winemaking defines her as a magnificent talent. Celia’s numerous awards include Food & Wine’s Winemaker of the Year,’s Top Ten Tastemakers, and a James Beard Award nomination.

Powerful, yet elegant Corra Cabernet Sauvignon’s name is derived from a Celtic harvest deity. It is a complex wine bottled without fining or filtration, and made from fruit sourced from three premium vineyards in Oakville, Rutherford, and Pritchard Hill. Cabernet Sauvignon affirms Celia Welch’s talent as a winemaker.

At a CabFest seminar, a female journalist from the audience asked the question,”What should I, as a woman wine writer talk about, what issues near and dear to you should be covered from a woman’s perspective?” Celia immediately fired back, “First of all you are not a woman writer. You are a writer. Write well and they will read and respect you for it.” Heidi Barrett quickly chimed in saying the media obsession with the concept of “women winemakers” and the premise behind the concept was “just silly.”

One of Celia’s fellow panelists, Martha McClellan, exemplifies the balancing act between managing a wildly successful career, stepping out from one’s husband’s shadow, and being a mother of three.

Martha is a co-winemaker and co-owner of Levy & McClellan, together with her husband Bob Levy, a winemaker for Harlan Estate. She is also a winemaker at Checkerboard Vineyards and Sloan Estate. She also spent three years at the highly regarded Blankiet Estate.

Robert Parker described her as having an “extraordinary resume, limitless talent, and a perfectionist, nearly obsessive, attitude toward making world-class wines.” She is the only American woman to have earned a degree in Oenology and Viticulture from Geisenheim University.

American society obsesses over labels. The truth is that gender does not a person or a profession make.

True, statistically most winemakers, vintners, and grape growers are men. Undoubtedly, men preside over the wine retail and restaurant world. Likewise, men dominate professional wine tasting events.

But, instead of worrying about the gender, we should focus on the person and their individual accomplishments. Let the politicians fight over imaginary issues such as the “war on women.” The rest of us ought to focus on what makes this country truly great, individual achievements and triumphs. These women are world-class winemakers. Let’s celebrate their success, not their gender!

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001Pinot Noir enthusiasts everywhere look forward to early March when producers from all over the world gather in Central Coast to showcase their favorite wines. The World of Pinot Noir boasts a weekend full of top-notch seminars lead by wine industry stars, walk around tastings paired with gourmet bites, and extravagant meals.

This year, World of Pinot Noir (WOPN) moved from its cliff side home in sleepy Pismo Beach to a larger, more upscale location in Santa Barbara, The Bacara Resort and Spa.

Having attended the festival for several years running and being attached to the charming locale and informal nature of the event, I, along with many of my pinot friends, felt some trepidation. Braving a torrential downpour, I drove to Santa Barbara wondering what my favorite California Pinot event would look and feel like in a new location.

Despite any reservations, the spirit of the event was very much intact. The geography may have changed, but the main draw, the opportunity to taste some of the world’s finest pinot, had been expanded. This year’s World of Pinot Noir felt bigger and more intense. An influx of stellar Oregon pinot producers was especially noteworthy.

There were gourmet cheeses and lovely hors d’oeuvres prepared by Johan Denizot, Bacara’s own celebrated Chef de Cuisine. Braised short rib ravioli with pinot and thyme was quite divine, rich, and luxurious. And of course, there was the pinot. Paul Lato’s Seabiscuit just about made me cry. With its seductive, gorgeous fruit and lingering finish, it’s the best he’s made to date. Paul also brought his 2004 Duende to showcase the ageability of his terrific wines. Noteworthy was Laetitia, whose sparkling pinots are always spectacular. I also loved Chamisal and Crossbarn by Paul Hobbs, and Siduri and Larry Hyde’s debut. And last but not least, I enjoyed Flowers, Littorai, and Goldeneye by Duckhorn.

Saturday started with what turned out to be a highlight of the event, a seminar titled “Hollywood & Wine.” It centered around a discussion on the influence of two films, “Sideways” and “Somm.” These movies had a dramatic impact on the wine world in general, and on the Central Coast wine region in particular. A true American, rags-to-riches success story, “Sideways” was the film that was barely made, had no advertising budget, and all the odds stacked against it. Yet it succeeded in every way imaginable.

The film swept audiences and became a huge, virtually unquantifiable asset to the Santa Barbara wine community. Pinot sales soared, and tourists flocked in droves to Frank Ostini’s Hitching Post, which played a big role in the movie. The panel’s participants featured in “Sideways” mused at the dramatic positive effect the film had on their community with humor and genuine, deep appreciation.

A discussion centered on a more recent indie film “Somm,” which focuses on the grueling pressures of the Master Sommelier exam. This was accompanied by a real time blind tasting of six wines. I always say “palates don’t lie, lips do.” This is a great reminder of the power of one’s own palate. We also had an exercise in deductive wine tasting led by MS Brian McClintic, the star of “Somm.”

The walk around tasting that afternoon was the definition of embarrassment of riches. It was a who’s who of Pinot Noir: Kosta Browne, Williams Selyem, Hartford, Reuling, Black Kite, Saxon Brown, Michael Browne’s debut Cirq, Pisoni, Foxen, Patz and Hall, Archery Summit, Fel, MacPhail, Brewer Clifton, and numerous others.

All pinot lovers, should get to know these wineries. They represent the precious spirit of this elusive varietal. Their craftsmanship crosses over into the realm of pure artistry.

WOPN also featured a variety of international pinot stars. There were too many to mention here. However, there was one pinot noir from Spain, Alta Pavina, that was exceptionally exciting. Grown in high elevations, it was different from any other pinot I have ever tasted, intriguing, bright, and sassy.

I had a moment with Norm Yost, Chairman of the Board of directors who took on a gargantuan task of herding wine cats and pulled it off seamlessly. We had a memorable conversation about Pinot people vs. Cab people, vs. Rhone people. Somehow pinot-files are different, special, deeply relatable, unassuming and engaging on a different level than any other wine folk.

As I wandered between tables, with my palate screaming for mercy, I could not help but think how lucky I am to be living and drinking at that very moment. 2012 is undeniably a vintage that will go down in wine history. Thanks WOPN, for being exactly who you are and maintaining that over the years. Don’t ever change.

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Every February, a bit of magic comes to Napa. Appropriately titled “Premier Napa Valley,” with its centerpiece being live auction, is an annual opportunity for top trade and media guests to experience and purchase the most exclusive wines Napa Valley has to offer. Premier has established itself as a place to be and buy.

Each year, members of the Napa Valley Vintners’ Association produce five to twenty case lots of wine that represents their finest efforts. The wines are donated to the Association to be auctioned at Premier Napa Valley. The proceeds help fund the association and their efforts to promote Napa wines.

This year an enthusiastic group of attendees, representing 8 countries and 28 states, engaged in highly competitive, spirited bidding. The “futures” offering of the coveted 2012 vintage resulted in record prices for the wines (an average of $283/per bottle).

Bill Knight, the owner of The WineHouse in LA, was the winner of the highest price lot: the highly coveted offering from Scarecrow. He paid a record $260,000 for five cases.

Bill and his son Glen visited Scarecrow and tasted the wine prior to the Saturday’s event. They thought it was exceptional, even better than the 2007 vintage, which earned the perfect 100 points from the renowned wine critic Robert Parker. They tried to obtain the 2010 at the Premier Auction two years prior, but were outbid by Nakagawa Wine Co, a retailer from Japan. This time they were determined not to let the lot get away.

The budget bar was set and quickly exceeded during the heat of the auction. Bill’s private cellar will be welcoming a fabulous new tenant. My strong recommendation is doing whatever is necessary to make friends with the Knights! Their highly successful wine business is rooted in his philosophy of “Nordstrom-like” customer service standards. WineHouse has earned a position as of one of the top wine retailers in the country which brings them impressive purchasing power.

Just three days prior to the auction, Robert Parker commented on the tremendous achievements of the California wine industry. He noted that in forty years wine lovers will look back at them with full appreciation of what they represented.

There were many records set and broken that day. Glen raised his paddle again and again because of his belief that he was bidding on the best wine produced in California.

Perhaps Bill’s 40 years of experience has given him the vision that is ahead of its time. Maybe that is why $260,000 represented value to him that many of us are only starting to understand. Celebrating California wine, opening one’s heart and wallet for the purpose of promotion and protection of Napa Valley wines is a cause that is worthy. Once upon a time, in 1973, CA wine voice was heard around the world. Bill told me that he wanted it heard again.

How did Scarecrow achieve its “cult” status? It’s a confluence of factors, some highly subjective, some purely logical. At the heart of it is the vineyards location and rootstock. There is beautiful history, exceptionally dedicated owners, and above all stellar, mind-boggling, talented winemaking.

All successful luxury goods purveyors have a customer perception of value and ensuing brand loyalty. Creating perceptions is more of an art than science. Captivating and enthralling consumers means gaining prime market position and premium pricing. In the world of fine wine, great scores from Parker and Wine Spectator, a superior pedigree and a compelling story is a must.

Consumers at every level are driven by value. The $4,333 per bottle price that the Knights spent for their winning bid represents “value” for several reasons. Only five cases of Scarecrow’s “Toto’s Opium Dream, Scene III” were produced for the auction. It was sourced from a single block of vines planted in 1945. It was made by Celia Welch, who is arguably one of the most important wine makers of our time. 2012 may very well go down in history as California’s vintage of the century. To put it in further perspective, top Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, often from inferior vintages, fetch that and more. Are we finally seeing Napa Valley wines get their due on the worldwide stage?

Does that mean it’s the ultimate bottle of wine? Premier wines offered by Barbour, Shafer, Schrader and many others were also quite spectacular. In the end, what truly counted were opinions of two competing bidders, who were compelled to place a record bid based on what they have tasted.

If you want the same experience, contact The WineHouse, perhaps they will be persuaded to part with a bottle!

With all that said, here is more food for thought. 2012 is without a doubt a stellar vintage. So is 2013, by all early accounts. By contrast, 2011 was remarkably cold and wet, one of the most challenging vintages to date. Wine makers had to pull all the stops in the cellar to correct what Mother Nature handed over. Nonetheless, there are terrific 2011 wines. Wines from Andy Erickson, Phillip Melka, Celia Welch, Elias Fernandez and an elite group of a few others show grace, sophistication, finesse, and consummate expressions of the site. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to follow the wineries that produce outstanding wines in difficult years. They will offer you consistent greatness and value. They are the true wizards who make real magic.

This was an event that will not soon be forgotten. Bravo, California Wizards of Wine!

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This past Valentine’s Day, the Masters and Makers Napa Valley wine and food event premiered. Its aim was to showcase wine from Napa’s and Sonoma’s most renowned wineries. A variety of educational panels were present, and world-class fine dining graciously prepared by the team of Meritage Resort. Masters and Makers Napa Valley provided everything one could desire.

Undoubtedly, Masters and Makers Napa Valley left one thirsting for more. Situated directly behind “The Grape Crusher” statue at the entrance to the Napa Valley, it is Tuscan inspired. The Meritage resort is known not only for its fantastic location and plethora of amenities, but for the uniformly attentive attitude of its staff.

The first tasting was led by two renowned Master Sommeliers. One being Jillian Ballance, one of only 19 female Master Sommeliers in the world, and Fred Dame, an industry veteran and the President of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

The featured wines at this tasting were from Trinitas cellars and a Robert Parker favorite, Pine Ridge Vineyards. 2011 was one of Napa’s coolest growing seasons in over 100 years. Wines from that vintage provided a formidable challenge to even the most seasoned winemakers. The 2011 Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2011 Dijon clones chardonnay, were both exceptional wines given the vintage. A great wine from a challenging vintage highlights the skills of exceptional winemakers.

The evening was capped by an extraordinary dinner hosted in Trinitas magnificent 4000 sq. ft. wine cave. The dinner was nothing short of superlative, with no detail left to chance, from flower arrangements to wine and food pairings.

Chef Krisztian Karkus’s creative and cohesive vision made for an unforgettable dining experience. His goal was to complement Pine Ridge’s beautiful portfolio of wines with sophisticated but not overpowering flavors.

After dining at Meritage, it would not be surprising if Chef Karkus captures Michelin Guide’s attention. This talented chef is someone to watch closely.

On the following day, attendees went to the Beringer Vineyards for a wine blending seminar. It was an opportunity of a lifetime to get inside the mind of the originator of Beringer’s Private Reserve offering, the legendary Ed Sbragia, who passed the reigns to Laurie Hook, a very talented winemaker.

The evening’s gala event that night redefined culinary opulence with 8 different varieties of domestic caviar. There was a tower of local artisan cheeses, house made charcuterie, pates, and every other seafood and meat delicacies conceivable. The event featured stellar wines for producers such as Roederer, Pride, Caymus and Duckhorn to name a handful. Eighty-five wineries poured literally hundreds of offerings, from sparkling to dessert.

The next day’s brunch provided cheese filled blintzes with mint berry compote. The following seminar focusing on appellational wines was very unique and informative but also lighthearted and fun.

In conclusion, Meritage means blend, a confluence, the summation of the best parts that make for a powerful whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Michael Palmer, the Resort’s General Manager, when asked what the envisioned the guest’s experience to be during the six years it took to conceive and produce the event, said that he wanted it to be “the experience like none other.” This unique and unforgettable event highlighted some of Napa’s and Sonoma’s greatest achievements in wine and food in a perfect setting. It celebrated life, laughter, and camaraderie, and blended them artfully and seamlessly. Check out


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