Wine Beer & Spirits

Simple Autumn Spins on Classic Cocktails


I recently realized that I drink far more cocktails during the autumn and winter months and tend to stick to sparkling wine, beer, and red wine during hotter months. Haven't quite figured out why, but I promise I'll look into it. Perhaps one too many family gatherings could make a person sprint to the local bar for a stiff drink - who knows? The point is, in light of this recent discovery, I've been playing around with some ways to autumn-ize some of the most classic cocktails. 

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Short note: Making cocktails is no different than cooking, really. Choose high-quality, natural-ish ingredients to elevate something simple into something extraordinary! 

Gin & Tonic

Up first, the mighty Gin & Tonic. I've had a troubled relationship with this drink, but we've worked out our differences and I'm now Team G&T. Honestly, the first time I ever had one that I loved was at Jose Andres' Jaleo in Washington, D.C. It had a depth and brightness that was so lacking in every other one I'd ever tried. It converted me. 

About the gin: I prefer the London Dry gin style since it tends to be sort of mellow and not so abrasive. My #1 choice is Plymouth, but I'll use Beefeater if I can't find it. Plymouth also makes an excellent sloe gin. I also LOVE Leopold's gin from Colorado, which is becoming a bit easier to find these days, so see if you can.

About the tonic: I truly believe the secret to a good Gin & Tonic is the tonic. I can't deal with the syrupy, unnatural taste of Schweppes tonic water. Opt for something with less sugar - or, at least, real sugar. Try Q or Fever-Tree. 

To add a holiday kick to a traditional Gin & Tonic, I simply add a splash of sloe gin and a cinnamon stick as a stirrer - that's it! Here's the recipe:

Old-Fashioned

The Old-Fashioned is a deceptively simple concoction: sugar, bitters, whiskey, twist. Like so many simple things, it's disastrous when not done well and extraordinarily satisfying when a mustachioed mixologist takes care to make it properly. I have to be honest, I made my own apple bitters (I call them Yuletide bitters, appropriately enough) for use in this cocktail, but there are plenty of fancy bitters out there these days. Find anything in the way of apple, cinnamon, maple, or warmly spiced (think baking spices and gingerbread) bitters and you'll be all set.

Manhattan

Instead of using bourbon entirely, I introduce Calvados (apple brandy) to add a bit of autumn warmth to a traditional Manhattan. I was surprised that it didn't take a whole lot of fuss to turn this into a great winter drink - it may already be one on its own!

Sangria

I was recently asked to test some recipes for mulled wine for the holidays. I made a number of versions, both red and white, and discovered that my favorite holiday mulled wine was very similar to my favorite sangria recipe, except that it's a bit sweeter and is served piping hot. I did also enjoy it the next day, on ice, so it can go both ways.

Exploring Burgundy: Classic Wines & a Bit of Beaune

I had mixed feelings traveling to Burgundy. I was hoping that I would find a magical wine region where I'd fall in love with dedicated winemakers and regional dishes, not something that resembles the Napa Valley of France. Luckily, I did find a magical wine region...winding through tiny little streets, from town to town, I seemed to be the only person on the road and I felt as if I was discovering a secret, even though Burgundy might just be the most famous wine region on the planet! 

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One big issue in Burgundy is getting to a vineyard or getting into a winery. Job number one is finding a winery to see. It is well understood that most winery owners in Burgundy don't care about having tasting rooms and don't care to have their time wasted with your visits. After all, they're busy actually making the wine and tending to the vines! Winemakers in Burgundy are very hands-on and they don't have a huge problem selling their sought-after wines, so you really have to be with a tour, be in the wine industry, or "know someone" if you want to get up close and personal. You also really must have a car (or, again, get in on a small tour) to explore the region the way it needs to be seen, but if you're short on time you can certainly stay in the city of Beaune and still soak up a bit of Burgundy. 

Oeufs en Meurette at Restaurant Le Fleury, Beaune

Oeufs en Meurette at Restaurant Le Fleury, Beaune

When in Beaune, I recommend heading over to Maison Joseph Drouhin for a tour and tasting. You'll get to see the caves and, if you're lucky, you'll also get a great history lesson. After the tour, you'll taste three Chardonnays (their 2013 Meursault was exceptional) and three Pinot Noirs (even some Grand Crus!), some of which are excellent! Afterward, head over to Restaurant Le Fleury, where I had the BEST oeufs en meurette (poached eggs in red wine sauce, an outstanding regional dish) my entire time in Burgundy. For dinner, Le Clos du Cèdre was a fantastic and memorable meal. Since I was on an ouefs en meurette kick, I had to order their fancy deconstructed version...while good, it just wasn't as good as Restaurant Le Fleury. 

You must also stop by La Moutarderie Fallot to tour the Edmond Fallot mustard factory and taste all the mustard you possibly can (unless, of course, you absolutely hate mustard...then you don't need to do this). Thomas Keller taught me about Edmond Fallot and I am forever grateful. It is the best mustard in the world and assists me in the kitchen almost every single day! It's just...the best. 

Ancient wine press, Joseph Drouhin, Beaune

Ancient wine press, Joseph Drouhin, Beaune

Caves at Joseph Drouhin, Beaune

Caves at Joseph Drouhin, Beaune

Vineyard in Vosne-Romanée

Vineyard in Vosne-Romanée

Clos Napoléon, Fixin

Clos Napoléon, Fixin

I absolutely do suggest renting a car, if you can, and spending at least a couple of hours driving through the region. I drove from Lyon to Dijon (Beaune is right in the middle), so I had a chance to see a great deal and it was the best part of the trip! I traveled to Burgundy just before harvest (or during harvest, depending on the vineyard) and saw lots of beautiful, mature fruit hanging on the vines. Since you're out in the middle of nowhere and probably need some sustenance at some point, make a lunch reservation at Au Clos Napoléon in Fixin, where they have an unbeatable atmosphere and view - literally surrounded by vineyards. They also have an excellent version of oeufs en meurette, if you want to stay regional. 

The country roads in Burgundy

The country roads in Burgundy

The famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

The famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

Vosne-Romanée

Vosne-Romanée

There is so much to see - you just need to show up with an adventurous spirit to get the most out of the region. If all else fails, taste wines in Beaune and Dijon and ask for regional wine pairings with dinner - just taste as much as you can and always, always, always ask the sommelier for his/her help. Get a feel for each appellation, what it offers, and what you do or don't like about those wines. For whatever reason, I seem to always choose reds from Aloxe-Corton and Nuits-Saint-Georges. Maybe it's wrong, but I have strong preferences! And those preferences may or may not change with each vintage. 

There are also so many hidden gems and indescribable landscapes. If you love wine and need a break from Europe's big cities, head to Burgundy right now!!! Also, if you make it up to Dijon (essential if you're heading back to Paris on the train), be sure to make a reservation at Loiseau des Ducs - wonderful, wonderful food and an imaginative, modern wine program. 

By the way, Julia Child has a great recipe for oeufs en meurette in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Find it under "Oeufs à la Bourguignonne [Eggs Poached in Red Wine]". There is no need for me to come up with a recipe for this...some stuff is just classic and untouchable. If you can't make it to Burgundy, you can at least recreate this fantastic dish at home! 

Save Water, Drink Dry-Farmed Wine

It's not exactly news that California is struggling with water issues. Grapevines, however, are extraordinary creatures and, with careful planning, they can thrive in difficult conditions if planted in the right soil and in the right area. Dry-farming basically relies on the right type of soil, typically clay-based, to store the area's natural rainfall. This practice was, and is again becoming, the new norm for many wineries across the state - saving countless gallons of precious water in the process.

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Historically speaking, large-scale agricultural irrigation is a relatively modern luxury. Although irrigation has been practiced for thousands of years, it wasn't until the mid-1960's in Israel when drip irrigation really revolutionized global agriculture, including the wine industry. In Europe, dry-farming has been the only option in many renowned wine regions throughout France, Italy, Spain, Greece, etc. for as long as anyone can remember. In fact, it is illegal to irrigate wine grapes in many regions, like Bordeaux and Burgundy, due to the belief that irrigation will lower the quality of the wine. 

The trouble with California is that our climate is much drier and, in many areas, much hotter than a lot of Old World European vineyards. However, many winemakers hold strong that dry-farming is better for the grapes. Since dry-farming tends to produce lower yields, some believe that this will intensify the grape's flavor and produce better wine. The idea is that more irrigation = watered-downed grapes and, therefore a watered-down wine. After all, some of the finest wines in the world are produced from dry-farmed grapes! 

Here are some lovely dry-farmed California wines to try:

Frog's Leap 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley

Frog's Leap is famously dry-farmed and they have a great example of dry-farmed, organic Sauvignon Blanc. This wine is everything you want out of a light summer white: it's bright, citrusy, with great depth and minerality

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Tablas Creek 2014 Dianthus Rosé, Paso Robles

A blend of Mourvedre, Grenache, and Cunoise, this rosé is one of the best in the region. It is bright and floral, with rich stawberry notes throughout. The finish is long and clean, delightful as a slightly chilled summer sipper. 

Emeritus Vineyard 2012 Pinot Noir, Sonoma County

Since Pinot Noir is the wine Emeritus produces, it's no surprise that they do it well. Easy-drinking with great fruit character and mild acidity, this is a versatile summer red. 

Chappellet Vineyard 2012 Zinfandel, Napa Valley

It's no surprise for a Chappellet wine to be exceptional and this growing season certainly made it a little easier. This wine is ripe, with notes of jammy cherry and blackberry. It's rich and intense. An excellent example of dry-farmed, mountain-grown Zinfandel.

Stolpman Vineyards 2012 Grenache, Los Olivos

Grenache is under-appreciated in the United States and seems to be making a bit of a comeback. Stolpman's Grenache is sweet on the nose, but don't let that fool you - this is a bold wine with some tannin and spice on the palate. 

The Perfect Sangria + Simplicity in Spanish Crab Toast

Sangria is just one of those things that everyone does differently. I have my way, everyone in Spain has their own way, and everyone in Portugal has their own way. The secret to a good sangria is knowing what you need: a bottle of fruity red wine (less than $15, please), brandy (some people like to add vodka or Port, too), fruit, and a little sweetness. If you want a perfect Spanish bite to go along with it, scroll down for my Spanish Crab Toast recipe...

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Instead of adding sugar syrup (because I prefer dry sangria), I like to take fresh ripe berries (ripe = more sugar), like strawberries and blackberries, and muddle them a bit to release their juices, then I add a bit of orange juice to the mix. I always always always add sliced citrus (limes + lemons + oranges) to my sangria. It looks gorgeous and adds an irreplaceable brightness. If you have an apple, chop that up and throw that in there - why not? Make it a project and find your perfect sangria recipe! Taste as you go along and I guarantee you'll come up with something amazing.

Here's my perfect sangria:

Ingredients

1 bottle fruity red wine (I use an affordable Spanish Garnacha)
4 oz. brandy
3 oz. freshly-squeezed orange juice
3 oz. Ruby Port
1/2 cup fresh, ripe strawberries, quartered
1/2 cup fresh, ripe blackberries
1 lime, sliced
1/2 orange, sliced
2 lemon slices
5-10 fresh mint leaves

Method

In a large jar or pitcher, add the berries and muddle or crush to release their juices, but not turn into complete mush. Add the red wine, brandy, Port, orange juice, sliced citrus, and mint leaves. Stir to combine. Allow to sit, covered, in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours or, preferably, prepare in the morning to enjoy in the evening.  

To serve: Stir before serving. Ladle fruit and liquid over ice and garnish with an orange slice and/or fresh mint leaves. 

Note: I keep my sangria in an airtight glass jar and vigorously shake it a few times per day as it sits. Always do a taste test. Not sweet enough? Add some sugar syrup or a splash of fruity dessert wine, if you have it open. Not boozy enough? Add some more brandy. 

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Spanish Crab Toast

The first time I had this crab toast, it made me very, very, very, very happy. It was SO hot outside. A big pitcher of sangria was in the process of cooling me down. And then this crab toast shows up at the table. It was garlicky, bright, fresh and satisfying. Every few months, I have an irresistible urge to make it at home along with a pitcher of sangria. It's simple and easily made ahead for entertaining later. 

Ingredients

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1 lb. lump crabmeat
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. paprika
Zest + juice of one lemon
1/4 cup fresh chives, chopped + more for garnish
1/2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 12-oz. jar of roasted piquillo peppers or about 12 peppers
3-5 garlic cloves
1/2 tsp. sea salt
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 baguette

Method

1. Drain the crabmeat and sift through it to pick out any pieces of shell. In a medium bowl, add the crabmeat, olive oil, 1 tsp. sea salt, paprika, black pepper, lemon zest, lemon juice, chives, and thyme. Stir to combine. 

2. Drain, rinse, and dry the piquillo peppers. Stuff each pepper with enough crabmeat to fill each pepper loosely. If you're making ahead, you can set the stuffed peppers upright in a bowl and cover with plastic overnight. 

3. In a mortar and pestle, crush 3-5 garlic cloves (depending on your garlic tolerance and the size of the garlic cloves - I usually use 3 large cloves) with salt until it forms a paste. Add the mayonnaise and stir to combine. If making ahead, you can also keep this in a bowl, covered overnight. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, grate the garlic into a bowl and just stir in the salt and mayonnaise. 

4. Slice the baguette into twelve 1/2-inch slices, or slice an equal number of bread slices for the number of stuffed peppers you have prepared. Toast the slices in a toaster oven until golden brown or, if using your regular oven, place sliced bread on a sheet pan and bake at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes. 

To assemble: Spread about one tablespoon of garlic spread onto each piece of toasted bread. Place one stuffed pepper on top and garnish with a bit of chopped chive. Enjoy!
 

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Vegan Lemon-Chamomile Shortbread + Montenegro Spritz Cocktail

An Aperol Spritz (Aperol + Prosecco + a slice of orange) is probably the most popular summer drink in Italy. It's certainly refreshing on a hot summer day, but it is normally much too sweet for my personal taste. So, in comes my favorite Italian bitter liqueur: Amaro Montenegro. It is citrusy and bittersweet, perfectly paired with a dry California sparkling wine. Literally, the exact thing I want to drink while sitting on a porch in South Carolina...with some cookies...

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Montenegro Spritz

1 oz. Amaro Montenegro
3-5 oz. cold sparkling wine
Lemon or orange peel (or slice), for garnish

Simply pour one ounce of Amaro Montenegro into a Champagne flute or coupe and fill, to your desire, with sparkling wine. Garnish with some fancy lemon or orange peel or just a thin slice. 

Yay!

Vegan Lemon-Chamomile Shortbread Cookies

Vegan baking can be a little temperamental, but these butter-free shortbread cookies came out better than I expected! Be sure to use refined coconut oil since it has a neutral taste - if you don't mind having a coconut flavor in your cookies, go ahead and use unrefined or virgin coconut oil. 

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Ingredients

3/4 cup refined coconut oil 
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. lemon oil
Zest of one lemon
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 generous tsp. ground chamomile
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. sea salt
1 2/3 cup all-purpose flour

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the coconut oil until completely smooth. Add the sugar and mix on medium speed for about one minute. 

2. Add the lemon oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, chamomile, vanilla extract, and salt. Mix just until combined.

3. With the mixer on low, slowly add the flour 1/3 cup at a time. As with pastry and pie doughs, the amount of flour needed can vary. You don't want the dough to be soft and wet, but you also don't want it to be dry, crumbly, and falling apart. If it's too wet, just add a bit more flour. Too dry, add a little bit of water or even some more lemon juice. 

4. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and bring the dough together in a 2-inch thick log. Wrap the log tightly in either parchment paper or plastic wrap, making sure to twist the ends.

5. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. The dough is ready to bake when it feels firm to the touch. You should be able to squeeze the dough log without making much of a dent and it should be easy to slice. Slice into 1/3" cookies and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, about an inch apart.

Bake for about 15-18 minutes or until the edges are lightly golden brown. You should get 14-16 cookies total. 

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A Dozen Beautiful Wines to Welcome Spring!

Spring has sprung, the grapevines are getting greener by the day, and it's about time to pop some corks! The bounty of beautiful vegetables at the farmer's market has forced me to fire up the grill and lounge in the sunshine with a glass of something light, with refreshing acidity and great balance.

 
Early spring in the vineyard

Early spring in the vineyard

 

White wines and rosés are always popular this time of year, but young, lighter red wines (like Chinon, Zweigelt, Gamay, or Pinot Noir) would be perfect, too! When choosing reds, try to find young wines with higher acidity and little to no oak. Also, remember to serve light red wines slightly chilled for some added refreshment! 

Here are some of my favorite wines to welcome the season, along with food pairing ideas:

1. Hermann J. Wiemer Cuvée Brut 2011, Finger Lakes

This New York sparkling wine is refreshing and citrusy - perfect for a toast or celebration on its own, or paired with aged cheeses and meats. Nothing better for a summer day in the Hamptons! Wiemer also has exceptional Riesling - some of the best in the United States!

2. Domaine Carneros Estate Brut Cuvée 2010, Napa Valley

Some people always have a bottle of Veuve Clicquot in their refrigerator, awaiting the proper ocassion - I always have Domaine Carneros. One of my favorite California sparkling wines, it's a versatile sparkler that is perfect to bring out each and every weekend! Pairs beautifully with briney oysters, ceviche, and even rich, creamy French cheeses. 

3. Chappellet Chenin Blanc 2012, Napa Valley

I'm not always a fan of Chenin Blanc, but Molly Chappellet's signature wine  offers refreshing, lively notes of citrus and tropical fruit. Its richness and moderate acidity pair beautifully with white fish, chicken, and fresh cheeses...the perfect wine to enjoy while taking in a California sunset. 

4. Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner, Wachau

Grüner Veltliner, the star of Austria, has grown in popularity over the past few years. When you can't make a choice, choose Grüner Veltliner! It is versatile, bright, and pairs with a number of light foods like spring soups and light vegetable dishes. 

5. Tablas Creek Vineyard Viognier 2013, Paso Robles

Viognier, one of the Rhône Valley's best known grapes, thrives in Tablas Creek's certified organic estate vineyard. Wonderful with or without food, this Viognier has a rich mouthfeel and is bright and clean on the palate. Pair with grilled white fish, shellfish, and salads with bright citrus dressings. 

6. Domaine Franck Millet Sancerre 2012, Loire Valley

This Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley is beautifully aromatic - fresh, with bright acidity and gentle minerality. The famous limestone soil is evident in the glass. Pair with white fish and use a splash to make an accompanying sauce! 

7. Scarpetta Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Friuli-Venezia Giulia

This Sauvignon Blanc comes from a certified organic vineyard in Colli di Orientali, located in Northern Italy. This area is known for its crisp white wines and this bottle is no different. It is medium-bodied with a punch of citrus and stone fruit - perfect with light hors d'oeuvres and grilled fish. 

8. Lorenza Rosé 2014, California

Nothing says summer like a group of girls toting a bottle (or five) of rosé to the beach - from city to city and country to country, the tradition lives on. Lorenza's rosé is a pretty perfect dry Provençal rosé - made right here in California. It's a great summer sipper.

9. Bow & Arrow Gamay Noir 2012, Willamette Valley

Gamay may be known as the grape that makes up Beaujolais Nouveau, but trust me, Gamay is so much more than that! These light red wines from Burgundy and the Loire Valley also thrive in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Earthiness and soft red fruits lead to a bright, balanced finish. Pair with grilled salmon.

10. Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 2013, Santa Barbara County

One of my favorite local wines, this Pinot Noir is easy-drinking, light, and fruity with a hint of spice on the palate. I drink it all year round as a go-to light red with vegetarian pasta dishes, but it also pairs exceptionally well with grilled salmon. 

11. Penner-Ash Pinot Noir 2012, Willamette Valley

Oregon's Willamette Valley is one of the best expressions of Pinot Noir in the country and Penner-Ash has some exceptional options. One of the more expensive wines on the list, this Pinot Noir is rich with red berries and cherries on the palate. It also carries a longer finish than the one above. Pair with grilled salmon and lighter meat dishes, like chicken and pork. 

12. Bernard Baudry "Les Granges" Chinon 2013, Loire Valley

Chinon is usually going to mean Cabernet Franc and Domaine Bernard Baudry is one of the best producers in the Loire Valley. There are some great examples of Cabernet Franc in California (try Chappellet's Cabernet Franc from the Napa Valley), but Chinon is famous for its bright acidity and that's what this classic example showcases. It is fruity and slightly smokey, perfect with a hefty cheese and charcuterie board. 

Exploring Monterey County Wine Country

Monterey County has been producing wine for more than fifty years, but many people are just discovering those wines for the first time. A wide variety of grapes are grown in the region, but their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are an exceptional value. Wine Enthusiast Magazine named it one of the "Top 10 Wine Travel Destinations" for a reason! It is an exquisitely beautiful area with great wines and wonderful restaurants.

In Town

People often ask if they should stay in Monterey or Carmel. The two towns are, literally, right next to each other so you don't actually have to choose. Personally, I'd choose Carmel-by-the-Sea any day just because it's mellow and quiet - probably one of the better perks of getting out of the city, right? 

In Carmel, the best restaurant in town is Aubergine and it's connected to the best hotel in town, L'Auberge (Relais & Chateaux). For something more casual, head up to the rooftop bar at Vesuvio and order a margherita pizza. Or if you're in the mood for Spanish tapas, find a hidden table at Mundaka and enjoy a carafe of sangria while you're at it! The best oyster spot in town is A.W. Shucks Oyster Bar, but get there early to avoid a wait on the weekends. 

In Monterey, you'll find that it's a bit more commercial and crowded than Carmel, though still beautiful. The saving grace for me was the Cannery Row Antique Mall, which is one of the best antique malls I've been to in recent years. Fisherman's Wharf is sort of cute (read: touristy) and worth it to enjoy the view and some seafood. I'd rather send you to The Wharf Marketplace, which is right around the corner and is the perfect place to sip an espresso while you peruse the local goods. If you want to find the best restaurant in Monterey, it's Restaurant 1833. On a chilly night, enjoy some small bites in their Library next to a roaring fire or head upstairs to their Absinthe bar!

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The view from Fisherman's Wharf, Monterey

The view from Fisherman's Wharf, Monterey

The Wine

The Cheese Shop, Carmel

The Cheese Shop, Carmel

If you're heading out to wine country, don't forget to stop at The Cheese Shop in Carmel to stock up on road snacks. For a small town, they have an impressive selection of cheese, wine, and gourmet foods. You'll also find some lovely charcuterie and other goodies at Salumeria Luca. If you'd rather stay closer to town and still do some wine tasting, there are some great tasting rooms at The Crossroads in Carmel, including Morgan Winery (excellent Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc) and McIntyre Vineyards. Since you're over that way anyway, stop by Lafayette Bakery at The Barnyard and pick-up a baguette to go with your cheese!

Talbott Vineyards and Bernardus Winery were favorites for their estate-grown Pinot Noir - and they are located in the same area. To map out your own wine route, take a look at the Monterey Wine Country site for a list of AVAs and vineyards. 

The Monterey County wine region isn't enormous, but definitely large enough for a whole day or two of tasting. If you'd rather sleep closer to the grapevines, look no further than Carmel Valley Ranch - a luxurious hotel and spa nestled in the Santa Lucia Mountains, which is also a nice lunch escape (or golf escape) to break up a day of wine tasting. 

If you haven't already, don't forget to head south and take that famous drive through Big Sur!

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6 Sparkling Wines to Drink on New Year's Eve + Sparkling-Poached Pears

Champagne has been in the spotlight long enough, don't you think? There are so many other sparkling wines around the world that use the same grapes, the same method, and are worthy of toasting the new year! Your wallet will thank you later.

Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order:

1. Domaine Carneros 2010 Estate Brut Cuvée, Napa, California

This sparkling wine is made entirely from organic grapes and is very affordable at around $30 per bottle, making it one of my top picks. Domaine Carneros, located in the Napa Valley, is the American outpost of Taittinger Champagne, so it's no surprise that they produce some of the best sparkling wines in California. 

2. Dr. Heidemanns-Bergweiler NV Riesling Brut Sekt, Mosel, Germany

Don't let "Riesling" fool you. This wine is dry, delicate, and packed with flavor. At around $20, this is the most affordable sparkling wine on the list. Perfect if you're in the mood to venture out of your comfort zone! If you haven't already, check out one of my past posts on this wine region: Mosel & Rheingau: Riesling Royalty and a Tiny Volkswagen.

3. Gramona 2006 Gran Reserva Brut Nature III Lustros, Cava, Spain

This wine is known as one of the best examples of Spanish Cava on the market today, but is still remarkably affordable, and would be the perfect introduction to the country's version of Champagne. It's dry, complex, and elegant; best paired with pan con tomate, aged cheeses, and salmon tartare. 

4. étoile Brut & étoile Rosé, Napa, California

Just like Taittinger, Moët & Chandon has a California outpost: Domaine Chandon. They produce excellent and affordable sparkling wines under the Chandon label, but they also produce a few exceptional (and a bit more expensive) sparkling wines under their étoile label. You absolutely cannot go wrong with either the Brut or Rosé and, as an added bonus, these beautiful bottles make a great host or hostess gift!

5. Ca' del Bosco NV Cuvee Prestige Brut, Franciacorta, Italy

Italy is known for Prosecco, which can lack complexity and be too sweet for many. Franciacorta, however, is Italy's best kept secret in sparkling wine. Winemakers in this region are deeply passionate about their product and this particular bottle is fresh, crisp, and balanced. 

6. Tissot NV Cremant du Jura Brut, Jura, France

This is one of my favorites. Since Champagne is a very protected term, it can only be used on wines produced in the region of Champagne in France. However, if you exit Champagne and take a few turns, you can find comparable French sparkling wines, using the traditional method, for 1/2 or 1/3 of the price! A French sparkling wine made outside of Champagne will be called "crémant" and list the region where it is produced. There are many wonderful crémants from the Loire Valley, Burgundy, and Alsace, but this one here is a little off the beaten path. It is from Jura, which is sandwiched between Burgundy and Switzerland. This bio-dynamic wine is unique, expressive, and aromatic. At less than $25, it's a steal!

Sparkling-Poached Pears

It seems like every New Year's Eve gathering produces a handful of half-empty (or half-full, if you're trying to look on the bright side of the new year) bottles of sparkling wine left around the house. Just because a wine has lost its bubbles is no reason to toss it out the door... 

Poached pears are such an elegant dessert that can be made in advance and couldn't be simpler. It just requires peeling the pears, throwing everything into one pot, and letting it simmer. I love red pears, but you can choose your favorite firm pears. 

Ingredients

5 or 6 small pears, peeled
2 cups water
1 3/4 cups sugar
1/3
 cup honey
pinch of sea salt

1 bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine
1 cinnamon stick
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise 

Method

1. Using a knife, cut a tiny bit off the bottom of each pear. This allows you to serve it standing up without it rolling over.

2. In a large saucepan or pot (just large enough to hold all the pears), combine the water, sugar, honey, and salt. Over medium heat, stirring occasionally, allow the sugar and honey to melt completely. The liquid should be clear.

3. Add the sparkling wine, cinnamon, and vanilla bean to the pot. Return to low-medium heat and bring to a simmer.

4. Place the pears in the liquid and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the pears are soft and tender, making sure to rotate the pears and stir the liquid occasionally. Remove the pears and transfer to a plate to cool.

5. Adjust the heat to medium-high and boil the poaching liquid for another 15 to 20 minutes, until it has reduced and thickened to the consistency of syrup. It should coat the back of a spoon.

Discard the cinnamon stick and vanilla bean. Serve each pear in a shallow bowl and spoon some of the syrup over each pear. Serve with vanilla ice cream (or, better yet, cinnamon gelato) and a glass of sparkling wine!

Note: If you can't find any small pears, use whatever you can. Just keep in mind that bigger pears will require a longer cooking time. To test for doneness, insert a butter knife or fork into the bottom of a pear. If it goes in easily and feels soft and tender, they're done! 

Cheers and Happy New Year!

Coffee and Fedoras: A Weekend in Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon is impossible to describe. I won't even try. Let's just say that it's awesome and you should probably go sometime. I like to think of Portland as a lovechild of Denver and Boulder, Colorado with infinitely worse weather...but, you know, in a good way. 

In my opinion, much of the country's greatest wine comes from an area just south of Portland, the Willamette Valley, and I have to say that it's nice when my itinerary contains fun adventures in both food and wine.

The Wine

While there are many other wine regions in Oregon, the Willamette Valley is the most popular. Just a short drive south of Portland, this region can produce some of the best pinot noir and chardonnay around; not to mention some of the country's best pinot gris and riesling. The Willamette Valley is often compared to the Burgundy wine region in France; I suppose because the climates are somewhat similar and they are known for producing wines from the same grapes. While worthy of the comparison, this region is also worthy of standing on its own. They are so well-known for their pinot noir that the International Pinot Noir Celebration draws wine lovers from all over the globe annually! 

One winery that offered a surprise was Argyle Winery in Dundee. While they have an excellent riesling, their sparkling wine was equally wonderful. I have a thing for sparkling wine and I also have a thing for finding excellent local sparkling wines that are comparable to Champagne. This is one of those wines. 

Back to pinot noir, here were some of my favorite tastes:

Penner-Ash (they also have an excellent riesling) in Newberg, OR
Ponzi Vineyards in Sherwood, OR
Cameron Winery in Dundee, OR

Portland is also home to some very well-known breweries, including Rogue Ales & Spirits and Deschutes Brewery, but one of my favorites happens to be Hopworks Urban Brewery because they brew (mostly) organic and sustainable beer. Oregon, in general, is known for hoppy beers and I'd guess that this has something to do with the fact that the Cascade hop (a very popular variety of hops) was developed in Oregon!

The Food

This city is definitely not suffering from a shortage of good food! Portland does, however, suffer from one thing: there are so many amazing restaurants and products and some have gotten so popular that they've expanded far beyond a local little storefront. In a hipster town, this is viewed as negative. Places like Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Pok Pok have expanded nationally, but that doesn't mean they are any less desirable or delicious. So, yes, some of my recommendations in Portland also have locations elsewhere. I'm not apologizing.

One place that I will say to avoid is Voodoo Doughnuts. This little doughnut shop has amassed such a following that people now wait in line for an hour or more just to buy a doughnut! They show up on just about every "What to Do/Eat/See in Portland" list on the internet and their doughnuts are fine, but I will never say that they are so much better than anywhere else or that they are worth waiting in that line. I am beginning to think the only draw these days is just to take a photo of the cute pink box and share it on Instagram. Do yourself a favor: skip the line and head over to Blue Star Doughnuts. Delicious. Amazing. You won't be sorry.

But, I ask, what is a doughnut without coffee?  Stumptown Coffee Roasters produces an excellent cup of coffee and you can't go wrong, but if you want to try something new, head over to Coava or Courier Coffee.

Pok Pok, Portland

Pok Pok, Portland

One of my favorite meals was at Pok Pok - Andy Ricker's famous Thai paradise. My advice is to get there early for lunch to avoid a wait. I have the unfortunate habit of asking for things "extra spicy" because, let's face it, I just like to play with fire. A place like Pok Pok doesn't mess around with that request, so if you find that your mouth has been engulfed in flames, you may find joy in walking across the street to Salt & Straw ice cream. If you think you've had good ice cream, reassess after visiting Salt & Straw. Their flavors are always changing and evolving, but I am partial to the Arbequina Olive Oil or Honey Lavender. 

Le Pigeon is no doubt an excellent (and very popular) meal, but their more casual bistro, Little Bird, is absolutely excellent and also my preferred dinner spot. Clyde Common is another great choice for either brunch or dinner. Their food and cocktails were some of the best in the city!

If you're looking for something a little different, try Andina for dinner, which is one of my favorite Peruvian restaurants. I'm a real sucker for Peruvian food and I love to find it done so well. Andina's grilled octopus is addicting and their sangria goes down a little too easily - you can catch both items on happy hour, too! 

If you love local charcuterie, you must head over to Olympic Provisions, which is a great food shop and casual restaurant. 

Don't forget to look up every once in a while to take in the gorgeous mountains, green trees, and bridges over the Willamette River. Portland is a town for walking and biking, so ditch the car and take in the scenery!

Stopping in the Middle: A Weekend in Paso Robles Wine Country

Smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles and San Francisco lies the quirky Central Coast. Most people stop to tour the famed Hearst Castle, but among many towns to explore, Paso Robles seems to be the one to offer the best food, wine, and all-around activity. This tiny little town is now busting at the seams with hundreds of wineries, great restaurants, and some simply breathtaking scenery.

The Wine

Paso Robles has some wonderful and underrated wines. This California AVA is well-known for Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Rhône varietals like Syrah, Viognier, and Roussane. One of the most popular Rhône-style wineries is Tablas Creek Vineyard, but there are so many others to choose from. My favorite wines from Paso are almost always red blends and there seems to be a new one for me to try every time I go to the store. As funny as it may sound, the local Albertson's supermarket actually has the best (and most affordable) selection of local wine. It seems like the one thing Paso Robles is missing is a great wine shop, but I suppose it's just as easy to buy directly from the wineries when you're there!

I don't think it's fair to give a list of the "best" wineries in the area because there are so many great choices. The best thing to do is head over to the PasoWine and  Travel Paso websites to map out your wine tasting route. Pick a route and taste as much as you can! Hint: head west on the 46 towards Cambria for exquisite views of the valley and Morro Bay. While you're on the 46, be sure to stop in to Jack Creek Farms for awesome local produce and other goods. 

The view driving on the 46-W from Paso Robles 

The view driving on the 46-W from Paso Robles 

Moonstone Beach, Cambria

Moonstone Beach, Cambria

The colors of Moonstone Beach

The colors of Moonstone Beach

One thing I will say, because it's unique, is that Villacana Winery & Vineyard also happens to run a distillery. Yep, Re:Find Distillery distills spirits from their wine grapes! How cool is that? One tasting includes all of their wines and spirits and it is entirely worth it. I absolutely love finding local spirits and they make a great gin, or "botanical brandy". 

The Town

When I visit a new town, I love to be walking distance to everything, but there is no way around needing a car to tour the wineries. Still, staying downtown is the best option for me to be able to stroll through the cute boutiques and have a bite to eat somewhere. 

Hotel Cheval is a lovely sixteen-room hotel right in the center of town and also happens to be the nicest place to stay downtown. Paso Robles Inn is an equally great location, right off the park, but a bit more affordable. Hotel Cheval also happens to be home to the Pony Club, a great little wine bar where you can sample local wines and maybe even get a cheese and charcuterie board to snack on. In addition, they've recently opened Paso's only gourmet food store, Haymarket, where you can grab a cup of coffee or some snacks for the road. 

When you're finished at Haymarket, head around the park and stop in to the beautiful AndBe Boutique and the Paso Underground tasting room. If you're looking for some local goodies to take home, The General Store is a great spot filled with local foods, crafts, and plenty of unique items. 

The Food 

The downtown area has grown over the past few years and is home to some of the best restaurants in the area. The premier restaurant in town is Artisan and I would confidently recommend it for brunch, lunch, or dinner. The menu is as local as can be, with many of the ingredients coming from the chef's own farm, and they have an inspiring commitment to non-GMO and organic ingredients. The bar is equally intriguing, with local wine on tap and scrumptious bar snacks. 

La Cosecha Bar + Restaurant is my other favorite here. The cocktails are the best in town and they are also a solid choice for brunch, lunch, or dinner. Keep in mind: they are also open late! What more can you ask for after a full day of wine tasting?

The new upscale Mexican restaurant, Fish Gaucho, is a great casual spot for reliable food. From a simple taco and a beer to beautiful ceviche and lobster enchiladas, their food is fantastic. They also make margaritas to order, the right way, with organic agave and fresh lime juice. Make sure to go during happy hour to take advantage of the $5 house margaritas!

When you are north of downtown, wine tasting off of Highway 46 E, food options are pretty slim. Luckily, the brand-new Mistura restaurant (hidden in the River Oaks Golf Course) offers delicious Peruvian food in a beautiful setting. Their ceviche, alpaca carpaccio, and beef hearts are all top sellers - and they have an impressive wine and cocktail list as well!

If you're in the mood for a simple non-brunchy breakfast, you can't beat the popular Cowgirl Café. And don't forget to stop into the great antique shops next door! You'll find steals that just don't exist in L.A. or San Francisco.

Spearhead Coffee, Paso Robles

Spearhead Coffee, Paso Robles

If you've had too much wine and are in need of a change of pace, Pasolivo Olive Oil is a fun stop and is conveniently nestled between the wineries off of highway 46. You can sample all of their wonderful olive oils (the Kitchen Blend is my personal favorite), salts, and other local goodies. If it's more alcohol you need, head over to Barrelhouse Brewing just south of town and relax on their lawn in an adirondack chair...oh, and the beer is great, too! 

Currently, my favorite coffee in the entire Central California area is Scout in San Luis Obispo, but Paso Robles has just opened a beautiful new hipster coffee shop: Spearhead Coffee! If you need a morning jolt, look no further than Spearhead, right across the street from the park. 

Either way you look at it, Paso Robles has something to offer that Napa just doesn't: unpretentious quaintness. Also, if you're coming from Southern California, it's a heck of a lot closer to drive to Paso than to Napa!

A vineyard sunset in Paso Robles

A vineyard sunset in Paso Robles