Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Gruner Veltliner for Christmas?

Best darn rack of pork I've ever had, courtesy of Fima.

On the first day of Christmas... I was going to serve Champagne with dinner. Gruner Veltliner was supposed to be a pre-dinner curiosity drink. But when my mom and I gave the 2008 Forstreiter Gruner Veltliner Schiefer Reserve from Kremstal DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus) a sip, I thought I heard jingle bells. At just under $20 (at WineChateau.com), this wine delivered outstanding QPR this holiday season.

Champagne? What Champagne! The bottle of Gruner lasted us all through the meal. It worked with both the salad (of Romaine lettuce, Brussels sprouts, hard-boiled eggs, pickles, and home-made Caesar style dressing with anchovies, mustard, and olive oil) and with an incredible rack of pork that my step-dad Fima roasted to moist, juicy, savory, sweet perfection!

Gruner Veltliner (or "grooner" or "gru-vee") is the wine grape of Austria. If you think Zweigelt, Zierfandler, and Rotgipfler are too obscure for you, you might actually recognize Gruner. It's a sort of Austria's answer to German Riesling. Austrians make world-class Riesling too, but that's minority of their production.

Gruner Veltiners have great minerality. Completely dry, crisp and clean, without sugar or oak masking anything, the crushed stones in the Austrian wine feel alive, almost like drinking electron-infused mineral water. That, combined with tangy citrus peel, hints of apples and peaches woven into inexplicable complexity with razor-focused acidity makes Gruner a versatile and impressive white wine.

Why would anyone outside of Austria drink Gruner Veltliner? Well, as someone who drinks a lot of wine from around the world, and especially Old World, after dipping into a couple of Gruners over this past weekend, I am a fan. In fact, I would put them into the same league of nobility as Riesling, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. To learn more about the ins and outs of Austrian wines, I recommend Christian Schiller's most informative blog and the official Austrian Wine website.

As much as I like the whites of Italy, especially Friuli, Veneto, and Campania, I have to say - from my recent experiences with Austrian wines, they are starting to earn a spot in my virtual white wine hierarchy alongside Germany, just below France.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Austrian Zierfandler with cured lard - grease it up, porky!

Crab season continues on the Pacific coast. So the morning of Christmas Eve, friends and I headed over to Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay to pick 22 lbs. of live dungeness crabs for an all-day feast. For those interested, my infinitely satisfying, Chinese-inspired simple technique of steaming and devouring crab has been well documented here.

To go with those babies, I brought a random bag of white wines from Austria, Germany, Portugal, and France. Of course, trying to feed Russians with just plain crab is barking up the wrong tree. While the monsters are steaming (I am talking about the crabs), appetizers are demanded, which brings me to the point of this post...

Salo - salt-cured pork fatback (unrendered lard) - with garlic and Russian mustard on Russian rye bread, paired with pungent, strong tasting white wine made from Zierfandler grape cultivated in a small area in Austria. I tell you - I haven't had cured pork lard (pronounced "sahlo" in Russian) for over 20 years, but this darn thing melts in your mouth, even though it has firmer, chunkier texture than butter. It's quite common in Eastern Europe. While vodka is typical with this, for a wine lover you gotta have a strong and fruity wine with good acidity to stand up to the gaminess and thick, buttery texture of the pork lard. In general, anything pork goes well with fruitier wines (Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, etc...) Tasted by itself this unapologetically inelegant, full-bodied Zierfandler bullied my palate with initially slightly barnyardy, strong sense of quince compote and stewed pear. But when paired with salo sandwich, Zierfandler was just the ticket. Just think - "pig and quince" - doesn't that make sense?! Thus re-affirming my age-old point - don't write a wine off without food. Think of wine as an ingredient. The right pairing makes all the difference!

Note: a few places online sell Stadlmann's Zierfandler (exported in tiny quantities), but if you want to get your hands on salo, head over to a Russian / Eastern European deli, and upon mentioning it, you will be received with respectful nods of approval like a real insider.

Ah, what a way to start a crab fest, the Russian-Austrian way!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Franciacorta with seafood and gossip at the Old Port Lobster Shack

On the heels of a great Champagne tasting this weekend at Santana Row's Vintage Wine Merchants, I was itching for more sparkles. Kudos to Vintage for putting together an excellent line-up of Champagnes for a meager $40 ($25 for members) - they certainly packed the shop, and the punters were not disappointed.

This was the first time I had the 1999 Dom Perignon, and it was probably my fave Dom P, showing the classical well-developed nuttiness. Compared to it, the just released 2002 was too young and simple at this stage. Other notables were the always reliable and incredibly inexpensive Hiedsieck & Co "Blue Top" ($25-30), the elegant Delamotte ($35, Salon's little sibling), and the well-regarded higher-end Champagnes by Pol Roger (Reserve), Egly-Ouriet (Brut Tradition Grand Cru), and Gosset (Brut Grand Reserve).

That was Sunday. On Monday, my faith in Champagne re-affirmed, it was now Italy's turn to impress.

I am a big fan of Franciacorta. Italy's answer to Champagne, it can be every bit as profound. Made in the traditional method (aka Champagne method) where the second fermentation and ageing on the lees take place in bottle, Franciacorta can evolve beautifully over many years, especially vintage examples, and can also be enjoyed young. Last night my wine/tennis group had a re-union (after I tore my achilles tendon earlier this year) at our local de-facto standard seafood hole-in-the-wall - the legendary Old Port Lobster Shack in Redwood City. To grease the wheels, we brought two of the most highly regarded Franciacorta producers - Bellavista and Ca'del Bosco. And the good news - Franciacorta, although being unknown in the non-wine circles, is readily available in this country. I got mine from WineChateau.com (Bellavista and Ca'del Bosco). Seafood, fries and sparkling wine - how can you go wrong with that combo?!

We didn't. The Lobster Shack's naked lobster roll is fabulous, and their beer-battered fish and chips are out of this world. But the dish that both Franciacortas really shone with was steamed mussels - petite, tender, flavorful in a great broth begging for dipped bread. Eric suggested that the wine really brought out the minerally tones in the mussels. I thought it went well even with the creamy New England clam chowder - another not-to-be-missed beauty from the Shack.

I gotta say - on a relatively quiet Monday night, we spent three hours chilling at this characterful joint. The folks there, especially the hostess Shay, are so friendly, she reminded me of my mom. Everyone had a great time, and with tongues un-tied, we reminisced of the old tennis follies and the crazy things that happen in the wine circles, such as the saga that followed my Sojourn post.

Bellavista is an old classic Franciacorta producer, and their non-vintage cuvee was a more serious expression than Ca'del Bosco's floral and lemony entry level cuvee "Presige" - an all-time dependable friend, that I always keep stocked in my cellar. Just for the heck of it, we followed with beers, and agreed that Franciacorta was a better, lighter, more elegant match. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Chateau Musar from Lebanon, Brunello, Les Amoureuses, and food

Did you know that Condrieu is lovely with beet/tomato puree soup with goat cheese crostini? Especially a not too heavy Condrieu, like 2008 DePoncins by Francois Villard. But it also has enough depth, fruit and acid to stand up to bacon-infused chicken liver paté with burrata over a pea-shoot salad. I learned that bacon really is magical with liver. Silly me, how could I not haven known?!

Of course you knew that fresh tagliatelle pasta with beef ragu and truffle oil, livened by a splash of fresh parsley, goes perfectly with Brunello di Montalcino, especially this excellent 2001 from La Mannelle!

And you could have known that a 1999 Chambolle-Musigny "Les Amoureuses" would be a fantastic wine from one of the best vineyards in Burgundy from an excellent vintage. There is just nothing in the New World of Pinot Noir that tastes as good as this (sorry Willamette, Russian River, Santa Rita Hills, New Zealand and co.)! But did you know that Chateau Musar - the best producer in all of Lebanon (yes, Lebanon!) would go so intoxicatingly with a savory chicken tagine? 1999 (blend of Cinsault, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon) Musar is made in a lighter style that matches the middle-eastern dish and is showing great at 11 years of age. And it is a relatively affordable wine (under $50/btl, with new releases under $30) that impresses wine newbies and geeks alike!

Thanks Sandy for hosting this wonderful birthday dinner for our dear friend!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Baby why don't we go... down to Coconuts, with Cotes-du-Rhone

Aruba Jamaica ooh I wanna take ya
Bermuda Bahama come on pretty mama
Key Largo Montego baby why don't we go...

Off Ramona street in Palo Alto, there's a place called Coconuts. That's where you wanna go to get away from it all! (remember Beach Boys?)

Oh those hearty delicious Caribbean flavors! Makes me feel on vacation every time. They have "di small tings", "di big tings", all kinds of "tings" :)!

The place is perfect for family style eating, and passing a magnum around like in a communal wine. The wine pairing is not always easy with that jerk-laden, spicy, peppery, limey, sweet, beany, and all-kinds-of-other-flavors filled cuisine. But the 2009 Saint Cosme Cotes-du-Rhone 100% Syrah-based magnum tames those "tings" like a crusty old cowboy. The wine basically tastes like the liquid version of the Caribbean food - hearty, spicy, sweet-and-sour, thick and satisfying. Not sophisticated (and you can hardly expect that from a basic Cotes-du-Rhone), but neither is the food, the wine is sure as heck worth $30 a magnum. Gotta love St. Cosme - always a great value and never a disappointment. Drinking out of a magnum is not only a lotta fun, but it allows to greet your friends at home with the wine, cheese and charcuterie, and then "bridge" the remainder over to the restaurant. And you might not even get charged corkage. Enjoy!

All of the above were delicious and highly recommended. From top to bottom, left to right: start at home with 2009 Saint Cosme Cotes-du-Rhone magnum with cheese and charcuterie. Then off to Coconuts: Chef Sampler Platter (Ackee Rolls, Mini Patty, Crab dip, Jerk Wings), Fried Plantain, Shrimp Creole (Gulf White Shrimp roasted in Sofrito Sauce, Tomato, Plantain Tostones), Tun Cornmeal Cakes (Caribbean Style Polenta Cake with Stewed Okra, Kabocha Squash, Lentil), Six-hour braised oxtail.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bill Harlan's Bond - the lure of something you can't have

A 2007 article in Decanter Magazine quoted Don Weaver, Harlan Estate manager, saying "I guess it's the lure of people wanting something they can’t have" as the likely reason for the multi-year waiting list for the ultra-expensive Harlan Estate Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, California's top so-called "cult wine" (along with Screaming Eagle). If Harlan Estate's top Bordeaux blend sells for $400-1000 a bottle (under $300 for loyal members), its sister winery - Bond - makes single-vineyard "thoroughbreds" that go for $250 and up.

A 2001 article by Food & Wine Magazine paints a picture of Harlan Estate's founder Bill Harlan (and his team that includes famous international wine consultant Michel Rolland) as a man of vision, with a multi-generational view of how what he does today lays the groundwork for the future. A man who allows time for the right things to emerge and evolve, and a philosopher clearly not after a quick return. In the article "Harlan agrees that there are too many overpriced wines being sold right now, but says he is confident that the market will sort itself out. And when will that be? 'Sooner or later,' comes the enigmatic reply. Harlan the philosopher knots his fingers together and smiles: 'Sooner or later we'll get back to simplicity, a simplicity that's on the other side of complexity, an informed simplicity, if you will. That's what I'm looking to achieve. That's what I'm after.'"

In his 2006 book A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine a renowned wine writer Jay McInerney wrote: "Harlan Estate was the first of the cult Cabernets that swept into the Napa Valley in the nineties like guerrillas coming down from the hills, challenging the preeminence of such valley-floor aristocrats as Mondavi and Heitz. Less than two decades later it's a classic, the most consistently celebrated and coveted Napa Cab of them all. Meanwhile, owner Bill Harlan and winemaker Bob Levy have been creating a new wine - or, rather, three new wines [at the time of the writing] - along with what may be a new paradigm or, at the very least, a new name to make connoisseurs and collectors salivate. The name is Bond. [James Bond :)]." No, actually the name Bond is Bill Harlan's mother's maiden name. It's also symbolic of his commitment and tie to the land, to the growers, to the vision. Who are the others in this elite "newcomer cult" club? According to the team at Bond, it's the likes of Araujo, Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family, and Colgin.

The rolling hills and vineyards of Harlan Estate.

Enoch and I come out of my bimmer, gaze at the tastefully stately estate, take in the stunning views of the Napa Valley below, and see a trio coming our way. Paul Roberts is a type of guy who greets you with a chilled bottle of Krug. Next to him, Cory Empting - the winemaker, and Mary Maher - the vineyard manager, welcoming.

"I didn't know you make Krug here too", I jest. The way Paul handles the bottle, I can tell he is a master som. Before this job, he was a wine director for Thomas Keller restaurant group. The darn Champagne is awesome. "I am glad I got a few of these in my cellar", I think to myself as I sip. The smile is already stretching across my face, the groove is on. Two minutes into the visit to Bond, I like these folks, and I can tell this is gonna be fun!

Bill Harlan owns 240 acres of these lands. Harlan Estate and Bond Estate are just a rolling hill apart. Bill and wife Deborah live on top of the next hill over. The magic earth makes ultra-premium bottle of Napa cab that would qualify for Grand Cru if such a French notion ever took hold in Napa. We walk the facilities, noticing different kinds of fermentation vessels - stainless steel, large wooden vats, regular small barrels, applied depending on the vineyard. We sip more Krug, as we absorb the ethos of Bond.

From left to right: Cory Empting, the Bond winemaker, Mary Maher, the vineyard manager, Paul Roberts, the estate director, and yours truly Iron Chevsky.

Six great vineyards of Napa. Five found. One to be discovered. The vision inspired by DRC's six reds - Echezeaux, Grands Echezeaux, Romanee-St-Vivant, Richebourg, La Tache, Romanee-Conti. Bond's Melbury, Veccina, St. Eden, Pluribus. It's taken Bill and his team 12 years to confirm the fifth - Quella, which debuted in 2006. Many other vineyards they had invested in dearly did not achieve. Paul hinted that the sixth and final vineyard may be revealed in the next three years. Gripping.

Upstairs we settle down to taste all five from 2006 and soon-to-be-released 2007. It is obvious to me they sit between Bordeaux and Napa. None of the jammy, raisiny, over-the-top, oak monstrosities that typify "Napa cab". The 2006's have great purity, juiciness and decent acidity that I've always appreciated in Bond (albeit less than in Ridge or a typical Bordeaux). The wines are concentrated, plush, perfumey, particularly the Melbury and Pluribus, with well integrated oak. I am blown away when Paul flexes his sommelier muscles by suggesting specific pairings for each of the vineyards. "People go for 'slab and a cab'", he laments. "But try Melbury with bird - squab, duck or turkey", he says. It is unexpected, but it makes sense, because the wine is the most open, soft and fruity of the bunch. "Quella - with flavors of the ocean (!!!) like eel poached in red wine with lardons!" Quella is less aromatic than Melbury, but I love its complex flavors of mint, herbs, minerals, and hints of dry seaweed - maybe that's what Cory and Paul meant by oceany. St. Eden tastes of spice. "Pair it with braised meats with rosemary, thyme, and olives. Or Rib-eye. It could be used in the same context as Southern Rhones." Veccina is very round and plush, but with stronger tannins, menthol and dry herbs. "It works like a Brunello", suggests Paul. "Try it with New York strip." Pluribus is dense, open, fragrant, tasting of sweet root vegetables, black fruits, and pepper spice. "Have it with lamb or cheese". I gobble a few chunks of the hard but creamy Bonati Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and sip the wine - delicious! (Note to self: pair Bordeaux varieties with hard cheeses).

"When visitors come to Napa, they get up late when the fog is gone. They come to the winery to adore the views, they taste the wines, they leave in time for gastronomic dinner, they have a charmed image of what we do here", says Paul. "They don't see the variability and the harshness of the night fog, the unfriendliness of this wild terrain. They look up to the blue skies and out to the green rolling hills and valleys. But they don't look down at the earth. The earth is where we focus our energies - it's what gives the distinction and character to our wines. Land before brand!", he exclaims. Next to each single-vineyard bottle of 2006 is a jar of dirt that looks completely different from vineyard to vineyard - different color, different size and texture, different stones. Different!

The 2007 vintage is supposed to be a super-vintage, highly acclaimed by critics, and commanding higher prices. To my palate, those wines are bigger, hotter (more alcoholic), riper, and altogether not ready to drink yet. So powerful are they, in fact, that nuanced vineyard variations are tough to pick out at this stage. In the long term, perhaps they will outperform the quieter 2006, but the likely and sad reality is that most trophy hunters will buy and drink the hyped 2007's very soon. Typically, a Bond will reach its peak at 8 years. A vintage like 2007 may need 12. "Folks who drink them young will maybe get 75% of what the wine could deliver", Paul points out.

"How did you do in 2010?" I ask the Bond winemaker Cory Empting and vineyard manager Mary Maher, both with the winery for over 10 years. "I'd never seen this type of growing season", Cory says. "Colder than normal for most of the season, with a few severe heat waves, and slightly warmer than average toward the very end. Our harvest was delayed by a couple of weeks. We dropped a lot of fruit during the season, to concentrate the berries." (Note to self: it sounds like the wines will be lower alcohol, higher acidity, more transparency - my kind of vintage!) Mary continues: "In September-October, we combed through each vineyard multiple times, hand-picking cluster by cluster only the ripe ones." It reminded me of my conversations with Xavier Planty from Chateau Guiraud of Sauternes - an extremely labor-intensive and expensive process, but one that is essential for achieving the highest quality.

How does one afford to own 240 acres of prime Napa land? How can one sustain such standards of vineyard development, grape growing and wine making? It was Bill Harlan, a real estate developer, who in 1979 bought and transformed the luxurious Meadowood resort on the east side of Napa Valley. In 1983, he helped found the Merryvale winery, where he worked with more than sixty different growers - an experience that opened Bill's eyes to the diversity, specificity, and potential of certain Napa sites to be of "grand cru" quality. Harlan Estate was founded in 1984 with more of Bordeaux sensibility - a single first growth (grand cru) Chateau with adjacent, estate-owned vineyards, blended into the first and second wines. Harlan eventually sold the Merryvale winery but kept its two best vineyards for what was to become Bond's first cru's (Melbury and Veccina). Bond was founded in 1997, with perhaps more of Burgundian sensibility - vinify and bottle separately from each of the estate-owned top growth (grand cru) vineyards from the region.

Everything - decor, wines, people, even labels exude class, restraint, and quiet confidence. The labels are printed using a real old-school United States paper bill press, based on the late-19th century engraved US stamp designs, and made more like money than wine labels. To understand Bill Harlan's obsession with perfection, consider this - so fond was he of the subtle colors of one particular (asked not to be named for security reasons) foreign currency that he bought up the exclusive rights to the color palette. Every Bond label today is printed in those colors, along with anti-counterfeit measures in place. Notice the watermarked letter B at the bottom of the label when the bottle is tilted.

Bill Harlan and his team believe. Their faith is to create not just wines but a legend of Bond, to last through history. "We don't like to be called cult winery, because that suggests a fad, a trend, a temporary phenomenon in time. I worked with Thomas Keller for 5 years, I plan to be here for another 30-40.", says Paul Roberts.

That is the ethos of Bill Harlan. A man of vision.

Related links:
  • For another excellent summary of Bond, I recommend my fellow blogger Alder Yarrow's 2009 article.
  • An in-depth story of Paul Roberts can be read here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

San Francisco Wine School expands French wine program to 2 locations

I've introduced San Francisco Wine School before. I've personally met the highly knowledgeable instructors and attended one of their educational and entertaining classroom sessions. Now that their first semester is coming to a close, they are already picking up steam and expanding to two locations. For those interested in understanding and enjoying more French wine from Bordeaux to Burgundy to Champagne, Loire, Rhone, Beaujolais, Alsace, and Languedoc-Roussillon - regions I often explore on the pages of this blog, this course is highly & deliciously recommended!

Winter 2011 Class Schedule

San Francisco (Tuesday & Thursday 6pm-8:30pm)
Hotel Triton’s Creative Zone

Tue 1/25 (Alsace) & Thu 1/27 (Burgundy)
Tue 2/1 (Beaujolais) & Thu 2/3 (Bordeaux)
Tue 2/8 (Loire) & Thu 2/10 (Champagne)
Tue 2/15 (Rhone)
Thu 2/24 (South of France)
Sat 3/5 FWS Exam (Embassy Suites South SF 11am-12 noon)

South San Francisco (Saturday 10am-4pm)
Embassy Suites

Sat 1/29 (Alsace & Burgundy with 1-hour lunch break)
Sat 2/5 (Beaujolais & Bordeaux with 1-hour lunch break)
Sat 2/12 (Loire & Champagne with 1-hour lunch break)
Sat 2/26 (Rhone & South of France with 1-hour lunch break)
Sat 3/5 FWS Exam (11am-12noon)

Email: fws@sanfranciscowineschool.com
Phone: 415-779-2FWS (415-779-2397)

Click here for registration and more details.

Make sure you tell them you saw this here on the Iron Chevsky Wine Blog. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bordeaux and meat can touch the soul

I bitch and moan about Bordeaux all the time. Mainly because - how often do I eat big hunks of meat?! Not often. But the truth is, I love meat. The craving comes around like the blue moon. And when that meat appetite is upon, my inner werewolf needs a steak and a Bordeaux. Or in the more elevated circles - medium-rare herb-crusted grass-fed beef prime rib on a bone, with au jus and creamy horse radish, with 1989 Ducru-Beaucaillou and 1982 Chateau Pavie - two classical Grand Cru Bordeaux producers' top wines from two top vintages of the 1980's, now in their prime.

Last night, I was reminded of what it's all about. Great people, great food, great wines make great memories that last a lifetime.

It took the hostess Jocelyn and her friend Peter all week of planning and all day of shopping and prep to put together an understated meal that a perfectionist foodie like myself so fully appreciates. It wasn't about haute cuisine or cooking techniques. It was about picking the best ingredients that exist in the Bay Area, and letting them speak for themselves, with minimum intervention, and just a gentle but precise touch of the chef. And let the wines stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those ingredients, like a husband-and-wife, supporting each other, making the whole better than the sum of the parts, and yet allowing each to shine on their own.

We started off with a shot of Stoli Elite vodka (!!!) paired with Russian black and red caviar. Then followed with one of my favorite Champagnes - a 1988 rare vintage Veuve Clicquot - a beautifully energetic, late-disgorged 22 year old Champagne, full of almonds, brioche, yeasty bread, and savory zest that just lifts everything you pair it with, especially the caviar, and the platters of impeccably pure Kumamoto oysters, prawns, and crab claw meat from the classic San Francisco seafood institution Swan Oyster Depot.

The more I experience wine, the more this sort of format appeals to that happy place in my brain and my heart. I don't want a lot of wine. Less is more. It's not about "tasting" through as many bottles as possible. No, it's about picking a wine for each unhurried phase of the meal, and really getting to know it, letting it unfold and tell its intimate story, as it finally concludes its 20-30 year old journey from the earth and the vine, and the hand of the winemaker, through your lips, tongue, and belly to your soul.

The 1989 Ducru-Beaucaillou 2nd Growth Grand Cru Bordeaux was spectacular. Medium body, pure sour cherry and dry flowers and herbs, impeccably balanced between earth and fruit. A beauty, the wine was at its absolute prime. I think I can still smell and taste the memory of it, a day later.

The 1982 Chateau Pavie (which I have written about before) was gorgeous, and very different from Ducru. A right-bank Bordeaux from Saint-Emilion, the legendary Pavie is primarily Merlot. 7 years older, it was noticeably more mature, darker and muskier, evoking images of graphite and pencil lead, forest and mushrooms, perhaps beginning its downward curve now, but still very close to the top. This was a beautifully intellectual as well as gastronomic wine. Both were low 12.5% alcohol -- boy!, they sure did make wonderful Cabs and Merlots in those days without pumping up the alcohol and the density of the wines. The 3rd wine - the 1985 Chateau Lynch-Bages - was kept in reserve. I am sure it would have been another beauty from the successful 1985 vintage. Next time!

Deeply flavorful with melt-in-your-mouth texture, medium-rare herb-crusted grass-fed beef prime rib on a bone. Served with au jus and creamy horse radish, with a side of creamed spinach and baked potato.

The sweet finish came in the shape of two gorgeous, classic San Francisco cakes. The coffee crunch cake from Yasukochi's Sweet Stop was a masterpiece, recipe copied from the original Blum's bakery - an SF legend long gone. Yasukochi's is the only place in town that still makes it, and who knows what happens when the old Japanese owner goes. So hurry - the cake is well worth a drive to Japantown. The second cake - Sacripantina - is the house specialty of the historic San Francisco bakery called Stella Pastry & Cafe in North Beach. The multi-layered creation made with a vanilla sponge cake, zabaione (a delicate custard made with egg yolks, sweet butter, marsala and sherry wine), and rum just melts in your mouth!

The cakes were accompanied by 1977 Fonseca Vintage Port - as great a port as I've ever had (100 points by Wine Spectator, and in this case, I won't argue!) Light bodied yet deep flavored (like a great aged Barolo), incredibly complex yet completely integrated with all the sweet and sour black cherry and blackberry fruit, licorice, and gentle wood and walnut. The port was particularly amazing with the coffee crunch cake.

All four wines we enjoyed that memorable evening were clearly objects for special occasion, with price tags to match. In this holiday season of 2010, what better time and place to splurge than in the company of friends who can truly enjoy and appreciate these gifts of life! Don't think the winemakers would have wished for better fate for the fruits of their labor of love.

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