Volunteering at the California State Fair Wine Competition – 2009

THE CHAMPAGNE TEAM - Norma, Alice, Glenn, Me and Jerry

THE CHAMPAGNE TEAM - Norma, Alice, Glenn, Me and Jerry

This year, I had the honor of being the Captain of the Champagne Squad at the California State Fair wine Competition.  This is perhaps the most prestigious of the wine competitions in California.  To enter, the wines must come from California.  This year there were over 2600 wines entered from almost 600 wineries.  The prize?  The coveted “Double Gold” (where every judge on the panel rates the wine a gold), the “Gold” medal, the “Silver” medal and the “Bronze” medal.  Judges come from all over the wine spectrum; from wine makers, to winery owners, to writers, to restaurant owners, etc.  All judges must demonstrate the sensitive taste palate necessary to discern the subtle characteristics of the wine maker’s efforts.  Judges are subjected to intense tasting over a three day period starting around 9:00 every morning and finishing in the early afternoon.  This is quite an undertaking with around three volunteers for every judge.  I was particularly impressed with the dynamic nature of the volunteer team.  Although they only work together this one time every year, they come together to make a seamless event.  There are volunteers that can claim to have been involved with this event for over twenty years.  Makes me feel young with only three years under my belt.  I have made many friends over these three years and have reacquainted with old friends.  One of the judges was one of my college professors at UC Davis in the late seventies, one I work with every year at the ZAP conference in San Francisco and two were friends from the Society of Wine Educators.  It’s amazing how small our world really is.  In any case, this year I was able to direct the Champagne Squad, with the responsibility to pour the right Sparkling Wine ( as is now referred) at the right time and the right way to show the beverage at it’s finest.  This is the only squad to perform “live pours” for the judges.  A live pour is where the wine is poured directly in front of the judge.  All other wines are poured in a separate room from the judges and then delivered.  Champagne is different because the carbonation and cooler serving temperatures are critical to the flavor profiles.  All in all, a great experience.  Not only to be involved in such a great event, but to be associated with such a highly talented volunteer team.  Life is just a great place to be!

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Greek Wines on a come back

Greek wine waiting to be tastedThe Greeks were one of the first to commerically export wines around the civilized world.  However, history was not kind to the Greek wine makers with occupations from civilizations not favorable to the art of wine making.  It was not until the 1960’s that the art returned to this ancient country.  Embracing the uniqueness of the land and weather, this new generation has reacquainted with the historic Greek vines such as Moschofilero, Roditis, Asyrtiko, Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro, Kotsifali and Mandilaria as well as adding more internationally recognized vines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and even Semillon.  On Sunday, I had the opportunity to attend a food and wine pairng of Greek wines by Tom Martin.  Tom gives an excellent history and accounting of these historic wines and brings you up-to-date with some excellent wines.  If you can find one of his seminars, it is worth attending.  Greek wines are characteristically high acid and low fruit making them excellent for food pairing.  Initially, white wines dominated with 65% of the production but now there is a rough 50/50 split with the reds.  My own personal favorite?  I have discovered Agiorgitiko.  This is perhaps the Beaujolais of the Greek red wines.   Mild, low fruit, easy to drink, mild tannin, just a great wine to drink with mild to low intensity foods.  If you have not experienced Greek wines due to their rightly deserved history, then now is the time to give them a new chance.  You will be surprised.  They have come that far and are worthy of sharing a meal with you…OPAH!

Wine and food dinner, Laguna Culinary Arts & Tablas Creek Winery

The menu for the night
The menu for the night

Our good friends, Jeff and Annette are BIG fans of the Tablas Creek Winery.  In addition, Jeff and I have taken a few culinary classes at  Laguna Culinary Arts.  So, when he saw that the they were going to have a food and wine pairing dinner featuring the culinary skills of Laguna’s Executive Chef Laurent Brazler and the fine wines of Tablas Creek, Jeff just had to go.  To top it off, since it was my birthday weekend, he made it a gift.  So, on Saturday, Jeff, Annette, Mary and I went off for what turned out to be a memorable wine and food pairing.  The Culinary Arts kitchen is located in the beautiful Laguna Canyon.  The national sales manager, Tommy, from Tablas Creek was there to greet and educate us on the wines of the evening.  The executive chef Laurent spoke to us between every course making our mouths water in anticipation.  This had to be be one of the best food and wine parings we have ever attended.  The food from Chef Laurent was well constructed.  His delicate sauces accented the main element of each dish yet allowed to taste of that main element to come through.  It is a special form of cooking that is hard to achieve.  The pairing with Tablas Creek’s Rhone style wines was done such that both the wines and food shown well.  Although all the dishes were well received and wonderful, most of us kept talking about the Black Mussel soup.  A great creamed puree that was both delicate and flavorful at the same time.  In all fairness however, all the courses and pairing were favorites to someone that night.  The wines were typical of Tablas Creek, well developed and even though young, paired well and gave a glimpse to how great they will be in a few years after some more aging.  These wines are noted for aging well for years.  We all walked away from the evening very impressed and are committed to checking out the next offering.  Chef Laurent gave us a magnificent dinner worthy of any fine restaurant and developed the dishes to take the most advantage of the high quality Tablas Creek Wines.  We are even bigger fans of both now than before the event.  What a great birthday present. 

Tuna a la Nick Saturday Night

Seared Tuna with marinated cucumber salad and couscous
Seared Tuna with marinated cucumber salad and couscous

While Mary and I were shopping Saturday afternoon, a nice selection of Tuna steaks caught Mary’s eye and she immediately new what she wanted for dinner.  My challenge now was to figure our how I wanted to prepare the tuna and then build a dinner around the main course.  I traveled to my local grocery store for provisions to match the expectations and decided on a sesame pepper encrusted seared Tuna topped with a garlic- shallot-soy reduction, accompanied with a cucumber salad marinated in rice vinegar, basil and salt.  As a starch, I added a seasoned couscous.  The recipe follows:

Salad:  remove the skin from a cucumber and then, using a peeler, cut long strips down to the seeds.  Collect the strips in a medium bowl adding a 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar, two teaspoons basil and a pinch of salt.  Stir and place in the refrigerator.

Couscous:  Saute a chopped clove of garlic and a chopped shallot in olive oil.  In a medium pan, boil 1 cup of water.  When the water boils, add the garlic-onion mixture, a pinch of salt, about 1/2 teaspon olive oil with a cup of couscous.  Stir, cover and remove from the heat.  Allow to set for at least 5 minutes.

Tuna:  Now the main course.  Rub the steaks with olive oil and then season liberally with sesame seeds and fresh ground pepper.  Place the steaks in a hot saute pan with olive oil that is just smoking over a medium-high heat.  Cook on one side for about 2 minutes and turn and cook for another two minutes or until the middle is warm, (not cooked).  Remove the Tuna to a warming oven.  Add chopped garlic and shallots to the pan and saute.  Deglaze with dry white wine and then add soy sauce for volume.  Slice the Tuna against the grain of the meat and plate.  Drizzle the pan sauce then add the salad and couscous.

Overall:  Wow, what a meal.  The Tuna was flavorful with an accent of the seasonings complemented by a nice contribution of the tart cucumber salad and the mediterranean influence of the couscous.  Served with a nice Foley Chardonnay and we had a meal worthy of a night out.  This is a very quick meal requiring minimal cooking.  The prep takes the longest and that is just to chop a few items.  Very impressive for guests.  As a variation, try pan searing the tuna for only about 1 minute on each side and then move to a hot outdoor grill and finish.  The heat of an open fire will add a toasting to the meat and the added grill marks always looks good on the plate.  Enjoy!

Wine and Food Pairing Dinner – A Benefit Function for CHOC

Jeff and Nick presenting the offerings for the eveining

Jeff and Nick presenting the offerings for the evening

A few years ago, Jeff, Annette, Mary and I got together to see if we could find something to donate to a fund raiser for our local high school grad night.  After looking at a few ideas, we came across the concept of combining Jeff’s great cooking skills with my interest in wine.  Mary and Annette would take care of the place settings, decorations and literature. Soon, we had put together a complete Wine and Food Pairing Dinner for ten people.  All the highest bidder had to do was supply the house, dining room table, kitchen and the ten guests.  We would bring everything else and leave the home the way we found it.  The dinner was an instant success and we have done a few of them now with each one earning more than the other.  They were all great income sources for the high school grad night.  As it turns out, one of our previous winners, Valerye, who has been helping raise funds for CHOC Hosptial for many years,  approached us about offering one of our dinners for an upcoming auction.  For such a noble cause, we all agreed and the wine and food pairing dinner was auctioned off at a record $1600 (the highest one sold as yet).  This brings us to Saturday night, 10/25.  With the invaluable help of our mutual great friends Bob and Edie, we all traveled to Lido Isle to deliver our dinner.  Kathy and Eric were the hosts who offered their lovely home on the island.  Jeff, Annette, Mary and I had met a couple weeks earlier to decide the wines needed and what foods we needed to do the pairing effects we were trying to achieve. 

The wine and food for the night

The wine and food for the night

 As usual, Jeff’s culinary skills shown brightly and the food was absolutely perfect to show the wines at their best, helping to teach the lessons.  His recipes can be found here at Jeff’s Website.  I have also included a copy of the menu we gave out at the dinner so you can see the food and wine that was offered.  Our ten guests were absolutely perfect for this type of wine class.  They were open to the experience, open to trying new things, wanted to learn about wine and were just a delight to have a dinner with. They were all good, positive people who love life and enjoy an opportunity to learn in a positive, fun setting.  They were qiuck learners and soon had caught on to the impact of food on wine acid balance, the impact of sweetness, spice, tannin, salt and even texture.  They soon picked up on how to bridge red wines into traditionally white wine dishes with the creative use of salt and good saucing.  There was even the great joy of exposing some people to wines they had never considered before.   We even were able to show how a “rip your face off Cabernet Sauvignon” is a delightful accompaniment with a delicious bittersweet chocolate cake.  The shock value was worth the evening.  Our great friends, Bob and Edie were invaluable in helping us set up and support during the event.  They even donated some of their instructive Wine Puzzle books (which Edie wrote and autographed) and some of their all wood puzzles from their website, Wine Treasures.  Please check them out.  Afterwards our guests asked if we would offer our Wine and Food Pairing Dinner at another fund raiser for CHOC.  We gladly accepted the opportunity to help such a great cause.  In our debriefing, we all agreed that this was the best dinner we have yet put on, not only from the great way Jeff’s food paired with the wines, but so much so because our fantastic guests were so participative and throughly let themselves enjoy the experience.  We were able to get our lessons across, exposed some people to new wines, showed some how to better match food and wine and finally, walked away with some new friends.  Life is just a good place to be!