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Wine & Dine

Winemaker Karl Wente Judges Iron Chef America Battle on December 4

I’m a fan of the Iron Chef America series. I enjoy seeing what some of the best chef’s in the world (and their talented teams) can do with a “mystery” ingredient. The show exposes me to some chef’s and restaurants I’ve not been aware of previously too. I also appreciate the focus on food and the craft of cooking instead of interpersonal drama.

There are two things I don’t see enough of on Iron Chef though: wine and West Coast judges. Perhaps it’s been done, but I’ve never seen Iron Chef America use wine as the secret ingredient. And, while West Coast chefs are frequent contestants — and chefs Elizabeth Faulkner and Michael Chiarello are currently battling on The Next Iron Chef — judges from this region are uncommon. San Francisco’s Martin Yan has made appearances, but he is really focused on Asia. There have been many entertainment celebrities too, some of whom are based in southern California. But they don’t speak to our food scene.

This Sunday, one of those issues will be remedied. There will be two Californian judges for the Holiday Battle between Iron Chefs Morimoto and Michael Symon. The judges will be Karl Wente, winemaker at Wente Vineyards, bi-coastal TV chef and author Candice Kumai plus Iron Chef veteran Donatella Arpaia.

I don’t know the secret ingredient. But it won’t be wine. It’s a shame to bring a winemaker onto the show and not take advantage of his particular expertise. And wine is a versatile ingredient that can be incorporated into both savory and sweet dishes. But Karl Wente is there due to the Food Network’s joint venture with Wente Vineyards on the “entwine” wine label, not because this particular show will have a wine focus.

Karl_Wente_vineyards-cropNonetheless, I think Karl Wente will be more interesting than most of the non-culinary guest judges. He’s got an excellent technical background: a Chemical Engineering degree at Stanford and Masters degrees from U.C. Davis in horticulture/viticulture and food science/enology. He has been in charge of all of the winemaking at his family’s Wente Vineyards for several years. Prior to that, he worked for Peter Michael Winery and at Brown Brothers in Australia.

Fortunately for Iron Chef America viewers, Karl Wente is not just a wine and chemistry geek. I’ve seen him do consumer tours at the winery. He’s well-spoken and doesn’t rely on technical jargon. The kitchen in his backyard, The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, is arguably the best in eastern Alameda County too. It’s current executive chef, Matt Greco, spent the last ten years cooking at top restaurants in Manhattan, including two New York Times 3-star establishments, Café Boulud and A Voce. So, Karl should be able to make astute comments about the Iron Chefs’ dishes.

I’m looking forward to an entertaining show that gives some well-deserved attention to West Coast palates. And maybe, just maybe, there'll be a glass of wine in there somewhere.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. Photo of Karl Wente courtesy of Wente Vineyards. All rights reserved.

Underdog Wine Bar Offers Sophisticated Sipping in Livermore

I can’t help it. Whenever I hear the name Underdog Wine Bar, childhood memories come back. I’m suddenly sitting on the back porch at my grandparents’ house, drinking Cragmont soda and watching a meek shoe-shine dog turn into the meek superhero Underdog just in time to save Polly Pure Bred from Riff Raff.

The Underdog Wine Bar, located at Concannon Winery in Livermore, also has a back porch where you can relax while sipping a tasty beverage. Cragmont soda is not on the menu though. Instead, you can choose from more than 50 wines that are available by the glass (choose two-ounce or six-ounce pours) and by the bottle. The by-the-glass wines are always fresh because the bar features an array of six Enomatic modules that each hold eight bottles. These systems ensure that the wine is at the proper temperature, pours are exactly the right size, and the bottles are kept topped-up with gas to prevent oxidation.


The adventurous and/or budget-minded among you may prefer to order a flight. Flights include two-ounce tastes of three different wines for less than it would cost to buy each taste separately. That said, the prices aat Underdog Wine Bar are very reasonable anyway. The majority of tastes cost just $2 or $3 and there is only one, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, that costs more than $10. Bottle prices are good too, as they are all sold at retail pricing — no markup. Underdog also offers some non-alcoholic beverages and espresso drinks for your designated driver.

One of the key things that distinguishes a wine bar from just another bar with wine is the availability of good food. Ideally, you can order small plates that pair well with the wine you’re drinking. Underdog Wine Bar offers exactly that. The current menu includes five different bar snacks, eight small plates and three desserts. I’ve tasted all of the small plates and found them to be very good.

The Sautéed Crab Cakes ($12), served over mixed greens with champagne vinaigrette were full of sweet crab meat, not loaded with breadcrumb filler as they are so frequently elsewhere. One of my favorite plates is the Grilled Pear and Taleggio Panini ($5). The soft, sweet pear melded perfectly with the creamy and flavorful melted cheese, the panini bread was toasted to just the right level of crunch. I also loved the Miniature Cheeseburgers with creamy cambazola cheese and fried leeks ($8). The plate comes with two of the little burgers and the super-thinly julienned, crispy leeks are deliciously unique. This dish would also be a good match for the 2006 Darcie Kent “Crown Block” Livermore Valley Merlot I reviewed yesterday ($6 taste, $12 glass).

Underdog Wine Bar’s serene and rural exterior — the winery, vineyards and a lovely vista of the Livermore hills — set you up for a surprise. Inside, the bar is smart, sophisticated and polished. You may feel as if you’ve been transported to downtown San Francisco or Los Angeles. Inside, you can sit at the bar or in comfortable leather chairs on the main floor. If you prefer, there is also a lot of seating just outside under the pergola.


While the wine bar recently opened with a soft launch, their Grand Opening celebration is this Saturday, August 14 from noon until 8PM. You can check the place out and get free food samples plus a complimentary pour of wine. There will be live music, trapeze artists and more during the day and a DJ in the evening.

Underdog Wine Bar is open daily from noon to 8PM at 4590 Tesla Road in Livermore. It’s in the middle of the Livermore Valley wine trail, so it’s a great stop for a quick bite in between winery visits or for a few hours of relaxation afterward. And if you live east of the hills and have been wishing for a chic, urban wine bar experience, ”There's no need to fear, Underdog is here!”

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check outour comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Proof that Zinfandel Can Go Very Well with Food

I hear a lot of people say that Zinfandel isn’t good food wine. Perhaps they are drinking the wrong Zinfandel. The fact is that traditional Zinfandel is an excellent wine to drink with a meal. It offers attractive fruit flavors with moderate body and acidity. And when the Zinfandel is blended with compatible grapes, such as Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, and Carignane, the wine is more complex but is still not so delicate that a person need be concerned about overwhelming it with hearty food.

It’s true that these days there are some Zinfandels which are very high in alcohol, heavily oaked and dominated by flavors of over-ripe, even raisined, fruit. As Alton Brown would say, that’s not good eats. Frankly, it’s not necessarily good wine either. But we should not dismiss a whole category of wines based on one subset of its bottlings.

Good Zinfandel is a versatile partner for good food. Its fruit-focused flavors vary based on the region in which it’s grown and the way it’s treated at the winery. Do you want blackberry to go with game, cherry for duck or strawberry for chicken? You can get any of those and more by selecting the right bottle. If you’ve got spicy food, look for a Zinfandel with rich fruit but relatively low alcohol. Tomatoes are notorious for being tough on wine. And most people think only of white wines for seafood. But, if you’re having cioppino (seafood, tomato AND spice) Zinfandel is your wine. And it's fine with grilled salmon too.

But, to paraphrase Dante, the proof of the pairing is in the tasting. Fortunately, there is an easy way to learn more about pairing Zinfandel with food. It’s a learning experience that will delight your taste buds. Go to the Good Eats & Zinfandel Pairing tomorrow night in San Francisco. Part of this weekend's Zinfandel Festival, it is dinner, drinks, live entertainment, and wine education all at the same time.


Good Eats and Zinfandel is a walk-around tasting/grazing. More than fifty Zinfandel wines will be available for tasting. Each will be paired with a complementary dish from a good Bay Area restaurant. There will also be live cooking demonstrations.

You can see the full list of pairings, and buy tickets, at the ZAP website. (ZAP members can purchase discounted tickets.) Scanning through the list has me salivating. Here are a few of the pairings you should make a special point of trying (starting with light dishes and moving toward hearty):

Alexander Valley Vineyards with Sweet Potato Souffle Timbale from Flavor Bistro
Starry Night Winery with Truffled Porcini Tortellinin fro Il Davide Restaurant
McCay Cellars 2007 Truluck with Mushroom Risotto Cake from Wine and Roses
D-Cubed Cellars with Beet, Gaeta Olive and Ricotta Crostini from A16 Restaurant
Gamba Vineyards with Green Tomato BLT from Estate Restaurant
Storybook Mountain Vineyards with Beef Tartare on Crostone from Rose Pistola
Bedrock Wine Company with Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo from Town Hall
J Dusi with Corn and Shrimp Fritters from First Crush Restaurant
Grgich Hills Estate with Bocadillo of Smoked Pork, Romesco, Olive Tapenade and Idiazabal Cheese from Solbar
Rancho Zabaco with Pan-Seared Kobe Flat-Iron with Huckleberry Jam from Equus
Three Wine Company with Zinfandel Risotto of Duck Confit, Mushrooms and Bacon from One Market Restaurant
McCay Cellars Reserve 2009 with Smoked Duck Breast, Cranberry Relish and Dark Chocolate Sauce from Wine and Roses
Scott Harvey Wines with Black Garlic Sauce Beef from Chef Tyler Stone
McCay Cellars 2007 Jupiter with Beef Short Rib, Juniper Berry, Cloves, and Aged Cheddar Polenta from Wine and Roses
Sausal Winery with Short Ribs in Chili-Zinfandel Sauce with Parsnips and Blue Cheese on Potato Crisp from Q Restaurant

With at least 15 “can’t miss” pairings — and there are more — Good Eats & Zinfandel is itself a “can’t miss.” I’ll see you there!

If you enjoyed this article, please share it! Icons for popular sharing services are at the right above and also below.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Drink with Legends, Eat Like a President

President's Day is an odd holiday. Many Americans get the day off work, but there aren't any traditional celebrations or fireworks displays. It falls too soon after Thanksgiving and "The Holidays" for another big family reunion. Mid-February is too cold for barbecues or a day at the beach. There's no scrum at the Hallmark store with people trying to find the perfect card for their favorite... president. President's Day is officially Washington's Birthday, but Abe Lincoln's birthday is just over a week earlier, so George got merged. If it weren't for those desperate car dealership owners dressing up like Washington "to attract people," our founding father wouldn't get any love at all.

All of that being the case, you probably don't have big plans for February 21, 2011, President's Day. But I do. And you can join me as I hobnob with a Who's Who of wine and food. We'll drink great wine, taste foods that have been served at State Dinners and  dishes prepared by celebrity chefs. And we will honor the careers of five people who've had a huge impact not only on California wine, but the global wine business. Doesn't that sound a lot better than a night at home with a glass of whatever's still open in the fridge from Saturday night? Yes, I know that House and The Chicago Code are on. DVR.

The gala event takes place in St. Helena at the Greystone Campus of the Culinary Institute of America (aka CIA). If you've not been there before, it's worth the trip just to check out their facilities.

The occasion is the induction of five new members to the Vintners Hall of Fame. The new inductees are: Joel Peterson (Ravenswood), Dick Graff (Chalone), August Sebastiani (Sebastiani), Bob Trinchero (Sutter Home and Trinchero wineries) and Vernon Singleton (U.C. Davis). For more information about the inductees, see this article.

The featured guest of honor is former White House Chef and CIA graduate Walter Scheib.

Luminaries who have promised to attend include winemakers, vineyard owners, winery proprietors, writers, political leaders and scholars. Here's a partial list: John Aguirre, Gerald Asher, Andy Beckstoffer, Boots Brounstein, Darrell Corti, Randall Grahm, Violet Grigich, Hal Hufsmith, Agustin Huneeus, David Kent, Darioush Khaledi, Robin Lail, Dick Maher, Mike Martini, Carole Meredith, Margrit Mondavi, Gavin Newsome, Joel Peterson, Don Sebastiani, Don Sebastiani Jr., Vernon Singleton, Garen Staglin, Bob Steinhauer, Jack Stuart, Dorothy Tchelistcheff, Mike Thompson, Bob Trinchero, Andrew Waterhouse, Warren Winiarski, and Phil Woodward. There are no velvet ropes at this event. Say "hello," shake their hand, "buy" them a drink.

Festivities start at 4:00 p.m. PST. They include a celebratory reception, featuring wines served at White House dinners, the Vintners Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and a celebrity chef walk-around dinner in the CIA at Greystone’s teaching kitchens.

Proceeds provide scholarships for the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the CIA at Greystone.

Tickets for the program are $175 ($100 tax-deductible) and may be purchased by visiting For more information on the 2011 Vintners Hall of Fame Induction celebration, please contact Cate Conniff-Dobrich, 707-967-2303 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

For more information on the Vintners Hall of Fame and to view the list of former inductees with their photos and biographies, please visit

If you enjoyed this article, please share it! Icons for popular sharing services are at the right above and also below.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check outour comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. Some text from Balzac Communications, used with permission. All rights reserved

Avoiding Hometown Palate aka Throwing a Dinner Party

When Grand Prix motorcycle racers crash and go sliding down the track on their back, they have to be very careful when standing up. Their brain has become accustomed to the high speeds of racing and can trick them into believing that they have stopped moving while they are still sliding at 25 mph. If they tried to stand up at that speed, their boots could catch on the ground flipping them upright and then down, face first, into the pavement very hard. That would be a very painful lesson in the importance of a sound frame of reference.

Tasting wine is a low-speed activity and, as long as one doesn’t overindulge, risk of injury is extremely low. However, having a good and extensive frame of reference is still vital. There is great diversity in California’s grape varieties, terroir and winemaking styles. On the other hand, any Sauvignon Blanc wine from Napa Valley you might try is probably more similar to one from another quality growing area in California than it is to one from Marlborough or Sancerre. I make a concerted effort to taste a wide variety of wines from other parts of the world because those wines provide important points of reference for evaluating the qualities and value propositions for the wines of California. It is also rewarding from a personal standpoint because there are so many great and interesting wines made in other parts of the world.

Fitting “perspective” wines into my schedule can be difficult though. I don’t like to waste wine or money by opening something interesting for a quick sip and then dumping the rest, so there’s only so much I can taste by myself on a routine basis. The most enjoyable way to solve this problem is to throw big dinner parties for friends.

My wife and I did this just the other night. A great time was had by all and we tasted a lot of excellent wines. In preparing the menu, we didn’t obsess over wine pairings either. We just put out a lot of tasty, hearty food and opened wines that would stand up for themselves. It worked out just fine.

Nothing says “welcome” like sparkling wine, so we greeted our guests with Champagne:
NV Gosset Brut Excellence
(12% alc.)
Inexpensive for good Champagne at just $30, the Gosset is refreshingly crisp because it doesn’t go through malolactic fermentation. The freshness makes it an excellent palate cleanser and appropriate for a warm summer evening. It has enough depth of flavor to go well with lightly savory foods.

NV Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé (12% alc.)
Rosé Champagnes are more expensive than their pale counterparts and the Billecart-Salmon, which is among my favorites, sells for around $70. The color is a very pretty salmon pink and the body and flavors are on the light side for rosés, gently crisp rather than creamy. It’s nice to sip its own but still has the heft to go with hors d’oeuvres. It’s excellent with mousse made from salmon or foie gras.

With hors d'oeuvres:
2000 Voyager Estate Semillon, Margaret River Australia
(14% alc.)
This is a wine I got at the winery and hand-carried back from Australia. It was less than $20 Australian at release, probably about $12 U.S. From one of the cooler regions in Australia, there’s always a fair amount of green on the nose and palate of this wine. But it’s an interesting and attractive green. When young, it’s grassy and tropically green. After ten years in my cool cellar it is still drinking very well. Some of the freshest fruit had subsided and an aroma of pine resin had emerged. This isn’t a shy wine and worked very well with the hummus, babaganoush, toasted pita and olives we had laid out for pre-dinner snacks, which is exactly why I’d opened it.

2005 Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc, Graves (13.5% alc.)
A Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc blend with evident yet not excessive oak treatment, this wine is drinking great right now and evolves quickly in the glass. To start, oak-derived flavors and matchstick were prevalent, but lovely white peach soon emerged. It was an interesting contrast to the Voyager Semillon which preceded it. People, such as myself, who complain about the price of California Sauvignon Blanc blends when they get over $30 or so should take note that this wine, a respected Bordeaux Blanc, goes for around $80.

This is a photo of the vineyard at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte I took from my balcony when I stayed there a couple of years ago.

2000 Remoissenet Pére & Fils Puligny-Montrachet Les Combettes (14% alc.)
This was brought by a friend to whom we were all grateful; it’s an excellent wine. A white Burgundy with generous oak treatment, it had a lot of the flavors you’d expect from a California Chardonnay. It stopped well short of too thick, too oaky, too sweet or too anything though and wore the flavors like a silk gown. It was fleshy, but the richness was kept in shape by mouthwatering fruit. There was no sign of oxidation (which is sometimes an issue with white Burgundy of that period) and it seems like it still has some good years ahead of it.

For the main courses:
2003 Staglin Family Vineyard Sangiovese “Stagliano” Estate Vineyard Rutherford, Napa Valley
(14.8% alc.)
Well, I couldn’t avoid California entirely! I pulled this one out of the cellar because I thought it might go well with our dinner. One of the side dishes was a smoky tasting combination of cooked tomato and grilled eggplant. Sangiovese usually pairs well with rich tomato dishes and I didn’t have any Italian Sangiovese of a proper age. Perhaps that was fortunate, because everybody loved this wine. Some folks might have been concerned that, at seven years old, this wine would be past its prime. On the contrary, it was still extremely fresh with gorgeous plum, red fruit and a rich, silky mouthfeel. It went very well with both the tomato dish and the garlic- and dill-marinated, grilled leg of lamb. And it didn’t overwhelm the grilled chicken breast either.

1999 Veritas Winery Shiraz Mourvedre “Pressings, Binder’s Bull’s Blood” Barossa Valley, Australia (14% alc.)
This wine was a nice counterpoint to the Staglin. Whereas the Sangiovese was all about silky fruit, the Veritas was earth, leather and spiced meat. As the wine sat in our glasses fruit, including dried plum, emerged. It was also yet another good example of Shiraz from Australia that isn’t jammy and over-oaked. There have been loads of really good wines made there, and have been for decades, but they’ve been overshadowed in the public’s perception by the huge volume of cheap, sweet wines and a few low-volume but high-profile expensive wines that focus on maximum ripeness and extraction at the price of super high alcohol. Don’t throw out the baby with the Kool-Aid!

1996 Chateau Montrose, St. Estephe, Bordeaux (12.5% alc.)
I had a quartet of this wine and wanted to open one as they are just now supposed to be entering their prime drinking window. According to Robert Parker, that window should extend for at least 15 years, so I’ll leave the rest in the cellar and not even think of opening one until the next World Cup, or perhaps the one after that. [It’s totally drinkable now, I’d just like to see how it changes.] It is a very good wine that probably would have shown even more complexity given more than the quick splash in a decanter that I gave it. Aromas and flavors of earthy, smoky black plum and currant fruit were matched with powdery tannins that are fairly well integrated at this point. In one of his notes on this wine, Parker says that it’s 72% Cabernet Sauvignon but, due to the ripeness of that fruit, tastes as if the wine includes a lot more Merlot than it does. We hadn’t seen that note prior to the tasting and we all did, in fact, peg it as mostly Merlot.

1993 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Steiner Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain, Sonoma County (12.1% alc)
Note the low alcohol! This wine was a stunner. The color was ruby with pink overtones and it was a bit cloudy. I suspect that it is unfiltered. There were loads of juicy strawberry on the nose and palate and enough other things going on to make it pretty interesting. You’d need a lot of willpower to swirl and sniff it over an extended period of time though. It just tastes too darned good and disappeared in a hurry. I’m really glad I’ve got another bottle or two in the cellar.

For dessert:
1969 Baixas D’Agly Rivesaltes Vin Doux Naturel
(17% alc.)
Another wine brought by a friend, this was dangerously good. A dessert wine that could have been made from any of about half-a-dozen different grapes but probably includes quite a bit of Grenache Noir, it tastes great and is far too easy to quaff for a wine with this much alcohol. It had a red-orange color and smells and tastes similar to Australian Rutherglen Tokay, though the Rivesaltes is much more restrained. I got stewed cherry, raisin, wood, cold tea and very complex spice. Though the wine is of the 1969 vintage, it will have been recently bottled, the wine quite possibly having been stored in big (20 gallon or more) glass jugs for decades. High sugar, alcohol and acidity mean that it will last for decades even now that it’s in bottle. But why wait? [I can't find a good link for this winery, but here's the wine at J.J. Buckley.]

NV R.L. Buller Rutherglen Tokay (18% alc.)
Since someone had mentioned that the Rivesaltes reminded them of Rutherglen Tokay, I just had to pull out one of those. The similarity is definitely there — especially the cold tea — though, as I mentioned above, the Rutherglen Tokay is much more concentrated. I also get a lot of sweet, stewed rhubarb and caramel that I didn’t get at all in the Rivesaltes. Rutherglen Tokay has nothing to do with the Tokay, more properly “Tokaji,” of Hungary. The Aussie wine is made with late-harvest Muscadelle grapes that are further dried, fortified early during fermentation to retain sugar levels, and then left to further concentrate in wood barrels for an extended period of time. The final product is a blend of wines from multiple vintages. It has a dark amber appearance with a slightly greenish rim and is almost like syrup. The sweetness of these wines is very, very high though it is prevented from being cloying by high acididty. That said, it’s still not a wine that you drink a lot of at one time or that would disappear as quickly as the Rivesaltes.

NV Yalumba Museum Reserve Muscat (18% alc.)
Of course once we started discussing Rutherglen Tokay, the topic of Rutherglen Muscat came up so I had to open one of those for comparison too. This particular example is from an older selection of vintages than the Buller Tokay and was therefore darker in color — nearly mahogany. While the two wines have similar levels of sugar and alcohol, the flavors and aromas are very different. Rutherglen Muscat is made from Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains, often called Muscat Canelli or Muscat Frontignan in California. This grape is distinctive for the floral and sweet white grape aromas and flavors it gives to wine. These characters give the Rutherglen Muscat what some might consider a feminine bearing while the Rutherglen Tokay is masculine. Of the two specific wines we tried, the Yalumba is definitely the highest quality, though both are quite good (in small doses — they come in 375ml bottles and we have more than half of each left).

It was a fun and tasty dinner with excellent, wide-ranging conversation. Sometimes we even talked about the wine! My favorites from the evening were the non-sparkling French whites, the California reds and the Rivesaltes. I’m looking forward to the next time I need to recalibrate my frame of reference.

If you enjoyed this article, please share it! Icons for popular sharing services are at the right above and also below.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check outour comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved