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Santa Barbara, CA, United States
I enjoy creating original wine-pairing recipes that are healthful and delicious. I work for Touring & Tasting a Santa Barbara based wine club and national magazine as Food Editor. However, I am not paid for this blog and the opinions expressed here are strictly my own. I received my Personal Chef Skills Competency Award from the SBCC's School Of Culinary Arts. In 2012, I started Inside Wine - Santa Barbara with pal Lila Brown which features wine tastings with winery owners and winemakers. I also serve on the Board of the Santa Barbara Culinary Arts group, which had Julia Child as one of the founding members and funds scholarships for SBCC culinary students in her name.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

How To Read An American Wine Label

Take the wine labeling quiz below to see how much you know about wine laws in the USA!
1. By law, what is the minimum percentage of this wine that must be from the Chardonnay grape? (There is one exception to this rule).
A. 100%
B. 95%
C. 85%
D. 75%
E. 50%

2. By law, what is the minimum percentage of the grapes that must be from Santa Barbara County?
A. 100%
B. 95%
C. 85%
D. 75%
E. 50%

3. By law, what is the minimum  percentage of the grapes that must come from Klipsum Vineyard?
A. 100%
B. 95%
C. 85%
D. 75%
E. 50%

 4. By law, what is the minimum percentage of the grapes that must be from the 2006 vintage (as named on the label--it's a bit hard to read)?
A. 100%
B. 95%
C. 85%
D. 75%
E. 50%

 5. Can you automatically assume that a wine labeled simply "red wine" instead of a single varietal is a) not as good and b) that the grapes were not sourced from quality vineyards?
A. Yes on both
B. No on both
C. Yes on a), no on b)
D. No on a), yes on b)

Wine law quiz answers:
1. Answer: D. 75%
A varietal labeling, for example "Chardonnay" or "Cabernet Sauvignon" means the wine must contain at least 75% of the varietal, except in Oregon where the percentage is 90% for all wines except Cabernet Sauvignon. Some consumers shy away from blends, thinking that single varietal wines are somehow superior. Though there are individual 100% varietal wines that are superior, one can't make such a vast generalization. Blending can yield better results, for example, Cabernet Sauvignon alone can be quite tannic. The tannins contribute to the aging potential of a wine, but excess tannins can be astringent and harsh. So, there is a pragmatic reason that the French traditionally blended Cab with Merlot, as in the Bordeaux region, because the latter adds rich fruit and sweetness to round out the often brash and angular Cabernet Sauvignon. In any event, some "single varietal consumers" don't realize that they may be drinking a blend--up to 25% of the wine they are drinking could be a grape other than the labeled varietal. Only when the label says "100%" of a varietal can you be guaranteed there are no other grapes added. As a side note, wine made from any Vitis labrusca variety (exclusive of hybrids) may be labeled with the variety name with only 51% Vitis labrusca. These are native American grapes. Nearly all other wine grapes worldwide are of the Vitis vinifera species.

2. Answer: D 75%
If a wine is labeled by county, at least 75% of the grapes must come from that county. If a wine is label by AVA, for example, Howell Mountain, at least 85% of the grapes must come from the labeled AVA, unless the wine is from Washington or Oregon which require 100%.

Some other relevant laws: If the wine is labeled by state, at least 75% must be from that state, except for in California, Oregon and Washington where 100% of the grapes must be from that state or Texas which requires the state to be the source of at least 85% of the grapes So, interestingly, if one label says "California Pinot Noir"  then 100% of the grapes are from California. If another says only "Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir" then conceivably 25% could come from out of state.

3. Answer: B 95%
If the wine is labeled with a specific vineyard, at least 95% of the grapes came from that vineyard.

4. Answer: B 95%
If a vintage appears on a label, at least 95% of the grapes must be from this label.

5. Answer: B
Absolutely not! The "Lady In Red" was sourced from several top vineyards in Yakima and Columbia Valleys including the Kestrel estate vineyards which have some of the oldest (means more flavorful grapes) vines in the state of Washington. Another example is the 2007 Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Proprietary Red which sells for over $100 and received a 95 point rating from Wine Spectator.

What Your Score Means!
5 correct: Congratulations! You get the honorary title of Wine Law Expert!
4 correct: Still excellent! You are knighted Lord or Lady Of The Grape!
3-1 correct: You have obviously been studying--accept your Diploma Of Wine Studies!
0 correct: You are firmly in the majority of Americans. Thanks for taking my quiz!

Note: AVA (American Viticultural Areas) were instigated beginning in 1978 under the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. If you have a head for minutiae, you can read the entire list of labeling laws here. Our AVA system is not analogous to the French system of AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) whicg strictly controls the geographic boundaries of the vineyards, the allowable wine grape varietals, the maximum yield per acre (lower yield equals more extracted flavor), how the vines can be pruned, the type of trellis allowed, the use of irrigation, the minimum (and sometimes maximum) percentage of alcohol, the practice of specific winemaking techniques (like chapitalization--addition of sugar), the level of quality determined through tasting and chemical analysis, and the information allowed to be printed on the wine label. Check back for a future post on the AOC.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Great Food Follows Great Wine

Last weekend was the Santa Barbara County Vintner's Festival with wine tasting, gourmet food samples from local chefs and live music. Touring & Tasting was there handing out free magazines and flyers for our huge warehouse wine sale this Saturday.

The wine biz in Santa Barbara County generates half a billion dollars a year. Though the region is among the oldest wine growing regions in the country, pre-dating Napa Valley, the explosive growth and world-wide recognition of Santa Barbara County wine has only happened in the last 30 years. Wine production began in the 1700s as Spanish mission builders, like Padre Serra at the Santa Barbara Mission, planted grape cuttings from Mexico to create wine for their own use. Wine continued to be produced just for local consumption for the next three hundred years or so, with at least one exception (from the Santa Barbara County Vintner's Association, along with an historical tidbit): "In 1884, Justinian Caire imported grape slips from France and planted a 150-acre vineyard on Santa Cruz Island. His prize-winning wines were shipped to San Francisco for bottling. A grapevine planted in 1842 on a farm in Carpinteria grew to monstrous proportions. In fifty years, it had a trunk measuring nine feet around, an arbor covering two acres and an annual yield of ten tons of grapes!" (the average wine grape vine produces about 12 lbs.) Though winemakers worked in obscurity, they were constantly refining their techniques and improving their wines. In the 1960s, the esteemed agricultural department at UC Davis tested the terroir of the Central Valley and declared it ideal for viniculture. A primary factor is the Transverse Ranges which run east/west rather than north/south like the Sierra Nevadas. Because the Transverse Ranges (the Santa Ynez Mountains, the San Rafael Mountains and the Sierra Madre in Santa Barbara county) run parallel to the coastal wind, they funnel cooler air and fog from the ocean inland, allowing more "hang time" for the grapes to develop flavor and acidity to balance sweetness. In the hot Central Valley of California, grapes ripen fast and can develop a brix level that is too high, creating excess sweetness or  alcohol content and, in some cases, hindering fermentation due to the excess sugar (die-off of the yeast). Often the flavors don't develop fully, which is why most Central Coast wine production is for the bulk market.

Some of the early vineyards and wineries in Santa Barbara County were Rancho Sisquoc, Edna Valley Vineyards (precursor to Lucas & Lewellen), Brander Vineyard, and Firestone. A turning point came with the Paris tasting of 1976 when two northern California wines unexpectedly won over exalted wines like Château Haut-Brion and Château Mouton Rothschild. Suddenly, California wines were center stage and Santa Barbara wines began to capture the attention they deserved. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc are among the varietals that have won international medals, 90+ point scores and "best of class" awards. The majority of the 21,000 acres and 110+ wineries in Santa Barbara County are family owned and operated and their hard work has transformed the Santa Ynez Valley into a bustling international destination, helped in no small part by the 2004 movie "Sideways", and has livened the city of Santa Barbara with great restaurants and high-quality, affordable wine lists. Great food follows great wine! I haven't tried many of the wines poured at the Santa Barbara County Vintner's Festival (see list of wineries), but one finds many recognizable names from the highly acclaimed Sea Smoke Cellars and Jaffurs Wine Cellars to popular by-the-glass local favorites like the Qupé Syrah and Sunstone Merlot.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Happy Times

Easter is one of the happiest times of the year. There's a sense of anticipation in the balmy air, the feeling of renewal, of hope and faith and the simple joy of being alive. Trees bud out and flowers display their faces to the warming sun and the first vegetable sprouts begin to pop up in kitchen gardens. Happy Spring!

How To Empty Eggs To Decorate Them For Easter
Straighten one end of a paper clip. On the small end of the egg, poke a small hole. Put a finger over this hole while you turn the egg over. Poke a larger hole on the large end. Make sure you pierce the inner membrane. Point the large end toward the bowl and blow into the small hole until all the egg is emptied. Rinse the inside and drain the egg. Decorate with crayon, then dip in egg dye. You can stuff confetti into the large hole and seal with invisible tape. During Fiesta Days in Santa Barbara, the streets are lined with vendors selling cascarones and everyone has confetti in their hair!

Easter is around the corner! If you empty your eggshells before decorating them, you need recipes that utilize mixed yolks and whites. Pair this lovely dish with a glass of the 2008 Alma Rosa Chardonnay.

3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. basil
1 tsp. savory
1 fennel bulb
2 cups chopped crimini mushrooms
2 baby potatoes (or new potatoes)
* splash of passito or cooking sherry, optional
4 eggs
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. oregano
fresh ground pepper
Save a few sprigs of the fennel leaves for garnish and topping the frittata. Peel the fennel bulb and slice. The best way to do this is often to cut the bulb into 2" sections and put the cut end on the cutting board, then carefully slice down the sides to remove the tough outer part of the stalk. You will be using the pale center for cooking. Cut the potatoes in half, then put the cut half on the cutting board, then slice into the thinnest slices possible. In a large frying pan (cast iron works very well), cook the garlic in the olive oil for a few minutes over low heat. Add the basil, savory, fennel, crimini, potato and stir well. Cover and let cook over low heat about ten minutes, stirring often to separate the potato slices and cook them evenly. If you have passito or cooking sherry at hand, splash just a bit (a few tablespoons) over the vegetables and stir in for extra flavor. In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and oregano until thoroughly mixed. When the potatoes are tender, pour the eggs over the vegetables evenly. Top with a few sprigs of fennel leaves and fresh ground black pepper. Cook over low heat until the edges bubble. Brown the top of the frittata by putting the pan in the oven under the broiler until golden brown. Serves 2.

Santa Barbara locals!
Wine Warehouse SALE 
 Saturday, April 23--save up to 70% off retail. Read more here.

If you can take advantage of this sale, make sure you get some sweet potato fries from the Burger Bus!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Thoughts On Japan -- Tsunami Wreckage

Like a shadow on my heart, sadness for the victims of the tsunami in Japan stays with me. I worked on the following bit of writing in the writing workshop I took a couple of weeks ago:

Nearly a month has passed since the catastrophic tsunami swept over coastal Japan creating a churning stew of destroyed ships, wrecked homes, smashed cars and unfortunate victims, but I still can't seem to stay away from the news. It's like a drug you hate but can't stay away from, this need to know the latest developments. Haunted by the specter of those swept to sea, I sleep fitfully, tortured with nightmares of black water. My father was Japanese and I feel a visceral connection to the tragic events unfolding across the Pacific. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado at a time when it was still a ranch town populated with Caucasian faces. My sister and I were the only kids of color until we reached junior high. Then, scientists from Japan arrived to work at NCAR and the Bureau of Standards, bringing their wives and children that shared part of my heritage, but none who were mixed race like me. My father's Japanese features stood out, and to this day, when I see images of Japanese men above a certain age, I think of my dad.

Now, I see his likeness on YouTube every night, trying to make miso over a campfire or looking stoic in a fireman's uniform as he searches for survivors. I see him in the face of the man crying "I'm sorry" over and over because his mother is under the rubble and he could not save her, in the man who lost his wife, his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. A band of steel seizes me around the middle and squeezes hard bringing the dual pain of empathy for the country and the reminder of my father's passing. He was my Rock of Gibralter, his arms a safe haven from schoolyard taunts and snubs.

My father modeled the Japanese way: honesty above all, honor paramount, always be civil and never angry, never show your feelings. In the 86 years of his life, I don't think he ever started a sentence with "I feel...". I can’t recall one instance. I knew he loved me by the way he treated me: strict but loving, always ready to listen, to share a pot of green tea, never angry or dismissive. He never voluntarily expressed his love for me, not until three years of a brutal and excruciating battle against cancer left him plagued with continual pain and infernal itching of the skin. Broken down by the relentless progress of the disease, he would take my hand when I went to see him in the hospital and tell me he loved me. When I see the Japanese on TV crying, sobbing even, I know. The impenetrable social mask of the Japanese has been broken by feelings just too devastating to contain.

Several years ago, the only relative in Japan who spoke English passed away. When the tragedy hit, I wrote to my two cousins in Tokyo hoping that they could translate my offer of assistance. Today, one of the letters was returned undeliverable. I turn it over in my hands then look out at the steely blue Pacific. Outside is a postcard view of cerulean skies and glossy foliage bursting with blossoms. I have hot water and food; life is good. A month ago my counterpart might have been looking east. Now, while I enjoy this perfect environment, an ocean away she starts digging out from the mud, one shovelful at a time.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Korean BBQ -- A Place Of Plenty In The Torrential Rain

En route to our adventure described in the last post to the Artisan Cheese Festival, we had to endure a 9 1/2 hour drive through torrential rain. The usual travel time is about 5 hours from Santa Barbara to the Bay Area, but that Friday was filled with National Weather Service Flash Flood warnings. The 101 Freeway around Gilroy was crawling at 40 mph with buckets of water pouring from the skies, flooding the roadway and splashing up from the tires creating limited visibility. The sinuous 17, scary on even a sunny day, was worse in the rain with insane drivers determined to plow through its curves at high speed despite the slick conditions.

We had our sights on dinner at a Mongolian BBQ that my daughter knew about in San Jose, but it was impossible to navigate when street signs weren't visible through the diagonal sheets of rain. So, we found the most promising exit for restaurants and turned off, finding the Korea B.B.Q. Buffet (1783 W. San Carlos). Korean food is based on rice, meat, vegetables, tofu and kimchi--a fermented cabbage dish laced with pepper that is either heaven or hell depending on your view. My father loved kimchi, but my mother made him keep it on the porch saying it stunk up the refrigerator and always made a big show of holding her nose when it came into the house. It is odiferous! I love it--crunchy, salty, sour and full of red chili pepper, it goes particularly well with chasuke--rice and green tea mixed together in a bowl. This particular Korean bbq was a meat lover's paradise--I haven't seen so much meat piled onto customers' plates since I was last in a churrascaria! Two long buffet tables of food bisected the restaurant, one of which was laden with meat of every description. Customers had piled their trays with what looked like a week's worth of meat. Each table was built around a grill where one cooked their selections. My daughter took a modest portion, but the waitress didn't approve. She was already miffed that I refused any meat, so she was determined that at least one person at the table had their money's worth. She fussed over my daughter--bringing extra plates of meat and turning each piece over for her until it was suitably cooked. I was happy--I had two servings of glass noodles which I love to make at home (see recipe below) plus some difficult to eat tiny crab legs and shrimp. A novelty was kelp deep fried for just a second, then sprinkled with sugar. The glass noodle recipe below is easily tailored to whatever you have in the frig at the moment--other vegetables and meat can be cooked and sesame seeds or nuts sprinkled on top.
GLASS NOODLES (see bottom of plate in photo at right):
1 (14 ounce) package glass noodles*

1/4 cup sesame oil
1/2 onion, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1" of ginger root, peeled and minced or 2 Tbsp. canned minced ginger
6 Chinese cabbage leaves, sliced into 1/2"
1 carrot, peeled then shaved into long slices
1 4 oz. can shitake mushrooms, rinsed and sliced
*optional: 1 cake extra firm tofu, cut into 1/2" cubes
1/4 cup soy sauce, approximate
2 Tbsp. sugar
Bring a large pot of water to boil and add the glass noodles, turn off heat and stir noodles so they are completely immersed. Let sit and they will soften in the hot water. In a large frying pan or wok, heat the sesame oil over medium heat and cook the garlic, ginger and onion until softened. Do not let the garlic burn--adjust the heat if necessary. Add the Chinese cabbage, mushrooms, carrot and tofu and cook for a few more minutes, stirring often, until the carrot is cooked but still crunchy. Drain the noodles and add to the pan along with the sugar and half of the soy sauce. The soy sauce measurement is approximate because soy sauce varies in saltiness according to type and brand. You want to find the balance of sweet and salty--so start with half the soy sauce, mix well, taste, then add more soy sauce as needed. Serve warm or cold. Serves 2 as main dish or 4 for a side dish. Pair this recipe with a chilled oaken Chardonnay.
*Glass noodles are also called cellophane noodles, Chinese vermicelli, bean threads, bean thread noodles, or saifun. They are made from mung bean or yam starch and look like plastic threads uncooked and turn clear or "glassy" when cooked.

This week's Online Grapevine special is a sampler of four big, bold red wines, including a Shiraz rated 94 points by Wine Spectator.
Spice up tortilla soup with bold flavors of green chili, onion and tomato. Tortilla chips and melting cheddar cheese top this satisfying soup that can be made meatless for vegetarians or with ground turkey. Pair with the fruit-forward Cedar Knoll 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. I devised this recipe when I came home late and wanted something fast and nutritious that would use up salsa I had in the refrigerator. I had the leftover soup the next day without the chips and cheese--adding cooked baby potatoes. It's an easy and fast recipe either way. Makes 2 servings.

3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. oregano
1/2 lb. ground turkey or tofurkey (tofu-based turkey)
10 oz. can green chili, drained and minced or 5 fresh chilis, roasted, seeded, peeled and minced
1 cup fresh salsa (Salsa Fresca--with tomato and onion)
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 bay leaf
fresh ground pepper
salt to taste
2 cups tortilla chips
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Heat the oil in a pot over low heat and add the garlic, oregano and ground turkey or tofurkey. Stir and cook until until for 3-4 minutes, separating the ground turkey or tofurkey into chunks. Add the minced green chili, salsa, broth and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Cover and cook for one minute. Remove the bay leaf. Season with a few grinds of black pepper and salt (if needed--I used none). Ladle the hot soup into wide bowls and crumble the tortilla chips on top. Sprinkle with cheddar cheese.