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Friday, August 7, 2020

Birthing a Watermelon Cocktail

One of my dearest friends has a milestone birthday this weekend.  Friends are flying in from all over the country to help her celebrate at a swanky estate she’s rented in Carmel Valley.   I’ve offered to cook one of the dinners and in consultation with the birthday girl, a Vietnamese menu was chosen (several of us were in Vietnam recently with Wine Knows).   To kick off the evening I decided to concoct a Vietnam-inspired cocktail to honor her.  

Red is a sacred color in the Vietnamese culture---their symbol of luck, happiness, celebration, and love (it’s no surprise why the flag of Vietnam is red).  Hence, when creating a recipe for the aperitif, summer's luscious watermelon immediately came to mind. The birthday girl loves Aperol, so I decided to incorporate this vibrant orange-red aperitif into the cocktail to intensify the watermelon color.  She also adores bubbly drinks as well as Rosé, thus I elected to combine both in the form of a sparkling Rosé.

Ginger and lemongrass are classical flavors found in Vietnamese cooking.  To get these flavors well incorporated, I decided to infuse vodka with ginger and lemon grass. Concerned about the drink's alcohol content (especially in the heat of summer), I chose to offset it by adding some sparkling water to the drink.

Here’s the aperitif which I named “Carolini” in honor of the birthday girl, Carolina.  

  • 1/3 cup thinly sliced ginger (more for decoration)
  • 3 stalks of crushed lemongrass---white part only (use tops for decoration)
  • 1 cup of good quality vodka
  • 5 cups of ripe, seeded watermelon
  • 1 cup of Aperol
  • 1/2  bottle of sparkling Rosé


1.  One week in advance, place ginger and lemongrass in a clean glass jar.  Pour over vodka.  Seal and store for a week.   Strain before using.

2.  Place watermelon in a food processor until it is liquefied.  Strain and discard any solids.

3.  Make sure all ingredients are well chilled on the day of serving. 

4.  A few hours prior to serving pour all (with the exception of the Rosé and water) into a large pitcher.

5.  Just prior to serving, add the bottle of sparkling Rose and stir.

6.  Decorate with shaved ginger, or a stalk of lemon grass, and/or mint with a slice of watermelon  (serve in either a martini glass or high-ball glass filled with ice).

7.  Party!

(Serves 10 thirsty women.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Veraison is a Term You Should Know

  Veraison is one of the most important parts in the life cycle of a grape 

During a February walk with a group of Wine-Knows through a New Zealand vineyard, the winery's owner pointed to his vines and proudly exclaimed, “Veraison has already begun.”   I assumed this was a term known to most wine lovers, but I was wrong as there were many perplexed faces among the group.  Veraison, a French word that has been adopted by the global wine world, is one of the most important moments in a wine grape’s annual life-cycle.

Veraison (pronounced ver ay son) marks the onset of ripening.  It is most noticeable in red varietals as grapes turn from green to red.   White grapes, on the other hand, change from green to a golden color and become more translucent.  This veraison process typically occurs about 30-70 days before harvest, depending upon the type of grape as well as the weather. As the above photo demonstrates, not all individual grapes go through veraison at the same time….the process can take several days for the entire bunch to turn its final color.

But there is more to veraison than just the grapes changing color.  The grape also begins to change from a hard pellet to a softer berry.  Inside the berry sugar levels also begin to rise.  From veraison to the actual harvest, these sugars will continue to dramatically escalate, while at the same time the grape's acids will correspondingly decline. 

Veraison should be coming soon to many vineyards in the northern hemisphere.  Raise your glass for a toast…..the 2020 vintage is on it’s way!

Friday, July 17, 2020

France’s Secret Coastal Villages

Can you keep a secret?   I have four very special French villages that I would love to share, but have concerns about them remaining off the radar screen.   Three are located right on the sea, with the fourth positioned on a hilltop a few miles inland.  All are dripping with charm, but haven’t yet been spoiled by hoards of tourists.  All of them are unknown to most Americans.

St Jean de Luz:

                          St Jean’ de Luz's scenic harbor protects its fleet of fishing boats

The first hush-hush spot is St Jean (prounounced “john”) de Luz.  Located near the border of Spain and France on the Atlantic sea, St Jean de Luz is a Basque fishing town with both a sizable harbor and an amazing sandy beach.  Streets in the center are all pedestrian-only, making it the perfect venue to leisurely stroll and soak up the pretty town's Basque-influenced architecture.

St Jean de Luz has a significant tie to European history.  King Louis XIV chose St Jean de Luz as the location of his marriage to Maria Theresa of Spain in the 17th century.  This political marriage was one of the most important as it brought an end to a bitter war.   In the 19th century, the town became a fashionable playground for high-society.  Today, it’s just a sleepy fishing village.


                      Deserted beaches & a castle on the sea make Collioure a compelling choice

Collioure is the second charmer.  This postcard-perfect village is also situated near the border of France and Spain, but on the Mediterranean Sea.   With a population of only a few thousand residents, Collioure is famous for its anchovies and local wines.   There are also five beaches from which to choose.  By all rights they should be packed, but they amazingly are only filled with French families during July and August. 

The coastal village’s wondrous light and highly photogenic pastel colored homes have also made it a draw for artists over the last few centuries.  Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were a few of the great painters who were inspired by Collioure’s seaside castle, medieval streets, and its lighthouse-church.


                                                       Night or day, Cassis enchants

The third village, Cassis, is pure magic.  Located <20 miles from Marseille (but a world away) this place is seductive seaside splendor at its best.  It reminds me of a beautiful woman who doesn’t know she is beautiful; Cassis is a stunner that is humble, gentle and gracious.  Like Collioure, it is surrounded by vineyards so visitors are offered a rare chance to experience delightful wines that rarely leave the area.  Similar to St Jean de Luz, Cassis also is an active fishing village but on a much smaller scale.

Cassis is overlooked by the ruins of an alluring centuries-old chateau, but the real beauty is the town’s calanques. The calanques are narrow inlets framed by steep limestone cliffs.  The United Nation’s cultural arm has bestowed upon these calanques their coveted World Heritage Site (UNESCO) award. 


                                   Biot oozes authentic charm from a by-gone era

The last of these special French villages is Biot.  Positioned on a hilltop overlooking the French Riviera town of Antibes, Biot is just a few miles inland from the sea.  This tiny medieval village is the real-deal.  While the surrounding hills are replete with expensive villas owned by wealthy foreigners from around the globe, pedestrian-only Biot offers a true slice of authentic Niçoise life that is becoming more and more difficult to find on the tres sophisticated Riviera.  Walk through the simple village and you’ll find clothes-lines filled with laundry strung between buildings.  Cats wander the narrow cobblestone streets and local children play stick ball.  Amidst this all there is French music coming from the centuries old dwellings, as well as delectable scents of Niçoise cooking wafting from kitchens.

Besides authenticity, Biot has an added bonus.  Its artisanal glass blowing factories are worth the journey alone.  While the unique “bubble” glass has become quite pricey, a visit to see how these works of art are created is free.  Another compelling reason to journey to Biot is the Fernand Léger museum located within walking distance of the medieval hilltop village.  Léger, a contemporary of Picasso and Chagall, was a gifted artist and his museum is remarkable.

Remember, mum's the word.  Keep these little gems our secret.

Friday, July 10, 2020

5 Summer Whites You May Not Know

Summertime, summertime, sum-sum summertime as the song goes. When I think of hot July weather I think of think of refreshing white wine.  None of these five wines are well known so they all offer terrific value.  The five can be served as an aperitif but can also transition to dinner as they are all summer-food-friendly.   Two are from Spain, two are Italian, and there’s even an Austrian wine represented in the bunch.

Listed in no particular order….


This grape is the poster-child  of summer whites.  It is grown in Spain’s northwestern province of Galicia (although some are attempting to grow this varietal in California). In some ways resembling a Sauvignon Blanc because of its citrus profile, Albarino has some Viognier-like characteristics due to its peach and apricot flavors.  But Albarino is more than fruit.  Adding to its complexity are often layers of minerals.   For me, this varietal screams summer. 

Some of my favorite producers of Albarino are Pazo Senorans, Eidos, Forjas de Salnes and  Pazo de Fefinans.  All of these “bodegas” are located close to the sea in Galicia.   As Albarino is an unknown varietal to most Americans, prices reflect the supply and demand price of about $20----a terrific bargain any time of year.


I can’t get enough of this varietal.  Whenever it’s on a summertime wine list, I immediately gravitate to it.  My first taste of the varietal was >25 years ago in Carmel at a restaurant which had a highly rated Wine Spectator wine list.  It was a hot summer day’s lunch and this wine was one of many being featured by the glass.  It was love at first sip for me.

Greatly under-rated, Vermentino has many similarities to an Albarino, Sauv Blanc or a Gruner Veltliner (below).   All three wines have a similar body, are highly aromatic, and have some common taste profiles of citrus and stone fruit.  Vermentino, however, often adds a characteristic almond profile and even floral notes.

Because Vermentino is so unknown, you can find these high quality wines for a great value. The best Vermentino comes from Italy’s island of Sardinia, as well as the Tuscan and Ligurian coasts.  The highest rated comes from these following Sardinian producers: Surrau, Capichera, Andrea Ledda, Delogu and Pala.  Bravo!

Gruner Veltliner

This grape was mentioned above and is one that has some commonalities with Vermentino in flavor.  Gruner, like Vermentio, offers citrus but it tends to lean more toward limes in grapes that are less ripe.   Riper grapes yield intense lemon flavors, whereas really ripe fruit catapults the Gruner’s flavors to peach and apricot.   As Gruner is the white flagship grape of Austria, climate can make a huge difference in the flavors of this varietal.

Like Vermentino and Albarino, Gruner is a great value.  When I’m dining in a Michelin star restaurant in summer and I don’t want to drop a couple of hundred dollars on a white wine,  I always turn to the Gruner (or Austrian) section of the wine list.  Sommeliers love this varietal, so there are always some carefully chosen gems.  Because of its bracing acidity, Gruner pairs beautifully with many foods. 

Fave producers?  Check out Ott, Hirtzberger or Castle Gobelsberg.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia

All the wines above have been grape varietals, whereas these are wines from a wine region located between Venice and the Austrian border.  I call this district Italian White Heaven.    Some white grapes here are unknown outside of the district.  For example, ever heard of “Ribolla Gialla?”  This ethereal grape used to be used for blending with other local varieties until savvy winemakers thought of treating it like a Chardonnay by using malo-lactic fermentation to soften its acidity.  Ribolla Gialla makes a killer, complex white wine.  Producers worth seeking out are Primosic and Biancosesto.

The Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s Pinot Grigio is like none of the other insipid renditions in Italy.  Pinot Grigio here is magic.  Think full-bodied, complex wines with summer stone fruit flavors.  Look for Torre Rosazza’s version.   Paradiso.   


This list began with three relatively unknown white grape varieties, then moved to a wine region.  The last wine of the five summer whites is a blended wine from the island of Mallorca, Spain.  Nounat is simply the island’s best white. Made by the Binigrau winery, this complex wine is made from the island’s indigenous Prensal Blanc, with Chardonnay added for great structure.   Be prepared to be seduced by the old Mallorcan’s aromatics and flavors of pineapple, bananas, pears and almonds.  When mixed with ripe Chardonnay grapes it becomes exotic fruit nirvana filled with deep layering.

Nounat is available at east coast wine shops and online.  Order a case.  It will be the best $25 bucks a bottle you’ll spend for the summer.

These may be wines you don't know, but you should get to know each one of them.  Happy summer sipping.  

Friday, July 3, 2020

4 Wines to Celebrate the 4th

For our special American holiday, here are four made in the USA wines that should be included in your independence day menu.  These wines have been chosen for their ability to pair with summer foods, as well as their terrific price-quality-ratio.   One is a blend, the three others are 100% varietal.  They are equally divided between white and red.  All are available online (K&L has all four).

White Rhone Blend
Tablas Creek’s “Patelin de Tablas” (Paso Robles) is consistently one of my favorite California white blends of luscious Rhone varietals such as Grenache Blanc, Roussane, Marsanne and Viognier.  It’s a real bargain for $20.

Alban’s Viognier (Central Coast) knocks it out of the summer ballpark.  Alban was one of the first pioneers to use this white Rhone varietal on the coastal Cali.  Like all Viognier, this one serves up stone fruit, citrus layers and floral notes.  ($28)

Cabernet Franc:
This grape is the mother grape to both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Offering less tannin than its offspring, it’s the perfect summer red aperitif wine.  Lieu Dit (Santa Ynez Valley) offers a superb rendition ($30).

If you love Pinot Noir for its silky elegance and Syrah for its spice, then you should check out Grenache.  It’s the backbone of those beloved reds from Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  California’s Central Coast Nelle vineyards produces one of the best renditions. ($38 online)

Cheers to the red & white, as well as the blue !

Friday, June 26, 2020

5 Apps That Scream Summer

When I think of summer, a brilliant palette of fruits immediately comes to mind---especially melons, stone fruits and tomatoes.  Summer’s temperatures make for lighter eating, so my summertime appetizers are not only visually stunning but are healthy fare.   (Note:  while there is cheese or meat in a few, their amounts are minuscule.)

Watermelon, arugula & goat cheese
Cut watermelon in circles.   Top with arugula, goat cheese and browned pinenuts.  Drizzle with balsamic and top with fleur de sel.

Nectarine, prosciutto & arugula
I use white nectarines in this simple stunner.  Cut fruit in wedges and wrap with prosciutto and arugula.   Sprinkle with drops of a good olive oil.

Olives & cantaloupe
Cut the cantaloupe into small pieces (I use a melon baller).   Serve with a back olive on a toothpick.

Peaches, tomatoes, mozzarella & mint
Slice baguette and toast.  Add mozzarella, tomato & a peach wedge.  Top with a good salt and piece of mint.

Yellow gazpacho shooters:
If I had to pick one favorite summer recipe this one would be it.  It’s from the magnificent Sunday Dinners at Luques cookbook.

Friday, June 19, 2020

5 Cocktails that Scream Summer

Summer is only days away.  Here’s what is on my list for aperitifs to get our summer parties started (once we're safe for gatherings)!

Rosé -Strawberry Sangria
Nothing says summer more than Rosé and strawberries---I’ve combined them both in this delectable drink.  

Recipe:  Add ½ cup of both sugar and water to 2 cups of sliced strawberries---simmer for 10 min and let completely cool.  In the meanwhile, add all of the following ingredients together in a large pitcher:  3 cups sliced strawberries, 1 cup raspberries, 1 orange thinly sliced, 1 cup orange juice and 1/3 cup Gran Manier.  Add the completed cooled cooked strawberry mixture.   Let steep together for at least 1 hour in the frig.  Prior to serving, add one bottle of sparkling Rosé.

                                         A Cotswold toast to a special week in England

Pimms Cup
Strawberries are the star of yet another drink---this is England’s most popular summer-time libation at Wimbleton.

Recipe:  Add the following to one bottle of Pimms:  an equal size amount of lemonade (preferably homemade, although Trader Joes has a good substitute), ½ cup of seeded, peeled & finely chopped English or Persian cucumber, ½ cup of finely diced apple, 1 cup of thinly sliced strawberries, a good handful of finely chopped mint).  Let sit in frig for at least 30 minutes to chill and marry flavors. Serve in a glass and top with a sprig of mint or cucumber.

                                           These easy cocktails are a crowd-pleaser

Limoncello Spritz
This one is simple.  Simply combine 1/3 part of Limoncello with 1/3 sparkling water, and then add 1/3 part of tonic water.  Serve with lots of ice, a piece of summer-time basil and a wedge of lemon.  It’s really refreshing on a hot summer’s day.

                                   Summer on Lake Como demands Aperol Spritzs

Aperol Spritz
This perennial fave is also simple.  Combine one 750ml bottle of Aperol, with an equal amount of Prosecco.   Gently mix in 1 cup of sparkling water, and serve in an ice filled glass, topped with a wedge of orange.

                                   Elderflower is the secret to this ethereal gin & tonic

Elderflower Hendrick’s Gin & Tonic
This glorious aperitif is another easy cocktail.   Hendricks pairs well with elderflower and cucumber.   Plan for 2 oz of Hendricks per cocktail, and 5 ounces of Fever Tree’s elderflower tonic.  Use one generous teaspoon of St Germain per drink (an elderflower liqueur).  Mix with plenty of ice and serve with a slice of cucumber.

Summer-time bottoms up!