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Friday, January 18, 2019

Ancestry.Com for Wine Grapes

Genetic testing is all the rage these days.  Up until the 1990’s not even the wine experts knew a thing about the wine grape family tree.  Then, a riveting discovery was made by researchers at the University of California’s Davis.  Using DNA technology, scientists discovered the beginning elements of this family tree.  Now for America’s little secret: all of our famous wine grapes (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir) are immigrants.

The majority of wine grapes have been found to descend from a handful of ancient varieties.  These “founder” ancestors, have cross pollinated in age-old vineyards the to create new varietals.  Their children have then gone on to multiple marriages, and created a web of new grand-children.  Like a human family tree, the grape family tree is complex and filled with lots of stories.  As vineyards centuries ago were planted with a variety of different grapes right up against another, close quarters have created many offspring.

The grape family tree’s secrets are still being investigated by researchers. Here is what is known to date about some of our most common wine grape varieties: 
  • Pinot Noir:   This founding varietal is one of the oldest and one of the primary ancestors for many wine grapes.  In fact, the Pinot family tree has 156 different wine grapes.  Pinot Noir has a high propensity to mutate.  Genetics-wise, Pinot Noir has the same DNA as Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.  Pinot Meunier (used to make Champagne) is another close relative, as is Chardonnay and Gamay.
  • Chardonnay:  This grape’s heritage is also surprising as it, like Cab Sauv, is due to an accidental crossing of a white with a red grape: the country bumpkin Gouais Blanc with the regal Pinot Noir.   DNA experts think the birth of Chardonnay occurred in Burgundy during the Middle Ages.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon:  This one should knock your socks off.  Cab Sauv is a crossing between a white grape and a red grape:  Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.   Researchers feel the marriage occurred in France during the 17th century.
  • Merlot:  This popular varietal is a cousin of Cab Sauv.  Merlot’s mother was Cabernet Franc and its father was a centuries-old grape by the name of Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. 

DNA fingerprinting is still uncovering many relationships for wine grapes.  Perhaps it’s time for a party with the theme of “Who’s your daddy?”    Might be fun to taste the parts of a certain grape's family’s tree!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Parlez-vous Champagne?

The language of the Champagne-making process is mystifying, especially to those who have never observed it in person.  The purpose of this Blog is to demystify it by breaking it down into three digestible pieces.  First things first, however; only a sparkling wine made in the demarcated area of Champagne, France can legally be called Champagne.  Now, here’s what you need to know about the process.

# 1:  Bubbles are created by yeasts

                                           Dead yeast cells are trapped in the bottle
After the wine is finished being made, a small amount of yeast is added to each bottle of wine, as well as a very small amount of sugar.   Bubbles form as a result of the yeast eating the sugar.  These bubbles are actually carbon dioxide which is given off by the yeast (those who have made bread well know the bubbling that occurs during yeast’s activity).  Carbon dioxide becomes trapped inside the bottle.  This process is known as the second fermentation in the bottle.

# 2:  Riddling is the process of how dead yeasts are prepared for extraction

                                          Riddlers turn each bottle daily over months
Once the yeast eats the sugar it lives for a short time and then dies.  These dead yeasts are called "lees."  The lees, like carbon dioxide, are trapped inside the bottle.  Riddling rotates the wine bottles a small amount each day to slowly move the dead yeasts toward the neck of the bottle.  Once the bottle is entirely inverted to a vertical position, it is ready for the next stage.

# 3:  Disgorgement is how dead yeasts are removed from the bottle

                            In a nano-second the frozen cube of dead yeast is removed

The vertical bottle is inserted into a super cold ice bath which essentially freezes the yeast debris trapped in its neck.  In the flicker of an eyelash, the cap of the bottle is removed and the frozen “yeast ice cube” pops out.  A new cork is now applied.  This is the disgorgement process.

Wine-Knows will be visiting Champagne in June of this year.  We’ll be tasting at some of the grandest producers of Champagne.  Currently there are three openings. For more information about this trip (which also visits Burgundy), check our website:

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Top Dozen of 2018

I’ve had some really superb wines during 2018.  Several were simply outrageously divine.  A few were tremendous surprises.  Others represented a terrific quality price ratio.  Here’s the list for what moved me, all of which are currently available in the US.

Outrageously Divine

     ~ NV Ployez Jacquesmart Rosé Champagne.  This producer makes a Blanc de 
        Blanc, but it’s one made from Pinot Noir that sends me to the moon and back.  A 
        steal for $50.

     ~ NV Ferghettina Rosé Franciacorta.  Perhaps it was the enchanting winemaker?  
        Maybe it was the stellar sun-soaked day overlooking Lake Iseo, Italy?  Or, could 
        it be the sexy custom bottle shape?  It doesn’t matter.  This sparkling wine was 
        flat-out gorgeous. ($50)

     ~ 1990 Trimbach Gewurztraminer Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre.  This Grand Cru 
        single vineyard bone dry wine is still rockin’ the wine world nearly 30 years after 
        it was produced.  Thanks to Lynne & John for bringing this stunner to dinner 
        in our home.   ($200 if you can it)

      ~ 2009 Chateau Beaucastel Blanc.  A blend of four white grapes from 
         Chateauneuf du Pape, this elegant little tropical bomb was ethereal.  I’ve visited 
         Beaucastel  in France several times.  I had this on my recent hallmark 
         birthday trip to the Christmas markets of Europe at a wonderful Michelin star 
         restaurant ($250)

       ~ 2001 Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape.  OMG.  The Popes would be 
         all over this one.  Powerful…definitely a religious red wine experience, we 
         served this at my recent black tie birthday bash before we left for Europe.  ($100)

       ~2007 Martinelli Zinfandel Jackass Vineyard.   I'm not a big fan of Cali Zins 
         because of their high alcohol but this one had me at hello.  With a gorgeous 
         velvet texture and notes of chocolate with dark berry fruit, the alcohol was 
         beautifully integrated.  ($110 and worth every penny)


       ~ 2015 Ca Rugate Recioto di Soave La Perlara.   I visited Ca Rugate for its dry 
          whites, so this was a big bonus.  This sweet white wine from the wine 
          district outside of Venice was absolutely gorgeous.  Think figs, flowers, apricots 
          and raisins all rolled into a beautiful wine.  ($45-50)

      ~ 2010 Prunotto Barbaresco.  We tasted a lot of Barbaresco on our recent Truffle 
         Tour to Piedmont---some of them older than this one.  Prunotto’s stood out as it 
         was drinkable now.  High Robert Parker score.  High June Dunn score.  ($70-90)

      ~ 2015 Sottimano Basarin Barbaresco.  While this one wasn't quite ready to 
         drink, one could see that if cellared for 5 or 6 years, it was going to be killer.  

Superb Values:

       ~ 2016 Ruche Montalbera Laccent.  This killer red is made from of cousin of the 
          Nebbiolo grape.  Buy a case! ($25 per bottle)

       ~ 2013 Prinsi Barbera.   Made with 50% dried grapes, this elegant, soft tannin 
          wine is ready to drink now.  (Knockout price of $20)

      ~ 2016 Woodwork Cabernet Sauvignon.  We stumbled across this great find in the 
         first class lounge at LAX recently.   I plan to use it primarily as a cooking wine
         for braised short ribs, coq au vin---or for Sangria this summer...but it is very                   drinkable on its own.  Unreal deal.   ($12)

Friday, December 28, 2018

Germany’s UNESCO Time Capsule

                               Quedlinburg is the site of where Germany's first King was crowned

Quedlinburg is a magical spot.  Located a few hours’ drive south of Berlin, I visited this charming former East German village in 1990 after the wall was demolished.   I went because my grandfather was born in Quedlinburg and I wanted to explore the paternal side of the family.  It was a jewel box then and thanks to its protected status by the United Nations (1994), it remains a precious gem today.

The town has royal beginnings.  The first king of Germany, Henry (876-936), was crowned in Quedlinburg and the town became the first capitol of the newly formed German Republic.  One of the most highly esteemed churches in Germany during the Middle Ages was built at the top of the hill in Quedlinburg to honor its position as the epicenter of Germany.  The town prospered due to considerable wealth and political influence brought by its importance as a trading center in the Middle Ages. 

         The town's perfectly architecture makes it one of the most special towns in all of Germany. 

The real reason to come here is for the jaw-dropping architecture.  An outstanding example of a medieval town, Quedlinburg is distinguished by its exceptional architectural heritage of Romanesque and half-timbered buildings, many of remarkably high quality.  When I visited in 1990, I was awe-struck at how well preserved this medieval village was.  Yes, many of the buildings needed a fresh coat of paint, but its compelling raw beauty was very apparent.  Today, this Cinderella is fully dressed for the ball.

                          The Christmas market is held in the enchanting central square

We rented a gorgeous apartment near the Castle and I cooked Christmas dinner:  a fennel & herb-brined pork rib roast with a fennel and cherry relish served with a wine-braised red cabbage.   A Grand Kru Riesling from Albert Mann completed this perfect culinary composition.  Although it probably wasn’t exactly the meal my grandmother would have prepared for Christmas (goose is the most popular yule-time meal), with the fireplace crackling and a glass of Champagne to kick it off, I think my grandparents would have indeed enjoyed themselves.

Wishing you many magical experiences in the New Year !

Friday, December 21, 2018

Alsace for Foodies

Foie gras is Alsace’s greatest gift to gastronomy

Strasbourg, the capitol of Alsace, has been the site of Europe’s oldest outdoor Christmas market for nearly 500 years.  While there are many Christmas markets in Europe, the one in Strasbourg is regarded as one of the very best.   I’ve been to Strasbourg, as well as the surrounding idyllic Hansel and Gretel Alsatian villages many times, but I have never visited this Eastern part of France during the holidays.  The reason for my entire journey is this Marché de Noel---it’s been on my bucket list for some years.  

The Christmas market in Strasbourg is spread out over the heart of this riverside town in eleven different squares.  There’s a mind-boggling assortment of hand-crafted items for the yuletide season, including everything one could ever dream of in which to decorate a Christmas tree, or to deck the halls.  For the food-lover, however, it’s a gastronomic Disneyland;  Santa’s elves could seriously eat their way across Strasbourg. 

Alsace has been passed back and forth between France and Germany several times during the last hundreds of years.  The Strasbourg Christmas market is reflective of this duality.  In many ways it’s the best of the two countries prettily packaged into a festively wrapped yuletide gift featuring a large culinary bow.  

Paying homage to its French roots, the market is replete with vendors selling foie gras.  This outrageously decadent delicacy is gorgeously coiffed in regal packaging that would even impress Coco Chanel.  Foie gras in this region is serious business. While Perigord in southwest France produces more foie gras today, during the 18th century Alsace was the epicenter for this delicacy.  

                                     Kougelhoft comes in multiple shapes for the Holidays

There are beaucoup stands at the market selling Alsace’s iconic Kougelhoft, an ethereal yeast-based cake baked in a tall decorative bundt pans.  A traditional Germanic recipe, Kougelhofts are featured in miniature single servings, as well as gigantic ones that could serve a family of 20 for Christmas dinner.  There are even stalls selling the brightly-colored Kougelhoft ceramic pans which are hand-painted.

                             This thin-crusted regional specialty is cooked in wood-fired ovens

Flammekueche is sublime snack in Stasbourg’s market extraordinaire.  An Alsatian version of pizza, this one has a paper-thin crust.  The French DNA of the dish reflects France’s love affair with cheese.  In this case, it’s topped with the area’s famous Munster cheese and/or crème fraiche.  And for the other chromosome from Germany, the traditional version includes small pieces of ham or bacon. 

                                          Pain de'epices is served in festive shapes 

The market serves up several possibilities of the pain d’epices. “Spice bread,” a classical dessert that is Germanic in its culinary roots, is Alsace’s rendition of gingerbread.  Although it has no ginger in it, it is chocked full of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and other spices.  At the Christmas market, spice bread is also made as a cookie in all of the shapes of the yuletide season.  These spicy sweet delights pair perfectly with Alsace’s warm yuletide drink, vin chaud, a concoction similar to hot-mulled wine.

Speaking of wine, this region is a treasure for gorgeous white wines.  Yesterday we visited one of my favorite producers, Albert Mann.  The wines from Domaine Weinbach and Trimbach are also noteworthy.

Alsace, an often overlooked area of France, is a special culinary gem.  Other than the center of Paris, Alsace has more Michelin star restaurants per square mile than any other place on the plant.  Regardless of the time of year, it’s a gastronomic treasure- trove and a wonder-filled wine experience you don’t want to miss.

Joyeux Noël & FrÖhliche Weihnacten!  

Friday, December 14, 2018

Mallorca for Foodies

               Paella cooked over an open air wood-fired stove makes for a perfect seaside lunch

I just flew into Palma de Mallorca to recover from jet lag before heading on my trek to the Christmas markets of France and Germany.  This sun-kissed island off the coast of Barcelona is the perfect spot for an off-season siesta, as well as a great place for the gourmet traveler.  Mallorca is brimming with wonderful foodie experiences.

Other than terrific wines (many of which never leave the island as they are consumed by Mallorca’s 14 million annual visitors), this little culinary gem is replete with delectable gastronomic pleasures.   One of my favorites is its special sea salt.  Known as flor de sel (“flower of the sea”), the Mallorca version trumps many of the fleur de sels in neighboring France.

                            Salts vary from rose-flavored to one with a nuance of curry !

Mallorca’s nearly 200 miles of seashore make for a natural gourmet salt industry, however, up until 15 years ago culinary sea salt was not produced here.  A foodie from Germany (who had traveled extensively in France and well knew the value of a delicate finishing salt) saw the opportunity.  She teamed up with the island’s Michelin star chef (Marc Frosh) who mixed the salt with different combinations of Mallorca’s wild herbs.  The rest is history.  Sold in attractive, upscale packaging, these herb-infused flor de sals are exquisite.  The brand is Flor de Sal d'es Trenc.

             Upscale Mercato de L’Olivar offers an enticing selection of the island’s best products

The Mercato de L’Olivar is a not-to-be-missed experience in the capitol city of Palma.  Located a 15 minute walk behind the cathedral (a taxi takes almost as long as it must circumvent the city’s pedestrian center), this up-market foodie’s emporium offers a fascinating array of Mallorca’s freshest food products.  There are also plenty of tapas bars and wine bars sprinkled throughout the market, which makes for fun lunch possibilities.  Also, because of the island’s cornucopia of fish and seafood, there are several sushi bars. (Open 7am – 2pm, closed Sunday)

I’ve been to Mallorca five times and there are a few experiences that are always on my list for wining and dining.   I've listed them below in no particular order: 

                       Although Bar Espana has a dining room, I prefer tapas at their bar

Breathtaking setting for a glass of bubbly

  •      Abaco:  a drop-dead gorgeous setting near the above tapas bar.  Although they serve food in the upstairs dining room, I suggest going only for a glass of Cava in the magnifico downstairs---one of the most stupendous settings I’ve ever laid my eyes on.
Sa Torre de Santa Eugenia is pure unadulterated magic 
  • Sa Torre de Santa Eugenia:   Located only a 20 minute drive from Palma inland, this is my favorite place on the entire island.  The dining room is located in the estate’s old winery, and the chef is one of the best on Mallorca.   Better yet, why not stay in one of the hacienda’s gorgeous rooms and simply stroll to and from dinner?

 Viva Mallorca!  Feliz Navidad !

Friday, December 7, 2018

A White Christmas

I’ve got just the item for you to have a white Christmas….and it’s not snow.  Let’s just call it a white dessert for now.  This no-name sweet is the polar opposite of another similar holiday dessert that is brown.  Although they have similar sounding names, the white version bares absolutely no resemblance to the bah-humbug brown rendition.  They are as different as Snow-White and snow.

Hopefully, I’ve enticed you enough to now actually unveil the name of this wondrous Christmas treat:  it’s a white fruitcake.  Before you stop reading let me say that I absolutely abhor regular fruitcake.  It’s a glucose bomb of the worst kind, sickeningly sweet, often dry, and without any redeeming factor that I know of (well, maybe the bourbon might be OK).  Its white counterpart, on the other hand, has undergone a complete metamorphosis.  There’s no comparison between the two.  In fact, I think the white version needs to drop any association with the dark and be given an entirely new name.  Perhaps White Bliss, Holiday Ecstasy, or White Fruit Crack?

This decadently rich white version melts in your mouth.  It’s a buttery, complex, moist cake in which the sum is so much greater than the many individual components.  Unlike its brown counterpart, the majority of fruit in the recipe is from dates and golden raisins.  I’m not certain of the recipe’s origin, however, Jeffrey Steingarten’s book, The Man Who Ate Everything, offers a similar recipe.  Mr. Steingarten, a culinary professional and popular television personality on the Food Channel, cooks his, at a higher temperature.  

My recipe comes from my husband's brother, John, who gifts us each holiday season with two of these outrageous treats (it used to be one, but a few years ago I ate nearly the entire gift so he now sends one to my husband, and one to me).   John informed me that the recipe he uses appeared years ago in the local newspaper of his wife Iva Lou's family in Oklahoma.   John, who was a Superintendent of Schools in Kansas, began making this fruitcake years ago as Christmas gifts for his teachers.  Seems his troops liked it so much that their cakes began requesting them in October!  I can certainly understand why.


1 pound of unsalted butter at room temperature
2 cups sugar
6 beaten eggs
4 cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup good quality candied cherries, cut in half (recommend Harry & David, if not  
          supermarket version will work).  I use both red and green to give it that yuletide 
½ cup good quality candied pineapple (recommend Harry & David, if not supermarket 
         version will work)
1 lb.  *white* raisins
1 lb. chopped dates
2 cups nuts (either pecan or walnut)
1 tablespoon vanilla


Preheat oven to 250 degrees.  Butter two loaf pans and line with parchment paper.

Place all fruit and nuts in a medium bowl and add two tablespoons from the 4 cups of flour to coat the fruit so it doesn’t clump when added to the wet mixture.  In a large separate bowl, cream butter and sugar thoroughly, then mix in beaten eggs.  Add the vanilla.  With a strong, wooden spoon next add the remaining flour and salt, then the fruit/nut mixture.  Bake for three hours.

Believe me, this one is a keeper.  Visions of fruitcake will dance in your head!