After the storms

California and the rest of the West Coast was slammed by a recent series of storms. Here in Carneros we received our share of howling winds and pounding rain. I have always loved rainy weather, and as I was telling a friend with Midwestern roots, if the worst weather of the winter is wind and rain it’s a reminder that we Californians have it pretty good.

All the vines are dormant right now so the rain is just much-needed water. The deluge of water can erode out vine stakes and the soil around the roots, while the mud can make pruning a nightmare. I bet, however, that most farmers are just grateful for plenty of water this season.

On Saturday, a break in the rain provided for a great chance to enjoy how the storms transformed the countryside. It’s wonderful to walk through the vineyards discovering new creeks and ponds created by the rainfall.

What I’m drinking …

Beverage here man!

The wintry weather had me in the mood for a smooth, indulgent cocktail this past weekend. I was making a big batch of carnitas and wanted a few cocktails before dinner. In light of the carnitas, I found myself leaning to the Mexican coffee liqueur Kahlua and from there it was just a short jump to White Russians.

I do like a little bit of Kahlua and cream in my coffee, but by itself Kahlua is too sweet for my tastes. Mix it with cream and vodka, as in a traditional White Russian, and the liqueur is just sublime. I like to mix an ounce of vodka with an ounce and a half of Kahlua followed by cream to taste. I like a darker cream color with a little unmixed Kahlua at the bottom. The cream lightens the Kahlua and brings out pleasant chocolate notes while the vodka provides subtle backnotes of clean alcohol flavors to remind you that it’s not a melted milkshake you’re drinking.

Like most folks of my generation, I was introduced to White Russians (or Caucasians as some call them) by the 1998 film The Big Lebowski. In this legendary bit of cult classic cinema, the main character known as “The Dude” swills White Russians as he bowls with his loser buddies and finds himself in a kidnap caper that involves vicious rug urination. I apologize for the insider humor but if you haven’t seen this movie you really need to. The Big Lebowski has retained a solid fan base that attends annual Lebowski fests, which people attend dressed up as their favorite characters (I always thought I was a bit of a Walter — “Mark it zero!”). The film’s popularity coincided with a rise in popularity for The Dude’s drink, the White Russian. I remember watching the movie when I was a senior in high school and thinking to myself: “What’s he drinking? He’s mixing vodka with … milk?

The combination does work, although Half and Half or heavy cream is better in a cocktail than milk. Be warned though, the Kahlua and cream masks the fact you’re having a two to three ounce drink and the sugary sweetness of a White Russian can make you down them very fast. Remember, The Dude abides.

The best bar in San Francisco and … the world?

In its most recent edition, Food & Wine named Rickhouse bar in San Francisco as one of the best bars in the world. The owners of Rickhouse are the same people who run Bourbon and Branch the legendary speakeasy in the city that requires reservations and serves exquisite cocktails.

Bourbon and Branch

The magazine has effusive praise for Rickhouse’s selection of drinks as well as its inventive punches “like a gingery Pimm’s with gin and lemon, served in white milk-glass bowls with giant blocks of berry-studded ice.” In addition to Rickhouse and Bourbon and Branch, the owners also run the premier liquor store Cask that offers delivery service of its hard-to-find liquor, wine and beer.

I’ve heard nothing but good things about Bourbon and Branch. When some friends from San Francisco were in town for a Napa wine tasting trip, they couldn’t stop raving about it. I’m intrigued by the bar’s commitment to hand-crafted, quality cocktails and I think the team will need to make a visit for sure.

At the winery

Harvest is long gone, but I’m still working at the winery. I’m proud and thankful that my harvest internship has gone well into the winter.

This time of year the Napa Valley is covered in fields of mustard flowers that offer bright displays of yellow and green.

Right now we’re pulling lots of samples from the finished ’09 wines, most of which are in barrels. After the wine receives an analysis in the lab, the barrels then get laid down for topping. While aging in a barrel, wine can evaporate by as much as five gallons, leaving a significant amount of head space, or empty space, in a barrel. Periodic topping keeps the barrels full preventing excessive oxidation.

Barrel work can be fun and a rush. Sometimes you’ll need to pull a sample from a barrel stacked high on top of other barrels. Barrels are laid on racks that hold two barrels. These racks then can be stacked on top of each other. The stacks can stand as high as 30 or 40 feet. To reach the top you squirm into the tight space between stacks and grab on to the barrel racks to hoist yourself up using the racks and fat part of the barrel as kind of a ladder. To keep yourself steady you rest your rear on another stack of barrels. But as you work higher up in the stack your weight and movement can cause the stacks to sway back and forth. Standing with your feet on swaying stacks of barrels about 20 to 30 feet in the air gives you the sense of working on a mast of a sailing ship.

The really hard part can be navigating the tight spaces between barrel racks. You often have to contort your body while squeezing through gaps that are only about a foot wide. I’m always keeping that good rule of thumb of climbers in mind: maintain three points of contact. For example, grasp a rack with two hands and keep a boot on a barrel before extending the other foot to move.

Spanish missionaries brought wild mustard to California. The plant is essentially a pretty weed and is not used in making commercial mustard.

Scrambling over barrel stacks has given me a little sense of the rush rock climbers may enjoy. After years of telling my more intrepid friends that I’m too afraid of heights to try climbing, I’m thinking now it may be worth a try.

Other recent winery work has included adding fining agents to some wines, mixing and adding sulfur to other wines and the start of some blending. Following harvest, there’s also been quite a bit of cleaning and maintenance. Cleaning is never any fun, but when you need to keep a sanitary environment it’s crucial to a good operation.

So when folks ask me what’s next for the journalist turned cellar rat,  I say I’m pretty honest in that I’m not sure. I’d love to stay at Starmont or find another job at a different winery, but in light of the economy I’m keep a realistic outlook in terms of a job search. Maybe I’ll just devote all my time to this little online enterprise. I’ll think of it as unpaid service for the good of all humanity. In these troubled times, one man took it upon himself to keep spirits uncorked and beverages filled. I could be that man.

Napa hosts an annual Mustard Festival, and there's a pretty good restaurant on Highway 29 just north of Napa called Mustards Grill.

The new Norman Rose Tavern in Napa

When you hear the owners of one of your favorite restaurants has opened another eatery, you’ve got to try it. And judging by the crowd, it seems like most of Napa had the same thought.

Christine and me were joined by some friends for our first visit to the Norman Rose Tavern in Napa. The tavern is owned by Michael and Christine Gyetvan, the same couple that run Napa’s best known pizza joint, Azzuro Pizzeria & Enoteca.

When we went on a recent Thursday night, the place was packed. We put our name down on the list and ended up standing shoulder to shoulder with a crowd at the bar. After a wait of about 2 hours we finally got a small booth table near the front of the tavern. Waiting for a table wasn’t that bad as the bar service was quick efficient, although I was disappointed when the bartender couldn’t answer from memory what lagers they had on tap and instead just tossed me a menu listing the draft selections. Maybe it’s a minor quibble, but I would expect a bartender to know what lagers are on tap. It wasn’t as if I asked what beers they had on tap.

The menu is pretty simple, consisting of bar food and a few salads. I was really impressed with my sausages and mashed potatoes and Christine enjoyed her chicken sandwich although she did say it was a little reminiscent of a Chick-fil-A sandwich. The general consensus of the group was that the tavern was satisfying but a bit predictable. I did like the bar scene, decor and the place has a nice wine list. I found a bargin Rhone blend from Amador County that was delicious. I recommend a visit, but expect a wait.

Tasting in the valley next door

Sipping some Sauvignon Blanc in Suisun Valley. Cheers mate!

Just over the hill from Napa Valley is another wine country, but no, it’s not Sonoma Valley it’s the Suisun Valley wine country. This little known appellation has been producing quality grapes for decades although it quite literally has been in the shadow of Napa.

Located right off of Interstate 80 near Fairfield, the appellation offers a taste of rustic wine country that’s mere minutes from the high-profile indulgences of nearby Napa and Sonoma. Christine and I are friends with George and Gina Richmond who are part of the small winery Mangles Vineyards that runs its tasting room with three other wineries at the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative. After a lunch of decent pub fare at the Rockville Inn bar and restaurant, we stopped by the co-op for our first taste of Suisun valley vintages.

Mangles’ Verdelho was quite impressive as well as their Petite Sirah. Granted, I’m friends with the winemaking team so I do have a bias but I thought all of Mangles‘ wines were solid and pleasant tasting. Their Petite Sirah was especially enjoyable. Petite can often be overloaded with tannins and dark fruit flavors but Mangles’ wine had a wonderful balance and paired great with a dinner of braised sausages. One impressive characteristic of Suisun Valley is the variety of grapes grown in the area. Many “up and coming” appellations have hinged their hopes on one particular type of grape, while Suisun Valley

The co-op tasting room in Suisun Valley

offers an abundance of good grapes. During our tasting trip we tried the standard varietals such as Cab, Pinot and Zinfandel but also enjoyed a mix of less common wines such as Torrantes, Veridigue and several tantalizing blends. I’ll be honest, some wines were terrible. There was a Zinfandel at the co-op that was undrinkable and at another winery later in the day Christine and I both tried a Viognier that left us shaking our heads and wondering, “What did they do to that poor wine?” But on the whole, we were impressed by the quality of winemaking.

The day of our visit was overcast and foggy. The roads and most of the tasting rooms we visited were quite as if most folks had decided to bundle up inside and watch the NFL playoffs, but as the 49ers weren’t in the playoffs this year (Next year for sure, right Alex Smith? Right?) Christine and I were excited about a day of wine tasting. Our next stop after the co-op was Wooden Valley winery and vineyards, the oldest winery in Suisun Valley. Run by the Lanza family for almost a century, this vintage winery has a rustic tasting room with an old world Italian feel. I found their Primitivo to be especially enjoyable. Primitivo is the Italian cousin of Zinfandel, so grown here in the United States it’s Zinfandel, but no matter what it was called — the wine had excelllent fruit characteristics that were followed by a smooth, dry finish.

Our next stop turned out to be my favorite, Ledgewood Creek Winery. This winery, owned by the Frisbie family, had the most complete and satisfying tasting lineup of our tasting tour. We loved the winery’s open and modern tasting room that afforded wonderful views of the estate vines that surround the winery. At one point during our visit, everyone in the tasting room stopped to marvel at flocks of thousands of small, black birds rise from the vines shrouded in mist and take to the air, like a living cloud.

Ledgewood does excellent Rhone style wines. Their Rhone blends, known as GSM for Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre, are exceptional. But they also do other varietals, and Christine and I especially enjoyed a side-by-side tasting of their ’07 and ’08 “Three-Clone” Chardonnays that had excellent structure and wonderful aromas.

Ledgewood Creek Winery offers a great selection of well-made wines at affordable prices.

If you’re interested in visiting Suisun Valley, check out the Suisun Valley Vintners & Growers Association for some basics on the region and its wine. The great part about the area is that you can do a quick tour of some wineries along a loop route that will take off of Interstate 80 and back in about two hours of total driving time.

The other great part is that the wine at almost every winery we visited is quite affordable. Most bottles cost around $13 to $22 and the wineries offer case and club membership discounts. Suisun Valley may be in the shadow of Napa Valley, but it would be worth your time as a wine lover to try visiting the valley next door.

Inside the tasting room at Ledgewood Creek winery.

What I’m drinking …

Home made and tasty!

My own homebrew! I’ve been enjoying the fruits of my own labor for about a month now and I feel confident enough to declare this batch a success. You may recall a recent post in which I described a homebrewing experience.

At the time, I had a certain degree of trepidation about the quality of my beer. I was worried about contamination, odd flavor profiles and the dreaded pitfall for most homebrewers: no bubbles.

Many of my friends had told me they’d tried homebrew before only to experience an insipid and uncarbonated beverage that only remotely resembled beer. It’s often the case that a homebrewer can maintain decent sanitation during the brewing process to create a solid foundation for a beer only to see it fall apart in the bottle because the beer just won’t carbonate. There is nothing worse than flat beer.

Carbonation is really an expression of one of the best characteristics of beer: it’s alive. Well, in a sense, it’s alive. “Bottle conditioned” beer is carbonated by the little yeast beasties that have already fermented the beer. During bottling a small amount of sugar is added to the beer. The remaining yeast in the beer will eat up that added sugar and convert it to CO2. That gas will release when the bottle is opened in the form of bubbles and a nice full head of a foam at the top of the glass. The trick with homebrewing is to know how much sugar to add and how long to let that secondary fermentation, or conditioning, last. Most homebrewers bottle condition their beer as it’s an easier process than injecting compressed CO2.

Rule of thumb is two weeks, but I have found that optimal carbonation can sometimes take up to three weeks. That, my friends, is the hardest part of homebrewing. Having cases of bottled beer that you made yourself just waiting to be opened, though you know you can’t because it still hasn’t reached prime carbonation.

My beer? A little flat after two weeks, but after about two and a half weeks it was drinking nice.

I would describe my beer as something akin to an unfiltered Sierra Nevada. A rich, hoppy taste but with a fuller mouth feel and darker color.Thankfully the beer has not exhibited any tastes of bad contamination and has a cleaner and crisper finish than my other beers.

But perhaps the best praise came from my friend Joe who doesn’t brew and prefers to drink — gasp! — Coors Light.

“This really isn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” he said after the first sip.

“Actually, it’s not that bad at all.”

Robust praise for the humble homebrewer.