The Road “Home” to Cooking.

My Road Home to Cooking looks like this. Photo by Sarah Deragon

My Road Home to Cooking.
Photo by Sarah Deragon

Sur La Table “Bigwig Cool Chef Man” Joel Gamoran (I’m pretty sure that’s his title) asked me “So Abi, how did you come to Cook?” I’d flown up to Seattle to tour Headquarters and talk shop. We wore sweaters and munched Cookies freshly baked by icon Dorie Greenspan as TV cameras cooled from her demo.

Dorie's "Jammer" Cookies are really good.

If Dorie wasn’t already lovely enough, her “Jammer” Cookies are really good.

The painter in me watched purpled, gray rain clouds roll in and my food-geek side wondered, how in the hell did I get here? I’m a stay at-home Mom. With two kids. And a fat, lazy dog.  Sure, I make a little wine and LOVE to cook. But trained, professional chef, I am not. (I stifled crazy-person laughter.)  For I am sure the hallowed halls of Sur La Table ought command more reverent reactions than idiotic giggles.

I’ve written my answer to Joel some nine times, happy with none. Tonight though, I poured myself a “local pour” of our Sauvignon Blanc and envisioned women and men like me, out there wielding spatulas and tongs. COOKING — alone or for family.  (Hopefully) Loving the very act of taking raw ingredients and creating something lovely.  Nourishing.  How carrots feel freshly peeled or how broccolini crisps up with solid amounts of salt. That duck confit is surprisingly easy to make.  And if you add green peas to anything starchy, kids love it.

My Apple Thief. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

My Apple Thief. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

I looked back to how I learned to cook in my kitchen — this gorgeously old Victorian, farmhouse remodeled last sometime before 1939. First cooking with my now-husband and then alone with my cookbooks, pencil and post-it’s at hand. Now repopulated with toddlers under foot.  And gave renewed thanks to Sur La Table salespeople for helping me learn the ropes around my own kitchen.

Mixing Fine and Kids' Art. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Mixing Fine and Kids’ Art. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

*Big Side-note: Please know this piece is in no way sponsored, written only in appreciation from this home cook to a store that helped me answer my questions. And still does.*

XX

Grateful to cook every day here at home, Annadel Estate Winery in Sonoma Valley, California.

Readers of my column Abi’s Farmhouse Kitchen know that I quit NASA after 10 years in public service, took about a 92% pay cut and embarked on new life as a “Cellar Rat” making wine. Trading high-heels for steel-toe Wolverines and a pallet jack. Committing myself whole hog to a healthier, seasonal, fully artistic life in Sonoma Valley (Oct. 2007). I literally could cook one thing then.

Harvest is a family affair. The kids skip school to pick one row each. (October 2016, picking Cabernet Franc in the lower blocks.) Photo by Rachel Hairston.

Follow along on Instagram to see more winemaking and winery life: @abisfarmhousekitchen or Annadel Estate Winery on Facebook. Like Harvest is a family affair. The kids skip school to pick one row each. (October 2016, picking Cabernet Franc in the lower blocks.) Photo by Rachel Hairston.

You laugh, but really, it was not even my recipe. My grandmother, Mima, made buttermilk Waffles every Sunday (recipe and tribute)…. Traditions we continue today, albeit with champagne vs. Folgers crystals instant coffee.

Christmas Bells on the side door. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Christmas Bells on the side door. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

It was Love that brought me “home” to Cooking once Dean and I met one summer night at the Farmers Market. I’d gone to town to buy flowers and instead, met the most handsome Man (ever). Tall. Strong. Wearing long shorts and a Stetson with just the right amount of sweat on the brim. Searing blue eyes……………… I stood there in wine-stained work boots. Smelling like Chardonnay lees. Remembering my deodorant failed hours before when cleaning barrels with a gamma jet.

It must be love. Still at it, nine year's later of harvesting estate grown grapes. "Punch Downs" Merlot and Cabernet, October 2016... We made wine here at Annadel for the first time in about 110 years this past Fall.

Still wearing those boots, years later harvesting estate grown grapes. “Punching Down” Merlot and Cabernet… Making wine at Annadel for the first time in 110+ years (Oct 2016) Photo from epic machinist and family friend Garage Metallica, Chrystiano Miranda.

Dean and I moved in four days later.

And started cooking.

First, I cooked to flirt. Food can be quite the passionate exercise, have you noticed?  But lust & love soon expanded into one powerful marriage, babies and circadian Life built near the cycles of our Vineyard.

Proud Wife: Dean rode this beautiful 1914 Harley across the country in September. Winning Division 1 in the Cannonball. Riding the oldest motorcycle ever to cross America. And he did it. Video here of Annadel and our Team Vino.

Proud Wife: Dean rode this beautiful 1914 Harley across the country in September. Winning Division #1 in the Cannonball. Riding the oldest motorcycle ever to cross America. Video of Annadel Estate &  Team Vino.

I really do consider myself a kitchen cook. A Mom and Wife, trying to keep up with the day. Mapping out my grocery list by quadrant, according to the market floor plan (that NASA side lives on). Nerding-out on Food, cooking away earnestly in our farmhouse here at Annadel Estate Winery. We literally live “Between Wars.” Our walls are horse-hair and plaster and my 1941 Occidental Automatic — we found in the Carriage House — we modernized to a 6 burner, 2 stove Wolf Range.

My oldest Sous Chef and little girl. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

At first, I cooked mostly Italian as Dean is 1st generation American-Italian, though I first stepped out when our daughter, Anni, was little to make Julia Child’s Cassoulet from scratch. It took me 28 hours. I fell asleep at the table.

Cooking.

Cooking. Shot by wonderful Sarah (again).

Then fellow home cook and neighbor a few vineyards down, Gail Ross, started working part time at Sur La Table and brought me Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table. “Try it!” she said. “You’ll love it.” And I did.  Making “Roast Chicken for les Paresseux” (pg 200) most weeks still (+extra garlic and garden-cut herbs.)  More importantly, Dorie’s cookbook expanded my home-cooking-horizons. A beautiful gateway to French food. Which then led to Curries, Thai or Mexican, Japanese, Jams and Canning, Southern, and yes, Italian once or twice a week: Much new fare mixed in with Dean’s family heritage dishes.

Long running favorites. Dorie's French Table, Ruth Reichl, and turned on to Hugh Acheson thanks's to friend Deborah's Rainy Day Bites Cookbook Club on IG (@rainydaybites) Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Still in heavy rotation: Dorie’s French Table, Ruth Reichl, and Hugh Acheson thanks’s to friend Deborah’s Rainy Day Bites Cookbook Club on IG (@rainydaybites) Photo by Sarah Deragon.

From my pre-War, ghost-winery Kitchen, I then started to write, first urged by TV food star Heather Christo who visited Annadel some years back. And more recently, by Indian Chef sensation Asha Shivakumar to really take up Instagram (@abisfarmhousekitchen) Thanks to social media, and writing about food, food history, and Winemaking, I’ve connected with such wonderful food lovers, like Naomi’s The Cooks in the Kitchen series, or finding Susana best Carnitas recipe, Potato and leek soup at Jen’s Lemon Apron, and Malaysian style fish stew by Hazel plus many others. All sharing our loved, home-kitchens and earnest -cookery. I’m not talking “perfect shot” kind of bloggers but rather, warm-hearted, apron-clad souls similarly appreciating good living, wine, and home cooking. “Shaking hands” by proxy from our very agrarian spot in northern California’s wine country. Which is how I came to meet the wonderful directors at Sur la Table.

XX

Collecting herbs for a quick lasagna (see below) with Sarah Deragon

Sonoma County — really, the whole national Food Movement — is a return to basics. One giant step away from gridlock and desks and clocked-in/clocked-out days. A blue-skies return to the clean rhythms of seasons and harvests in grapes, vegetables, olives and food stuffs. Eating “close to the source” becoming increasingly a way of life. How we cook. Shop. Menu plan. Even potluck.

Marrying into an Italian American family, I've learned a thing or ten about Pastas. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Marrying into an Italian American family, I’ve learned a thing or two about Pasta. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Through reading food (& art) history, I’ve also learned we American cooks did not pioneer this approach to cooking. I now research (&write short pieces on) how famous Artists curated their own tables, if you will. How their respective Art directly influenced their Food.

Read more of my Creatives and their Kitchens series: Frida was first. Monet second. O'Keeffe is next.

To Read more: Creatives and their Kitchens. Frida was first. Monet second. O’Keeffe is next.

As for me and our little family, good food, art, and real wine are proof of Love. For each other. Our Family. And Friends. And thanks to Sur la Table, I’m whisking proof that real food knowledge makes all the difference as a Mom once asking “timer questions” between blanched and oversmushed Asparagus. I was glad Julia’s words read warmly from the Test Kitchen walls. Making me feel like just another Cook talking shop, eating cookies. Global icons or not, all of us ardently still in love with Food. And our Kitchens.

“Learn how to cook — Try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all, have fun.” ~ Julia Child

Vineyards Sunset. Annadel Estate Winery. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Vineyards Sunset. Annadel Estate Winery. (12/1/16) Photo by Sarah Deragon.

 

Read on for an easy weeknight lasagna recipe. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Read on for an easy weeknight lasagna recipe. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Easy, Weeknight Lasagna:

Ingredients:
3 cloves garlic (peeled) (We use 5)
1 carrot (peeled & quartered)
1/4 yellow onion (peeled & quartered)
1 stalk celery (quartered)
1 26-28oz jar/box of fine Italian diced tomato, or puree
1 bunch Broccolini (5-10 stalks) (Spinach or Kale)
1 bunch Asparagus (5-10 pieces trimmed)
2 handfuls dried pasta (shells) or five lasagna sheets
1 16oz bag shredded Mozzarella
2 balls fresh Mozzarella
Handful shaved Parmesan
Dried Italian herbs
Handful chopped Italian Parsley and Basil, if you have it.

Fall foliage beautifully caught by Sarah Deragon.

Fall beautifully caught by Sarah Deragon.

Preheat oven to 350’F. And set pot of water to boil. (Do NOT salt it).

Puree garlic, carrot, celery, onion, and drizzle of olive oil, then heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sauté veggie mixture 3-4 minutes. Stir in dash of Italian herbs. Cook until fragrant (30 seconds). Add tomato puree, stir well 2-3 minutes to “BROWN” sauce. Remove from heat.

Step 1: Quick Sauce

Step 1: Quick Sauce Photo by Sarah Deragon

Pot of water should be boiling. If not, wait. Then add one giant pinch salt. Add pasta and briefly pre-cook according to directions (about 4 minutes). Drain quickly. (Do not rinse with cold water!)

Think "bite size." No stress. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Think “bite size.” No stress chopping. There is no wrong size. Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Finely Chop Spinach/Broccolini and Asparagus. Quick sauté in butter or olive oils until greens brighten but retain crunch.

Slick casserole dish with olive oil. Layer smear of your quick tomato sauce. Toss in half the pasta (or three of the lasagna sheets). Layer Half vegetables and evenly distribute 1/2 hand torn mozzarella. Lightly layer with half of your shredded mozzarella and dust with shaved parmesan. Repeat for a second layer and top with chopped Italian parsley.

Lasagna in process. Note coarse chunks of Mozzarella? (Burrata can work too). Italians often skim fattening Béchamel sauces and focus on simple cheeses for thickening.

Lasagna in process. Note coarse chunks of Mozzarella? (Burrata works too). Italians often skip Béchamel sauces to focus on simple cheeses for thickening. Apron at Sur La Table (casserole too). Photo by Sarah Deragon.

Wrap with tin foil. Bake 35 minutes. Remove foil and bake 20-25 minutes more, until cheese browned. Remove from oven and let stand 5-10 minutes before serving.

Happy Eating! Happy Eating & Sipping: Cheers!

Wine: Think Outside the Box.

imageI’ve been invited to be an Editor for the FeedFeed — an interwoven website linking cooks cooking away in our kitchens with recipes from around the globe. I am thrilled. It’s a regular site I use when cooking (like Epicurious). And a one-stop place of inspiration. I’ll be introducing and editing posts with my ‘straight talk’ about wine, pairings, cooking with wine… Reader friends, you already know how candid I am about Wine.  How I think of Wine as people, as body types.  Loathing pretensions enshrouding this most democratic of beverages.  That whores have been drinking wine for as long as Queens.  If not longer.

Minestrone on the stove, I sit down to write for the FeedFeed today and wonder if more readers want that shiny verbage used by so many wine labels and sommeliers.  That people are more comfortable with scores and snobbery. That my honesty may be too unfamiliar. Cheap or pricey, Wine represents soil, weather patterns, sweat, and beer.  I feel our callouses and see our face lines knowing a bottle of wine represents YEARS of work.  A full year to grow.  Months to ferment.  24-36 months to barrel-age and even more to bottle age.  Many thousands of dollars just to bottle… And yet, here I am tasked with suggesting wine varietals with gorgeous foods cooked in a single night most ways across this globe of ours. I find this challenge fun and exciting.  But I also feel that it is important to urge us all to reclaim our glasses from the snobbery and falsehoods perpetuated by my industry (just like we’ve done our plates). Shaming that lie that all wine is good for you.  It is NOT.  All wine is NOT created equal (read and how to check.) And as I go about my editing for this very worthy website, I urge us all to drink good wine ($20 USD  and above) and learn about what is in our stemware like we’ve learned to be consciencous about what is in our food and on our plates. To buy local, support farmers, and eat organically whenever possible.

Without formal training in enology, I can only offer my truths and what I’ve learned through my Wolverine boots-clad cellar work, owning a winery, growing grapes, and listening to people much, much smarter than me.  And yet, my former life in politics was all about people. Influencing me even now to still think of Wine in terms of people and body imagery. How our perfect, rare Cabernet Franc is a “curvy ballerina” spinning with breasts and muscular legs in her burgundy hued tutu.  How 100% Cabernet anywhere reminds me of an industrial train conductor — all scrawny brawn and long distance squinting. Buttery Chardonnay brings Julia Child to mind, every single time — all 6’3 of her enjoying that first, life-changing, big butter bite of Sole Muenier.  A crisp Sauvignon Blanc being your athletic, globe trotting best friend — all sunshine and freckles, friendly everywhere. Pinot Noir, the “lipstick” of the group — lush and sensuous. And Zinfandel?  (Red, never white) boasts all the sexy spicing of an erotic belly-dancer.

Proactive, conscientous drinking is a good thing. Taking time and focus before enjoyment. My visions may make sense only to me. And I likely won’t use them often when writing.  But I urge you all to reclaim wine and your individual understanding of wine to make it your own.  If you want to buy anything, I 100% endorse buying Dr. Ann Noble”s WINE AROMA WHEEL.  She has codified every flavor and aroma in all wines into one laminated disc. Teaching your brain and tongue to speak English to each other. (Buy a few and take as house-warming gifts or start a Wine Group to learn new varietals each meeting (taste 5-8 wines each time).  I keep mine tucked away next to my measuring cups and cheese grater for easy access.  Also, Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine Course is top-notch.

Writing tonight, I wish I had a list of you what you thought for guidance. How do you drink Wine? Pair it? What would like to know? Please tell me. I’d love to know.

Cheers!

Wine Follows Food

image

Farmers Market bounty

In the New Year, many of us Foodies make dietary resolutions to lose weight. Some will fail. But today, thanks to non-fad programs, many succeed. Changing lives by branching out to eat cleaner, greener, and leaner. Beginning to exercise and cook at home, bodies (& lives) will change for the better. (I, too, plan to lose the last 11 pounds of baby weight before my baby turns three without giving up my greatest loves: Butter and Wine.)

Those who do succeed, and remain successful in choosing healthy living, may experience a shift in what you like to drink. I’m no dietician but here in Wine Country, I’ve been watching Wine Lists change as Menus shift to keep up with the latest diet trends. From Atkins and Paleo now to Vegan and Gluten Free. And as people (including myself) remain clean eaters — choosing leaner and greener plates — my suspicion is that our taste buds (& palates) are regenerating (every 5-7 weeks) to delight in cleaner, lighter flavors. And in turn, ordering and buying wines that better pair with the lighter foods we eat.

Wine follows Food.  As a nerdy Eater and Winemaker, I’ve found this gradual but consistent shift fascinating! Watching what wines the big and little wineries now produce to keep pace with dietary fads (for lack of a better word). Think about it–  All those buttery Chardonnays and big, giant Cabs that were so 90s went really well with the all-pervasive Cesar salads, shrimp cocktails, creamed chicken or peppercorn steak menu items. Then it was the French fusion/ salmon era of the 2000s with the explosion of Pinot and Sauvignon Blancs on the wine scene. Today, don’t you see more kale, legumes, Asian influences, duck, salads, salmon (still), and seafoods? Pairing up beautifully with nationally relative newcomers like Rosés, Pinot Grigios, Syrahs, and red blends. The leaner the fare, the lighter the body of wines (in my theory at least). Because Wine follows food.

Fish Bake of salmon, shrimp, tomatoes, garlic, pinch red pepper flakes, halved tomatoes, and asparagus. All rubbed down with EVOO and salt and roasted at high heat thanks to Jamie Oliver's Meals in Minutes.

Fish Bake of salmon, shrimp, tomatoes, garlic, pinch red pepper flakes, halved tomatoes, lemon chunks, and asparagus. All rubbed down with EVOO and salt and roasted at high heat thanks to Jamie Oliver. And a giant Cab would overwhelm such delicate flavors in the fish. Choosing a crisp (non grassy) Sauv Blanc or a Rosé would be much better.

This brings us full circle to talk about Pairings. I hear a lot of talk about “how to pair wine with food.” And it really can be a science. But being a busy mom who has dirt under her nails from the garden and vineyard much of the year? I don’t have time to focus on what’s “perfect.” To me, the “perfect pairing” is what tastes good to you. It drives me NUTS when restaurants or top-down articles creep in with that snooty tone of “I know better than you”. When confronted with poncyness repeat after me: Whores have been drinking wine far longer than Queens. (According to the archaeological record at least.)

That said, a basic rule of thumb is this: Start with Color — The deeper the colors, the heavier the flavors will be. And vice versa. Lighter colors like the gold in a white fish or squash pasta go nicely with a sun-kiss hued wine like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. Sharper flavors like grassy wines (Australian and warmer climate Sauv Blancs go nicely with Asian flavors. For the Reds in tomato dishes or pink meats? Branch into lighter colored reds like Pinots, dry Rosés, and Merlot based blends. Red meats and deep red vegetables? Try your Cabernets, blends and Zinfandels. Eggs go fabulously with light, crisp wines. While the greens of vegetables and salads are up to you. Keep in mind, I am no professional sommelier who could explain the complexities of pairings much better but this is how I explain it in “plain speak” to guests and to newcomers to this beautiful world of wine.

This gorgeous Burrata and garden tomato plate by friend Anne Ziemienski would go beautifully with any crisp, dry White or Rosé wine. And a lighter red like Merlot or Pinot too. Wine choices are so versatile -- there is no one right answer.

This gorgeous Burrata and garden tomato plate by friend Anne Ziemienski would go beautifully with any crisp, dry White or Rosé wine. And a lighter red like Merlot or Pinot too. Wine choices are so versatile — There is no one right answer.

Happy eating! And drinking. Cheers!

my Jelly Jar Trick: Not All Wine is Created Equal.

OKAY.  I admit it.  For years back in Los Angeles, I mostly sipped sh*t wine. Thinking it was good wine. And good for me. At $5-12 per bottle, inexpensive wine fit my wallet but still made me feel like I was “healthy.” A glass or two of red wine a day is supposed to be good for you, right?

…Right?

Wrong. Not all wine is created equal. And labels can be of little help. So what works? For we non-sommelier wine-drinkers out there? My Jelly Jar Test.

We make wine how we cook: from scratch, clean, healthy, and delicious.

We make wine how we cook: from scratch, clean, healthy, and delicious. Clearing tanks here with Winemaker extraordinaire Cecilia Valdivia at Deerfield Ranch Winery where we Custom Crush.

When I moved north to Sonoma in 2007, jumping from NASA to learn winemaking as  “Cellar Rat” for a Winemaster, I learned how toxic and fattening my cheap wines were. If you’re drinking wine that is $15 or less per bottle like I was — especially a red — I don’t care how delicious it “tastes,” I’ll wager you are drinking a synthetic concoction of chemical aromas, sugars, food dye, (maybe) some grape concentrate all wrapped up in arsenic and ammonia based sludge before being doused with high levels of sulfites to protect said concoction during it’s unknown lifespan after leaving the winery.

SONOMA means "Valley of the Moon" in Pama.

SONOMA means “Valley of the Moon” in Poma and is home to many boutique winemakers like us hand crafting quality wines you may not find in your home state, but which you can buy direct through Wine Clubs.

For if you think about every bottle of wine in every household, restaurant, bar, and store in every city in every State of this great Nation, you can see that wine has largely become a “fast food” commodity. For Cheap wine is designed to be “cheap.”  From Day One. Before those grapes are picked by combine and extended with additives in tanks stories tall. Now, giant labels, engorged Wineries, and big-box teams are not staffed by bad people. Far from it. Just working for very large corporations more mindful of the bottom line. Selling you something tasty, cheap, seems like a win-win for most people. But if you want to know what’s in your glass? Try my test at home.

My Jelly Jar Trick: Truth Shall Set You Free!

My Jelly Jar Trick: Truth Shall Set You Free!

Directions: Open a bottle. Pour yourself a glass and then another into a Jelly Jar or juice glass. A Mason Jar is my choice. Nothing fancy, you want to encourage wine contact with as much surface air as possible.  Cover the Jar with a paper napkin or paper towel — something so the liquid breathes.  Go enjoy your night. And come back tomorrow –12 or 24 hours later. Or more. AND TASTE IT.

What do you taste? What do you see? or Smell? Does it taste like the lushness of grapes (or some % thereof) you enjoyed last night? If so, then you’ve been enjoying Real Wine or a somewhat decently Vitis Vinifera based beverage.  For wines made from actual grapes?  Taste like the vineyards from which they are sourced. Grapes taste like Grapes. From vine to tank, from barrel to bottle, in your Glass, cool from the wine fridge or warmed to ambient temperatures — it doesn’t matter.  Wines grown conscientiously, made by hand, in volumes meant for regional consumption, minimal destinations like bistros and wine bars or direct to consumer (via Wine Clubs) will likely pass the Jelly Jar Test.

Real Wine takes Leg-Work. And Sweat Equity. Farm Manager Chicho bringing in the Grapes this past Fall.

Real Wine takes Leg-Work. And Sweat Equity. Farm Manager Chicho bringing in the Grapes this past Fall.

But what if you taste something bitter? Smell nothing like the drink you enjoyed last night? What if you see the food coloring begin to separate below a meniscus? “LIke the bottle has been open too long?” What you’ve discovered at this chronological point is Acid. Red or white tinted acid remains from the “wine’s” prolonged exposure to oxygen.  Barring any winemaking malfunctions, bad timing on barrel lifespans, corkage (TCA contamination), residual dish soap (or toothpaste), or heat/cold spoilage… What we’ve got there in your jar is a multi-billion dollar industry product sold as “Healthy” to the millions of good people cooking, eating, and sipping sincerely across America.  A tasty, inexpensive product fabricated for domestic consumption with “food grade” chemicals simulating mouth feel, “finish,” oak dust to fake barrel aging, etc… Down to using steel drums of sub-clone concentrate of Pinot 667 or Cabernet clone 37 for example. The cheaper the bottle? The more chemicals, food dyes, arsenic and amonia based sludge you’re consuming. Nightly. (Think McDonald’s pink slime burger additives. Seriously. And don’t even get me started on wines like Yellow Tail.) Because just like when fast food meals cool and taste disgusting? The same thing is happening in your stemware. Cheap wine warms /oxygenates to reveal it’s true self.

Grown Well. Our Estate Grown Merlot. Vintage 2015.

Grown Well. Our Estate Grown Merlot. Vintage 2015.

Let’s Talk Turkey: PRICE

In my experience bottles costing more than $22-25 for a white and $28-30 for a red have higher chances of being cleaner and longer-lasting. Over the years, I’ve done this little test on wines from $5-$100 per bottle. Keeping track of which made my neck itch (oak dust added to fake “oaky” flavors), get that 2am Sinus Headache (synthetic/chemical additives), or just plain feel gross and “fat faced” (added sugars and food dyes.) But I’ve been surprised — a lovely $19 red made by a huge producer and sold in Hawaii or that $75 bottle of famous Chardonnay that gives me a migraine each time, regardless of vintage. My rule of thumb is if you figure a wine — regardless of price — can be found in at least 30 states (or even five) in large amounts in most restaurants? YEP, these wines will likely fail your Jelly Jar Test.

Price is still a decent initial indicator of quality. Simply because Real wine is more expensive because it costs that much to make.

Counting Barrels.

Counting Barrels.

When your wine is grown nicely (like ours) made by hand (like ours), aged in barrels for years (like ours), and at least 80% grapes (let alone our 100% grape based wines), the price tag goes up. Because it costs us that much more to produce real, old-school wines. For example, if Chardonnay costs $3950 to purchase one tonne (equaling two barrels and approx 50 cases of wine) — that bottle of Chardonnay needs to start at $39.50 to recover just creation costs. But you’ll have a tasty, HEALTHY Wine with all of the praised body benefits attributed. A drink that lasts for days, even a week. Will not make you fat, give you headaches, wrinkle early, or junk up your body.  In fact, I cook often from leftover bottles opened months with very delicious, non-stale results.

Girl Scouts Honor.

Hand-Made efforts extends even to Cleaning Bins. Dear Friend Ben of Idle Cellars before he was the famous Winemaker Ben Larks.

Hand-Made effort extends even to Cleaning Bins. Dear Friend Ben of Idle Cellars before he was the famous Winemaker Ben Larks.

What You Can Do To Drink Well: Join WINE CLUBS. Buy Direct. Pay less for well made wines shipped straight to your door than you would for crap wines sold in bulk to your states’ distributor. I am also more than happy to connect you with solid wine families and small wineries producing wines in very similar, clean ways to us. (With zero kick backs. Just happy to spread the love!) Besides, buying direct? Is also cheaper for you and helps sustain solidly producing wine folk here in Sonoma.

Our Annadel Estate Winery wines are hand-picked, usually-family style, each and every time!

A Family Affair: Our Annadel Estate Winery wines are hand-picked, family style, each and every time.

What’s Next: There has been some successful movement against fake wines and their producers recently. For the FDA does not require anything but the Surgeon’s General Warning on wine bottle, not the inclusion of additives, sugars, chemicals, and high levels of arsenic. Misleading the American Public to think all wine is created equal. Several Class Action lawsuits are bubbling up, working to inform the American consumer and force bulk, cheap wine labels to list what ingredients are in their crap wines.  The most successful Class Action Lawsuit from TaintedWine.com against big, popular labels such as Sutter Home, “Two Buck Chuck” Charles Shaw, Cupcake, Beringer, and Franzia for unsafe arsenic levels. Or google “arsenic wines” in the WS Journal, NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, USA Today, BBC, etc. to read more.

Be careful with what your drink, dear readers. As you are careful what you eat.  When curious, please use my Jelly Jar Test. Works every time. I promise. And cheers! Proactive, conscientious drinking is a good thing.

Cherry Liqueur: Make Now. Love Later.

Basano del Grappa

Basano del Grappa

My husband’s family hails from Bassano del Grappa and neighboring town of Borso in northern Italy. Just outside of Venice in the lower Alps. The Family is still there. It’s just my Dean, his brother Tom and our families in America now. The rest of the extended clan are still cooking beautiful dishes in their ancestral homes, working as Butchers, and making a little wine and grappa in a collective town effort. They keep their low-alcohol, fragrant red wine in a 5 gallon car-boy in a special cupboard beneath the kitchen sink and pour small amounts to enjoy with dinner in beautifully aged, slightly chipped glassware.

Dean’s Nonna (Lucia), mother (Olga), and grandfather (Adolfo) emigrated to America in the aftermath of World War I. They settled first in Queens and then soon to a small town in the desert called Las Vegas, Nevada. Dean’s father (Enzo) spoke mostly Italian and was a great bartender known for his Vodka Martinis. Lucia was a seamstress, flawless cook by all accounts, and Matriarch. The boys parked cars and played football on scholarship. Their family is one of hard work, immigration, sending home what money they could to family still in Borso and Basano, and, of course, Cooking. Dean’s grandfather, Adolfo, was the one who enjoyed the ritual of one shot of Grappa with his espresso every afternoon and as Dean remembers, would make Grappa in their Queens apartment bathtub. Grappa and wine are deep parts of my husband’s blood.

When I first met Dean at the Farmer’s Market some seven years ago, he was in cahoots with some other “Degos” to make Grappa from the dregs of our wine making processes here in Sonoma.  First, they used rehydrated “Pumice” (the dried skins and seeds left over from pressing out every last bit of wine).  Next batch? He and Mike Muscardini used “Must” — the still sopping wet skins and seeds left from barrelling-down our Zinfandel from tank to barrel.  This resulted in a smoother, more lyrical softness to the otherwise harsh mouthfeel in Grappa (I think at least).  All produced (slightly illegally) in a hand-hammered copper still for home consumption. Now, we have just released our first commercially produced Grappa called “Adolfo” ($40) made from the “Must” of our Estate Grown Merlot, the vines right outside my kitchen window.

And it is this Grappa that Dean prefers me to use when making our “Cherry Moonshine” each Summer…  But I cannot purely use Grappa.  No matter how much he loves it. No matter their family history with Grappa.  Because a small glass of Cherry Liqueur in the coming cold Winter nights is my FAVORITE evening splurge.

And because… well… Grappa. Makes. Me. A. Bitch.

CHERRY MOONSHINE: 

First off, this is NOT my recipe. Rather this is Kevin West‘s take on an old classic. His book on canning and jamming the growing season is a Bible of sorts and 100% belongs on your shelf: Saving the Season.

Second, after two years of tweaking — and debate — Dean and I have reached an understanding on what our ingredient equations should be.  BUT we still differ in which liquer to use… I think Bourbon or Vodka and Dean adamantly prefers our Grappa. Nose hair bleeding levels of Grappa, in my modest opinion. So pick your your own style and make this definitely delicious, no-fail recipe. Minimum effort with big flavors. Provided your ingredients are top notch.

Ready to store.

Ready to store.

We compromised this year.  I made five batches (so far) of three large jars each with Vodka, Whiskey, Amaretto, and yes, our Adolfo Grappa for Dean.  Three whole jars just for him.  Some we will drink this Winter and Fall.  Some we will continue to age another year.  I leave it up to you how long you wish to age your Cherry ‘shine. 4, 6, 10 months or longer but I think at least 4-6 months for maximum flavor melding.

Such deliciousness come this Winter.

Such deliciousness come this Winter.

Ingredients:

  • Mason Jars and lids (larger size for home use and make two or three for house-warming gifts during your holidays)
  • Dark Cherries (eyeball your jars and buy accordingly. But at least a pound.)
  • 1-2 bottle high quality 80 proof liquors like Maker’s Mark, Kettle One Vodka, Gentleman’s Jack, or Amaretto.

Directions:

Scald Mason jars and lids in hot water 5 mins.

De-stem cherries and sort, removing any moldy or damaged cherries.

Remove jars and lids from water safely (I use rubber-tipped tongs). Fill jars with cherries. You can snugly pack cherries (Kevin West’s version) or fill jar more loosely (like we do). We’ve found that everyone just loves the flavored liquor with a cherry or two in their glass. So I pack the jars more loosely with a good 1 inch of pure liquor on top.

Fill jars with your choice of alcohol. Place lids on snugly and store 4-6-10+ months in a cool, dark place. I put my Cherry ‘Shine up with my recently made jams that need time to settle.

First cold rainy night this coming Fall? You’ll be so happy you made this!

CHEERS!

I leave the Cherries up with my setting Jams. You want to store in a cool, dark place.

The Night Our Sheep Scared Away Coyotes

Welcome to the Farm!

Day 1: Welcome to the Farm! All 60 of you.

The Night Our Sheep Scared Away the Coyotes. All of them.

One cold morning in early Spring, Ed “the Sheep Guy” brought 60 sheep here to Annadel. 30 Lambs and 30 Mamas (approximately).  We gathered friends with wee Littles and toasted these babies and mommies with chilled bubbles as they lept from Ed’s trailer into our hibernating Merlot & Cabernet blocks.

Sheep are INCREDIBLE when you grow organic wine grapes. They eat weeds down to the teensiest nub, minimize any unwanted growths, aerate the soil with their sharp hooves, and fertilize literally everything (vines and later, legumes and mustards crop covers) with copious poop.  We move the sheep from area to area on the farm in a systematic rotation to grow our crops as cleanly as possible. Olives included. But for cold spring and summer months, we lend our overgrowth to Ed’s sheep (plus a small management fee). In return, we get one full beautifully butchered lamb for our freezer.

Insert a bit of Farm Humor: On this gorgeous Spring day, my acupuncturist and her family were here to welcome the baby lambs. Jennifer asked my husband what kind of Sheep these were. And Dean replied, “Meat.”  (He is so cheeky).  She paled rather considerably… But to her credit, she still talks to us.

 

The Day After: Grazing happily behind the Electric Fence.

The Day After: Grazing happily behind the electric fence.

That night, a storm moved in. Blowing cold spring rains into our part of Sonoma Valley. Any other chilly rainy night, I’d slip on my horrendously frumpy “mom” socks — hand knitted by a hippie in Cloverdale and SO warm — then snuggle under downy covers and Pendleton blankets with my hubby and likely our kids. Because they run in and sleep with us by 3am most nights… But on this night? I worried about our baby lambs. Were they warm enough? What if the one limping got a hoof infection? What if they ate too much of the vines? What if the mountain lion practically stepped over the fence and FEASTED? This being their first time here with us and all.

And then? All of that flew smack out the window. Because that loud coyote pack descended out of the rainy silence and systematically cat-called each other across the Valley and then into smaller and smaller… and smaller… And smaller… radius around the penned-in sheep.

I should mention that at this point, we had a rather fearless pack of coyotes hunting the property at night. Most nights. They’d cleaned out our chickens… even in the daylight hours!  Mostly because Annadel was abandoned and neglected for a good 15 years before us. The wilderness had moved in. And those assh*les were brazen! But now we have two rifles and an enormous farm dog. But I digress.

Back to that rainy night: When we heard those high-pitched eerie bitches cackle to each other and close ranks around our Merlot blocks out in the vineyard? We assumed the worst. And when the wails went higher?  The lambs kept crying. The coyote pitches answered more feverishly! The very, very Worst. Like the banshees themselves had swooped in from Emerald Isles to devour our innocent little lambs — well, before we did.

Such a horrific AWFUL night. We assumed the worst. No one slept.  Dean woke early with a heavy heart. Me, with him. Certain of carnage. And lumbered out into the early dawn to asses the damage. And what did he find?  Matted blood and swaths of fleshy fur… Stuck into the *exterior* wiring of the electrical fence. Those Brimstone dogs had scorched and scalded themselves by voltage trying to get at our Sheep.  And every single one of our gorgeous sheep? Happily alive, unscathed, and 100% accounted for. Practically skipping… If I didn’t know better.

And we have never seen another coyote since.

 

Abi’s Farmhouse Kitchen is written by Me. Former NASA and LA City Hall wonk turned wine rat, artist, and cook after a midlife crisis at 30. Seven years later, add Mom to two, wife to one feisty Winemaker making Gold & Best in Class Wines, loving life, and growing food at Annadel Estate Winery in Sonoma Valley!

How many glasses? And how much?

“How many glasses of wine?” [in one bottle] is a question that we get somewhat frequently here at Annadel Estate Winery.  And it’s a fair one.

But before we begin, heads up folks: Our colicky newborn slept five straight hours last night (yay!)… And I have my sassy pants on today.

Let’s get this straight people.  A bottle of wine holds THREE proper pours.  I call them “Local Pours” when at a favorite spot.  And here in wine country, that translates correctly to 1/4+ to 1/3 of a standard 750 ml bottle of wine per glass.  Now, should the sun be up more than at a 90′ angle (i.e. anytime after lunch), you can extend that to FOUR glasses without being a dick.

** The exception to this rule is brunch or luncheons that commence before Noon… If either said meal is in progress, a bottle of wine then holds four to five glasses.  Sometimes six.  Depends on the size of your sweetly colored or etched little glasses.  And in my book, if there is iced tea or fresh iced coffees along with it (a la Girl & the Fig restaurant).  But for the rest of us hard working men and women, a bottle of wine holds three to four solid glasses.

Our Big Pink Rose at picnic lunch

I could probably stop there but I won’t as this is my first quasi-adult conversation today.

Here at Annadel, we have a personal, family policy to shake free the veneer of snooty wine crap and tell it to you straight.  Probably because we are a boots-loving clan.  Simply put:  Wine is a pursuit of passion.  A lustful enterprise.  A partnership with the earth.  Our daily reminder to slow down, kiss your children, goose your spouse, and smell the roses.  That God loves us.

But too many people can sell you the image of wine and not really talk about it with you.  Snooties don’t have the dirt under their fingernails. In politics, we called it “Talking Points” versus a real understanding of an issue. You know, the generic buzz words.  But as growers and actual winemakers, we talk plainly with you (not at you) about how to make wine.  How to taste wine.  What to see, smell, and swallow for.  We walk the vineyards and show you what’s up.  How the vines are doing and where they’re at.  It’s a joy to meet new people, open our cellars, and hear about their lives.  How they drink their wine and when.

And folks’ second general question, to be fair, is often “Why is fine wine so expensive?” The straight answer is because it costs that much to make.  It’s not only that fine wine costs so much, it’s also that it’s worththat much (and so much more)….  A bottle of wine is years worth of labor from the growers, winemakers, cellar workers, bottling, and aging costs…

Early risers up before the sun to mow the Annadel Estate Winery vineyard

We join with our fellow hands-on craftsmen in profiting mere dollars per bottle on average.  Maybe.  Think about it.  You want to drink wine not doused with regular chemicals for weed abatement? It takes a vineyard manager and winemaker paying constant attention plus three or five guys every month mowing and hand tilling the soils beneath each vine.  You want wine that’s not fattening? You need to drink wine that is picked from ripe grapes and not doused with sugars, food coloring, and syrups to fake the flavors of a perfect vintage.  You want wine that doesn’t bloat or give you a headache? You need wine consciously made and aged in (or with) real oak versus doused with oak dust to simulate the aging process and/or mask a bunk harvest.

Ed the Sheep Guy's sheep are here through the late winter and early spring to organically eat the weeds, aerate the soil with their hooves, and fertilize with their... you know.

Good winemakers don’t charge you an arm and a leg for wine that doesn’t cost us an arm and a leg to make.  So choose that better grade wine next time at the store.  And pour yourself that proper glass of wine, stretch out, and take two minutes to mentally mull the time, care, and sweat that brought you this vintage.

Ok.  Back to babies, diapers, and Colic… Is it 5 o’clock yet?

Loving Chardonnay

8:06 PM on a Thursday night:

Just shy of 6 months preggo with our second, I dream and dream and dream of a full, proper “local’s pour” of crisp, bright Chardonnay.  I can even hear it unfurl into clean stemware right now!  Selfishly, we have this cellar across the creek calling my name.  And no matter how you cut it, my damned Cucumber tea is NOT the same thing as Chardonnay.

To brag, we have one of the finest, most fabulous Chardonnays in both Valleys.  Crisp, bright, surging with white fruit, and barrel fermented with just a hint of oak.  We make the kind of wine we as red-wine-lovers want to drink.  You can do that when you hand-make your wine in small batches.  And when you wear cowgirl boots to work and sling wine out of an old redwood barn!  But when you’re a wine label known specifically for your reds and you go on to tackle the Queen of all white grapes, respect and care must be taken at every turn in the winemaking process not to over oak your beautiful juice.

A handful of our gorgeous 2012 Vintage, Los Chamizal Vineyards

Chardonnay is a robust, magnificent grape.  Superb, majestic, statuesque and all female.  Born from the tight Burgundy hillsides eons ago, Chardonnay flourishes especially well in the warm sunny microclimates in California.  I, for one, am a fan of ‘less expensive’ Chardonnays — the crisper, brighter Chards that don’t often fare well in the heavy handed palate of America’s wine critiques.  Which suits me and my pocketbook just fine. Had I followed “90 pointers” and not explored my own palate over the last 5 years, I wouldn’t know that I favor more elegant, medium- to light-bodied wines that go well with what I am cooking.

By “cheaper” Chardonnays, I mean usually less than $30 a bottle with a cellared $55 bottle for a special occasion.  Unless you won’t bat an eye, forget the $70-$125 bottles.  People buy those usually when they haven’t done their homework.  Be proactive! Conscientious, safe, proactive drinking is a good thing!   It is how you learn.

To get down to brass tacks, I like Chardonnays grown in a cooler, more coastal zone that is pressed from the skins and stems immediately (see picture below) and fermented in a mixture of steel and neutral French oak with subsequent barrel aging and only partial ML.   In English, grapes coming in from cooler vineyards tend to produce more fruit-driven wines with a healthy dose of minerality and sandy shale.  Fermenting their juices without the skins in steel and neutral oak lifts up the fruit and mineral elements over any resulting butter or vanilla notes.  Grapes from the Napa Valley or equally warm regions show (after production) too much vanilla and butter for me.  But every single person, tongue, nose, and mouth is different.  Yet this butter quality is a key entrance point for wine drinkers across America — like whole milk and vanilla extract, its a mouthfeel and familiar flavor newcomers to wine feel comfortable with.  As winemakers today, I am grateful to all visitors who started with a buttery Chardonnay and now are taking the next steps to learn about their palates and explore different types of Chardonnay.

A look at pressed Chardonnay juices inside the Bladder Press for this 2012 vintage

Unfortunately, Chardonnay have been bastardized for decades into some butter-ball in a glass.  Luckily, we as an industry are seriously trending away from that but for years huge Wine houses produced Chardonnays for supermarket shelves across the country, cut corners in production, and mixed in sugars, syrups, and additives to simulate fine wines.  And the result is SOOOO fattening.  Think of anything less than $20 anywhere as pouring fast food into your glass every night.  You may as well self-smear cellulite on while you’re at it.  These same houses also paid some cellar rat to don a Hazmat suit and add oak dust to ginormous tanks of fermenting grape juice.  The gunk is filtered out later after fermentation and chemically creates that “oaky mouthfeel”  in the finished wine.  It fakes that buttery quality that expensive ‘buttery Chardonnays’ get from extensive barrel fermentation and aging.  Oak dust additives also gives those of us with sulfite sensitivies a nasty headache.  And in my case, makes me a bitch.

Here in California, we are lucky.  There are more than 850 different, federally recognized Wineries selling Chardonnay.  Most of them sell more than one option too.  In fact, more than 1/3 of all grapes grown in this Golden State are Chardonnay.  She’s a lovely muse to be sure and grape growers must work harder to coax vineyards to yield large crops every year.  Naturally, Chardonnay as a vine is more restrained than say Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling.  As a result, grape tonnage will be more expensive than other white varietals — hence a bigger price tag starting off.  And she loves French oak.  When Chardonnay spends time in French Oak barrels, the wood amplifies the grape’s natural vanilla, citrus, and white fruit characteristics, creating a more spectacular wine.  (Which is why big houses cut corner to fake this.  It tastes good.)  But for fine wine artisans, like Dean and myself, cutting those corners demonizes a lengthy, creative waltz we’ve been honored to learn from leaders today and lessons learned from generations past.

Since some of you know I’m a wine writer here in Wine Country, I try A LOT of Chardonnays.  But when it comes to my home and my glass, I drink and buy what I love.  My exceedingly short and steady list of favorites is:

  • 2010 Annadel Estate Chardonnay ($34) http://annadelestatewinery.com
  • Schug Carneros Estate Chardonnays — all three are perfection ($22-55) http://shop.schugwinery.com
  • Hafner Chardonnays — both are superb and I am an actual member of their Wine Club! (mid $20-30s)  http://www.hafnervineyard.com/
  • Deerfield Ranch Winery Chardonnay — the right amount of butter! ($35)  http://deerfieldranch.com
  • Idle Cellars Chardonnay — Two strong boys created one of the more lovely and lyrical Chardonnays anywhere in the Valley! http://idlecellars.com ($20)
  • MacRostie Chardonnay from Wildcat Mountain Vineyards — bright and bountiful http://www.macrostiewinery.com  ($35)
  • Haywood Estate Chardonnay — the Los Chamizal Vineyards source for our Chardonnay and Deerfield’s.  He knows his soil and vines surely! http://haywoodwinery.com

 

 

I’d also recommend Lynmar Chardonnay for a killer Russian River Valley selection if their Tasting Room staff wasn’t so unpleasant!

Out of FIVE YEARS of conscientious, proactive drinking and learning, I give you my short list.  Happy and safe drinking!

“Cork Dorks” vs. the Wine Aroma Wheel

Much has been written, and even more said, on the subject of Wine.  Wine has been produced for literally thousands of years.  The earliest known production appears in the archaeological record around 6,000 BC in Georgia — that’s the late Neolithic era people!   And the last 40 years of cross-cultural competition and technological improvements (plus rise of New World wines!) only capitalized on millennia after millennia of a drink enjoyed by Kings, Queens, clergy, farmers, scholars, sailors, artists, whores, and more.

Before being in the industry, all I knew was that I very much enjoyed drinking wine.  But the consistent and proactive exploration of wine and my palate (i.e. mouth, tongue, nose) has become a lifetime passion and one of my central tenants.  After 5 years, I know a ton more than I did but now I also know that one lifetime is not nearly enough to truly master this subject.  I am still a newbie and a novice.  And may be so for at least another decade.  But my life on the Annadel vineyards and in making and writing about wine provides me a unique position to at least talk frankly about wine.

First, there is an absurd amount of snotty people who use Wine as their pillar of snobbery. They are idiots.  Knowledgeable yes, but idiots nonetheless.  I am also guessing they have never really worked in a vineyard or tracked dirt into the house racing in to pee. Their nails have never been purple for months on end nor have their clothes begun to self-ferment because Harvest is just that nuts!  

These “Cork Dorks” are just a different variation on the age-old-theme of someone with a ton of knowledge, but even more insecurities. *I am not talking about the down-to-earth wine lovers and Soms.*  But in my book, the passionate pursuit of Wine is democratic and should be available to anyone.  We all have tongues and noses and taste buds and empty glasses with which to pour a beverage of choice when we eat dinner or lunch.  Or breakfast! Wine goes very well with eggs.  But Cork Dorks would have you believe Wine is an aloof art cloistered to Private Clubs.  However, when you grow the grapes, make the wine, bottle it and cook food with which to pair it, I can emphatically tell you that’s a load of crap.  While Wine is a lofty art form, it is also a beverage.

It is a luscious passion that takes joyful work.  A key to learning this love (I think) is the invaluable WINE AROMA WHEEL by Dr. Ann Noble at UC Davis.  Everyone needs this.  If you buy one thing to learn about wine, this is it.  And it is only $6.  *There are lots of spin-offs for four times the price (even on Amazon) so be sure you buy it from the source.  Go here: http://winearomawheel.com/

Keep it on the kitchen table.   When you taste wine at night — or better yet with a regular group of friends — this Wheel will help teach your tongue and mouth to think together.  How to describe the wine accurately!  To connect your palate with brain.  So when you taste currants or cassis or toasted walnuts you say “aha!! so that’s what that is.” Even the snootiest Cork Dork had to start somewhere.  No one is born knowing the difference between stewed and fresh red tree fruit or passion fruit and white tree fruits.  You have to teach your brain to know how to describe the flavors.  The Aroma Wheels boils down words to the central flavors of pretty much all wines out there — no matter the country or maker — in one $6, laminated circle of knowledge.

I promise you, learn your own words and claim ownership over your tastes for wine.  You will never listen to Cork Dorks again.