Wine Tasting Tips: With Cobb Wines!

During my trip to California, in the beginning of November, I was quite fortunate to be able to spend time with my friends Cindy and Ross. Cindy and I met in Bulgaria a few years back, while we were working for a non-profit organization that helps disadvantaged youths learn filmmaking skills as a tool to express themselves. Through her friendship, I have been exposed to the world of winemaking in ways that would have otherwise been inaccessible. Cindy, who is quite knowledgeable about winemaking, also happens to be married to the fantastic winemaker, Ross Cobb who is responsible for Cobb Wines and also the winemaker for the terroir driven Hirsch Vineyards (check out the recent article from Saveur).

For those of you who are not familiar with Cobb Wines, they are a family vineyard located on the Sonoma Coast.  You can find them on the wine lists of such restaurants as; The French Laundry and other Thomas Keller restaurants, Blue Hill, Le Bernardin, and a long list of other outstanding restaurants.  Even Martha Stewart has twitpic-ed enjoying a bottle with Emeril Lagasse and just the other day and The San Francisco Chronicle just named their Pinot Noir one of the Top 100 wines in 2010.  Saying it was a treat to be visiting wine country with them would be a vast understatement!
After my shenanigans at the Foodbuzz Festival, Ross and I headed towards the Sonoma Wine Country, with a brief detour at the CIA Greystone campus.  Cindy had told me that Ross would be picking me up in San Francisco and that I was free to pick his brain about all things wine!  Woo hoo! I would be a most gracious captive audience, though I am not sure how he on the other hand enjoyed my 2 hours of incessant questions.

I am not extremely knowledgeable about wines.  I have some skills, but they are quite primitive. I’ve been tasting in France, US and Australia, but I get intimidated when I am in charge of selection the wine at restaurants and unsure of my palette in tasting situations.  My biggest question was what exactly am I looking for when evaluation a glass of wine?  This seems like a dumb question, but I needed it spelled out.  You see people sniffing the cork, swirling the glass, observing the color, inhaling deeply, sipping and reacting to the taste, but what evokes specific responses?
What he told me was not a specific dogma, but something to help me prioritize my tastings, something to wrap my head around. The most knowledgeable bit of information that has stuck with me was that 70% of wine tasting is actually the aroma or smell; this is where it is at! Taste only counts for about 25% of the equation and then about 5% for color. Now these percentages are not scientific, but merely estimates. Ok, so know I know that I need to focus on the smells or aroma, but how do I know if what I am smelling is good or bad.  From what I understood is that smelling wine is like smelling a perfume, you are looking for balance, no one essence overpowering the other; the fragrances should blend together harmoniously. We touched upon taste briefly, but I was longing to ask some questions about color. I’ve held glasses up to the light and tipped them sideways to observes stuff, but really, I am just replicating behaviors I’ve seen exhibited before, while he did give me some tips, I am still foggy, so I will save that for another for another post..

The night before I left, we had a wine tasting dinner, I did the cooking and they provided the liquid persuasion. The environment was more social, so I found it hard to separate social drinking or drinking for pleasure to tasting and evaluation.  My mind needs to be focused otherwise I can’t think about what I am drinking, so needless to say, while cooking, chatting and sipping, I kind of got lost.

Some of our last night tasting parade.

Before I left to go home Ross gave me an amazing book from University of California Press called Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise.  
(I have linked to this book from my Amazon store. I get a few cents if you happen to purchase one from my site)
While, I have read numerous books about food and cooking and why they are important, this was the first book I’ve ever read which covered wine in the same manner.  I found this book to be a fast, albeit a tad pretentious read, as it was chockfull of .50 cent words. Aside from that, one chapter in particular struck a chord.  Theise makes a valid argument about taste specifically about what is good taste.  I had long heard that if you believe a wine is good because you like it than it is a good wine, but Theise says the opposite.  Good wine is good wine for a reason, while there is some room for subjective interpretation, knowing good wine is not an elitist epitaph.

“If you like Twinkies, eat them.  Don’t apologize.  Have all the fun a Twinkie delivers.  But don’t claim it’s just as good as a home-baked brownie from natural fresh ingredients, or that anyone who believes other wise is a food snob.”(Terry Theise)

This experience in California’s wine country has taught me that I have so much more to learn about wine.  It was an amazing experience visiting the extreme Sonoma Coast or Fort Ross area and the only thing that I know for certain, is that I must return as soon as possible.  If I ever come to live in the United States for good, this is the area I envisioning inhabiting.

To get your hands on a bottle of Cobb Wines, please visit their online shop.

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CIA Greystone Cooking Demonstration

It had been 5 years since I had been in California, the last time was in Los Angeles, when Angel and I decided to move to Bulgaria. I had added additional days to my visit to incorporate the Foodbuzz Festival and a trip to wine country; Napa and Sonoma.  About a month before my trip, I reserved a space for a cooking demo at The Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Campus.  I had not previously had the opportunity to visit any of the CIA’s campuses and I was quite excited about being surrounded by culinary greatness; to my surprise, I was about the one of the few who attended the demo that felt that way.

This was the second time in my life that I had crossed over the Golden Gate bridge, the first being with my husband on our honeymoon in 2000. The weather was less than stellar on my most recent crossing, but that didn’t stop me from commemorating the event, which was bittersweet without my hubby! The drive through the Napa Valley towards St. Helena was gorgeous.  Route 29 was lined with vineyards and estates, which I was informed you could visit and taste for anywhere from $10 – 30 USD, which would be put toward a bottle should you happen to purchase one. Being that I was on a budget that portion of the tour would need to be saved for the next trip.

We arrived at the Greystone campus early.  My friend Ross Cobb winemaker from Cobb Wines ended up joining me demo, which was nice.  I had originally anticipated going it alone.  The demo was supposed to start at 1:30, but because 44 of the 48 seats were reserved by a team building retreat for Bank of America, they changed the time till 2:00 and we still needed to wait for the tour bus to arrive.  
While waiting, I had an opportunity to speak with the chef, Harold Imbrunetti.  I asked him the most important question, which was where was the best spot to sit and he suggested second row center.  You don’t get to have the first taste, but the best vantage point for the action.  When I told him that I was a blogger, he had asked if I had written to him about getting some gourmet organic rubs and marinades from his company Wine Country Chef for a giveaway.  Maybe he will provide me with some after this post.

Our recipe for the day was Frittata with Crispy Potatoes, Spinach and Truffle Essence.  Chef Imbrunetti provided us with a recipe, but he said that he has never made the same one twice and then proceeded to make changes to the printed recipe we were given.

Frittata with Crispy Potatoes, Spinach and Truffle Essence: 
by CIA Chef Harold Imbrunetti

2 sm russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/4″(.63cm) thick
3 tbsp olive oil (he used a hot/spicy Spanish variety)
1 white onion (sweeter in contrast to the leek)
1 lg leek, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
20 eggs
2 oz (59ml) water
1 sm bunch of spinach leaves, washed and stemmed
1/4 cup finely grated Vella Dry Jack & parmesan reggiano (any hard cheese)
3 – 4 tbsp (60g) unsalted butter, cold (I think he used more… a lot more)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 oz (29ml) white truffle oil


  1. Preheat an oven to 350F (180C)
  2. Place potatoes in a pot with 1 qt (950ml) cold water and 1 tbsp kosher salt.Bring the pot to a simmer and cook for 3 minutes, or until the potatoes are just done through, fork tender.  Drain the potatoes carefully, towel dry excess water and set aside.
  3. Heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil in a sauté pan over a medium burner, make sure the pan is hot before adding the oil.  Add the onion and leek, and sauté for two minutes, or until the onion is translucent. Remove from the pan from heat and allow it to cool to room temperature.
  4. Beat the eggs and water together in a bowl.  Add the cooled onion and leek, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  5. Heat a 9-inch nonstick skillet with an oven-safe handle over a medium burner. Add the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil and arrange the potato slices in the pan in a single layer.  Season the potatoes with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and cook for three minutes, or until golden brown at the edges.
  6. Add chunks of cold butter to the egg mixture, then carefully pour half it over the potatoes.  Arrange the spinach leaves over the eggs.  Cover the spinach with the remaining egg mixture, and sprinkle the surface with the grated cheese.
  7. Transfer the pant to the oven, and bake for 35 – 45 minutes, or until the eggs have set completely.  Remove the pan from the oven, and turn the frittata out onto a large plate.
  8. Cut the frittata into eighths, and drizzle with white truffle oil just before serving. Serve either hot or at room temperature.

The tour bus arrived and our missing audience filled into their seats… only problem, this was the 4th stop on their wine tasting tour and some of them were a little past tipsy.  I knew this was going to be an interesting demo when someone in the back of the room yelled “Bam” as Chef Imbrunetti seasoned the potatoes with salt, to which Chef Imbrunetti replied, even Emeril doesn’t even use that anymore! The lively audience didn’t stop there.
This was a difficult post for me to write because I feel like a bit of a food snob.  Now I understand that not everyone shares the same passion for food and cooking as I do, but I think people should be respectful of the craft.  I happened to be sitting next to one of the most infuriating people in the audience.  She was aghast at the number of eggs in the dish, the amount of butter and cheese and she was quite vocal about it…  “How many calories is in that?” “How healthy is that for you?””I’m not eating that?” and then the icing on the cake… when the chef was layering the spinach into the dish she shouts “That a lot of spinach!”  Needless to say, she and her friends refused to try the dish.  This gave her more time to finish her game of hangman, the answer was GET CRUNK!

Some other choice audience quotes: “Is that frozen?”, “What’s leek?”,”Not a green onion?”, “Is their a secret to cracking and egg?” Chef: “In half.”
Overall the demo was good.  My only grievance was the camera work.  There were two television monitors on either side of the kitchen to give close up details of the action. There were two people controlling the cameras and they were awful.  Their timing was off and they were unable to capture the action on screen.  If the Chef was chopping something the camera was stuck on a potato or an empty dish. Good thing we had good seats! I did however learn some new tricks like:
  • drying to potatoes to help with the browning
  • add the butter cold to the egg mixture, so it slowly dispersers through out the dish and helps give the eggs a better texture
  • don’t add the potatoes raw because then you have no control over them
  • kosher salt helps to bring out the brightness in a dish not saltiness
  • when the oil becomes wavy, before it starts smoking, that is the right temperature to crisp the potatoes.
Thank you Chef Imbrunetti! If you are going to be in the Napa area and would like to schedule a demo please call (707) 967-2320 or visit
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