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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WWOOF-ing in Dabovo!

Have you ever wanted to break out of your element and try something different and exciting?  Well that is exactly what Angel, the girls and I had in store for us when we decided to become WWOOF volunteers for a week. For those of you who are unfamiliar with WWOOF, it is an acronym for WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms, the specifics of the the opportunity are discussed directly between the host and the volunteer. Usually in exchange for a few hours of work (manual labor) per day, they provide you with room and board for a specific period of time. This organization operates all over the world with specific countries or regions having their own sites, which provide you with a list of hosts in that particular country or region.  Being that we are living in Bulgaria, we became members of WWOOF Bulgaria, for a small fee.  Each country has different membership fees or some are free.
Once we became members, Angel and I read through all the host profiles to find people who could offer us the experiences we were looking for and who we think we would be compatible with.  We were looking to learn about wine and winemaking, organically if possible. Angel and I are rather moderate and easy going. Some of the hosts offered a more rustic and natural experience, but we wanted flushing toilet and shower access, plus people who weren’t living a strict lifestyle, like no alcohol etc… (after a hard days work I need a cold beer) We were also looking for people with children, so our girls wouldn’t be bored.  We finally found the perfect hosts, so we contacted them and hoped they would like us too.  We had exchanged some e-mails and few phone calls and we were set.

Our hosts would be Jo, an amazing artist and printmaker and Grahaem a talented winemaker, plus their two daughters.  Both are passionate about food, wine and clean living. In Bulgaria, they are working on becoming international garlic mavens.
In the car driving to Bulgaria’s Valley of the Roses, near Kazanlak, is where you can find Dabovo and I was a little nervous about spending 10 days with virtual strangers.  When we arrived, the girls all got along well right off the bat, but I had little doubt about how they would spend the week.  
The girls being silly at the river.
Our first task was to set up our abode for the next 10 nights, which was something I was really looking forward to… sleeping in a tent! Seriously, I wanted to unplug from life under the stars, which were gorgeous by the way.
Tent sweet tent!
The work that Angel and I did was divide along sexual boundaries, the men did the heavy lifting and we did the women’s work, which I didn’t mind because it was hot as hell and I have no idea how to put a roof on a barn, but peeling garlic that was a tedious task, which turned into a slight compulsion during our stay.
The barn
The guys up on the roof
Jo and Grahaem, had planted 5 decacres of garlic that need to be sorted, broken down and peeled. I spent most of my time peeling loose cloves of garlic. I couldn’t keep my hands off the stuff.  I even developed garlic calluses. What are those you ask?  Well, the first few days the garlic juice burned the skin underneath my nails particularly my thumb nail, which was my primary peeling tool.  By the third day a protective barrier had formed under my nail and it hurt no more. I am not a masochist, but there was something very zen about peeling the garlic.  Once I establish a rhythm the hour zoomed by. The fruits of my labor would eventually be smoked or if it was substandard, pureed to make an organic anti-fungal garden solution.
Jo sorting garlic.
Me sitting in a chair peeling garlic… you can see my feet!
Loose garlic for peeling.
Early on the boys decided to switch their focus from the barn roof to building a cold smoker for the garlic.  Jo found some interesting instructions on-line and the boys managed to recycle an old wardrobe for the body of the smoker… it was quite stylish! The process was long and a bit complicated as they were trying to be cost effective with the build, but the results were fantastic.
Grahaem hard at work.
The left side of the wardrobe is for smoking the garlic, the right side could be used to hand or dry garlic, cheese, meats… endless possibilities!
The burning basket for wood chips.
The 22lb (10kg) of garlic that I peeled.  You don’t realize how much that really is.
A tower of garlic ready to be smoked!
Stoking the flames with Angel’s favorite fire tool… the air pump.
Both Angel and I are really glad that we gave the WWOOF-ing experience a try.  We made some great new friends and learned some new things about garlic, construction and permaship.  Our real interest was learning about winemaking, which we did during our evening conversations over some fantastic food and wine. We now know that our next adventure is going to be working a wine harvest in California next year from August to December.  We tried to find a position this year, but our time frame wasn’t flexible enough to accommodate the vineyards.
If you are interested in garlic, you can find them at Tears of Orpheus, your one stop shop for all you organic garlic needs, plus a gorgeous smoked garlic to really add a kick to any meal.  You can shop online and view their products here.  If you become a “Liker” on their Facebook page, you get a discount!

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4 Days in the Margaret River Valley

Our time in Perth was divided by a couple of mini vacations. Our trip south to the Margaret River Valley was by far the most adventurous culinarily speaking, as the region is noted for its world famous wines. We did however find time take a pause from wine tasting to visit some of the of the nature areas, like Castle Rock, Canal Rocks and the Valley of the Giants, which were spectacular!

When we stopped over in Singapore before arriving in Australia,  We met someone who owned a vineyard, while I didn’t get all of their details, they was very happy to offer me some of her favorite places in Margaret River. I didn’t get to visit all of them, but here is their list:
Flutes at Brookland Valley Winery, which Angel and I did do!
Xanadu, Done!
Fermoy Estates (Described as: small but good)
Brown Hill (Described as: small but good)
The amount of wineries are a bit overwhelming, I haven’t been wine tasting since 2001, when I stayed for a week in the Loire Valley in a small village Montoire, but at that time my mind and attitude wasn’t really focused on appreciating the nuances of the wine.
We started at Clairault, which was one of Ness and Grant’s recommendations. Because Ness’s brother-in-law is a distributer, we had been indulging in their wines for over a week before our arrival. Angel and I liked the riesling, which was dryer that the rieslings that you get from Bulgaria. I could smell the aromas of lime, talc and wet slate, which were appealing to me. They gave us a cheat sheet at the tasting, so I knew what to look for. My nose is not that developed. We ended up buying the Shiraz for a friend; the aroma was that of being in a kitchen preparing Christmas treats.
Next stop, we went to Vasse Felix, which was a gorgeous estate. There was one wine that I tasted that I regret not buying, the Heytesbury Chardonnay 2007. It was the best wine that I tasted the entire trip, but I could bring myself to spend $48 on a bottle of wine. I am contemplating trying to find it on-line and shipping to Bulgaria. My birthday is in February if you need a gift idea. (wink wink)
We also visited Xanadu. This was another lovely vineyard, not as fancy as Vasse Felix, but the wines was wonderful and I bought 2 bottles: 2008 Chardonnay, which I might cellar for a year or so and 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, which I will cellar for 5 – 10 years. I have never actually cellared a wine before, but I think it is time to start a little collection.
We took a break from wine tasting, at my request and went the Margaret River Dairy Company. I fell in love with their Club Cheddar and still dream about it!
I am not really a big cheese and cracker person, I don’t like to fill up on snacks, I save myself for the big meal. However, I found myself sneaking to the fridge and cutting off a chunk between meals, when I woke up, before I went to bed. I would get nervous if people were eating more of the cheese than I was, especially if we were running low. It was sick. So, when we went for the cheese tasting I bought 5 cheeses to take back to Bulgaria. They were wrapped in wax and the lady said they should survive the 28 hour trip, if they were under the plane. The idiot that I am fretting about this cheese, forgot to actually put it in my suitcase. I was so bummed at the airport, but I guess that I left Ness and Grant with an extra surprise. Argh! I miss that cheese. Had I know I wouldn’t have been able to have another bite, I would have truly savored the last one.
With all our running around, we didn’t stop for lunch till after 3pm, so we missed the lunch service at the Duckstein Brewery. We were all really looking forward to some germanic cuisine and beer, but we had to order off the snack menu. The food was OK and it did the job. The real fun was the 5 beer sampler Pils, Hefeweiss, Dunkel, Alt Bier and the seasonal Festbier. The Festbier was by far the best, so Angel and I followed up our sampler with a large one.
The next day, Angel and I went out on our own. I was eager to visit Lamont’s because I had read about Kate Lamont’s new book Wine and Food in some Australian cooking magazines. I wanted to by it, but I didn’t know enough about her food to spend $55 bucks on it. That is why I wanted to visit her winery and sample some food, but as luck would have it it was closed.

So, Angel and I finished our Margaret River tour at Brookland Valley. We did a tasting and I bought the 2004 Cabernet Merlot. It was recommended to cellar for no more than another 5 years, now I have 3 bottles on hold. We also had lunch at Flutes, which I was excited about. We both ordered off the specials menu. I had:

Kimberly Barramundi, citrus baked fennel, asparagus with tomato and coriander salsa
Angel ordered the Seafood Taste Plate, which he was good enough to give me a taste of.

Oysters Kilpatrick (top left), Thai Fish Cakes and Wonton Tiger Prawns (Shrimp) salad with Nam Jim Barramundi (bottom left), Sweet Potato and Corn Fritter (center) Cuttlefish with Greek Salad (bottom right), Seared Scallops with Salsa Verde (top right)

Expresso Creme Bruleé (top), Japanese Biscuit Cake with Chocolate Nut Mousse (middle), Berry and Pistachio Crumble (bottom)

I can’t wait to head back to Margaret River Valley. It was one of the highlights of the trip!

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