Supermarket Savior

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Our favorite–lamb merguez sausage with a warm carrot salad

A few months ago, I decided to try a meal delivery service and after a quick once-over of sample menus, I selected Sun Basket. I settled on 3 meals a week and to serve four. My two oldest had just returned to college and one of the two still at home is a whitecarbavore (I made that up, but she pretty much lives on pasta with butter and parmaggiano reggiano, brie, really rare filet mignon, and cocoa puffs) We find the four servings to be plenty, but I often, especially on practice nights, will make a carb—either rice or pasta to go with the meal.

On the practical side, it is wonderful to open the bag and all the ingredients are there. As a hopeless forgot-my-shopping-list-at-home-again shopper, it is quite thrilling to have everything for the meal in neat little plastic jars or bags. The pre-made spice mixes have been amazing—flavorful, and not overloaded with salt. An added bonus is that I don’t have to buy several spices that I only need a pinch or two of and then they languish on my overcrowded spice shelf for years.

The best thing is that for three nights a week, I don’t have figure out what to make for dinner. I use the Sun Basket app to make my meal selections and that is the only decision I need to make about dinner until the weekend. Sometimes I think the overwhelming variety of ingredients, the endless Pinterest recipes, the globalization of cuisines make me less likely to cook dinner. When I can cook anything, sometimes I end up cooking nothing.

My meals for the week arrive at my door by Monday afternoon, packed with an environmentally-friendly freezer pack. The meat is in vacuum-sealed packages and everything else for the meal is in a labeled paper sack. The only things I use from my pantry are oil, salt, and pepper—really! Keeping in my mind that I get double of everything for my four servings, I need to store the ingredients in my garage fridge. (I could go on and on about the evils of the French-door refrigerator’s lack of storage, but realize that refrigerator space is needed if you want to try a meal service.)

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What’s inside the bag, but the meat is packaged separately.

It’s definitely not cheap– I pay around $150 each week for 12 meals and that food takes care of 3 dinners for three people and 2-3 lunches for me during the week. Considering the convenience and that the ingredients are primarily organic, the seafood is often wild-caught, and the meat is humanely raised and antibiotic and hormone-free, I think, however, there is good value in the price.

Our reviews of the dinners have been overwhelmingly positive. The lamb merguez and falafel meals have been all-stars. I love that I can adjust the recipes to fit my family’s personal tastes and habits, like I use half the amount of onion called for in any recipe and leave out any red or green peppers. It’s almost like having a personal chef—I choose what we want to eat, someone else sources all the ingredients and the ingredients are all gathered together, then I get to do the part I like best—cook! Well, I guess it is more sort-of-like having a personal chef because there are still the dishes and kitchen to clean up, but most of the meals are made in one pan and I use a couple of bowls for prep or salads.

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Steak au poivre (I upgraded to filets) with roasted parsnips and Brussels sprouts

I saved the best for last—using a meal delivery service cuts down on the time I have to spend grocery shopping with people who cannot steer their cart while talking on their phone, meandering aimlessly down the aisle, but with an uncanny ability to effectively block all attempts to pass them on right or the left.

Note: I’m not affiliated in any way with Sun Basket (other than I’m a customer) and I did not receive any compensation from Sun Basket for this review.

Homeschool Wine Tasting

Years ago we had a neighbor who worked for a wine importer. I wish I had thought to grill him about wine, but this was back in our beer days (A History of Marriage in 6 Glasses) and I don’t think I ever knew what his certification was exactly. The story goes that he flunked out of college and somehow convinced his hard-line Marine dad to pay for him to go to France to learn to drink wine. Alas, despite what I feel is very persuasive reasoning, I have been unable to convince my family to give me a leave of absence to go to wine school so I’m going to share how I’m working to increase my knowledge of wine. First, I’d recommend not being the only person in your family that knows how to work a washer and dryer so that you can go to wine school in France.

I’ll start with the easiest step—drink a lot of wine!  Experiment with varietals, price points, new world vs old world. Comparing three wines at once is my favorite set-up. As infantile oenophile, my taste buds can get overwhelmed from too many wines and then I can’t discern anything. It’s usually just me and my husband, so if we start on Friday night, we can (easily) finish three bottles by Sunday night, because wine is a terrible thing to waste. Look at the color, swirl, check out the legs on the side of your glass—if the wine sort of drips slowly, it shows a fuller body and higher alcohol content. The intensity of the pleasant burning sensation is also an indicator of alcohol content. Lighter color (think of ruby compared to garnet) generally correlates to a lighter-bodied wine (think of Pinot Noir to Merlot to Cabernet Sauvignon.) Catalog in your mind how the wine looks, and then taste it.

Pay close attention to descriptions whether they are in Wine Spectator, the menu, the tasting notes at Total Wine, or on the back of the wine label. Try to pick out the flavors and start noticing what you like or don’t like. When I had a wine that I didn’t like, I couldn’t taste it and say, “oh, I don’t care for the cocoa undernotes.” But now, after reading tasting notes wherever I can find them and then drinking the wine, I’m now pretty confident that I won’t care for anything that has chocolate or cocoa in the description.

Price points—another great way to compare wines is to purchase three similar wines at three price points. Larger wineries can have several levels of the same varietal or blend, or you can choose a varietal or style from different makers at different costs. I’ve done this with Bordeaux—choosing a bottle at $30, $60, and $150. While it is a no-brainer that I liked the $150 the best, the $60 bottle did not outdo the bottle at half its cost. I’ve repeated this tasting with different makers and I found this result very typical for Bordeaux. My very unscientific conclusion has been for me, the bottles in the $60 range underperform and I should save my money and go with the less expensive bottle or splurge. I feel this shows that purchasing large amounts of wine is actually saving us money in the long run.

The other thing I do—I sort of hate myself for doing it because I’m painfully aware of how pretentious it looks–is to bring a notebook to wine tastings. If the representative is sent by the winery, they know so much about what gives the wine you are sampling its flavors, and I’m willing to look like a poser to catalog all the nuggets of wine wisdom they share. I need to write it all down because, well, wine and information retention do not go together like wine and cheese. I’m slowly starting to learn about how terroir influences the grape and how it grows, which then characterizes the wine. While I’m not quite ready for the Somm party trick of tasting a wine and discerning its varietal and the geographic location of the vineyard, I can look at a wine list full of unfamiliar wines and zero in on a Howell Mountain wine because I’ve liked other Howell Mountain wines.

A History of Marriage in 6 Glasses

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Because decorating with empty vodka bottles would be weird

Wine ties us together in so many ways–we never forget the special bottles we’ve shared with friends and family. The wine becomes the anchor that binds us to the memory, and most importantly, to those with whom we shared it. On my 40th birthday, friends had given my first bottle of Dom Perignon to pop on the limo ride to dinner. I saved the empty bottle and wrote the names of everyone drinking in the limo. The bottle sat very lonely by itself for a few years and then, as we were introduced to some spectacular wines, it became a tradition to write something on the bottles we opened for holidays. Almost 9 years have passed, and looking at the ersatz guest book that adorns the rows of wine bottles in my dining room is a tangible reminder of the food and wine I’ve shared with those I love and, especially my dad, whom I’ve lost.

Growing up, there was never any debate about what to open with dinner–Budweiser went everything. As my dad aged, he gave up beer for a glass of wine at night. He knew when the drugstore put their boxed wine on clearance and stocked up quarterly. Instead of barrels in the cellar, my parents had boxes of wine in their dining room that they used to refill their wine bottle, which was always kept in the fridge. Frugality was how he selected his wine while I blithely ignore how much our wine costs by thinking about how much money I save by not paying a restaurant’s triple markup, and yet we shared an affinity for the same Napa cabs. I look at a bottle of Constant from Christmas 2014 and, clear as day, I can remember my dad taking a drink and saying, “this is good wine.”

I see wine bottles that we’ve shared with couples that are no longer together, which saddens me, but then I see more recent bottles with a new name paired with the old to remind me that love always finds a way. The names of our best friends are on many bottles, and I’m grateful for all those holidays we shared as two families growing up together. I know I can look forward to sharing more food and wine with them and as our children’s names have started to be added to the lists, we’re going to need a lot more bottles.

Un-decorating

It’s that time of year where I’m pretty tempted to pitch every holiday decoration straight to the curb and not bother with dragging bins from the top shelf of the garage to repack everything. I resolve that next year, I’ll stick some pine branches in a vase and be done with decorating. After 5-6 weeks of cleaning around holiday décor and being ever vigilant that the puppy doesn’t eat said holiday cheer, my Pinterest search history is every variation of minimalism and home organization that I can think of.

I will pack everything away and revel in how sleek my counters and tables look without any bric-a-brac or clutter. I also know myself well enough that once the cold, dark days of winter set in, I’ll find all those clutter-free surfaces stark and uninviting. And then I’ll look on how to bring a little hygge into our home and candles, sheepskins, throws, and too many pillows will end up everywhere. Come warmer weather and the new season of Beachfront Bargain Hunters, the sheepskins are rolled away, fuzzy pillow covers are switched out for linen, and shells become my vase filler of choice.

I used to worry that I was too capricious in my décor style and tastes. Did I have any sense of style at all, or was I just a rudderless boat tossed about on home improvement seas of Waco and HGTV? Then the realization hit me that changing little bits of décor with the seasons makes me more aware and in tune with the change of seasons and the inevitable march of time. The hustle and bustle and overcrowding of the holidays needs its counterpoint of January’s decluttering. As winter drags on and the merriment of December is but a dim memory, February needs candlelight and snuggling with warm throws on the couch. (I, however, do not need any more Missoni throws—probably) March and April deserve to be celebrated for they herald spring and the last dregs of winter can be shaken off. The summer is our favorite season and our house should reflect how stoked we are to be free of school, schedules, and we can look forward to and then remember our one week at the beach with beachy décor. School restarts in September and my urge to decorate to the nines is fully dialed back in, and I’ll look forward to January 2019’s purge. But today, I need to box up the damn tree.

Santa Claus is coming to town…if that elf hasn’t snitched you out

 

 

Christmas as a parent is exhausting, wonderful, but exhausting. When they are tiny, there are scouting trips to the to find the best mall Santa and spreadsheets with the logistics required to shoehorn a photo op with Santa between feedings, nap schedules, and exploding poopy diapers. Then once you get them on his lap, they all have to be looking at the camera. By 3 kids, I had given up on things like smiling. And then number 4 hated anyone in costume, and a set of arms sticking a screaming baby at the edge of the Santa photo became the norm.

 

As they started talking (and thinking), I faced the decision about hedging the question of the realness of the mall Santa and then the concept of Santa himself. I have four kids with a seven-year age difference between oldest and youngest, so when the first questioned the mythology, I carefully constructed my answer about if we believe in goodness and putting others first, then we believe in Santa. I didn’t want to outright lie and say yes, but I also didn’t want to ruin the magic for my younger kids. I felt like I had dodged a philosophical bullet, but then as the years dragged on, I became increasingly ready to blow the fat man’s cover. Maintaining the Santa mythology is so much work, and trust me, I thank my lucky stars every Christmas that my kids were too old for that damn elf-on-a-shelf and his Instagrammable hijinks.

 

These days, everyone has copped to knowing who puts the coal in the stockings and Christmas Eve has become the night of the annual screening of Die Hard.  Instead of whispered conversations, sometimes through gritted teeth, like– “I don’t know why it seems like she has more presents than her sisters—Count them again!” Or, “I can’t remember where I hid the American Girl doll furniture set that cost more than our living room furniture!”–we have raucous rounds of Cards Against Humanity and the Fishbowl Game. While the girls traded the matching Christmas dresses for matching JCrew flannel pjs, they are still atwitter on Christmas morning, which thankfully now starts somewhat later than 5am. I’ll always cherish the memories of when they were little and carefully set out the milk and cookies for Santa and the reindeer food for Rudolph, but my kids are growing into fun almost-adults that I love to spend time with — and I don’t have to untwirl the 6,000 twist ties that hold the average Barbie to her packaging.

Wines that I love for all my cheap friends to buy me.

Buying an estate-grown Napa cab or 1st growth Bordeaux isn’t hard, it just takes gobs of cash. Finding a great wine without bankrupting myself or my friends, is a challenge, albeit a fun one.

Here’s this week’s look at cheap shit I love

Under $10

It ain’t wine, but it is Missoni! I found these awesome little bottles of DiSaronno all dressed up in Missoni labels. They were $9.99 for 3 bottles, but this may be the only time in my entire life that I can say I took the Missoni in every color!

Under $20

For cabs, I love the B Side and Decoy-they are a little wild and rough, but I find that less expensive cabs that try for smoothness end up tasting like cherry NyQuil. The Louis Martini cab is always my restaurant fall-back for by-the-glass cabs. The Chateau Greysac médoc tastes way beyond its price point and seems to pair with everything.

Under $40

The Muga Rioja (around $37 at Total Wine) busted my $30 price bracket, but it is one of my favorite riojas and, again, is a great wine to pair with food. I’d say it’s the best choice of wine to bring to a party (or my house) because it will make you and the food look like a rockstar. The J Vineyard pinot noir is a gem from the Russian River Valley and I love it because it is so drinkable with or without a meal. The Hilary Goldschmidt cab is a roaring, bold cab for a pipsqueak price. Pop the Hilary, feel like a denizen of Napa, and  only be out thirty bucks.

With my economical wine choices, you could say I’m a cheap date, but then you haven’t seen how much I drink. Whether you buy the wine for yourself, as a hostess gift, or for me, have yourself a merry little Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Festivus.) Cheers, my friends!

Gift Guide for the Napacalypse

As someone who is often accused of being impossible to buy for, I give you my definitive list of gift ideas for people who like to drink wine.

  1. Kleenite glass cleaner because sometimes there’s more wine than clean-up at the end of the night. It works wonderfully on glasses and decanters. I ordered my bottle from Amazon.IMG_4804
  1. A drying rack for stemmed glasses and say goodbye to condensation inside the glass. IMG_4807
  1. Drying cloth—mine is from Riedel. It really is the only way to get wine glasses sparkling. Well, I guess you could always turn the lights way down low. IMG_4806
  1. Alternatively, cross off number two and three and buy stemless glasses that can go in the dishwasher. Much to the horror of the friendly salesperson at Williams-Sonoma, I put my Riedel stemless glasses in the top rack of my dishwasher and knock on wood, they don’t seem worse for wear.
  1. A decanter is a must-have to really appreciate the complexity Cabs and Bordeaux without aging them for decades. We have some high-end Riedel decanters and tend to use the Riedel decanters from Target. As much as I love our spiral Riedel decanter that I bought for my husband on our 25th wedding anniversary, cleaning it and making sure the twists in the glass are not harboring and leftover water makes using it a pain.
  1. A drying spindle for decanters is a must-have. Before I started using ours religiously, I decanted a Caldwell cab before I realized there was a tiny puddle of water in the bottom of the vessel. My tears mixed with the cab and the leftover rinse water. We still drank it, though.
  1. Chalk markers because no one remembers what their charm looks like after the second glass of wine. Write their name on the base and you’ll always know who left took the extra pour and didn’t finish it. Put that name on the naughty list.
  1. Wine! Why is this so hard?

Next week, I’ll share what wines I’d love to find under my tree!

Thanksgiving on a different pitch

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Thanksgiving was always a dream holiday for me–a homebody–I didn’t have to go anywhere, recipes are predictable (and there’s always premade gravy), no gift-giving angst, and most amazing of all, everyone volunteers to help with the dishes. I love to cook and after 20 or so turkeys dressed and in the oven, I learned every trick to roasting the perfect bird, including a bag of innards accidently left in the cavity can be removed before carving and no one is the wiser (Thanksgiving #1). We hosted all the Thanksgiving orphans and as our friends all got married and started their own families, we began hosting friends for a Thanksgiving-eve dinner. I learned to be mindful of how much wine to drink Wednesday night in order to avoid making the stuffing while resting my head on the kitchen island (Thanksgiving #22). We took a leisurely approach to the day compared to the Thanksgivings I remember with my mom and mammaw. They would get up at 5am to start dinner and not leave the kitchen until the food was put on the table, but I don’t recall ever eating before 2pm. I’ve never been able to figure out what exactly they were doing for 8 hours—maybe there was a secret cocktail hour before they started the stuffing. My Thanksgivings started with mimosas before I ever put the turkey in the oven. With the Macy’s Day Parade playing in the background, we peeled potatoes and browned sausage, and enjoyed a day spent at home.

I loved presiding over the bountiful table laden with food and my husband always chose a fantastic wine for us and our family and friends to toast all the things we had to be thankful for. The day ended with the annual screening of How the Grinch Stole Christmas , and when the kids were little, the screening would be repeated ad nauseum until February or someone found the Frosty DVD that I had hidden. Black Friday was the day we started dragging out the Christmas decorations. The second day of leftovers and bringing out the Spode Christmas tree china signaled the beginning of the holiday season.

I swore nothing could make us change our well-loved traditions. But then again, I also swore that we would never be one of those travel-team families where the family schedule was consumed with practices and games. I learned to keep my swearing to the four-letter variety, because my oldest tried out and made a travel field hockey club team, and our schedule became consumed with practices and games. Unbeknownst to me, the biggest field hockey tournament of the year takes place over Thanksgiving and we were headed to the Palm Beach for my favorite holiday.

Thanksgiving morning we watched the sun rise over the field hockey pitch as our daughter played and in the afternoon returned to our rental to make Thanksgiving dinner. It was a lovely house for a light-footed eighty-year-old—the home’s collection of museum-quality antique glassware (there was a sign with historical provenance) in the rickety glass display case shook and clinked every time the kids ran down the hall–Everything survived and I got the security deposit check back to prove it. Eating by candlelight on the poolside patio that evening, I conceded that it was a pretty sweet set-up, even if we weren’t at home.

With four girls playing field hockey, our Thanksgiving tradition became a yearly pilgrimage to the polo fields of Palm Beach and Palm Springs- the location switches every two years- for field hockey and evolving customs. Sometimes we rent a house for a week and cook dinner “at home” and sometimes we stay in a hotel and enjoy (sorry, I’m lying) the Thanksgiving buffet. A newer tradition began after one kid forgot to pack her STICK and we paid an extra baggage fee to bring an empty stick bag to California. Back home in Virginia, Nana had to climb into the back of my husband’s Jeep to send the “lucky” stick to California via FEDEX Overnight (Thanksgiving #24), so now we triple check that the girls brought their most important piece of equipment. These days our older girls fly in to Florida or California from college separately from us, staying for different lengths of time, and no one wants to watch Frosty anymore.

This year we have a fabulous hotel on the beach and our Thanksgiving dinner reservation is for an oceanside table, but I’ve come to realize that the holiday is about taking the time to remind myself about all there is a lot to be thankful for. By hook or crook, my husband and I get our girls together and we have 3 days with field hockey, family, and laughter (and at least one fight over clothes.) We’ve spent the last five Thanksgivings traveling to the tournament and with my youngest starting high school this past fall, we only have 4 Festival visits left. I’ll have the Williams-Sonoma-worthy dinners at home again someday, but for now I’m committed to enjoying the tail end of the ride.

A History of Marriage in 6 Glasses

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Inspired by A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage (which I’ve had to buy 4 times so each of my kids could have a clean copy to annotate for pre-AP World History) and in honor of my upcoming wedding anniversary, I thought I’d do a little retrospective of the past 27 years in six glasses.

Glass 1

Tequila: In case my kids ever find and read my blog, let’s leave it at tequila and frat parties. Enough said.

Glass 2

Beer : While we may  have graduated from college and dirty tap lines at the fraternity house, we were definitely still on a beer budget between paying for grad school and law school. We tried to get fancy, but still on a domestic price tag–anyone remember Michelob Dry–and my husband got into home brewing. His hoppy adventures came to end the evening that he lost control of the bottling hose while filling bottles in the sink. Our frantic screaming as the hose whipped back and forth spraying beer all over the kitchen brought our two dogs and two cats into target range as they investigated the ruckus. He regained control of the hose to continue bottling, minus several bottles worth of beer, while I started bathing the animals. It was closing in on my midnight while I bent over the tub bathing two Australian Shepherds almost 7 months into my first pregnancy. He got to wrangle the uncooperative cats into the tub and his equipment into storage…FOREVER.

Glass 3

White Zinfadel: We were a little bleary eyed from a year with our first kid when we joined a beach vacation with extended family. His cousins and their spouses were in their thirties and seemed so sophisticated with alcohol that needed special equipment—a corkscrew. They introduced us to white Zinfadel. I’m not even sure what that really is, but to someone who between pregnancy and nursing had not had much to drink in almost two years, it tasted like the nectar of the gods.

Glass 4

Chardonnay : While we had kids two and three, friends were out living life in the early 2000’s and were kind enough to share what was happening on the bar scene. Bottles of Chardonnay were broken out for dinner parties and barbeques. Compared to the soft drink taste of white zinf, the butter and oak of Chardonnay tasted like a tour down Sophistication avenue.

Glass 5

Bordeaux: Life with 4 kids aged seven and under meant we needed two babysitters to go anywhere and teenage babysitters are as rare as a narwhal in a bathtub. If we wanted a dinner that did not include an obligatory visit to the germ pit, I mean play place, we needed to cook at home. Armed with subscriptions to every cooking magazine and Food Network playing in the background while I folded endless laundry, I managed to acquire two nuggets of wisdom. Let steak come to room temperature before cooking and a little something called Bordeaux wine went well with beef. We discovered the Saints– Emillion and Julien, Margeaux, Haut-Medoc, and stayed forever confused whether we like right or left bank wines. For what seemed liked a princely sum of $40 we could pop a bottle of Bordeaux, put the kids to bed at 8, and feel like we were dining in a French bistro, at least until it was time to do the dishes.

Glass 6

Cabernet Sauvignon: My husband returned home from a trip with exciting news—at a business dinner he had tried the most amazing wine, a Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon and he found a bottle of it at Total Wine! I loved him when we married, and loved him as helped me raise our children, but I may have loved him most when the first taste of Cab touched my soul. I thought Bordeaux had my unmitigated loyalty, but the bigger, bolder, more seductive Cab won me over in a single night. It helped that my foray into California Cab was a great one—no introduction via the 1.5 liter bottle on sale at the grocery store for $8.99—and searching for the perfect glass of Cab became our hobby and passion.

So there is our marriage from tequila shots to estate-grown Cabs. Each chapter tells its own story and has a happy ending—whether as newlyweds, parents of a growing family, or half-way to empty-nesters, celebrating the moment we were in defined us. It is my sincere hope that we stay at Glass 6 for a long while, I’m not nearly ready to change my Cab for Metamucil.

Napacalypse III : Return of the Cab King

A chance to taste a mind-boggling selection of early twentieth-century Bordeaux precipitated our most recent visit to Napa when we received a backdoor invitation to a rare wine dinner in Napa. We knew the dinner would be on a Saturday night, but we struggled with how long to spend in Napa because of three youngest daughters had the potential to be in playoff games the days before and after the set date. We checked calendars and ran through every conceivable bracket combination and then threw caution and frugality to the wind and booked a quick Friday through Monday morning trip. With every conference win, we worried that our return home on Monday afternoon would conflict with a game. Sadly, the playoff run for the kids’ college and high school teams ended on the same Wednesday before our trip. Even more sadly, it was, of course, way too late to change our reservations and get an extra day in Napa. And then, most sadly of all, the rare wine dinner was abruptly cancelled because of low numbers. After a little pissing and moaning about the whole reason we were shoehorning the trip in a jam-packed month was the dinner, we realized a short trip to Napa is still a trip to Napa and we suddenly felt flush with cash from our anticipated wine dinner refund.

 

Because I take my bad travel juju with me wherever I go, our flight was delayed on the tarmac for over an hour before takeoff. We joked that we’d have to ask the valet to keep the car at the front so we could quickly check in to our hotel and change into our dinner clothes before our first tasting of the trip and a dinner at Meadowood. Then we hit Friday afternoon traffic leaving San Francisco. Our window to check-in at our hotel kept shrinking every time Google Maps said, “slow down ahead” and we realized that we would have to go straight to the Herb Lamb tasting and change there. Classy, right? And figure out what to do with the car since we had planned on Ubering over to the winery and then dinner. We updated our destination to the Lamb vineyard and were well-rewarded with our decision to drink wine rather than get gussied up for dinner. The tasting at Lamb helped us unwind with their selection of reds and we ordered the HL cab.

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Looking down on the Herb Lamb Vineyards

A short drive to Meadowood and the valet staff understood our car quandary and offered to bring the car up when the Uber arrived so we could transfer our luggage and parked our car overnight. When we caught sight of the wine list, we were grateful we had another ride home. We chose a 2013 Paul Pillot white burgundy to go with the beginning of the tasting menu, then a 1998 Dalla Valle cab that had mellowed out, and we moved onto a bolder, newer Cab with a 2012 Beckenstoffer Dr.Crane from Paul Hobbs. We finished with a bottle of 2007 Sauternes.

 

Our first visit Saturday morning was the Italics property. We loved the documentary Decanted and Italics was featured, but at the time of filming, it was just getting started. I’ll admit we were a little star struck when we toured the cave that had been under construction. The recurring theme at every winery was what to do about the smoke taint on this year’s vintage. Italics had some fermentation barrels that they were experimenting with doing some sort of chemical bonding to get rid of the smoke molecules.

 

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I may have squealed like a fangirl when I saw the cave from Decanted!

A quick trip to the Oxbow Market for lunch and then off to Del Dotto for a barrel tasting. The cave is a tad theatrical with its velvet drapes, Murano chandeliers, and marble imported from Italy and they employed a bit of showmanship by filling our glasses courtesy of a wine thief straight out of the barrel. I was not won over until we got to their Howell Mountain David cab; my husband liked everything—so much so that we ended up in the wine club and then had the “privilege” of buying their member-only wines. Our retirement may be delayed for a few years thanks to their flagship cab—the Beast. It’s worth it.

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Subtlety is not a hallmark of Del Dotto. They make cabs that will knock your socks off.

A parade of the biggest and boldest cabs met us at the Vintner’s Collective. Getting a box from them is sort of like opening a Christmas present—it’s always just what I wanted and, for me, a surprise. Kudos to my husband who can keep track of all the nays and yeas at the end of a wine-filled day. With grey teeth and an overwhelmed palate, we had a quick pizza and beer dinner.

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Neither earthquakes nor wildfires can keep VC from offering the best, hard-to-get wines.

Sunday we drove to the Vaca Mountains to visit the Jarvis winery. For the first time we saw the damage from the wildfires up close and like the morning after a campfire, we could smell the charred wood in air. Our host informed us that the interior of the Jarvis cave had some smoke damage, but from ceiling of the enormous cave to the velvet chairs in the anteroom, everything was pristine and there was no lingering scent of smoke. A standout from the tasting was comparing the 2011 and 2012 cabs. The 2011 smelled like jalapeno—freakiest thing ever. I loved that Jarvis offered cases of half-bottles. Oh, and they have great swag for wine club members.

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Except for growing the grapes, the entirety of wine making takes place in the Jarvis cave. You can see where the fires swept over the top of the cave.

A farewell lunch with our friends, and some strolling through Napa rounded out our Sunday and then up at o’dark thirty to get to SFO in time for our morning flight. So while I still haven’t tasted a Bordeaux grown and bottled while all of Europe battled in the trenches of WWI, I had something better—a fun-filled weekend with dear friends and a chance to taste new Napa wines.

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Napacalypse II : So Many Cabs, So Little Time

We delayed Napacalypse II until 2016 and returned a little jaded, but how could we know that our first trip had just scratched the surface of what Napa had to offer. Once again we sampled both public and private tours, and found great wines everywhere.

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Shafer

The day of we went to Shafer was ungodly hot and we declined the vineyard tour, plus this way we could get to the wine a little quicker. I’ll confess the sole purpose for booking the wine tasting was the option to purchase Hillside Select. We first tried their flagship cab at Restaurant August in New Orleans for our anniversary in 2015 and plotted for almost a year to get more. I should have known that any winery that can make something as spectacular as Hillside Select would have some more pretty good bottles. The Eighty Four Malbec and the 1.5 Cab added to our order as well as their Firebreak dessert wine, which while sweet, doesn’t have the cloying syrupiness of port. Alas, while trying to grab a 1.5 cab out of our wine fridge, my husband mistakenly grabbed our sole Firebreak and decanted it.  Spoiler alert—it does not go well with a steak dinner.  Miraculously, we’ve managed to resist popping the Hillside Select while our two bottle allotment ages, but we’re growing old kicking our heels to get off the Hillside Select wait list. #waitinglistinperpetuity

 

Kuleto

The concierge at the Hotel Yountville called ahead to arrange our visit to Kuleto. The drive to Kuleto is beautiful, especially as you circle Lake Berryessa. The winery itself overlooks Lake Hennessy. It’s a one-lane road to the winery through the vineyard and the tasting room is picturesque with its vine-covered trellis. The reds were quite nice–the Danielli and Lone Acre Cabs stood out for us and we also ordered the Syrah.

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Hill Family Tasting Room

This little gem is on the main street in Yountville and we stopped in on a whim to find some moderately priced wine that will beat most grocery store wines in the $50 range. Their rose´ of pinot noir, with its bubble gum nose, is a great bottle to sip by the pool. Their reds, especially the Atlas Peak cab, are not the over-the-top bombs of Caldwell or Fantesca, but their less assertive taste profile makes them a great choice for a weeknight dinner or if you or your guests don’t care for bolder wines but can handle some tannins.

 

 

More need to know a guy tastings

 

Martin Estate

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The visit to the historic Martin Estate Vineyards was a mash-up of wine-tasting and museum visit.  The vineyard, which struck me as more European-looking than a lot of Napa vineyards, was part of the original Caymus Land Grant and dates back to the 19th century. Our tasting was hosted by Greg Martin and along with his dry wit, he shared some of the best, and surprisingly affordable, red wine in the Valley with the backdrop of his antique armament collection. The rose´ of cabernet is a fantastic bargain and the Rutherford Cabernet is a stellar estate-grown offering that belies its fair price.

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Fantesca

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Another beautiful winery with a picturesque outdoor picnic spot where we enjoyed a lunch of fried chicken from Ad Hoc (you absolutely must get the fried chicken) with sparkling wine and rose. One of the best parts about Napa wineries is getting to meet the dogs of wine. Leila exuberantly greeted us during our barrel tasting and after a tour of the wine-making facilities, we moved on to the tasting room. They showcased Heidi Barrett’s chardonnay, a Russian River Valley pinot noir, the Estate Cab, and All Great Things ‘Duty’. Fantesca’s wines are great examples of the bold California wines, and I love their All Great Things ‘Duty’ offering. Ironically, in the tasting room I didn’t care for the Estate Cab and yet, when we sampled our shipment at home, the Estate Cab skyrocketed to my top 5 list. The only drawback is they are pricy, but they are a treat for a special occasion.

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Straight from the barrel tasting.

 

 

Fisher Vineyards

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Like Martin Estate, Fisher Estate has more reasonably priced reds that are out of this world and their dog Bougie (not quite sure how to spell that!) is a doll. Cameron Fisher, who embodies the down-to-earth winemaker who loves her craft, hosted our visit, and kindly gave us the rundown on where Napa locals go to chow down. While she and our driver, a long-time friend, chatted about goings on in her family and their Napa neighbors, I was secretly plotting how to convince her I was really a long-lost sister to join her quintessential wine country life. After a tour of the cellar, we sat down at a picnic table under the trees for one of the most perfect settings for an afternoon of tasting a variety of wines, all distinct and all delicious. The chardonnay won the vote for best white of the day, but picking a favorite cab among the Coach Insignia, Mountain Estate, and Wedding Vineyard proved impossible. We kept tasting, however, to make sure, really sure, that we couldn’t pick a victor.

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The Fisher cellar

Searching for the Perfect Cab : a Weekend in Napa

Before my first visit to Napa Valley in 2014, the extent of my wine sleuthing was at Vino Volo in the airport and Total Wine. And, not gonna lie, I still love them, but they could not have prepared me for the beauty of the Napa Valley, the intimacy of meeting the winemakers, and, of course, the amazing wine wherever we went.

Our trip, affectionately dubbed the Napacalypse, consisted of two types of winery tours—public and by recommendation only. On day one we had made arrangements to visit my husband’s favorite vineyard and left it up to chance and our concierge Google where else we would go. The second day I was gifted with the holy grail of insider wine tours. Through friends who joined us, we had a well-connected contact who had visited  Napa for business and pleasure countless times over the years and we were given the name of his driver for transportation and the behind-the-barrel tours. Some of the tours were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for me to see what goes on outside the tasting rooms—so sorry, I don’t have the connections to get you inside, but I’d love to share what I saw and tasted!

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Cliff Lede

The evening before our tasting was spent at the Poetry Inn, which sets on the hillside overlooking the Cliff Lede vineyards. Yes, it is spectacular and the private outdoor shower attached to our suite was amazing. Preceding the tasting, we toured the vineyards, facilities, and the winsome collection of record cover art on the property.  Our tasting was accompanied by small bites and it was a lot of fun having the wine and talking with our tour mates. My husband loves all things Cliff Lede and eagerly signed us up for the Rock Block collection club and truthfully, every club the vineyard offered. The bottles out of the Rock Block hold a place as some of my favorite Cliff Lede wines, and Cinnamon Rhapsody is one of my all-time favorites wines out of Napa. I must confess, however, I’m not a huge fan of their flagship wine Poetry. Part of the reason might be my husband had a vintage bottle of Poetry at a business dinner and for the few years before I tried it, waxed poetical (lol) about the magnificence of the wine.  I’ve just been underwhelmed every time we’ve had it. For a weeknight wine or second bottle, I love their Claret because it’s a nice bottle for the price and its taste isn’t pushy.

Darioush

We absolutely loved the Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon before we visited, and were excited to stumble across the vineyard by accident. Lucky for us, it was a weekday and we were able to enjoy a Portfolio tasting as walk-ins. Ordering the cab was a no-brainer, but these die-hard red drinkers were surprised to find we really liked the Darioush Chardonnay and added that to our order. While we didn’t have it at our tasting, the Caravan Cabernet Sauvignon is a peach of cab for under 50 bucks.

Opus one

I know saying you love Opus One makes some wine elitists think you like it for the cachet of being one of the most expensive wines in Napa, but it really is good stuff. As wine tasting newbies on our own, we first went to the huge Robert Mondavi tasting room with all the tourist buses. The hostess was unfamiliar (!) with Opus One, but our concierge Google saved the day again and we located the Opus One location. For $40 we got a glass and a warning to hold on to our wine glass as we went to the wind-swept tasting room at the top of the promontory. The wine was awesome, even if standing around clutching our glasses in what felt like a wind tunnel may not have been the most relaxing way to enjoy a fine wine.  Their nonvintage Overture delivers a great experience for a more price-conscious $100.

This is the day where you need to know a guy….

Caldwell

The incomparable John F. Caldwell hosted our tasting and what a way to be introduced to California wine country. A raconteur of old, he is charmingly rakish, and hot damn, can he make wine. Bold and dynamic Cabernets and a rose´ that tastes like a quintessential summer day that is so perfect, there might never have a been a summer day perfect enough to be compared to his rose´. That’s the line I use when I’m trying to convince my husband we need more of Caldwell’s $70 rose´. If you are looking for more affordable introduction to his heady reds, Rocket Science delivers a wallop for the price., but his Signature Platinum and Gold Cabs should be tasted at least once. We signed up for the wine membership, and after a short time on the waitlist, we able to join the Society of Smugglers.

Constant

Our visit started with a ride in a WWII-era army vehicle to see the lower part of the vineyard. The bumpy ride would have been tons of fun except I took the admonishment to stay well-hydrated during our day of wine tasting to heart and spent the ride ready to pee my pants. After a bathroom break, I enjoyed the spectacular scenery and what a hoot it was to off-road up the mountain to arrive at the tasting room overlooking Diamond Mountain. Picking a favorite Napa wine can feel like picking a favorite child, but Constant’s wine may be my secret chosen one—but don’t tell!

Vintner’s Collective

Our last stop of the day was a wine bar in the town of Napa, and we found even  more great wine from vineyards that generally do not have dedicated tasting rooms or are not open to the public. After sampling an array wines of varying styles and hearing our opinions, our host Chris then pulled bottles he thought would be the perfect match to our taste preferences. To Chris’ credit and the detriment of our bank account, he was spot on figuring out what we liked. We walked out with a new-found love for Pinot Noir thanks to the offering from Ancien and another blockbuster Cab. this time from Roy’s Estate (one of my Top 5 Cabs of All Time).

After this day of behind-the-barrel tours and tasting some of the best of Napa Valley–and tasting and tasting some more–our palates were so overwhelmed that we went with tapas and beer for dinner. Before we flew home the next day, plans were already in the works for Napacalypse II. Until next week, cheers!