Last week, I was horrified by the hellish images of flames ravaging California and checked the status updates of wine country Instagrammers like teenagers tracking their Insta likes. My heart sunk as they shared their worries and photos of the encroaching fire and smoke, and yet, in the midst of the fear and fire, there were posts of residents helping both neighbors and strangers. Struck by the generosity and neighborliness of Napa and Sonoma during the fires and how much I love Napa and Sonoma wine, all I could think was good wine is made by good people. And maybe we can take a lesson from wine country.
Let stress make you better
Stressed vines make the most complex and enjoyable wines.
Let the difficult season in your life pare away what’s not working for you. You will be left with your strengths and a concentration of the best parts of you.
Year to year, the weather can be too dry, too wet, cold too late, or warm too soon, but the vineyards irrigate, prune, dry with fans, and pick the fruit earlier or later. They are trying to improve the growing conditions within their power, but know that there is only so much we can do with what is under our control.
Work like hell with what you’ve got and improve what you can, but at the end of the day, accept and celebrate that each year will have its own flavor.
Complex wines will not appeal to everyone, but those that appreciate the depth and complexity are crazy in love. Be genuine and full of nuances and you will find appreciation.
Know the difference between bottle shock and corked wine
Give people a second chance, maybe they are in bottle shock and not showing their best side during a first meeting. The second time around, you discover their true selves and find a great friend. But also know when to send a bottle back. You can’t mitigate wine that has turned to vinegar or been corked, and you can’t fix crazy.
Be strong and kind
And sometimes, there are wildfires that scorch the earth with no warning and take everything away from you and all you can do is grab the hand that is reaching out to help you and begin again. And if you are witnessing someone else’s wildfire, lend your hand. The world would truly be a better place if we were all #sonomastrong #napastrong.
Some of us may be cult wines and some of us may be as popular as $5 Chard at a mom’s happy hour, but we should be loved for who we are. Be genuine, but no matter what—don’t be Apothic Red.
There are books, websites, magazines, infographics, even an entire profession devoted to selecting the perfect wine that will turn a meal into a foray into the sublime. It’s intimidating. I kind of know what kind of wines I like and as a home cook, I kind of know what dishes I can reasonably cook for a crowd. We (my husband) invited 3 other couples to our home for a Napa Valley wine tasting dinner. He promised four wines from around Napa to give our guests an idea of the variety of a great Cab. My first reaction was, oh my God, a sit-down dinner for 8 with a menu that would pair with 4 different Cabs. My second was, oh my God, I don’t think we have that many wine glasses or have ever had that many wine glasses.
While I wrestled with the menu and glassware, my husband chose the four wines. I found tasting notes for our wines and wrote them on a large chalkboard, with each wine corresponding to a numbered decanter.
My first choice of an entrée would have been ribeye, because, seriously, is there anything that goes better? The very same fat that tames tannins in the big California cabs also causes flare-ups in my gas grill. The weather forecast was only in the low thirties the night of our dinner party and I knew me standing sentinel in the freezing cold grilling ribeyes while on fire prevention duty would not make my guests feel at ease. I could slap 8 tenderloin steaks on the grill, come inside, share a glass of rose´, flip them once, chat some more, flip them a second time to get my grilled hatch marks, refill my glass, and then pull 8 med rare steaks off the grill without ever putting on a coat. The problem I had to solve was somehow getting a high fat taste. Well, baa, baa, black sheep, it was lamb rib chops to the rescue. The lamb had the succulent fat to stand up to the tannins so at least my guests could see what cabs and fat can do. The rib chop is a perfect tasting portion and super quick to grill.
Making side dishes while I entertained and grilled would be troublesome, so I picked two that I could make ahead and just reheat. Earlier in the day, I steamed pee wee potatoes, and then right before I put the steaks on, I smashed them with a fork, drizzled with olive oil & flake salt, and stuck them in the oven to roast and get crispy. The butternut squash puree´ was even easier—the night before I roasted butternut squash chunks with olive oil, garlic, and salt and then pureed the chunks and dumped them in a small, covered casserole. While chatting over the rose´ and charcuterie, I grated some fresh nutmeg over the puree and put it in the oven to heat up.
The only hiccup during the cooking was it was very windy that evening and my grill had a little trouble maintaining the temperature when I opened it. My concern over timing because the grill was running a little cool made me forget to ask if anyone wanted their steak other than medium rare. As I was plating, a sheepish request was made for well-done. My fault, I always ask so I can put a steak on grill sooner or later than med rare.
We sat down to dinner and a sea of glassware. I ended up ordering 8 Riedel XL glasses from Amazon, and then used every other wine glass in the house—stemless, burgundy, promotional glasses from the Society of Smugglers, and the ones my husband hates the most—the Cab glasses with the Wegmans stamp of the foot. We drank rose´ out of white wine glasses. Since I didn’t have a glass left in the house, I passed around chalk markers to mark our wine glass with our names. Because if you lost your glass tonight, you were out of luck. We had decanted the four cabs and each decanter had a number, so we used the chalk markers to label the glasses with the number of the wine as well.
At the end of the night, it was really about drinking wine with friends, but the evening went more or less smoothly because of the planning. Although I spent the most time thinking about the meal, the number of wines and the glassware is just as important of a consideration. My husband suggested just reusing the same glass. I was stuck on the fact that it is easier to compare wines in a flight and the logistics of how to pass 4 carafes up and down a table without our food getting cold while waiting for the next tasting. Having eight dinner plates is pretty common; having 32 wine glasses took some ingenuity, a little shopping, and, for me, swallowing my pride that I had to use burgundy glasses and one orphan wine glass meant for an indeterminate varietal for the cabernet. No one cared about the mix and match glassware, but being able to smell and taste all four wines at the same time was awesome.
Sharing wine with friends is such an intense pleasure and the evening was worth the planning and hand washing 32 wine glasses (and yes, cleanup was a bitch!)
The wines we served
2012 Beautiful Generation – Cliff Lede Vineyards
2013 Mountain Estate Cabernet – Fisher Vineyards
NV Overture – Opus One
2012 Rutherford Cabernet – Martin Estate Vineyards
The Overture got the most votes for favorite wine, Beautiful Generation came in second, and my ranking went : Overture, Martin Estate’s Rutherford Cab, Fisher’s Mountain Estate, and last but certainly not least, Beautiful Generation.
When the air turns crisp and the bugs finally go to wherever bugs go when it gets cold, I think to myself, “I should make getting dinner ready harder than it already is between practices, games, and never-ending errands–let’s cook in the outdoor fireplace tonight!”
For my foray into pre-industrial revolution cooking, I was feeling like roasted artichokes, lamb burgers with goat cheese, sweet potato spears provençal, and baked pears with cherries. I’m still feeling and tasting my way through French wines, and other than a Bordeaux with beef, I depend on googling the wine selection at Wegman’s trying to find a good fit. I came across a 2008 Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste Pauillac for $55 and with a little sleuthing I found out that while 2008 wasn’t the greatest year for Bordeaux, it is a good vintage for Pauillac and it is recommended with lamb—into the cart it went. I know that food and wine from the same region marry well, so for the provençal flavorings I grabbed a 2011 Minervois from Hecht & Bannier in the south of France. I’ve had the Minervois and their Côte du Roussillon Villages and I think both outperform their $20 price point. I decant both bottles and remember to write the name of the wine on the decanter because sometimes my wine comparison experiments end up as blind taste tests.
I start the fire before I begin any of the food prep so that the bed of coals can get white hot. And I’ve learned the hard way, quite literally, that foods like potatoes and sweet potatoes can end up only partially cooked in the fire, so I prep the sweet potatoes first. I quarter each sweet potato to help speed up cooking time and place in the side of the fireplace. It’s a good time to add a couple of more logs.
Next, I want to steam the artichokes to tenderness before I grill them because nobody has that much time. The artichokes are too big to fit the lid of my steamer insert, so I just cover them with a tea towel to keep them bathed in steam. When I can easily pierce one of the outer leaves with the tip of my knife (20-25 minutes), I turn off the heat and let them hang out there until I’m ready to grill.
The biggest reason I make roasted artichokes is to eat aioli. My version is more of a Faux-oli. I start with store-bought mayo, and add lemon juice, garlic, and salt to taste. Now it’s time to run back outside and add more logs to the fire.
I want to get dessert started and in the fire before I begin grilling dinner. A cast iron skillet is perfect for cooking directly in the fireplace, so to mine I add butter, brown sugar, pears, and frozen cherries and top it all with a little more brown sugar and butter. I cover the skillet with aluminum foil and stick the skillet on the other side of the fireplace from the sweet potato packets. I check on the fire to add my last logs and clean and oil the fireplace grill grate.
Back inside, I check my pedometer app to see if I’ve hit 10,000 steps yet from the continuous loop between the kitchen to the fireplace and brush the artichoke halves with olive oil and some flaked sea salt.
To grill the artichokes, I pull some of the white hot coals under the grill grate and place the artichokes cut side down on the grate. It takes about 15 minutes to get a nice char on the artichokes and as I take them off, I pull some more coals under the grill and add the lamb burgers to cook to medium-rare. More information at Recipes, more what you’d call guidelines than actual recipes
Now it is my favorite part of the whole evening—time to eat and drink! We start with the Minervois because I’m betting that the sharp, wild berry flavor can not only stand up to the lemon and garlic in the aioli but will complement the earthy, smoky taste the artichokes picked up from the wood fire.
I serve the Pauillac with the lamb burgers and the sweet potato spears. It is smooth and surprisingly light bodied. It pairs well enough with the meal – like a boring, well-behaved dinner guest, it is inoffensive and doesn’t detract from the meal, but forgettable.
To top the baked pears, I whip heavy cream with vanilla, and a couple splashes of Four Roses bourbon and that pairing was a winner.
The Minervois was what we finished sitting by the fire. There was nothing wrong with the Pauillac and there is something to be said for a wine that won’t compete with the food. My Bordeaux conundrum is that I can find $150 bottles that are amazing and I enjoy what is probably a $15 bottle at the local French brasserie, but I am always disappointed with the bottles in between. I’m not sure if my expectations are out of whack, and while I don’t think the Pauillac at $55 should be three times better than the Minervois at $20, I do think it should be noticeably better.
If I love anything more than drinking wine and homemaking, it is scouring Pinterest and the downloading the self-help section of Amazon while drinking wine. I’m seduced the images of laundry rooms and pantries sanitized of any evidence of commercial containers, mesmerized by the thousands of pins about minimalism (ironic, right?), flabbergasted by all the frugal and crazy, I mean clever, ways to save money and repentant about my lack of a capsule wardrobe and failure to live like the mythical French woman described in dozens of books.
I always end up feeling like I just wasn’t measuring up to everything I was seeing and believing to be the standard. And, then one night I had an epiphany and I believe a bottle of Caldwell Cab—who the hell are they to really say what is the best way to dress, decorate, and live—emphasis on the live part?!? I’m still working on distilling what resonates with me because I do love aspirational books, but I no longer think of them as rulebooks.
I’ve come to accept a few truths about me and my life and thought I would share them here.
- Making ice cubes out of leftover wine is a waste of wine. Drink good wine and you’ll never have to worry about leftovers.
- I think that the ideal Parisian woman would have more clothes if her pied-a-terre had a walk-in closet. The size of the wardrobe is because of real estate, not intellectual superiority.
- I think the real reason French women, with their 10-item wardrobes, don’t get fat is because they chain smoke and pick at their Caprese salad.
- While I fervently hope that I don’t end up on an episode of Hoarders, I think the stress of trying to keep a family home free of the detritus of life will rob the home of the calm being clutter-free is supposed to endow.
- I can’t buy into the Konmari method. I can’t make myself thank my screwdrivers for being so useful and just the thing for tightening a screw. I get frustrated at them when they are less-than-desirable substitutes for a box cutter and can’t open yet another package from Amazon
- Mason jars, specifically their ability to go through the dishwasher, make great storage containers. Contrary to Pinterest, they look charming on a shelf or in the fridge—even without hand-painted, washi-taped, chalk-board labels that are so beautiful that illuminated manuscripts gets jealous.
What other so-called truths have made you stop and say, “I’m not buying into that?”