Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Croatia Part 5-Pilgrimage to Pag: Land of Paški Sir

They say the best wine often comes from vines that struggle. The effort put out by vines to find water in arid climates or dry-farmed regions makes the grapes that much better. Well the same must be true of sheep. The island of Pag is one of the most rugged and beaten down places I've ever visited. It looks like the Alps melted into the island, leaving just the rocky barren tops visible. And it's here that the special herds of sheep struggle against the elements on a daily basis and make one of the greatest cheeses in the country. These sheep must be like the terriers of the sheep world, they are tough and don't give up easily. I don't quite understand how such restricted diet and harsh conditions creates sheep with a milk that has a high fat content. One would think it would be the opposite, thin, almost fat free milk. But that's not the case with the sheep from Pag. They are small, compact and high fat. Sort of like me.

When we crossed the bridge leading to Pag the famous Bura/Bora wind kicked up, so we got out to take a look or have a feel as it were. Yowza! That was some intense wind. Signs were rattling like something out of Close Encounters and the sea was whipping about as if a huge eggbeater was being used from above. You could see patches of white water roiling like furious mini dust devils. I could barely stand upright, and as I made my way back to the van a man came out of a stone building near the bridge. I asked him if the ripping wind was normal for the time of year. "This is nothing!" he said. Apparently it was a mild day in Pag.

I first became acquainted with Paški Sir when I hosted my Wines of Croatia tasting. US importer, Michele Buster of Forever Cheese, arranged for me to get the cheese locally in St. Helena. The cheese was one of the big hits of the day-- pairing well with both white and red wines and exceptional on its own. It's a hard cheese, but very rich and tangy with little white granules of tyrosine that crunch in your mouth, giving it a sensation sort of like pop rocks.

Unfortunately we were running a tad behind schedule so we arrived quite late in the day to Paška Sirana, the oldest cheese factory on the island of Pag. Our hosts were wonderful and I realized what an effort they'd made to accommodate us when Nenad Škoda, who led the tour, mentioned that normally all production in the factory is usually completed by noon each day. That meant these lovely people had been hanging around most of the day just to show us the process live.

Prior to the tour we donned hairnets and coats to keep our bad bacteria away from the good cheese bacteria.

The dairy has grown from a small cooperative to the largest company on the island and it still makes the cheese using centuries old methods, but the new factory was built to meet the high standards of the EU which Croatia is set to join in 2013.  It remains to be seen what the effect of joining the European Union will have on their traditions, but they are prepared to meet the new EU requirements and preserve their heritage of cheese making at the same time.

The sheep of course are the center of the entire operation, and Paška Sirana manages a herd of around 3,500 that provide the milk daily. The rest of the raw milk comes from local farmers on the island. The most productive age of the sheep is between 3-8 years. After 9 years of age they more suited to being roast lamb. And roast lamb is king around the Croatian coast. We saw numerous road side spits, a few with actual lambs roasting inside, as we drove through several small towns. Mmmm.

After the factory tour we tasted several varieties of the cheese. I loved the new sage infused style, but it is not yet available in the US market. We were given samples of a new grated style of paški sir that looked like parmesan but with a more robust flavor.

This past week Paška Sirana won 4 medals at 2011 World Cheese Awards for their PAŠKI SIR, PRAMENKO, MEDITERANO and DALMATINAC cheeses. Congratulations to the entire team.

Although Paški Sir is not that common stateside, it can be found if you put some effort into your search. Be tenacious, like one of those hearty Pag sheep and I'm sure you will be successful. {Hint: contact Forever Cheese for help}

Here's a link to another article about Pag by Matitie Bamman who was also on the trip.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

International Wine Tourism Conference 2012--Perugia, Umbria

I can't believe it's only 60 days away--the 2012 International Wine Tourism Conference is fast approaching. The location for the conference is deep in the heart of Umbria, Italy in the town of Perugia, a beautiful medieval town set high on a hill with tremendous views of the surrounding valleys. Perugia, the capital city of Umbria is well known as an art center, as well as for it's Jazz and Chocolate Festivals and the Università per Stranieri the Univeristy for Foreigners that was recently in the news for all the wrong reasons. Last year the conference was held in Portugal and you can find a list of links to all my posts about it here. Or I guess I mean this years conference, as it was just this past February.

The conference hotel for IWINETC 2012 is Hotel Gio and it's looks like the ideal setting with it's Jazz  and Wine themed rooms. Check out that bedside lamp and desk chair in the photo below!

The 2012 Conference Program is packed with some great sessions including two with Michael Wangbickler ( @mwangbickler) who hails from my neck of the woods here in California. A few program highlilghts include: Wines of Italy Grand tasting led by Master of Wine Jane Hunt, Wines of Puglia tasting and a Wines of Croatia tasting. Yay! I just visited Croatia in October and very excited to see what wines will be featured at the conference.

I'm looking forward to making new contacts and seeing old friends from last year including: Norm Oches, Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo, Melba Allen , the power couple Lara Dunston & Terrence Carter, also hope to see Jethro if his busy schedule allows.

Most of all I'm looking forward to the Blogger/Media trip which is a wonderful learning experience and major fun too. The trip takes us to Montefalco, Orvieto, Torgiano, and the Campania wine region and will include:

* Truffle hunting in teams. Release the hounds!
* Cooking classes, food & wine pairings and an olive oil museum.
* Wine, Wine, Wine and more wine at select wineries.

Birthday dinner at Quinta do Pego
Once again it will be my birthday during the trip. It will be hard to beat the celebration we had this year on the Douro-- read about it here... but I'm sure it will be equally spectacular somewhere under the volcano in Campania.

If you are considering attending the conference--don't delay-- it will be here before you know it. If you are a wine blogger it's a great event to get acquainted with wines from around the world as well as from the host country. And for those of you who are travel writers, the event is the perfect place to meet tour operators and wine region destination managers from around the globe.

See you in Umbria!

For more information and to register, visit the Wine Pleasures site:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving Wines— and Wines to Pair with Annoying Relatives!

I was looking through my blog stats today and noticed a huge amount of visitors reading the post I wrote about Thanksgiving wines in 2009! So I figured I better write another one and give folks something more recent to read with my selections for 2011. So here are what wines I’m drinking for Thanksgiving—and more importantly the three days after Thanksgiving. Plus a special bonus feature: Wines to Pair with Annoying Relatives—

Thanksgiving Day: What’s on the menu? Duck I think, I don’t know really. My husband is the cook. But it will all be good with these wines.

Rose: Shane 2010 Rose Ma Fille, Sonoma County 
Whites: Cartograph 2009 Gewürztraminer Floodgate Vineyard, Russian River Valley &
Quivira 2010 Viognier–Sauvignon Blanc 50/50 blend
Reds: La Follette 2009 Pinot Noir Manchester RidgeVineyard, Mendocino Ridge  – I love everything that comes out of the Manchester Ridge vineyard and this wine in particular is pure magic.
Baxter 2007 Pinot Noir Toulouse Vineyard, Anderson Valley
Q: What’s going on in Philo? A: Some serious good wine.

Black Friday Wine
Baxter 2006 Carignan Caballo Blanco Vineyard, Mendocino --I love this varietal and I’ll need the strong flavor profile of this Rhone variety to help me navigate the online sales.

Saturday 2nd Day of Leftovers Wine
These wines will shine and make the leftovers taste divine.
White: Phillips Hill 2010 Gewürztraminer, Anderson Valley
Red: La Follette 2009 Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard Sonoma Coast – Every time I drive by this vineyard I think about this wine and it’s mineraly-minty-mocha-cherry-madness. Will pair great with the leftover duck if there is any leftover.

Sunday Everybody Please Go Home Now Post-Thanksgiving Wine
Quivira 2009 Flight Dry Creek Vineyard, Sonoma-- the name Flight says it all—this fruity blend of 94% Zinfandel and 6% Viognier— is the right choice to serve after the holiday to those lingering too long . The name drops a subtle hint if  that doesn’t work simply say—“Go on, get going or you will miss your flight!”

The Thanksgiving line up. Start your engines!
Wines to Pair with Annoying Relatives

Aunt A: Well she’s a lush and we all know it, but she's not super particular about what's in her glass. She drinks any old swill on sale at the market so just to mess with her I'll pour Phillips Hill 2010 Chardonnay Ridley Vineyard, Anderson Valley because it will make her really sit up and notice. She will love it, but then won't be able to buy it in her Podunk town, so it will be a passive aggressive win-win.

Cousin J: My pain-in-the-ass-know-it-all cousin:  I'll serve Bonny Doon Cunning a blend of 61% Carignane and 39% Mourvedre because he won't know the grapes and will smirk that it's a screw cap. Then the color will fade from his smirky-know-it-all face as he realizes how darn good it is and he'll be beside himself and fuming because he didn’t know anything about it.

Cousin MJ: MJ is such an utter twit. He is an investment banker... need I say more? No, but I will…MJ is a beady-eyed greed monster, obsessed with feathering his nest on the backs of others. He gives new meaning to the 1%.  For him I’ll pour La Follette 2009 Pinot Noir Van Der Camp Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain because it’s elegant and complex with a beautiful backbone. All the qualities he lacks. Wait, on second thought this wine is too good for that loser. I’ll save this for later.

If I had a favorite cousin I'd pull him or her aside and pour them a glass of Shane 2007 Syrah The Villain, Mendocino County – but I don’t—so I’ll just drink it myself.

Wine I’m Saving for Christmas: Baxter 2007 Pinot Noir Oppenlander Vineyard, Mendocino 

Cheers and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

NOTE TO READERS: I received the LaFollette and Quivira wines I discuss in this post as samples---BUT!!! I am already a Quivira Queue club member, and I purchase all their wines. I love La Follette and buy their wines regularly on my own as well. It was just a happy coincidence that I was sent samples. So don’t get all huffy about the fact I liked these wines because they were samples. I ALREADY BUY & LOVE THEM! Everything else I bought with my own money.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Croatia Part 4- Zadar, The Perfect Date

My visit to Zadar was like a round of speed dating. We sat down, said a few words, and then --Ding! Ding! Ding!--the bell rang and it was time to move on. I wanted to spend more time in this place with so much to offer-- a mixture of modern art and archaeological treasures.

Oh Zadar, I feel like I hardly got to know you. But what I did see of you makes me want to go steady. I want to hold hands with you and stroll the market, feed each other burek and share some wine at sunset as we listen to the sounds of the sea organ. I know if we had more time together, I'd probably be introducing you to my folks at Thanksgiving dinner. 

Zadar Market
The compact section of old town Zadar is connected by causeways and has restricted car access making it easy for pedestrians to wander around. We stopped for a quick coffee and some burek, the flaky cheese filled pastry that seems to be a national obsession, then we went off to the market.

I would show you pictures of the burek we bought, but it was an obsession for certain travel writers in attendance too, I never had a chance to get a shot before it was devoured. In old town we met up with our charming and well-dressed guide Stjepan Felber, who hosted us on our trip to the Maraska factory to sample the cherry juice and Maraschino liqueurs (more about that in the next post) and for lunch at 2Ribara a modern looking restaurant in the Varoš section of old town Zadar.

Sea Organ
The most captivating spot in Zadar by far is the Sea Organ. The Sea Organ designed by Croatian architect Nikola Bašić, is incorporated into the sea wall. It’s a whimsical love note to the ocean, and an artistic engineering marvel--as the waves roll in, the song of the sea is played. The music was haunting and hypnotic. I could have stayed there all day. It’s a gathering point for locals and visitors alike and watching the sunset is a daily ritual. In Zadar the sunset has it’s own musical accompaniment. And after dark there is a light show as well. Take a look in the video below.

For lunch we went to 2Ribara (Two Fisherman) where we met Ivica Kujundzic our waiter and knowledgeable sommelier. Sommeliers are so cool. It's people like Ivica who make learning about wine a great experience. 
Stjepan Felber (left) Ivica Kujundzic (right)
He poured samples of a few wines before we settled on the Korlat Cabernet Sauvignon, a Smokvica Posip from Korcula, and the Adzic Graševina from the Kutjevo vineyards for the main meal.

The Graševina was crisp and full of apricot and apple flavors with slight nutty taste, perfect with the octopus salad and the fish. The deep, dark Korlat paired well with the grilled fish, the spicy notes of violets and black currents were not overpowering and the tannins were firm but balanced. I'd never have guessed a Cabernet would pair so well with seafood dishes, but the Korlat was a delicious exception to the rule.

For dessert Ivica poured me mystery wine and asked me to guess what it was. I said it tasted like Sherry. “Yes, it's Sherry but not from Croatia. It’s Nier Mundo de Sueño from Spain,” said Ivica.

“Hold on there,” said our guide. “These writers are here to learn about Croatian wine!”

Ivica shrugged his shoulders. “It’s very good, that’s all that matters.” he replied.

And that’s it in a nutshell--when something is good you can’t help but want to share it and spread the word. Ivica was the real deal. He wants to turn people on to great wines no matter where the wine may originate. Bravo Ivica!

So here is what you must do in Zadar: Visit the market and buy some burek, cheese, figs, and of course pick up some wine. Then just before sunset, go hang out by the sea organ. As the sun sinks on the horizon let the mesmerizing sounds wash over you and sip some wine. Then sip and listen. Sip and listen. Gaze out to the sea. It does not get much better than this. 

Photo from Wikipedia Commons 

I have a hunch if you visit  Zadar you'll want to go steady too.

Links to all Croatia Series Posts:
Croatia Part 1: Bibich Dégustation
Croatia Part 2: The Splendors of Split
Croatia Part 4- Zadar, The Perfect Date

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Croatia Part 3- Šibenik Caressed by the Sea

Šibenik has everything I love--It's low key, on the sea, and close to Bibich. Our visit was a marathon of eating; from the wonderful seafood at Dalmatino, to the sublime wine and food parings at Bibich, and finally dinner at Restaurant Marina in Skradin, where we feasted on roasted lamb and vegetables prepared in the traditional peka method in which the dish is covered and placed under hot ash and embers for baking. 

Here is a glimpse of Sibenik's natural beauty and brilliant cuisine, plus a few shots of Waldo from Where's Waldo drinking rakija! {Note: If the video cuts off on the sides you may need to click through to view it on You Tube directly.} 

Upon arrival in Šibenik we checked into Hotel Jadran situated in the middle of town and directly on the promenade where you could practically reach out of your room and grab a glass of wine from one of the many sailboats docked along the seawall. We took a stroll around town with our knowledgeable local guide Vanja Dadić, who had a great sense of humor and was a good sport with all our antics. After a climb to the top of Fort St. Michael for a panoramic view, it was time for lunch at Konoba Dalmatino. 

To say we were spoiled by the bounty of fresh seafood in coastal Croatia would be a gross understatement. I've never had anything close to the supreme delights of the sea that I had in Croatia. The classic seafood repast at Dalmatino was an ode to freshness and simple preparation. The mussels, oysters and clams were just hours out of the water.

Our congenial host Mr. Vinko Pilizota (above at left) was dressed in traditional costume and chef Sinisa Cular seemed happy to be preparing dishes for guests with such hearty appetites as ours. 

We started the meal with a few shots of Travaricia rakija a grape brandy infused with a blend of aromatic herbs. I never found out what herbs the Travarica had in it, but I detected hints of juniper, currents, sage and rosemary. Dalmatino also serves as a wine shop and I was happy to peruse the walls of so many “new to me wines” in between each course. 

Apparently mussels are best served when the moon is full and lucky for us the moon was in it's fullest phase and mussels were the specialty of the house at Dalmatino. The broth of the mussels was incredibly delicious and I greedily dabbed it up with chunks of bread. It's hard to believe it was only parsley, garlic, olive oil and tomatoes. I’m sure there was some other secret ingredient, but no one was giving it away. We had some interesting wines too, including a Debit and a Maristina. The particular Debit we had was strange to me, I found the flavor flat and it seemed slightly oxidized, but the Maristina was bright and lemony with great acidity for the oysters.

The relaxed atmosphere at Dalmatino is like going to your best friends house. (The best friend who knows how to cook, has a great stash of wine, and owns cool hats that is.) We felt so comfortable and at home we found it hard to extract ourselves from the table. But nature, not that kind of nature call, the real dirt and rocks kind of nature call; we were off to visit the waterfalls at Krka National Park. Afterwards we had a dinner date in Skradin at Restaurant Marina. Fortunately all that rushing water stimulated my appetite for the third time that day.

The folks at Restaurant Marina were very welcoming, and we got an up-close view of the peka process in action through the giant plate glass window in the kitchen. The savory lamb at Marina was just the ticket to take the chill off the night air. Later we sampled some sweet wines with dessert and the winds kicked up dramatically. We held tight to our glasses as the patio canopy whipped above our heads and toasted to a day of memorable meals.

P.S: Recently I heard scientists made a startling discovery that the universe was expanding at a rate faster than the speed of light, sounds crazy right?  Well I can tell you it’s nothing compared to the rate of speed my waistband was expanding in Croatia. 


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