Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ajvar Smackdown

After discovering my long lost Croatia photos that I posted here, I also found a post on Ajvar that I never got around to posting. I present it to you now--The Ajvar Smackdown-- a taste comparison of Ajvar.

Ajvar is a wonderful pepper and eggplant relish that I discovered on my first visit to Croatia. It’s the perfect complement to vegetables and most of all meat--especially the tasty sausages called cevapis that I tasted in Croatia.

When I came back from Croatia I went in search of Ajvar locally. Depending on where you live, it is not hard to find, but sourcing the true flavor of Croatian Ajvar proved more elusive. Luckily I did find a few examples and Mia Salazar was kind enough to send me a jar of Podravka made in Croatia, along with her grandmothers recipe so I could try making my own.

The Ajvar Smackdown Line Up

1. Zergut Mild Ajvar
2.  Trader Joe’s Red Pepper Spread- AKA: The Bright Orange Ajvar
3. Podravka Hot Ajvar
4. Homemade:  From Croatian grandmother’s authentic recipe as shared and translated by Mia Salazar.

I found the Zergut was too sweet and the Trader Joe’s color was distractingly neon orange with too much vinegar aftertaste. I must also note neither one was made in Croatia, both the Zergut and Trader Joe’s were imported from Bulgaria.


The clear winner in the jar ajvar was Podravka. I liked the texture and the hot spice level. It also had an ingredient the others lacked -- paprika! Of course! That’s the tipping point!

Podravka: Thick, spicy and a bit of smokiness

Homemade Ajvar:

My attempt at making Ajvar from scratch was not so successful. It came out way more eggplantay than peppery and in fact it reminded me more of a caponata style of relish my Italian grandmother used to make. Actually it was not really like Ajvar or Caponata, it was it’s own hybrid, not necessarily bad, but not the true Ajvar I was hoping to make.

The glowing orange Ajvar from  Trader Joe's

I made roasted potatoes and lamb sausage to taste with all the all the Ajvar contenders. By the way, if you love broccoli as I do, you’ll love it even more with Ajvar.

Croatian Wines to try with Ajvar:

I think both reds and whites are great with Ajvar.

Thanks to Mia Salazar for her generous sharing and translating of her grandmothers recipe and also for the winning jar of Ajvar.

I plan to bring one empty suitcase to Croatia when I return in March to fill up on not just the outstanding wine, but also the olive oil and of course the Ajvar.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Croatia: Memories Lost and Found

Half way through my trip to Croatia in October 2011 my Lumix digital camera died. Actually it was the battery; it would no longer hold a charge. So I tossed the camera into my bag and used my iPhone for the rest of the trip. This week, more than a year later, I finally got a new battery and what a surprise when I turned the camera on and found Croatia lingers on in several hundred photos and a few video’s I completely forgot I'd taken.

Oh Croatia, you really got under my skin. And seeing these pictures makes me fall in love with you all over again. Luckily, I'll be visiting you again soon in March for the 2013 International Wine Tourism Conference and Workshop in Zagreb. I'm looking forward to rekindling our romance.

Here are some highlights from my lost “film roll" plus a lost video from the 2011 Chiavalon olive oil harvest in Istria. You can click on the headings below to bring up the related posts.

L to R-- Me, Lavinia Spalding, Kimberley Lovato
My fellow travel writers - we are actually triplets separated at birth.

Konoba Dalmatino in Sibenik

Be still my heart. The outstanding food pairings presented at Bibich winery was a rare event, not usually available to the general public. But the fabulous wines are available in the U.S. from Blue Danube Wine Company so you have no excuse not to try them. The pictures I took below are the same as the pairings Anthony Bourdain was so effusive about on his last season of No Reservations.

Sage infused Paski Sir -- Best cheese EVER! 

If you missed my posts on Croatia the first time around here they are again--Enjoy.
Links to Croatia Series:
Croatia Part 1: Bibich Dégustation
Croatia Part 2: The Splendors of Split
Croatia Part 4: Zadar, The Perfect Date

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Waiting is Over--2010 Hands on Harvest Pinot Noir

Two years ago I attended Gloria Ferrer Hands on Harvest ( read about it here Part 1 and Part 2 ) and just a few days before this year’s Thanksgiving I got a wonderful surprise in the mail--

The 2010 Carneros Estate Pinot Noir is made from the grapes our Hands on Harvest group picked from the Seven Bays Block, one of the highest ridges at the Circle Bar Ranch property.

I opened a bottle the minute it arrived even though it was only 3pm, but hey, it’s called research! I’m happy to report the wine is delicious -- balanced and dry with a spicy finish. It’s fun to sip and to contemplate that I had a hand, albeit a very small hand, in the making of it. Most of all I’m very happy I don’t have to harvest all the grapes for the many wines I enjoy all year long. There is nothing like a hands on harvest experience to give one tremendous respect and appreciation for all the real hard work carried out on a daily basis by the professionals who make wine.

2010 Gloria Ferrer Hands on Harvest Team
Grapes were picked and crushed on September 14,1010
Wine placed in Barrels on October 5, 2010
Bottled and hand labeled on August 15th 2012

Details about the wine:
* Dijon 115 was the only clone used in the Hands on Harvest Pinot Noir.
* The grapes were de-stemmed, partially crushed, and cold soaked for three days to extract color and aromas.
* Thirce daily punch downs and pump over regimes were tailored to each lot of fruit.
* Barrel aged for nine months in two medium -plus toast 100% French oak barrels form the Allier forest.
* The Pinot Noir was bottled un-fined.

Production: 276 bottles

Thank you to Mike Crumly, Bob Iantosca, Steve Urberg and to the entire staff at Gloria Ferrer .


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Past and Future Perfect

Last night I was thinking about my most memorable Thanksgiving’s and realized all the best were non-traditional. I miss those very early Thanksgiving days when I was between the ages of three and six and oblivious to the family dynamics that holiday events can make so endearing or unbearable. But as the years go by it’s less about family and more about extended family, the one we create with our friends. Plus, aside from my sister, there are very few living blood relations left.

My first Thanksgiving away from home was in Gainesville Florida, while I was at the University of Florida. I stayed in town and invited all the other “Thanksgiving Orphans” who for reasons of work or other circumstances were not going home for Thanksgiving. It was a potluck affair naturally, and in addition to all the pot people brought, we had an amazing turkey some guy in my German cinema class prepared.

Another non-traditional Thanksgiving took place in a yurt in the wilds of Northern Florida with my sisters friends. Someone decided to replace the button mushrooms in the stuffing with psilocybin and everything transformed or deteriorated (depending on your state of mind) into a phantasmagorical evening of deranged conversations and a fire pit of epic proportions.

After the age of twelve, family specific Thanksgivings took on a whole new dynamic tinged with expectations and regrets and disappointment. So after years of traveling back home for the event, I decided all the holiday travel stress was not worth it and besides my mother always said:  “Thanksgiving/Christmas is when we are together not when the calendar dictates.” That eased the minor guilt I had and freed me up to do Thanksgiving my way. For years the T-Day ritual for me and my husband was to play golf in San Francisco and then go to Mel’s Diner for the $11.95 Thanksgiving meal special. Over the years, the price of the special kept ticking up but the scene remained the same. You can view the entire spectrum of mankind--all walks of life--at Mel’s on Thanksgiving Day. I highly recommend you experience it at least once in your life.

One year my husband and I traveled to Vallecitos, New Mexico--a tiny blink-and-you'll-miss-it town between Taos and Santa Fe, where some friends had opened a writer’s retreat. I still remember the pumpkin pie I ate there made with some mysterious ingredient that turned out to be Borden’s condensed milk. We played Pictionary way into the night as a light snow fell and watched the moon rise over the mountains in the cold heavy air.

The most disastrous Thanksgiving occurred when my husband decided he wanted to mend his relationship with his estranged mother and invited her to our ranch in a ill-advised attempt to recapture something that never was. I’ve written a 30,000 word account of her entire stay-- the details of which remain mind-boggling to this day, but the short version is we had barely gathered round the table when the “giblets hit the fan” if you take my meaning. My mother-in-law, well versed in the art of instigation and no stranger to bar room brawls, picked the wrong person to attack that day. Me. I still remember the shocked silence that settled over the table as I told her “…we better take it outside.” Our poor friends tried to busy themselves tiding up in the kitchen and taking walks around our property to avoid the tension. This story ends well though, albeit in a very Dickensian way.

On a whim and drawn by a great travel deal, we went to Hawaii post hurricane Iniki and it was very odd. The entire landscape was strafed, nary a leaf on a tree, and I was sick the entire time with some mysterious respiratory ailment that I have only just recently discovered is quite common and even has a name—VOG. Our Thanksgiving meal was a traditional luau composed of the three P’s –Pork, Pupu, and Poi. 

A few years ago we had a great Thanksgiving Day spent out on my sisters boat in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and it was fabulous. We grilled our catch right on the boat and later in the evening, back at her house, we made s’mores around a fire.

These days we tend to stick close to home and it’s hard to beat the bounty of food and wine and flavors one can find right here in Sonoma county. I miss my family of course, and would dearly love to see them all again, lively and in the pink of health gathered around my table. They are still there, in my mind and in my heart, but the traditional Thanksgiving of my past is just that—past.  Tomorrow our newlywed friends will be joining us for their first Thanksgiving as a married couple and the menu does not include turkey.

I know a few of you may be wondering where’s the WINE in all this? Isn’t this supposed to be a "wine blog"?  But I was thinking about that last night too and wondering why all the fuss about Thanksgiving wines? Well, I think it all comes down to fear and perfection. People have wildly high expectations and feel pressured to impress friends and relatives with a meal worthy of a Food & Wine photo spread. And this leads to fear their choice of wine will not be perfect. So here is my Thanksgiving wine advice: Relax!

Perfect is not all is cracked up to be. Choose wines you like and let the day unfold. Odds are, unless your family and guests are extremely wine centric, no one will be talking about the wine served. Just have plenty of it, whatever it is, and everything will be just fine. But if you feel cheated by this post and still want some Thanksgiving Day wine recommendations you can read this from last year it still applies. -- Cheers

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Okanagan: What’s The Signature Grape?

This is a peach, not a giant grape

In July I traveled to British Columbia, Canada to the Okanagan region as part of a WBC 13 preview hosted by Travel Penticton and Wines of British Columbia. Naturally with four wine writers and our WSET rated host from Travel Penticton, the talk turned to what might be Okanagan’s signature grape.

Some say it’s the Pinot Gris that thrives and delivers the best expression of the region. Crisp and bright, the full flavors benefit from the long summer days and the same rich soils that support so many of the fruit orchards the area is best known for. 

But what about Gewürztraminer? This is a good contender, most all of my favorite whites were Gewürztraminer and I have to give extra points for the sublime manner in which it “pressed into use” at Kettle Valley Winery in the form of Slush Puppies. You have not tasted the joy enhancing aspects of Gewürztraminer until you try the delightful frozen concoction that is the Gewurztraminer Slush Puppy. Think slurppie of your youth, but with a decidedly adult twist.

Another great white was an Ehrenfelser-- dry and peachy and zingy from Lake Breeze Winery. And you can’t rule out Chardonnay--Blue Mountain Winery had one of the most extraordinary Chardonnays I’ve ever tasted--Full bodied with a creamy-peach nose, bright acidity and great balance.

Is it Merlot?
Up here no one will give you a “sideways” glance for ordering Merlot. In fact it is one of the most widely planted grapes and one of the most successful according to my palate. Besides anyone who would let a fictional character define their wine preference needs to get a firm grip on reality. Repeat after me: Miles is not REAL! Obey your own palate. My favorites were from Painted Rock Estate, Township 7  and Poplar Grove. These Merlot’s were deep, dark and elegant with hints of sage and smoke and dark cherries.

The 2006 Syrah I tried at Laughing Stock was the most Burgundian style I’d tasted and so you can’t rule out Rhone’s as a possibility.

Pinot could be in the running too. See Ya Later Ranch and Blue Mountain Vineyard both had excellent examples of what the Okanagan can deliver in terms of Pinot.

But I think my vote might be for the Cab Franc. Normally used as a blending grape, I found the 100% Cab Franc’s I tried in the Okanagan to be rich and earthy with firm tannins and a wide range of flavors, from mint and spice to violet and blackberry. I especially enjoyed the Cab Franc from Tinhorn Creek and Hillside Estates. In fact I brought home a bottle of each.

With so many wonderful grapes, it might be a mistake to try and pigeon-hole the Okanagan with just one designated grape. For now, the discovery process is in full swing and more wineries are experimenting with finding the outer limits of what the climate and soil can deliver for the best expression of the region.

If you are planning to attend WBC 13 in Penticton make plans to arrive early or stay late to discover the region at your own pace and cast your vote on the signature grape.

Tourism Penticton & Wine Country

Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars
Hillside Estate Winery
Kettle Valley Winery
Lake Breeze Winery
Laughing Stock Vineyards
Painted Rock Estate
Poplar Grove Winery
See Ya Later Ranch
Tinhorn Creek
Township 7 Vineyards

In case you still need convincing about WBC13:
Top Ten Reasons You Should Go to WBC13 in Okanagan

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

There’s Something About Carlton...

Carlton, Oregon may not have the starring role in a Farrelly Brothers movie, but it could certainly have its own reality show about the spirit of collaboration, fine wine, and beautiful living. Yes, there’s something about Carlton, and almost everyone one I spoke to mentioned there was an irresistible quality that drew them to the community.

After WBC12 Portland ended, I was part of a group invited back to Carlton, site of the Cuffed in Carlton extravaganza, for a closer look at what makes the tiny town so appealing for wine tourists as well as those just seeking an escape to a spot that puts the O in hospitality. That’s O, as in "Oh yeah, this is the place.”

Walk in the Park

I’ve been to many walk around tastings over the years but Carlton’s Walk in the Park was one of the most pleasant and relaxing events ever. It was a welcome down shift from the red line of WBC activity. At Walk in the Park we were left to wander at our own pace and just unwind. I sampled many of the wines in the tasting tent and then strolled through the art exhibits. There was a great band jamming out on one end of the park and a row of classic cars on display. I felt like Goldilocks --in that I’d found the perfect size festival, not too big, not too small, just right. O--"Oh yeah."

Republic of Jam

Come for the Jam,  Stay for the COCKTAILS! 

Later on after Walk in the Park we reconvened on Main Street at Republic of Jam with our hosts Amy and Lynette. What’s the best way to revive a tired wine blogger? With cocktails! But not just any old cocktails, no, these were inspired creations prepared from fine ingredients with speciality syrups and jams made on the premises. O--"Oh Yeah, this is the place!!!”

Losing my head at Republic of Jam

When @winebratsf talks...people listen!

Amy and Lynette of Republic of Jam -- the hosts with the most.

Post cocktail hour we stepped next door to the Horse Radish for live music and dinner. I almost did not recognize the place since the last time I was there for the Cuffed in Carlton Dinner. What a transformation. Now it was back to its regular configuration-- perfect for kicking back and enjoying the show. I’m sure we had some wine with dinner but all I remember was the excellent beer from Fire Mountain Brewery.

Casa della Valle
Joe and Eve of Casa della Valle

After dinner we were all given directions to our respective lodging arrangements for the evening. Melanie (@dallaswinechick) and I were pointed in the direction of Casa delle Valle, a few blocks away on Pine Street. We were told to follow Pine for several blocks and bear right as the road curved. You can’t miss it we were assured. We came to a fork in the road but it was very dark and we were unclear which way to head. We stumbled a few more blocks onward and I saw a man across the street from us. “Excuse me.” I yelled. “Is there a B and B around here?”
--A what? What’s a B and B? he replied. 
--Um, it means Bed and Breakfast.
--Oh that – yeah, it’s right in front of you.

Hey, we are wine bloggers not Lewis and Clark. Anyway that’s my explanation and I’m sticking with it. We rang the bell at Cassa delle Valle and were greeted by Eve who owns and runs the B & B with her husband Joe. Eve showed us around and I immediately knew Melanie and I had lucked out with the accommodations. Casa della Valle is more than a B & B-- it’s a treasure trove of antiques and collectibles; a mini museum of all things beautiful and many things kitsch. We spent close to 35 minutes just gawking and gazing at all the fabulous items Joe and Eve had collected over the years. O--"Oh yeah, this is the place.”

That night, tucked into my comfy bed, I got my first deep sleep of the week. In the morning I awoke to a gentle thumping sound that turned out to be Ms. DallasWineChick doing her calisthenics in the other guest room. That girl is in shape!
Breakfast at Casa della Valle--
notice the grape pattern on the china.

Eve prepared us a lovely breakfast and I wondered if she had chosen the grape leaf china pattern just for us. I seemed to be exactly the kind of special touch she would make for her wine blogging guests. I asked Eve how she started collecting. “Well,” she said, “My mother was weird …” Mine too I thought. No wonder I felt so at home there. Cassa della Valle may not be the fanciest or most expensive lodging choice in Carlton, but it is hands down the most fun and interesting. I guarantee that.

Just a few of the many wines of the region
If you are planning a trip to Willamette Valley region of Oregon and looking for a fine wine experience wrapped around great food, small town charm and hospitality-- look no further than Carlton. O--Oh yeah, Carlton is the place.


Featured Wineries & Tasting Rooms:
Link to Melanie’s Account of UnCuffed in Carlton


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