How a Course on California Wine Brought Me Full Circle

Me behind the tasting bar at SCMV_fall 2013_cropped_aCheck out my latest San Francisco Wine School blog California Here I Come, Right Back Where I Started From to learn how the California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS) program augmented my career in and personal passion for California Wine.

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Beyond the Tasting Room: My SOMM Summit Wine Journey, Part 2 — Woodinville Wine Tour

On August 4th I posted a story about a trip for two that I won to the 2017 SOMM Summit International Wine & Spirits Symposium in Seattle, Washington. My story highlighted the symposium sessions and events that had the most impact on my wine education, journey and palate. You can read about it here.

As part of the three-day conference, my friend Susan Sheppard and I attended an offsite to Washington’s Woodinville wine country, just outside Seattle. Here’s where this part of my journey picks up and ends—for now anyway. 

All Aboard! Woodinville

As I was tasting New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs at the final trade tasting on Day 3 of the SOMM Summit, I got the urgent “call” to get on the shuttle bus, which was about to embark on a tour of Woodinville wineries, courtesy of Sandra Lee, executive director of Woodinville Wine Country, and our trusty driver Cleave Butler, who went above and beyond the call of duty (I can’t tell you how or I’d have to take away your wine).

Woodinville wine country is 30 miles northeast of downtown Seattle and is nestled in the small, yet scenic Sammamish Rivery Valley. The area boasts more than 100 wineries—one of which is the historic Chateau Ste. Michelle—and tasting rooms, as well as restaurants, microbrews and distilleries.

Most of the wineries here source grapes from Eastern Washington’s Columbia Valley, Washington’s largest viticulture region with a bit under 11 million acres. Woodinville contains four districts: Hollywood, West Valley, Warehouse and Downtown. We visited four wineries—one located in the Hollywood District; three located in the Warehouse District—each of which treated us not just to wine but also to a spread of cheeses, charcuterie and more. Here’s the short of it.

Novelty HillJanuik Winery

Novelty Hill-Januik are two independent wineries that share a destination tasting room and production facility under the direction of Mike Januik, former head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle. Novelty Hill-Januik was the largest of the four wineries we visited, and is designed for wine making and hospitality on a large scale.

Novelty Hill–Januik cellar. Total case production in 2016 was roughly 33,000, according to an article published in the Great Northwest Wine newsletter. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

Mike’s son Andrew Januik works with his father and also has his own label, aptly named Andrew Januik.

Cynthia Bournellis with Andrew Januik (left) and Mike Januik (right). (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

Our three-wine flight included a Merlot. I often find it challenging to find a decent Merlot, but the 2014 vintage (shown below) did not disappoint. The blend is primarily Merlot with 4 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 3 percent Cabernet Franc from four vineyards in the Columbia Valley: Weinbau, Alder Ridge, Champoux, and Shaw Vineyards.

With 2014 being a warmer year in the Columbia Valley, the wines tend to be more aromatic with more concentrated flavors. The 2014 Januik Merlot is well structured and medium-bodied with aromas of red currant, red cherry and plum followed by lengthy flavors of fresh black fruit and chocolate.

Flight (left to right): 2016 Januik Sauvignon Blanc, Sagemore Vineyards, Columbia Valley; 2014 Januik Merlot, Columbia Valley; 2014 Andrew Januik, Bordeaux-style blend, Lady Hawk Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills AVA. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

Wineries of the Warehouse District

W.T. Vintners

Lots of tasting rooms have cool décor. At W.T. Vintners it was the Merlot vine, more than 20 years old, that got my attention. I love photographing old vines because they have so much character, if they could speak, oh the stories they’d tell.

Merlot vine

Middle-aged Merlot vine from Boushey Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, W.T. Vintners. (photo: Cynthia Bournellis)

Let’s not forget the wine. The Stoney Vine Syrah and the Stoney Vine Red Blend from Walla Walla Valley, Oregon, also turned my head. The former is elegant on the palate, with notes of black olive, black cherry, red flowers and cracked pepper. The latter has aromas of black cherry, marionberry, raw meat, white pepper and smoke. Structured minerality and flavors of blackberry, violets and Kalamata olives dance among soft tannins.

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Flight (left to right): 2015 Pinot Noir, Seven Springs Vineyard, Eola-Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon; 2014 Gorgeous Syrah, Destiny Ridge Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills, Washington; 2013 Damavian Syrah, Les Collines Vineyard, Walla Walla Valley, Washington; 2014 Stoney Vine Syrah, Stoney Vine Vineyard, Walla Walla Valley, Oregon; 2014 Stoney Vine Red Blend, Stoney Vine Vineyard, Walla Walla Valley, Oregon. Not shown are the 2016 Chenin Blanc, Stoneridge Vineyard, Columbia Valley, Washington; and the 2016 Grüner Veltliner, Underwood Mountain Vineyard, Columbia Gorge, Washington. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

Jeff Lindsay-Thorson, owner and winemaker, gets inspiration for his Syrahs from the Northern Rhone Valley. His winemaking approach involves the use of used oak for texture; and whole cluster fermentation for greater structure, and savory flavors and aromas.

Lindsey and me

Cynthia Bournellis with Jeff Lindsey-Thorson, winemaker-proprietor, W.T. Vintners, Woodinville, Washington. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

Pondera Winery

Winemaker Shane Howard, Pondera Winery, hosted a tasting of four wines, accompanied by a scrumptious buffet.

Cynthia and winemaker

Cynthia Bournellis with Pondera winemaker Shane Howard. Tasting (left to right): 2011 Entwined Bordeaux-style blend (Merlot-dominant), Columbia Valley; 2013 Reserve Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley; 2013 Stillwater Creek Syrah, Columbia Valley; 2009 Consensio Red Wine (Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant), Columbia Valley. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

A culinary spread prepared by Amato Catering consisted of Italian meat balls with shaved parmesan cheese, croissants croquembouche filled with wild mushrooms and ricotta cheese, sausages and baby potatoes stuffed with blue cheese, Focaccia bread caprese squares, and a Mediterranean plate with classic humus, babaganoush and pickled vegetables with warm pita bread.

Chef Danilo Amato was spot on when it came to pairing the croissants croquembouche with the Pondera 2013 Reserve Cabernet Franc. Goat cheese, rather than Ricotta, is a likely pairing for Cab Franc, but the Ricotta worked—must have been the wild mushrooms. I definitely had one too many, croissants that is.

2013 Reserve Cabernet Franc tasting notes: The nose exhibits black pepper, leather black currant and hints of licorice. The palate expresses low acidity, bright raspberry flavors and a touch of dark chocolate.

Patterson Cellars 

Our last stop was Patterson Cellars where we met winemaker and owner John Patterson. More nibbles, more wine and lots of laughs ensued. The tallest guy in the cellar, John worked the room, seeing to it that no one’s glass was empty, not even his own.

Cynthia and winemaker

Cynthia Bournellis with Patterson Cellars Winemaker-Proprietor, John Patterson. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

Once again, the Syrah was a hit. Deep purple with intense aromas of smoked meats, cocoa and blackberry pie dominate the nose. Flavors of black fruits, a hint of vanilla, dark chocolate, and sage round out the palate with bold acidity.

Patterson wines

(Actual order of tasting): 2016 Viognier, Ciel du Cheval, Red Mountain AVA; 2014 Merlot, Columbia Valley (just bottled); 2013 Syrah, Boushey, Ambassador Vineyard, Yakima Valley. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

Our Woodinville excursion was a pleasant, informal break from the more structured, educational conference. And while I could have explored another winery or two, the time had come to say good-bye, but not farewell. The wine trail is long but the industry is small, and the friends and colleagues you make along the way are priceless. Until then, cheers!

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Salute, to new friends and colleagues! Patterson Cellars, Warehouse District, Woodinville, Washington. (First row standing: Cynthia Bournellis second from left. Lucky friend Susan Sheppard, fifth from left). (photo, Kelly Cryan, Woodinville Wine Country)

 



 

 

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Beyond the Tasting Room: My SOMM Summit Wine Journey, Part 1

Cynthia at Medoc session

Cynthia Bournellis at “Wines of Medoc: Degustation et Historie,” SOMM Summit, Seattle (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

When I got the call from Alexandra Pace at the San Francisco Wine School telling me that I had won two tickets to the 2017 SOMM Summit, International Wine & Spirits Symposium last month in Seattle, Washington—plus lodging—I was speechless. I’ve never won anything significant except for $60 playing the slot machines. The next three days of my life would truly be memorable, educational and just plain fun.

In the fall of 2016, I received my certification as a California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS) with Honors from the San Francisco Wine School, in South San Francisco. And while I’ve worked in the wine industry for more than 11 years and have garnered additional education from other institutions, I find that that there’s always something new to learn about the world of wine. That’s why I love it!

So when I got the news, I quickly rearranged my other priorities (I was going if it killed me), found a dear friend to join me and took off for the “Emerald City” (aka, Seattle). It all happened so fast my head was spinning, though not from wine; I was high on excitement and was long overdue for a trip.

My flight north brought back memories of another life when I worked in high tech and managed accounts in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve always enjoyed this route. I never tire of the grandeur of the snow-capped peaks and volcanoes that dot the High Country. Unfortunately smoke from what appeared to be forest fire puffed in the distance but didn’t detract from the beauty below. Overall, the flight was pleasant, and I spent most of my time engaged in riveting conversation with an anesthesiologist—a far cry from wine but, nonetheless, fascinating.

One of my goals on this trip was to network as much as possible. The other, and foremost, was to broaden my wine education. I’m a consummate learner and love sharing my knowledge with others who are open to receiving it.

On this note, the SOMM Summit curriculum did not disappoint. The symposium was held at South Seattle College, which has a culinary arts and winemaking program. The college is in the hilly district of Seattle, west of Duwamish River and across Elliott Bay from downtown. The drive to campus each day, courtesy of free shuttles, revealed panoramic views of the Seattle city skyline, Puget Sound waterfront, and the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. Can’t complain about that commute!

Aerial Photo 3 south seattle college

Arial photo, West Seattle. (courtesy, South Seattle College)

Roughly 25 seminars were held over a three-day period, including three morning assemblies, three trade tasting receptions and two off-campus activities. Each class featured eight to 10 samples of wine in Riedel glasses, tasting templates, maps and more.

There were too many fascinating mid-day seminars held at the same time, and attendees could only pick one, so I chose those from each block with which I was least familiar. Here’s my itinerary.CB Itinerary

Sadly, I had to pass on San Francisco Wine School founder David Glancy’s session, “Napa Elevations, Valley to Sky,” which included a cool, raised map of the Napa Valley AVA. I love maps! (Sorry David, I heard it was fabulous. Hopefully you will offer it soon in S.F.)

I did, however, attend a session that David moderated, “SOMM Journal Presents: It’s Not About the Fruit,” featuring experts representing Italy, Romania, Hungary, Uruguay and Portugal.

me_david_kristen_cropped

(left to right) Kristin Campbell, COO and co-owner, SF Wine School; David Glancy, MS and founder, SF Wine School; Cynthia Bournells, CWAS and lucky drawing winner. “SOMM Journal Presents: It’s Not About the Fruit.” (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

The focus was on everything but the fruit such as time in bottle, vineyard selection, reductive winemaking and corks.

Take time in bottle, for instance. I learned that time greatly impacts Frascati, an ancient wine born in the Roman hills. The first wine we tasted, 2014 Fontana Candida Frascati, while not old, was a decent example of how Frascati begins to age gracefully. The wine is aged one year in bottle in caves carved out of tufa soil, which is composed of volcanic ash and sand.

Fontana_Candida_Cellar_cropped

Fontana Candida Cave. (courtesy Banfi Vintners)

As it ages, Frascati takes on honeyed, reductive notes. The 2014 exhibits unctuous aromas of honeysuckle, white flowers, peach and apricot, and has a long butterscotch finish.

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(left to right) 2014 Luna Mater Frascati Superiore Riserva, Fontana Candida; 2014 Jidvei Maria Owner’s Choice Pinot Gris, Romania; 2015 MA’D Furmint, Tokaji, Hungary; 2015 Bodega Garzón’s Tannat Reserve, Uruguay; 2012 Vigneto di Campolungo Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG, Lamole di Lamole; 1995 Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, Ridge Vineyards, Santa Cruz Mountains, courtesy of MS Matt Stamp. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

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Cynthia and friend Susan Sheppard savor the 1995 Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

Before I continue, I want to thank Christopher Chan, founder and director of SOMM Summit, for his gracious gift of both the symposium tickets and lodging at the Maxwell Hotel, where the robes and beds are to die for and the location is two blocks from the Space Needle.

Back to Washington. I have a confession to make: I’ve never had a wine from Washington State—at least not that I can recall. On the domestic front, I’ve tasted Oregon, Arizona, Virginia, New Mexico, the Finger Lakes, and of course California wines, to name some. But, Washington was a new frontier for me. My education of this region began at “A Taste of Washington: The Birth of Washington State Terroir.” This session was an eye-opener in regard to how the Columbia Basin was formed. Within the Basin is Columbia Valley, Eastern Washington’s major grape growing region. I love all of this geology stuff and how it impacts terroir.

Cynthia on opening day_cropped

Cynthia, among glasses of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, eagerly awaits, “A Taste of Washington” assembly, 2017 SOMM Summit, Seattle. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

Geologist Dr. Kevin Pogue, whose focus is on basalt and the climate/soil chemistry of Columbia Basin vineyards, explained how the basin was formed: The land is barren and composed of basalt made from silt that was caused by grinding glaciers, and is dotted with large granite rocks that were once deposited by ice bergs. Surface soils are dominated by “loess” soils made from fine sand and silt. Vines are planted on Eolian (wind-derived) soil. Eolian comes from the name of the Greek God Aeolus, keeper of the winds. Most grapes are own-rooted because there is little clay, thus no phylloxera. This continental climate is home to Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.

dirtinair

Dr. Kevin Pogue watches loess dirt in flight, Columbia Basin. (photo, courtesy of Dr. Pogue)

Tim Donahue, director of winemaking at College Cellars, a teaching winery on the Walla Wall Community College campus in Washington, led the second half of the assembly with a tasting of seven wines made by his enology students. Tim’s vivacious speaking style, sprinkled with humor, held everyone’s attention. Especially his Lego slides.

With the help of Steve Price, phenoloic consultant for ETS Labs, Tim’s presentation contained analogies of Lego structures representing wine phenolics: anthocyanins, catechin and epicatechin, and tannin. I understand phenolics, but pictures really are worth a thousand words, regardless of their simplicity.

These next few images from Tim’s presentation helped to define wine chemistry in layman’s terms, and as it related to the practical tasting to come—a vintage variation of three Merlots: 2010 (cool year), 2012 (warm year) and 2014 (hot year); and a site variation of 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, all clone 8, from the following vineyards: Clarke, Seven Hills, Summit View and Center (an ice wine vineyard).

castle

A huge castle built from tons of Legos = huge tannins, those flavonoid polymers found naturally in grape skins and seeds. (courtesy, Tim Donahue)

lego foundation

Lego foundations represent Catechin and epicatechin, the primary components for tannin. (courtesy, Tim Donahue)

pirates

High concentrations of anthocyanins (represented by Lego pirates) are essential for good color in wine. (courtesy, Tim Donahue)

lego malbec syran

The more modified the anthocyanins, the less astringent the wine. Malbec and Syrah are less astringent; Nebbiolo is more astringent. (courtesy, Tim Donahue)

A Taste of British Columbia

What better way to start the next session than with bubbles. A refreshing glass of 2010 Steller’s Jay Brut from Sumac Ridge Estate Winery was placed in my hand upon entering “A Tasting Tour with Wines of British Columbia.” While the Brut wasn’t part of the practical tasting, host Rhys Pender, MW and owner of WinePlus+, a B.C.-based wine education and consulting company, explained that Sumac Ridge was the first Okanagan winery to produce premium sparkling wines.

Rhys Pender cropped

Rhys Pender disusses the British Columbia wine industry prior to the practical tasting.

During class, I couldn’t stop “drooling” over the pictures Rhys shared of some of B.C.’s grape growing regions. I found myself day dreaming of what it’d be like to live in such majestic places.

BCWI-6451

Okanagan Valley. (photo, courtesy of Wines of British Columbia, WineBC.com)

My thoughts returned to Seattle and our nine-wine flight. By far, my favorite was the 2014 Tantalus Old Vines Riesling, Okanagan Valley. Bone dry, I love it for its racy acidity and stony minerality. I also love the colorful and informative tasting mat.

BC wine tasting mat

Practical tasting mat of B.C. shows the six grape growing regions: Vancouver Islands, Gulf Island, Fraser Valley, Okanagan Valley, and Similkameen Valley. Tantalus Old Vine Riesling (first row, far left. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

BC wines 1

First five B.C. wines (left to right): 2014 Tantalus Old Vines Riesling, Okanagan Valley; 2016 Fort Berens Dry Riesling, Lillooet (an emerging region); 2015 Maverick Pinot Gris, Okanagan Valley; 2015 Quails’ Gate Chardonnay, Okanagan Valley; 2016 Bench 775 Glow Rosé, Okanagan Valley. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

BC wines 2

Last four B.C. wines (left to right): 2013 Canyonview Vineyard Pinot Noir, Okanagan Valley; 2014 Nk’ Mip Qwam Qwmt Merlot, Okanagan Valley; 2013 Culmina Thesis, Bordeaux-style Blend, Golden Mile Bench, Okanagan Valley; 2014 Clos du Soleil, Saturn, Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, Similkameen / Okanagan Valley regions; Steller’s Jay Brut (Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

Ooh La La, Syrah!

I love Syrah, so I was looking forward to the session, “Washington State—The New Northern Rhone,” hosted by Master of Wine, Joel Butler, who took us on a tasting tour of the “Grand Crus” of Washington State. The tasting consisted of seven wines. What impressed me were two from The Rocks District AVA, nestled in the Walla Walla AVA and entirely in Oregon—in particular, The Funk from Saviah Cellars.

The 2014 Funk Estate Syrah lives up to its name. It has plenty of funk for which Syrah is known: earth, umami, meat and savory aromas, plus rich red and dark fruit flavors. “The savory character comes from the basalt cobblestones, which are high in iron,” explains Richard Funk, Saviah winemaker-proprietor. He laughs, noting that during production the cellar smells like a market full of cured meats.

Syrah tasting

Syrah tasting (left to right): 2014 Betz Family Winery, Cote Patriache, Red Willow Vineyard, Yakima Valley; 2015 Alain Graillot Syrah, Crozes-Hermitage, N. Rhone; 2014 Betz Family Winery Syrah, La Serenne, Boushey Vineyard, Yakima Valley; 2014 Avennia Syrah Arnaut, Boushey Vineyard, Yakima Valley; 2014 Amavi Cellars Syrah, Les Collines Vineyard, Walla Walla; 2015 Rotie Cellars Nothern Blend, Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, Oregon; 2014 Saviah Cellars Syrah, The Funk, The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, Oregon.

Boundaries define this district. According to Geologist Dr. Pogue, “The Rocks District is the only AVA in the United States whose boundaries have been fixed by virtue of a single soil series and a single land form.” The soil series is Freewater (96 percent) and the land form is alluvial fan. The soils are well drained and consist primarily of dark-colored basalt cobblestones that encourage the vines to root deeply.

Funk Estate Vineyard

The Funk Estate Vineyard Syrah. Basalt cobblestonses radiate heat that warms the grape clusters and influences the production of phenolic compounds during ripening. (courtesy of Saviah Cellars)

Bubbles Galore! Sparkling Wines of South Africa

One of the rules of the SOMM Summit (as with any wine conference) is that participants are required to taste and spit, to avoid getting intoxicated and possibly thrown out. I agree, but come on? When it comes to bubbles do the rules really apply?

Confession #2: I consumed all but two of the eight generous samples. I doubt I wasn’t alone. These wines are made in the Methode Cap Classique process, which are South African sparkling wines made by the traditional Champagne method, with some differences, including: all varieties are allowed—but Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir dominate. Minimum time on the lees is 12 months in bottle (vs. 15 months for Champagne); will increase to 15 months in 2018. Whole bunch press is preferred.

My favorite was the Brut NV from MAN Family Wines, oddly named after three women: Marie, Anette and Nicky. Made from 100 percent Chenin Blanc, this sparkling has that racy acidity, minerality and salinity that I love. A touch of lemon citrus excites the palate.

The only disappointing element was that all of the wines were poured ahead of time rather than one at a time upon discussion of each wine to preserve the bubbles. But, they were still yummy.

first 4 sparklings

First four bubbles (left to right): MAN Brut NV; 2015 Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel Brut Rosé; Graham Beck Brut Rosé NV; Boschendal Brut NV. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

second 4 sparklings

Second four bubbles (left to right): 2015 House of Krone Brut Rosé; Backsberg Kosher Brut NV; Colmant NV Brut Chardonnay; Graham Beck Brut Blanc de Blancs NV. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

Sherry in the Morning? Why Not!

Of all of the certifications I could acquire, Sherry isn’t one of them. No offense Sherry lovers or industry at large. Sherry hadn’t been on my radar, until I took the “Lustau Sherry Certification Class,”—at, of all things, 10 a.m.

Talk about broadening my wine horizons. This class, led by the delightful Lucas Payà, brand educator for Bodegas Lustau (the House of Lustau), was the most intense of all the sessions I took. I mean, my gosh, it came with a test! In fact our tests were collected and sent back to Spain for grading. How serious is that? A Sherry certification may be in my future. (As I post this, still no word from Spain.)

Lucas Paya

Lucas Payà, national U.S. brand educator, Bodegas Lustau. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

I may have learned more than I will likely bestow on another human being, but I did get to taste some marvelous Sherries. And, I learned fancy terms such as “en rama,” which means “bottling wine from barrel with no extra treatment.” The term applies to biological, not oxidative, Sherry.

sherry tasting

Sherry tasting (left to right): Manzanilla Papirusa, Palomino Fino, aged 5 years; Puerto Fino, Palomino Fino, aged 5 years; Fino Jarana,Palomino Fino, aged 5 years; Amontillado Los Arcos, Palomino Fino, aged 8 years; Oloroso Don Nuño, Palomino Fino, aged 12 years; San Emilio, Pedro Ximénez, aged 12 years. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

New Zealand: A Land Calling My Name

My last class, “Tasting & Tour with New Zealand Winegrowers,” was hosted by David Strada, USA marketing manager for New Zealand Winegrowers.

Confession #3: Until now, I hadn’t tasted New Zealand Pinot Noir. I need to get out of California more! The theme of this session was…you guessed it: Pinot Noir—from Marlborough, North Canterbury and Central Otago regions. (A few Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris wines were thrown in for good measure.)

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David Strada, USA marketing manager, New Zealand Wine Growers, gives an overview of the grape growing regions of New Zealand’s North and South islands. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

According to David, vineyard elevations range from just above sea level to 1,000 feet depending on the region. As I tasted the wines, I found many similarities between these Pinots and those from my neck of the woods, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA: red, dark fruit such as cherries and cranberries; spicy notes such as black pepper; dried herbs; aromas of damp earth, rose petals and perfume; firm structure and acidity; and structured tannins. My three favorites: Wither Hills, Mt. Beautiful, and Toi Toi.

pinot noir flight

Pinot Noir tasting (The wines were actually tasted from right to left but displayed here left to right.): 2014 Mt. Difficulty, Bannockburn, Central Otago; 2014 Carrick, Unraveled, Central Otago; 2014 Toi Toi, Clutha, Central Otago; 2015 Mt. Beautiful, North Canterbury; 2013  Villa Maria, Cellar Selection, Marlborough; 2012 Wither Hills, Marlborough. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

So there you have it. While I didn’t recap all of the sessions I attended, I highlighted those that had the most impact on my wine education, journey and palate. This event filled my senses on many levels. At times it was surreal, like when I met Madeline Puckett of Wine Folly. Other times it was funny, like when I tasted numerous reds back to back during the “Seven Hills Winery Retrospective,” “Wines of the Medoc,” and “Advanced Bordeaux” sessions, respectively. Boy, were my teeth purple! Good thing I had my toothbrush and toothpaste with me. But mostly, the symposium was a gift of wine for which I will always be grateful and will never forget.

As I mentioned prior, the symposium held two offsites. One I attended was in Woodinville, just outside Seattle. So stay tuned for my next blog post on my Woodinville wine country adventure. Meanwhile, here are some memorable moments from the Summit reception.

Snapshots from the 2017 SOMM Summit International Wine & Spirits Symposium, Trade Tasting Reception

First stop bubbles

First stop: Bubbles to cleanse the palate. (second from left) Karma Vineyards 2013 Methode Champenoise Pink (97% Pinot Noir 2% Chardonnay 1% Pinot Meunier), Lake Chelan AVA, Columbia Valley. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

Cynthia and Madeline

What a pleasant surprise! Cynthia meets one of her favorite wine bloggers and authors, Madeline Puckette, Wine Folly content director and host. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

Ports

A plethora of Ports: 1957 by far my favorite. (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

bourbons

Who let in these guys? Just kidding. This is, in fact, a wine and spirits symposium. High Altitude Brown Sugar Bourbon (third from left) stole my friend Susan’s heart! (photo, Cynthia Bournellis)

 

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My Search for the “Romance” in Remuage

Me behind the tasting bar at SCMV_fall 2013_cropped_aWhen the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is asked, how often does someone say, “I want to be a remueur.” Probably never.

French for “bottle turner,” a remueur is someone who performs the act of remuage. Remuage, which means “riddling” in French, is a manual process used in the traditional method of making Champagne, and some sparkling wines, to consolidate sediment into the neck of the bottle in preparation for disgorgement—resulting in a clean, clear bottle of wine.

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A remueur hand-riddling champagne. (From the Lordprice Collection. This picture is the copyright of the Lordprice Collection and is reproduced on Wikipedia with their permission.)

Before I get into the specifics of what I consider to be a “fine art,” I have to admit that the reason for writing this is not because I want to reiterate what remuage is and why it is performed. Instead, I am fascinated by the fact that at one time remuage was entirely done by hand—in damp, dimly lit crayers—hands that if they were alive today could tell you stories of a time when Champagne got the holy heck beaten out of it, of a time when women ran champagne houses, and of a time when innovations in champagne production began to flourish, with remuage sur pupitre (“removing by desk”) being one such innovation.

So my intention here is to understand why remuage is still done today, albeit in small part. Is it because of tradition? Is it done for the love of the craft? Does hand-riddling add some value to the finished product that automated riddling via gyropalettes does not? (More on gyropalettes below.) Just as important, I want to learn about the people behind the bottles. Who wouldn’t want to talk to them? Then again, maybe they wouldn’t have much to say given the time they spend alone with only these bottles.

A Widow, a Desk and a Process that Transformed Champagne Production

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A portrait of Madame Clicquot and her great-granddaughter Anne de Rochechouart-Mortemart, by Léon Cogniet. (Image via Wikipedia.)

I’ll start with one person, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, who I wasn’t able to talk to but who I certainly read about. Barbe-Nicole (aka the Widow Clicquot) in 1816 invented remuage. She did so because she wanted a faster way to produce the highest-quality wines in large numbers. Prior to this time the old way of doing it was crude and rudimentary, leaving finished bottles cloudy and filled with particulate matter. Robert Tomes in his book The Champagne Country (1867) explains: “The old way, which involved knocking the bottles upside down to settle the sediment, used drugs and clarifiers that could be poisonous, [and] took many months.”

Taking months to clarify the champagne would not do for the Widow who, after much thought, had a light-bulb moment. She determined that storing the bottles sur pointe, or “on their necks,” would enable the debris to efficiently settle into the neck of the bottle. So as the story goes, she had her kitchen table moved into the cellar and had her workers riddle it with slanted holes to hold the neck of the bottles at an angle. This A-frame-shaped rack is called a “pupitre.” With the help of her cellar master, Antoine Müller, Barbe-Nicole toiled away, turning and tapping hundreds of bottles in the riddling rack. After six weeks, the wines were clear and the residue of dead yeast cells could then easily be removed.

This was a magical time when hands touched each and every bottle, over and over again, until this difficult, hard-to-tame, yet fascinating alcoholic beverage was considered marketable to the masses. After reading a number of materials and books on both the history of Champagne and the process of making the drink itself, I had to know who these 18th-century remueurs were: What were they like? What did they think about all day while turning bottles under less-than-stellar conditions? What were their hopes and dreams—both for them and for their loved ones, and for champagne and the region?

I scoured the Web but all I found were some newspaper articles that only skimmed the surface. One story talked about the houses of Champagne that still hand-riddle a small percentage of their bottles, particularly their top cuvees. Doing so definitely sends the message of being rare, artisanal and, of course, expensive. I guess these are a few reasons why the craft is still performed. But where’s the nostalgia? Where’s the romance? Am I reaching for something that’s just not there?

According to the article Quality Champagne No Riddle for ‘Remueurs’: Turn Bottles by Hand there are roughly six remueurs working for some of the most prestigious domains in the Champagne region, including Krug, Dom Pérignon, Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart. I contacted a couple of these houses hoping to get a reply that reeked of sentimentality, but a response never came.

How Do They Do It?

“In remuage, the remueur rotates the bottles sur pointe and in stages, one-eight or one-quarter of a turn at a time, to the right or left, then places a chalk mark on the bottom of the bottle for reference. As the angle of tilt increases, the gravity draws the sediment into the neck where the sediment consolidates, leaving the wine crystal clear. Manual remuage takes four to six weeks and involves on average 25 turns per bottle. A veteran remueur can handle roughly 40,000 bottles a day.”   —- The Comité Champagne Trade Association

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Pupitres, or A-frame riddling racks. (Courtesy of Schramsberg Vineyards.)

Other reasons for hand-riddling are more pragmatic. Schramsberg Vineyards, in Napa Valley, California, hand-riddles about 25 percent of its production, according to Matt Levy, Schramsberg’s marketing director. All of the J. Schram bottles are done by hand because the bottles have a unique shape that prohibits them from fitting into the gyropalette cages.

Schramsberg also manually riddles many of its Pinot Noir-based sparkling wines. “[These] wines tend to be more of a challenge when it comes to getting the yeast to cooperate, and hand-riddling gives us the opportunity to see issues with these bottlings as they arise,” says Levy. These wines include the Reserve, Blanc de Noirs, Brut Rosé, Brut Anderson Valley, and Brut Marin bottlings.

According to Barry Jackson, winemaker-proprietor of Equinox Champagne Cellars, in Santa Cruz, California, riddling by hand does not add any value to the finished product but does allow him to visually inspect the bottles. Jackson claims he can riddle 420 bottles in 20 minutes. Romantic? You decide, but it is impressive.

Au Revoir Skilled Craftsman—Bonjour Cold, Calculating Machine

Hand-riddling may have sufficed for the Widow Clicquot, but today manual remuage alone won’t do, as the demand for Champagne and sparkling wine is just too high. So any romantic notions about hand-riddling have since been kicked to the curb. Since the 1970s, riddling has been done by computer-automated machines called gyropalettes, which have become the norm for most Champagne houses and sparkling wine producers worldwide.

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Gyropalettes. (Courtesy of Schramsburg Vineyards.)

Producers love these machines because they can be preprogrammed for the number of movements needed depending on the wine. Each riddling cages holds 500 bottles on average and rotatex slowly, tipping forward while riddling in batches as opposed to one bottle at a time. The process is as industrial as it gets. Based on one video I watched, the clanking and whirring sounds of cages rotating and tipping are loud and obnoxious—nothing romantic about that.

Gyropalettes can work up to 24 hours, and not only are they accurate in terms of their ability to be preprogrammed, they also save producers significant costs in time, space and production. At Schramsberg, Levy says manual riddling takes about eight to nine weeks to complete, including one week for the bottles to settle once they are put into the riddling racks; whereas riddling via the gyropalettes, which hold 504 bottles each, takes seven days to move the yeast into position.

In the end, I came up short-handed in my search for the romance in remuage. Just as disappointing is the significant dwindling in this centuries-old practice birthed by Barb-Nicole Ponsardin. I wonder what she would have thought of the gyropalettes were she alive today? Would she love them or hate them? Then again, given her acumen for marketing, sales and innovation, I think she would have applauded the technology. Based on what I’ve read about her, the Widow did not come across as much of a romantic.

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Tis the Season for Champagne — My Summer Find for Your Winter Cheer

roxypicklogoThe summer of 2016 was a game-changer for me when it came to the bubbly. That was the season I took a class on champagne and sparkling wine (A big “thanks” to my instructor Sue Slater—chair of the Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management program at Cabrillo College—for her devotion and passion to the drink).

Now no offense to sparkling wine, but my world—and palate—was rocked due to my exposure to a broader range of champagne, which, for those of you who don’t know, is a world of difference from sparklers produced outside of the Champagne region.

The topic of champagne versus sparkling wine is one left for another day. What I really want to share with you dear readers is one of my favorite champagnes—one in which I hope you will imbibe this holiday season, and beyond.

I’m talking about J-M Sélèque Solessence, NV Brut Champagne, a bubbly I happily and frequently lap up. A blend of 50 percent Chardonnay, 40 percent Pinot Meunier and 10 percent Pinot Noir from the 2013 harvest, this Brut also contains 50 percent of reserve wines from perpetual reserve.j-m-seleque-solessence-brut

The appearance is wheat in color with a soft, subtle pink hue. The beads are small and delicate, as is the mousse, and the perlage lasts a good 1 hour minimum.

The nose exhibits yeast, green apple, peach, grapefruit and stony salinity.

Medium-plus acid defines the palate, with flavors of grapefruit, orange rind, Frambois, fresh raspberry and fresh cranberry, all enveloped in a rich and creamy mouthfeel. The finish is a tad bitter, yet minerally and long.

I purr over this wine’s fine balance of traditional champagne varieties—there’s plenty of acidity to refresh the palate and complement food, yet enough fruit to enjoy on its own.

Pair this champagne with appetizers of Italian green olives; and crostini with Gorgonzola, cippolini, and a caramelized onion spread with parsley and grated walnut and olive oil drizzle.

Champagne-Speak

Beads: bubbles

Brut (“strong”): dry in style with less than 15 grams per liter (g/l) of residual sugar (RS)

Champagne: the region

champagne: the drink

Mousse: frothy stream of surface bubbles in a glass of champagne or sparking wine

Perlage: stream of bubbles originating at the bottom of the glass, like a pearl necklace

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R&W Vineyards: Work, Love, and Play Give Rise to Fine Wine

Me behind the tasting bar at SCMV_fall 2013_cropped_aIt is often said, “The couple who plays together, stays together.” But, what about the couple who not only plays together but also works and lives together? For William (Bill) Wood and Noel Relyea, the relevancy in doing nearly everything together is that is enables self-sufficiency. “The fun for us is being able to handle all aspects of our lives,” says Relyea.

A major aspect of their lives is their shared love of red wine, which encouraged them to establish R&W Vineyards, a boutique winery located on Montebello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains, high above the city of Cupertino, Calif. At an elevation of 1,895 feet, the winery produces 300 cases a year of hand-crafted Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

Red wine is not the only element that binds them together. Both (now retired) have Ph.D.s in biochemistry from Cornell University. The couple didn’t know one another while attending Cornell. After graduation, Relyea found employment on the East Coast, eventually moving to California in 1994. Wood had been living in the “Golden State” since 1982. Their paths finally crossed in 1997 when they met on an Ivy League singles website.

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Bill Wood and Noel Relyea, proprietors-winemakers, R&W Vineyards. Join R&W Vineyards Sunday, December 4, 2016 from 1 to 4 pm for its annual Holiday Open House.

Through a running club Relyea met Jim Bordoni, owner of the then Bordoni Vineyards in Vallejo. She started working as a volunteer during harvest, eventually taking wine appreciation classes. “I thought that this [harvest] was great fun, and when I met Bill he joined me,” she says. “It [soon] registered that ‘jeez, this is what we could do’.”

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R&W Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

The couple married in 2003; in the autumn of that year they purchased a modest-sized house on 3.5 acres on Montebello Ridge. In 2005, with guidance from Ron Mosley, a local viticulturist and enologist, they planted half an acre of estate grapes: mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, with a small percentage of Cabernet Franc.

Wood jokes about how the hand-picked grapes travel only a few feet from the vineyard to the winery for processing. “There’s no freeway wine here,” he laughs, comparing their so-called commute to long hauls to and from the Mt. Veeder appellation in Napa Valley where they source Cabernet Sauvignon –- the first of their varietals to grace consumer palates, followed by Syrah.

These wines are on the menu of The House of William & Merry, a redone farmhouse in Hockessin, Delaware that serves high-end, farm-to-table cuisine. Co-owned and co-operated by Relyea’s daughter Merry Catanuto, the restaurant goes through a case of Syrah a week. This comes as a pleasant surprise, considering that Syrah typically doesn’t sell well in Delaware, according to Catanuto. “People don’t understand Syrah’s flavor profile and assume that it will be more like an Australian Shiraz –- bold, spicy and in your face. Their[R&W] Syrah has some of those characteristics, but it isn’t as intense and can also be drunk without food,” she explains, emphasizing that diners like the Syrah because it also pairs nicely with food. dsc03567

Catanuto says her restaurant also sells through the Mt. Veeder Cab due in part to Delawareans’ recognition of the Napa Valley. According to Catanuto, sales of both the Mt. Veeder Cab and the Syrah, which is from the Spring Mountain District in Napa Valley, rival those of well-established California labels on the menu such as Larkmead Vineyards and Camus Vineyards.

Showing some modesty, Relyea attributes the success of their wines at the restaurant to the family connection, but Catanuto isn’t shy about this point: “To say that our family runs a winery serves as a good talking point with customers.” She explains that at first, some diners are skeptical of the wine because they think it’s made in the basement of a “mom and pop” operation. Once they taste it, however, their tune quickly changes.

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Gravity flow is used to transfer the wine from the fermentation tanks down to the oak barrels in the cellar. Argon pressure moves the wine back upstairs to ground level for racking and bottling. (Photo courtesy of R&W Vineyards)

Despite the varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon is king in the Relyea-Wood household. They like big, fruit-flavored Cabs. Getting mountain grapes to ripen more than those grown on the valley floor can be challenging; however, the cooler mountain temperatures allow the grapes to ripen longer, developing full, rich flavors. Sporting an almost devilish grin, Wood explains that the Mt. Veeder grapes ripen until they “golf-ball” (wrinkle), “with just the slightest little pucker on them.”

Given the couple’s professional backgrounds, one might assume that chemistry guides much of their winemaking decisions. “We do apply chemistry, but we don’t use it that much,” says Wood. However, keeping the yeast happy is imperative. “We feed our yeast and treat them very well,” smiles Wood, recalling some lessons he learned from his father who was a microbiologist. Nonetheless, Wood did make the mistake once –- just once –- of forgetting to feed the yeast, resulting in a stuck fermentation.

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The cozy cellar, with its vaulted ceiling and stone walls, houses up to 21 barrels. The wines are aged in 100 percent French oak for one to two years, followed by an additional one to two years in bottle before being released. (Photo courtesy of R&W Vineyards)

One might also assume that working and living together would pose some issues. Aside from a difference of opinion early on over how much space to give the cellar versus the stock room, the couple’s interests vary enough that between the two of them they fill in the empty spaces. Of the two, Wood is more meticulous, says Relyea. “[For example], he makes sure to treat the grape must and wine gently.” Wood punches down the must cap three times a day during fermentation.

Wood also works in the vineyard during spring, as Relyea is highly allergic to grasses. Oddly enough, her allergies don’t affect her palate. She is the expert taster in the family. Wood prepares the blind tasting trials, and Relyea does the sampling. While her husband does partake, Relyea is the first one to identify any faults in the wines. “It’s remarkable what she can pick up,” says Wood with amazement.

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The image of the constellation in the upper-right is on the back of every bottle of R&W wines.

Their teamwork is seen in every aspect of the business. Even the artwork for the wine bottles was a dual effort. For instance, Wood’s passion for astronomy was the inspiration for the constellation and telescope embossed on the back of each bottle.The accompanying quote from Leonardo da Vinci was Relyea’s find: “The discovery of a good wine is increasingly better for mankind than the discovery of a new star.”

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Backside of the observatory dome, with the winery building to the right. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

Wood, when he has time, enjoys taking pictures of galaxies through an observatory he had built atop the “barn,” a 1,000-square-foot, two-story custom-designed entertainment space adjacent to the winery.

And, what could be more relaxing than sipping wine under the stars –- wine that does not come with a hefty price tag. “Our goal is to make a seventy dollar bottle of wine and sell it for forty,” says Wood, explaining that consumers tend to associate price with quality. All of their wines sell for under $40: Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; Cabernet Sauvignon, Betchart Vineyards, Santa Cruz Mountains; Mt. Veeder Cab, Camalie Vineyards, Napa Valley; and Syrah, Spring Mountain District in Napa Valley.

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The “barn” plays host to private tastings and intimate gatherings. Expansive windows give way to Santa Clara County and beyond. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

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Giant chessboard adds an air of whimsy to R&W Vineyards. The infinity pool (background) hugs the hillside. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

If you visit R&W for a tasting and after a few sips of wine start seeing “…men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go,” don’t worry. The wine hasn’t been spiked, Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit isn’t blaring from the overhead speakers, and you haven’t fallen down a rabbit hole and into the bizarre world in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The giant on-site chessboard is real and made of tile inset into the stone patio. Light-weight, oversized plastic chess pieces are weighted down with sand bases. The chessboard was inspired by Wood, whose father taught him how to play the game.

The view from the patio, which also boasts a swimming pool, is breathtaking. The eye can see nearly four Bay Area counties: Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, and Alameda, including landmarks such as the San Mateo Bridge and Moffett Field. The view just falls short of the San Francisco and Oakland skylines.

Seeing is believing: Having spent some time with Wood and Relyea, I’d say that they are the epitome of “the couple who plays together stays together.” But, with all this work, when do they have time to play? Between wine making duties, they enjoy running. They also volunteer for the Stevens Creek Volunteer Fire Department. When harvest is done they enjoy traveling. Their journeys have taken them to Patagonia, the Great Barrier Reef, Australia and even Spain, where they hiked and ran along the Costa Brava –- as well as enjoyed the local wines under the Iberian stars.

R&W Vineyards is hosting its Holiday Open House, 1 to 4 pm Sunday, December 4, 2016. Sample a pre-release of the 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. This event is open to the public.

R&W Vineyards is open by appointment-only and is located at 15060 Montebello Road, Cupertino, California 95014. To schedule a tasting, call 408-872-1540 or email info@rwvineyards.com. Visit www.rwvineyards.com for a list of or to purchase current vintages.

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A Nearly Extinct Grape Makes a Bold Comeback

roxypicklogoGiven my Greek heritage, and also the fact that it was Orthodox Greek Easter (on May 1), I figured that this was as good an occasion as any to open a Greek wine. In case you are wondering if cats have an ethnic background, the answer is “Yes.” I am Greek because the woman with whom I live is Greek. It’s that simple.

A grape that is considered to produce one of the most aromatic white varietals of Greece, Malagouzia (pronounced: Mah lah gou zya’) results in wines that are anything but shy. Case in point is the 2012 Alpha Estate AXIA Malagouzia,  from the Turtles subregion of the Amyndeon plateau of Greece. The ecosystem of the vineyard is called Turtles and is an ancient nesting area for the local turtle species that is preserved and protected. Hmm. Watching a turtle walk around must be as exciting as watching me go about my day…pretty uneventful. Seriously though, you wouldn’t know it by looking at me but I am an animal-rights activist and wildlife conservationist, just like the woman with whom I live. Okay, back to the wine.

Light yellow with a green tinge, the aromas of this 100 percent Malagouzia leap from the glass and range from jasmine and honeysuckle, mint and rosemary, white peach and citrus to green apple and green melon, apricot, and tropical fruits to warm brioche.

Malagouiza 2012

Photo by Cynthia Bournellis

Dry, full-bodied and complex, the 2012 vintage expresses luscious flavors of creamy custard, lemon zest, citrus, clove and nutmeg, and dried herbs—all wrapped in medium-plus, solid acidity. Warm spices, flint, wet stone and herbaceous notes create a long, lingering, sublime finish. Despite some earlier reviews that suggested consuming this vintage by 2015, the 2012 was nowhere on its way out—or I wouldn’t be writing about it. In fact, dry Malagouzia is known to age in bottle beyond four years.

A once almost extinct grape, Malagouzia originated in the region of Nafpaktos in western Greece, and in the early 1980s was recognized by winemaker Vangelis Gerovassiliou for the potential it had for producing great, complex wines. Today, many wineries in Greece harvest this grape to produce 100 percent Malagouzia, or to use it in a blend, giving this indigenous grape a second life. Malagouzia is grown in a number of regions in Greece, including the Peloponnese, Central Greece and Greek Macedonia.

Now normally I would have prepared a fine Greek meal to complement the wine, but I had celebrated Easter dinner earlier that day and just wanted to experience this varietal on its own. If, however, you want a food-pairing suggestion, then try the 2012 vintage (if you can find it) or a current dry vintage with grilled white fish; a traditional Greek salad (cucumber, red onion, tomato, green bell pepper, feta cheese and Kalamata olives tossed in red wine vinegar, olive oil and oregano); dolmades (Greek stuffed grape leaves); and spanakopita (Greek spinach pie)—all of which highlight the wine’s herbaceous character and crisp acidity.

Koulourakia (top) and Kourambiethes (bottom). Photo by Cynthia Bournellis

But in honor of the occasion, I nibbled on Greek Easter pastries—koulourakia and kourambiethes—my Yaya Helen and I made using an old family recipe.

Hronia Polla (happy [post] Easter)! 

Roxy’s yaya (grandmother) Helen. Photo by Dan Murphy

Alpha Estate is located in northwestern Greece in the Amyndeon, Florina region. For further information, email: info@alpha-estate.com

 

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