Masciarelli Abruzzi Wine at Pane Caldo

Masciarelli WinesI recently had the pleasure of tasting Masciarelli wines paired with the Italian cuisine of Pane Caldo Restaurant and it was both a tasty and enlightening experience.  Pane Caldo has a longPane Caldo standing on East Walton Street in Chicago's Gold Coast.  It's a quaint but classy establishment with great northern Italian dishes and an amazing wine list.  I (fortunately) found parking in front and was directed to a private dining room a couple of doors down.  The space seemed perfect for private events with a large banquet table, open space, ample lighting, a restroom and coatroom.  I was greeted by Angela Acquaviva of Masciarelli and Betsy & Pete of Vintage Wine.  Let's get to the tasting!

We started off with an explanation of Azienda Agricola Masciarelli.  Gianni Masciarelli began a journey over 30 years ago to become a great winemaker in his home of Abruzzo.  He traveled through France to learn of advanced techniques which greatly influenced him and his wines.  When he returned home he was ready to take his family's vineyards and increase the quality level of their output.  He wanted to do this by putting indigenous varietals like Montepulciano and Trebbiano of Abruzzo on the world map.  Gianni did this by lowering production, adding a good mix of new French oak and aging.  Today Masciarelli has 13 vineyards throughout Abruzzo.  Unfortunately for most of America, the only wines we've seen from Abruzzo are extremely light reds of Montepulciano grapes and whites of Trebbiano (except for Orvieto DOC wines which can be much higher quality), until now.  The family dealt with the unfortunate recent passing of Gianni in 2008, and continues to produce great wines in his honor.

While we were learning about Masciarelli, we tasted through a 'vertical tasting' (a tasting consisting of multiple vintages (years or harvests) of the same wine) of Gianni's famed Villa Gemma Montepulciano d'Abruzzo.  Vintages started with recent selections and went as far back as 1999.  The youngest were very full of fresh dark fruit, big gritty tannins and high acidity- both indications that the wine still needs aging.  The further we went back in vintage, the more wild gamey notes came through, along with herbal scents, with the tannins gradually softening.  This wine was truly amazing compared to other Montepulciano d'Abruzzo wines I've tried- it's aged in both barrel and bottle for over 5 years!  Gianni started this label in 1984 and it is only produced in high quality years and will be available in wine shops for about $90.

It was then time to enjoy some cuisine with the wines and we started with Castello di SemivicoliCastello di Semivicoli Trebbiano Trebbiano d'Abruzzo paired with seafood in white wine and saffron.  This worked well as the fresh seafood and lively sauce mixed with the wine's young fruit and zippiness.  Next we went on to Marina Cvetic (a label named after Gianni's Serbo-Croatian wife who works with the winery) oak aged Trebbiano paired with Marina Cvetic Trebbianomushroom risotto.  I normally would recommend Pinot Noir, Barbera or Nebbiolo with this dish, but the rich Trebbiano was very unique.  It's weight and sour creaminess stood up to the risotto and the rich mushrooms.  For a final course we had filet mignon with a red wine sauce matched up with the Marina Cvetic Montepulciano which was an excellent pairing- the slight game and tannins that the grape brings with it wasMarina Cvetic Montepulciano excellent with the beef.  And there was more Villa Gemma left to tackle our chocolatey desserts.

In summation, it was a fantastic experience with varietals I've never known to produce truly great wines, at a fantastic restaurant with outstanding food, service and ambience.  I'll be visiting both in the future- salute!

Italian Delight at Vivo Chicago

My wife & I were overdue for a date night so dinner and a few drinks on the town seemed like a great idea. We met up at Sweetwater Tavern & Grill for a cocktail and then it was off to Vivo for some fun with Italian.

It was my first visit to the restaurant and it is visually appealing. The outside has a small patio covered by a black awning and the dark wood and colors continue indoors giving the place a very romantic atmosphere- perfect for a date! We were greeted immediately at the host stand and sat on a nice table for two.

Our waiter, Erik, was the type which is best- knowledgeable about theCalamari Grigliati menu and wine list, timely and friendly, plus he knew the best times to approach. We started off with some drinks, heard the specials and ordered the Calamari Grigliati- woodoven grilled calamari served with mixed greens and tomato. The squid was very fresh and flavorful and instead of having grill char like most places, had a wood-smoked flavor. It was also served with a slightly spicy tomato sauce which added to the experience.

Il Bagatto SuperTuscanThe wine list is a decent size and half is comprised of Italian wines from up and down the boot. I knew more tomatoes were in my future, so I decided to go with a Toscana wine, as they have bright acidity, good weight, fruit and tannins to pair with. I selected Fattoria Scopone's Il Bagatto from Montalcino, a blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 10% Sangiovese and 10% Petit Verdot. It was everything I'd hoped for plus dark fruit, oak spice, vanilla and a great length. I'd do that again.

Next I was trying a special appetizer, Burrata with fresh fruits and speck, salt cured and cold smoked Italian ham. The Burrata was very creamy and delicious, and the fruit paired nicely. My wife tried the Arugula salad which she also enjoyed. The thing I liked about this course is there was no hurry to take our main dish order or hurry us along with our meal.

We did eventually move on and I decided on the Linguine Nere alla Polpa di Granchio which is freshLinguine e Granchio octopus ink infused pasta combined with lump crab meat and spicy tomato sauce. The pasta was soft with homemade texture and the sauce had such fresh crab aroma and flavor- definitely a good dish. My wife tried the Gnocchi Gratinati which were soft and full of cheese richness. Both dishes had us leaving with leftovers.

We finished up with some espresso and an after-dinner drink, but we received the wrong chocolate dessert- a double chocolate cake which ended up being a nice end to the meal. We finished our drinks on a tour upstairs in their private party space which can be rented year-round for special events. There's a full bar, TVs, colorful furniture- a real classy place to have a party.

Overall, I was very pleased with the evening. Overall a very romantic spot with great service, good food, different wine selections, clean bathrooms and nice private event space. Like I said before, I'd do that again.

*Disclosure- this meal was compliments of Vivo Restaurant.

September is Right for Wine in Chicago

The weather is cooling off, kids are going back to school, fall is just around the corner and this month is the right time for wine in the Windy City!  Two of my favorite fests, the Windy City Wine Festival and Chicago Gourmet, come around every year at this time and give us a chance to sample great wine along with food from local restaurants & chefs on the lakefront.  They are both different from eachother and definitely worth the experience.

The Windy City Wine Festival normally takes place in the first half of the month, this year on September 9 & 10, at Buckingham Fountain.  I went on Saturday afternoon (gates open at 3pm) and couldn't have asked for a better day- sunny and clear with a fresh lake breeze.  Tickets are $35 at the gate, $27 in advance, which gets you a souvenier cup, 10 drink sample tickets and the opportunity to purchase wine by the bottle at a discount.  The only hard thing was to figure out which wines to use the tickets on!  Some of the wines I tasted are A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir which is a great under $20 wine, Emilio Moro Malleolus Ribera del Duero is an amazing Tempranillo, Clos de los Siete which is one of my favorite red blends under $15, and Cline Cellars Cashmere which is a smartly priced GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend).  Some very good local wineries were onhand and pouring some interesting stuff.  Cooper's Hawk Winery had a very impressive Almond Sparkling wine made with Chardonnay and almond oil which reminded me of almond biscotti.  Lynfred Winery was pouring their Vin de City White & Red which are good value blends and Wollersheim Winery had a very nice Riesling and a decent Wisconsin Pinot Noir.  Pretty good food samples were for sale from Sullivan's Steakhouse, Markethouse, The Melting Pot and Caoba Mexican Bar & Grill.

Chicago Gourmet takes place in the latter half of the month, this year on September 23-25 in Millenium Park.  The weather was not as kind, as it was about 50 degrees, cloudy and rainy, which affected the grass surface making things very muddy.  That didn't stop everyone from having fun though as the wine was flowing and the aroma of small bites filled the air.  There was a great variety of beverages like illy coffee, Blue Moon beer, Lucid Absinthe, Pyrat Rum and Gosling's Stormy Ginger Beer.  Oh, and the wines- Cosentino Winery, Domaine Drouhin, Newton, Casa Lapostolle, Chalk Hill, Grgich Hills Estate, Heitz Wine Cellars, Northstar, Silver Oak, Livio Felluga and Laurent-Perrier, just to name a few.  Food was being served by many restaurants like Benny's Chop House, Frontera Grill, David Burke's Primehouse, Gibson's, Market, Texas de Brazil, Fulton's and the upcoming Filini Bar & Restaurant.  And not to be missed, amazing chefs like Tony Priolo (Piccolo Sogno), Dirk Flanigan (The Gage/Henri), Jimmy Bannos Sr.(Heaven on Seven/The Purple Pig), Graham Elliot, Rick Tramonto, Stephanie Izard (Girl and the Goat) and Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia) were onhand for cooking demos.  Another amazing experience!

Make sure to watch out for these events next year in September and I hope to see you there!

Build Your Wine Cellar with Vintage Cellars

Custom Vintage CellarThe storage of a wine collection is crucial to the maintenance and enjoyment of any collector’s investment.  The proper combination of humidity, light, and temperature is ideally done in a way that makes it easy for oenophiles to display and access their collection.  When a collection expands beyond the size easily stored in a wine cabinet, it's time to consider installing a wine cellar in your home.

For wine collectors in the Chicagoland area who are ready for this step, there are a number of options available which allow local residents to design and install a cellar for your wines.  Whether you are seeking to convert your basement, or want to install a small alcove in a pantry, Vintage Cellars offers custom designs for spaces of any size in addition to wine rooms premade for installation.   In approximately 8 weeks, they work with you to take a drawing of your wine room’s available space and design a completed cellar.  They recommend customers use a contractor to complete work on the walls, floor, and any needed HVAC work for a cellar cooling system.  Vintage Cellars is also happy to recommend a Chicago area contractor, or work with your crew to ensure that walls and floor meet the specific needs of your wine collection.  Once the cellar is ready, they'll install the rack system designed for you.

The company is run by wine lovers who truly appreciate the value each wine holds for its owner. Collectors benefit from Vintage Cellars’ extensive experience aging and storing wines when choosing materials for construction.  Personal consultation gives attention to the cellar’s look, feel, and storage with a variety of offerings available including flooring reclaimed from wooden wine barrels for an exciting and unique, wine-focused touch.

For more information on how a wine cellar can contribute to the enjoyment of your collection read up on proper wine storage, then check out Vintage Cellars at their website: www.vintagecellars.com.  And if you need help filling your new wine cellar with prime investment & drinking selections, don't forget to contact me at windycitywineguy@gmail.com.  Happy collecting, and happy drinking!

Meet Food Network Star Jeff Mauro - aka The Sandwich King

If you've been keeping up with Food Network Star, then you've already noticed Chicago has the next star, Chef Jeff Mauro.  Jeff bested a great field of entertaining and talented chefs to win this amazing challenge.  He's a very likeable guy and relates to me in so many ways- he loves to cook, has a great sense of humor, is Italian-American and takes great pride in his heritage as well as the city of Chicago and its culture. 

Jeff has had an interest in food for most of his life starting in the home.  Family events and Sunday dinner were always reasons for relatives to get together and enjoy great Italian food & company.  Just after finishing college Jeff started a deli in Peoria, IL. before selling it and moving back to Chicago to begin his comedy career as Tony in Tony n' Tina's Wedding.  He decided to take the next step and moved to Los Angeles to star with The Groundlings while taking classes at the Kitchen Academy and working on a cooking show concept.  Jeff moved back to Chicago after 3 years to his current job and Food Network Star fame!  Recently I decided to contact him for an interview so we could find out more about this local success story:

WCWG: You are very passionate about the food you make.  When did your interest in food begin and how did it culminate into you becoming who you are today?

Jeff: It all began when I was a kid- there was food at Sunday dinner and family events.  It seemed like every time someone stubbed their toe, there was a party with Italian food!  Being surrounded by family and food, you learn to gain respect for both.  During Junior High I learned to control my food and pack everything separately- bread, cheese, deli meat, etc. and make my sandwiches at school.  As anal as I was about sandwiches back then I have the same food passion today.  And just because it’s a sandwich does not mean it's to be taken lightly- sandwiches can great.

WCWG: We know you're the Sandwich King and make some of the best sandwiches we've seen on TV.  What is your favorite sandwich and how do you make it?

Jeff: I just made Chicken vesuvio sandwich at my work kitchen- take a hinged sub roll, pan fry some chicken breast, top it with an au jus made with the pan drippings, white wine, lemon, garlic.  Top it with sharp provolone, sautéed peas, and house made giardiniera mayo.  I put vesuvio potatoes in the sandwich also and serve it with a side of jus for dunking.

WCWG: 3. What are some of your favorite places to go for a sandwich in Chicago and what do you normally get?

Jeff: It's gotta be Italian Beef- Johnny’s Beef (juicy, sweet & hot peppers).  I love Danny’s Deli in Melrose Park- their fried meatball sandwich which is more like loose tender patties served on ciabatta with a side giardineira & sauce.  And Jimmy’s Place in Forest Park makes a great breaded steak.  For subs I make a trip to Little Italy and Conte di Savoia- they do a special one with prosciutto, sopressata, fontina, fresh mozzarella and sundried tomatoes.

WCWG: I know almost all chefs know a thing or two about wine and food pairings.  What are some of your favorite wines to pair with sandwiches?

Jeff: I grew up around family making wine in the basement- that’s all we had.  Homemade wine paired with housemade charcuterie is a great pairing for me.

WCWG: Wine goes great with food, but so do many other beverages.  What is the Sandwich King's beverage of choice?

Jeff: There's nothing I like more than a cold Pellegrino- straight from the bottle.  Good beers too- strong IPAs, lagers, and pilsners like Peroni.

WCWG: Food Network Star is a very popular show and big with the Foodies.  There's lots of food fans in Chicago- how has the local response been to your new found fame?

Jeff: Great! People keep pointing me out and there's general street recognition.  They say,“Hey it’s the sandwich king!”.  The time is right for someone to represent the sandwich.

WCWG: We all think you're extremely witty and entertaining.  Do you still have a desire to get back into comedy?  Any chance we'll get to see you do stand up?

Jeff: Headline improve and 40 minute stand up has to be one of the hardest things to do- I get too nervous!  I used to hustle with it but was never comfortable- I've been in bands, commercials, etc.  You need the hardest discipline and to be somewhat synical, which makes you depressed. 

WCWG: All of us who watch the show can't get enough of Jeff Mauro.  Any designs on starting your own Chicago restaurant or sandwich shop?

Jeff: Sandwich shop- definitely in the future.  I've got to see what happens on the show and that’ll keep me busy 'til the end of the year.  For my own place, I must be involved- it’s my baby.  Sandwich king shacks across the country!

I want to thank Jeff for taking the time out for this and a big congratulations as well-

Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville

Horton Vineyards

Horton Vineyards

I recently attended my third Wine Bloggers Conference, and this time it was held in Charlottesville, Va.  I was really looking forward to it since I've never been to Virginia, even though I've tasted a small sampling of wine from there and most people haven't had the chance even though production and quality has risen in recent years. 

I purchased my airline tickets early, and unfortunately before American Airlines created a direct flight from O'Hare late this spring.  So I hopped on my double prop connecting flight in Philly and was off to Charlottesville.

After landing I hopped in a cab and was off to the hotel.  I could tell I was in the eastern U.S. as many of the homes and buildings along the main road were older but in great shape.  This really peaks my historic senses, as I start to imagine all the people who lived here and the events which took place.  Grape vines have been planted here since the 17th century and due to a few factors, namely phylloxera and prohibition, Virginia recently just started to come into its own as a top wine producing region. 

The town and surrounding areas are worth a visit for both the traveler and wine enthusiast.  The downtown area has nice local shopping, restaurants and nightlife, with a good portion in the Downtown Mall- a brick street for pedestrian traffic only.  It's a lively area filled with street performers, musicians, outdoor dining, shops and theatres. 

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They're surrounded by some very good wineries, and I was able to visit two.  The first was Horton Vineyards and they have a picturesque vineyards and winery.  Viognier, a white French Rhone varietal, has shown an affinity for the state and has become their grape, and Horton does wonders with it.  The wine is full of peach and honey flavor, along with some minerality and full body.  They also make sparkling wine with the varietal, not normally done, which turns out great- it's non-vintage, dry, and brings out much of the grape's natural character.  They turn out a good Cabernet Franc and a surprising Nebbiolo, which does well here and turns out lighter than in Piedmont.

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I also visited Barboursville Vineyards which makes amazing wine and has a rich history.  The estate was designed by Thomas Jefferson and built by James Barbour in early the 19th century.  The Zonin family of Veneto fame purchased the property in 1976 and decided to forego tobacco for grapes.  They've created a winery which produces outstanding wines!  I was able to taste vertical library selections of different varietals like Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo and Octagon (their Merlot-based Bordeaux blend), all of which were excellent with age.  TheirPassito Drying Cabin at Barboursville restaurant, Palladio, is world class with a staff that travels to Italy once per year.  I tried fresh antipasti, homemade pasta & pesto, and roasted pork loin.  They also make an outrageous dessert wine, Malvaxia Reserve Passito, made from Moscato Ottonel and Vidal, and dried out 'Passito' style, making the wine golden, honeyed, rich and delicious.  An amazing adventure overall.

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Thomas Jefferson's MonticelloThe biggest local attraction is the former home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello.  Jefferson tried for years, as did George Washington, to make wine from European varietals.  And though neither of them were even able to create a bottle of wine, they showed future generations of the opportunity.  There is a great sense of nostalgia just being on the property, which can bring out the American in all of us.  The home is of great design and enormous, littered with artifacts of exploration and invention.  The grounds ooze with history- gravestones, architecture and ancient vines.  A marvelous place to visit.

In summary, I really enjoyed this trip.  The culture is rich and there are many things to see, do and taste.  Wine has taken drastic turns to accolades and misfortunes over the years and is definitely on the right track to respectability.  My favorite grape varietals here are Viognier and Petit Verdot (honorable mention to Cabernet Franc), which both show great character and a natural ability to make high quality, lasting wines.  I recommend the wines and a visit to this area for any traveler- put it on your list!

Zaca Mesa Viognier and Roussanne

I recently received a couple sample bottles of wine from Zaca Mesa, a very good family owned winery located in Santa Ynez Valley.  They've been making wine since the late 1970's and, through trial and error, found out that French Rhone varietals (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, etc.) worked best with the land and climate.  They concentrated on making wines only from those varietals in the 1990's and have really blossomed into one of the best in their category.  Here's a short review of the wines I tried:

  • 2009 Estate Viognier ($20).  I really enjoyed this wine.  A really bright light gold color leads you into great aromas of peach and sea salt.  More ripe peach is on the palate along with cantaloupe and a hint of lemon acidity.  A weighty wine with full body and excellent flavor length.  It can stand to age a bit and would be great paired with spicy Thai noodles or a creamy cow's milk cheese like Stanser Rotelli.  91 WCWG
  • 2007 Estate Roussanne ($25).  Another wine with brilliant gold color with smell and flavor of honey and apricot.  There's alot of peach in this one also, with a bit of gold raisin and sweet rye.  It has a nice mineral streak as well.  The body is medium plus with decent flavor length.  I'm thinking herbed lemon chicken with this.  89 WCWG

If you get a chance, try these wines and more Rhone varietals- you'll be impressed!

Wines of Veneto

I recently attended a wine dinner at 437 Rush where Wines of Veneto were highlighted.  Most of us hear Veneto and start thinking of waterways, carnivals and gondolas.  All of those are what the city of Venice (Venezia), located in the Veneto region, is famous for.  The Veneto, on the other hand, is known for its art, cheese, salumi and wine.  The region is a very important wine growing area, making the most DOC (regulated quality level) wine in Italy.  Here's some wines you may have heard of:

  • Prosecco.  This wine is made sparkling from the Glera grape varietal and is named after the town of Prosecco.  Normally made dry, light and crisp. 
  • Soave.  Made from the Garganega varietal around the comune of Soave, this wine can exhibit lemon, spice and nuttiness.
  • Valpolicella.  A wine made in the growing region which shares its name out of three local varietals: Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara.  Normally made light weight and exhibits sour cherry flavor.
  • Amarone.  A powerful wine grown in Valpolicella, it is mainly comprised of the Corvina varietal.  Mocha, chocolate and earthy tones are present in this rich wine.

There are also some very good wines which most have not heard of like Lison which is made from the Tocai Italico varietal, Lugana which is a light white wine made from Trebbiano, and Friularo Bagnoli, made from the Friularo varietal in Bagnoli, makes red wines with full body and tannins along with cherry flavor and floral aroma.  There is a lot to love about these wines as they can stand on their own, be enjoyed in all seasons, and go well with food, especially Venetian cuisine.  They vary in price from affordable to expensive and can be found in wine shops and on wine lists throughout the city.  If you get the chance, travel to this region, and if not, know that you can experience it in your own home!

Big thanks to 437 Rush, Wines of Veneto and their sommelier, Aurora Endrici, who gave an excellent presentation on the wines.  Buona fortuna!

Eating & Drinking Maine

This past 4th of July brought me to the state of Maine for vacation, celebration and discovery.  I've heard so many great things about the oceanfront: the lighthouses, the surfing, the beaches, the views and the clean ocean scent, and have to say it all was amazing.  I stayed in Portland and Kennebunkport, two different towns, outstanding in their own ways.  Here's some great spots to hit:

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Portland

  • Duckfat.  What can I say- their fries are cooked in duck fat.  Rich, flavorful, awesome.  Served with different ketchups and aiolis, they are a meal in themselves.  The panini style sandwiches are great too.  Don't overlook the tuna melt- this sandwich has a dry style tuna with a fresh lemon vinaigrette making it healthy and delicious.  Their beer and wine list is small and impressive with some local favorites like Maine Beer Company's Peeper Ale which I found to be citrusy and light.  While I didn't try their shakes, I've heard nothing but great things about them- wish I'd have saved room!
  • The Farmer's Table.  Great local ingredients included on the menu and continues the tradition of "leisurely Maine service" (it's slow but worth the wait).  Another small beverage list but big on great picks.  I tried another Maine Beer Company selection- Zoe, a red ale with huge hoppy flavor. 
  • The Salt Exchange.  Another establishment big on local ingredients, these guys take it to another level.  Mussels are fresh with traditional sauce you'd like to drink out of the bowl.  Grass-fed beef, flavor-filled pork, day-boat fish and seasonal veggies are sprinkled on this daily changing menu.  The theme of small but great content beverage menus continues here with local brews and worldly wines like Ramon Bilbao Rioja Crianza and Chilensis Riserva.
  • Standard Baking Company.  If you love baked goods, this place is a must!  French loaves, croissants, pain au chocolat, ham and cheese pastries, brownies, cookies, outrageous!  Go go go!

Kennebunk/Kennebunkport

  • The Clam Shack.  This place is insane- it's a small shack (just like the name states) on the edge of a bridge connecting the two towns.  You grab your food- the lobster roll is a must, as it's the winner of Food Wars, and deservedly so.  They use an entire 1 1/4 lb. lobster, meat only, on a locally made soft roll, with butter and mayo.  Outstanding.  Fried clams, onion rings, etc. will make you yearn for an encore.
  • Alisson's.  The runner-up on Food Wars is no slouch.  More of a sitdown with a bar, great atmosphere, with traditional New England food.  Amazing clam chowder and a very good lobster roll.
  • Kennebunk Inn.  Grab the lobster pot pie (famous from Cat Cora of Best Thing I Ever Ate) and run- this place is supposedly haunted!
  • The Ramp at Pier 77 (Cape Porpoise Harbor).  This place is just up north up the coast and worth the trip.  Crabcakes, shrimp, seafood stew, all done right.  Awesome atmosphere with vintage posters of the Kennedys, Walter Mondale, Boston Red Sox and Obama.  Just don't be surprised if your beer flavor is 86'd

For local brews, make sure to try anything from Maine Beer Company, Allagash, Shipyard Brewing Company and Peak Organic Beer.  Surprisingly enough, there's also some good wineries to try like Blacksmiths (I tried their Sparkling Peach, which is made up of 85% peaches and 15% grapes, which is a touch sweet with a whole lotta peach flavor- $18) and Cellar Door (tried their Prince Valiant, a Zinfandel blend which is dry and pretty decent- $18).

Overall, I love Maine!  It's a great place to visit and seems to be an amazing place to live.  Just make sure to visit during the summertime and have fun!

Wine & Cooking Series Part 1

Lately I've received so many questions and inquiries on wine with food, so I decided to start a video series on wine pairings and how it fits in the kitchen.  I love using wine in the kitchen, so I'm kicking off Part 1 with making meatballs and one of my favorite white wine values.  I'm not using the wine as part of the recipe, but I will be using (drinking) it while cooking!  Check out the video:

I had a great time making the meatballs and, as you can see, they turned out great!  If you look at one of them cut open, you can see all the fresh herbs, translucent sweet onion and the red bell pepper which retained its fabulous crunchiness.  This was such a great experience that I couldn't help but to make sauce with more fresh herbs and lots of veggies, and boil up some linguini.  I put them all together, sliced some fresh mozzarella to put on top and you can see the finished product- delicious!

Underground Dinner Clubs

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I'm not sure if you've ever heard of or been to an Underground Dinner Club (UDC) but if you get the chance, don't miss it!  In case you don't know what a UDC is, it's a series of dinner events run by a chef or chefs which operate out of their own or a client's home.  A select group of friends or acquaintances are invited and get on the mailing list, which grows over time as the original clients are allowed to invite their friends and their friends and so on.  The chefs feature their personal recipes and style along with local produce, and since seating is very limited, you get the best of what they have to offer.

My wife and I were invited and went to one last night.  One of the best things about these events is they are BYOB, so you can bring whatever tasty beverage you'd like.  I knew we were having gourmet burgers, so I brought a bottle of 2008 Shining Hill red blend made by Col Solare, which is made up of about two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon.  The weight and tannins would work well with the meat.  I heard the staff doesn't accept tips, so I brought an extra bottle for them to enjoy.

We arrived at the UDC party home and grabbed a seat at one of the three tables in the apartment's living room.  It was nice to talk with people we've never met and were really excited for the food that was about to come.  We started with a chopped salad made of spring peas, breakfast radish, farm eggs, pumpernickle croutons and buttermilk blue cheese.  It was very fresh and light, and the cheese was soft and creamy with a delicious saltiness.

When the burgers came, I was ready to devour!  The meat was made of sirloin, chuck and short rib, grilled and served on a Red Hen pretzel bun with spring onion remoulade, arugula, cherrywood bacon and Prairie Fruits Farm Angel Food Cheese.  The combination of the rich meat (that did melt in your mouth), the salty bacon, fresh ingredients and the melting creamy cheese was almost heavenly!  This is on my short list of best burgers ever.  There was even buttermilk beer-battered onion rings served with sriracha aioli for more artery busting action.  This was awesome and made better with my wine, which had bright acidity and tannins to fit with both the meat and fat content of the dish.  The dark fruit and length of the wine only helped matters more.

We were finished off with an oatmeal cookie and vanilla bean ice cream sandwich dessert which was just the right size to make sure I didn't need a stretcher to carry me out.  The experience couldn't have gone better and I can't wait 'til the next one.  Make sure to seek out an Underground Dinner in your area and let me know how you liked it!

2009 Pueblo del Sol Tannat

I just recently received a bottle of 2009 Pueblo del Sol Tannat from TasteVino and decided to twist it open (Yes- it has a screw cap!) and try it with dinner.  I'll bet most are asking,"what is Tannat?".  Well, Tannat is a grape varietal with origins in Southwest France, with wines from the Madiran AOC being most well known.  Immigrants brought the grape to South America and it has become the national grape of Uruguay, with much being grown to the north in Brazil as well. 

You're probably also saying,"wine from Uruguay?".  Well, you'll be surprised to know that there are over 20,000 acres of vineyards and 270 wineries.  But most of the wine is sold domestically, so we haven't seen much over here.  I hope we'll be seeing more as the varietal can be powerful and tannic like its French relative, or fresh, unoaked and fruity. 

When the wine first hit the glass I could tell it was going to be full of fresh fruit as I smelled blueberries along with many floral notes.  On the palate it was full of fleshy fruit with a touch of minerality, medium body and flavor length.  This is an everyday drinking wine as it is unoaked with a 12.5% ABV.  I definitely recommend this wine, especially for the value it brings- you can find it online for under $10.  (WCWG Score: 85)

Other producers which can be found include Bodega Bouza and Bodegas Carrau.  And if you're still interested in this grape you can find it in southern Italy and Sicily from Mirabile Winery.

Wine Bars in Review: Webster's & D.O.C.

This past weekend I was in the mood to hit a couple of Chicago wine bars, so my wife and I got dressed up for a night on the town.  Chicago is an amazing city, especially when you're out on a summer night- the city is so alive with people enjoying the weather, neighborhood festivals, restaurants and lakefront.  You can feel the energy of thousands of people out for food, drink and fun!

Our first stop brought us to the godfather of Chicago wine bars- Webster's.  Located on west Webster Avenue just east of Clybourn, this two-story building has been pouring wine since 1994.  The scene is candlelit with loud folksy music and customer banter.  We moved past the long bar and were seated by a hostess.  I took my time with the enormous wine list (40+ wines by the glass, 500+ by the bottle) and noticed many great selections from just about any wine region you'd like to try, including off the beat and path places like Switzerland, Finger Lakes NY, Sardinia, Slovenia, Greece, Lebanon, New Mexico and Virginia.  They have amazing French and Italian selections, which is essential to any wine list given those country's histories. 

After perusing the menu, I decided on a sparkling wine from Valle d'Aosta, a small region between Switzerland and Piedmont, while my wife went for a cava and a cheese plate.  I was a bit disappointed that the cheese came before the wines or the plates, but was able to get over it after tasting the Mont St. Francis and Wildspitz cheeses.  I also figured out that they gave us the wrong 3rd cheese and charged us for their most expensive cheese plate ($20) as well.  First off, I know my cheeses and their prices, and find it hard for any establishment to justify charging that much for 3 cheeses.  Secondly, they should try harder to get the order correct.  All of those factors led us to pay and out the door to try a different wine bar.

Our next stop brought us east to D.O.C. Wine Bar on Clark and Wrightwood.  It has a great open and cozy look with a fireplace and skylights.  They have open seating and we only had to wait a couple of minutes for a spot to free up.  I dove right into their wine list and noticed it a bit smaller (under 100 selections) and more value based with many bottles listed under $50.  My wife wanted to stick with the sparkling, so I suggested Graham Beck Rose, and I went with a red blend from Bolgheri in Tuscany.  We also took a look at the food menu which was small but nice as well with artisan cheeses, bruschetta, charcuterie and small apps.  They have a great deal with pick 4 for $16 and we tried a Manchego, Gruyere, mushroom/goat cheese bruschetta and porchetta.  We liked the whole experience and the staff was helpful and had great personality. 

I would go back to both places, though I would watch the servers and the bill at Webster's more closely.  Webster's is still an old favorite with both an outstanding wine list and small menu.  D.O.C. has a bit more personal touch and charm and I urge you to keep up on their monthly wine/food tastings- there's always something great going on!

Father's Day with Wine

Father's Day is just around the corner and I'm sure everyone wants to do something special for Dad.  It's a day for families to thank the patriarch for all that he's done and for Dads to enjoy being surrounded by love.  Here's a few ways to show your appreciation:

  1. Sunday Grilling.  I love a good cookout- you can enjoy the weather, great company and relax by being surrounded by food.  It's also hard to beat the satisfaction (and taste!) you get from making a great meal.
  2. Take Dad Out.  There's so many great places in Chicagoland that Dad would love to eat at.  Prairie Fire in the West Loop will be having an omelete station, gourmet Bloody Marys and BBQ ribs.  Fleming's River North and Wheeling will be having a Father's Day Prix Fixe menu and Dad gets a $25 gift certificate to use on a future visit!  Prairie Grass in Northbrook has an amazing Father's Day buffet with NY strip, fried chicken, salmon and a crepe station.  Bistro One West in St. Charles has an amazing riverfront patio and a local menu featuring Wagyu beef hotdogs, smoked bacon BLTs, skirt steak salad and Meyer's farm burgers.  Try authentic Mexican for Dad at Guanajuato in Glencoe- Aztec spice rubbed chicken and a Spanish guitarist!
  3. Wine.  Get dad a bottle of wine for the occasion or his collection!  Great grilling wines make the perfect gift and I recommend Zinfandel like Martinelli Lolita Ranch ($70), Ridge Lytton Springs ($35), or Malbec like Catena Alta ($44) or Achaval Ferrer Mendoza ($25).

All of these are great suggestions that the whole family will enjoy.  Any way you go you can't lose!

Wine Enthusiast "Toast of the Town" Hits Chicago

Wine Enthusiast's Toast of the Town is on a five city tour across the country and will be stopping in Chicago on Friday, June 17th at the Field Museum!  Join with the rest of the city to enjoy 500 world class wines and gourmet dishes from Chicago's top restaurants.  Some of the wineries represented include Castello Banfi, Feudi di San Gregorio, Le Domaine de la Vougeraie, Hall Wines, Stag's Leap Winery, Schramsberg, Yalumba, Penfolds, Cloudy Bay and Casa Lapostolle, while the restaurants involved include Aria, The Purple Pig, Bistronomic, Chizakaya, The Florentine, Coco Pazzo, Sixteen and Rhapsody

Wine Enthusiast has been providing readers with valuable wine information and reviews for 23 years and Toast of the Town is on it's 11th tour.  Come out to one of Chicago's greatest venues to enjoy the food, drink and fun!  Click here to purchase your tickets today.

Windy City Wine Guy Offer on Gilt City

Wine tasting is fun and when you accompany it with knowledge, that's powerful.  For a limited time, I have an offer up on Gilt City Chicago where you'll have two options:

1. Attend one of three Wine & Cheese Tasting Tours I will be conducting at the Tasting Room on Randolph.  The tours are scheduled on three Thursdays next month- June 9, 16 or 23- your choice!  We'll be going through four different wines paired with four different cheeses from 7-9pm.  After that, you're welcome to stay at the Tasting Room and enjoy 50% off all glasspours!  Quite a deal at $35/person.

2. Purchase an In-Home Wine Tasting conducted by the Windy City Wine Guy.  I will be suggesting which wine to have at the event along with any food pairing recommendations for you to purchase.  Then you'll get wine knowledge for yourself and up to 13 additional guests- all in the comfort of your own home!  This is a 40% savings priced at $240.

Jump on this great opportunity- quantities limited!

Wine Tasting at Newly Renovated bulthaup Showroom

Hi Chicago! I'm hosting an event next week and you're invited! Details below. bulthaup is showing off its latest creation. You're invited, but you need to RSVP. Details below.

 

6:00 – 8:00 PM

bulthaup Chicago showroom: 165 West Chicago Avenue, Suite 200, Chicago, IL 60654

Space is limited to 20 guests.

Please RSVP no later than Tuesday, May 17 to (312) 787 9982 or chicago at bulthaup.com

XOCO: Casual Mexican in River North

I finally had the chance to try Rick Bayless's XOCO in River North and I loved it!Ham/Cheese/Mushroom Empenada  XOCO means "little sister" in the Aztec language and it truly is the come and go but high quality sibling of Topolobampo and Frontera.  It features street food like tortas and caldos, snacks like churros, pastries and chips with guacamole, breakfast tortas and chilaquiles, and mexican coffees and hot chocolates. 

Food and drink is superb.  The torta sandwiches are made with LaBrea bread and filled with excellent ingredients like Gunthorp Farms chicken, Prairie Fruits Farm goat cheese, braised Tallgrass short ribs, smoked Maple Creek pork loin andChorizo/Egg Torta bacon, or wood-roasted suckling pig.  They have four wine choices: Bodega NQN Picada 15 white blend, Verdad AlbariñoSanta Julia Tempranillo and Qupe Syrah.  They also offer craft beers, housemade soft drinks and complimentary water- still or sparkling.

Wine Guy On Demand Launches

Ever been stuck with the wine list at a business lunch and had no idea what to order?  Wanted to impress on a first date but weren't sure what wine would do?  Buying wine for a present but not sure if it was good enough for a friend's cellar?  Tried a bunch of Wine Apps with automated responses and no rhyme or reason?  Well, as a trained and certified sommelier, I've been answering these types of questions for years.  I decided to make myself available to everyone at any time of the day.  Here's how it works:

Download Wine Guy On Demand from iTunes straight to your iPhone (look for more versions in the future!) and all the answers to your wine questions are just moments away.  Type in some simple information and submit your question.  If I'm Online, you can expect a detailed answer in minutes.  If I'm Offline, no problem.  Your question will be stored and answered as soon as I return.  It's that simple!

There are many Wine Apps out there, but I'm aiming to provide a one on one connection you just cannot get from an automated database.  Think of it as having a sommelier or wine guy in your pocket!

Champagne Keeps Getting Greener

Vineyards of Vizernay, Montagne de Reims, ChampagneNew Programs Continue Multiyear Carbon Reduction Campaign:

As Earth Day approaches, the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) is furthering the Champagne region's leadership in environmental preservation with new initiatives to reuse woody biomass and wastewater from wine production.  
 
The region has launched an appellation-wide program to transform the 150,000 metric tons of wood waste generated from vineyard pruning into energy, reducing pollution and helping replace fossil fuels used in wine production with a renewable source of energy. 
 
Through this BIOVIVE (Biomasse Viticole) initiative, the Champagne region is working with local utilities to cut the current carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 10,000 metric tons per year, the equivalent of taking 5,000 vehicles off the road. 
 
Similarly, wine production results in 600,000 cubic meters (m3) of wastewater and byproducts each year. Since 1990, when only five percent of wastewater was treated and reused, the Champagne industry has steadily increased its environmental stewardship; now 95 percent of wastewater is treated and 91 percent is recycled. 
 
"Champagne only comes from Champagne. The distinctive land and climate of Champagne cannot be replicated elsewhere and the people of Champagne understand that they must be protected to preserve the region's centuries-old wine-making tradition," said Sam Heitner, director of the Champagne Bureau, the U.S. representative of the CIVC. "These efforts are just a few of the environmental initiatives that the Champagne region has undertaken as part of its campaign to reduce the region's carbon emissions 25 percent by 2020."
 
Champagne is not merely a type of wine; it is a unique region with a long history of winemaking expertise. Located 90 miles northeast of Paris, the region covers less than 80,000 acres. Only grapes handpicked in the carefully delineated plots inside the appellation can be used to produce Champagne. The CIVC, comprised of all the grape growers and houses in Champagne, has led these environmental initiatives to ensure that Champagne continues to focus on quality and preserve its unique wine-growing location. 
 
The region's leadership in emission reduction began in 2002 with the first-ever wine region environmental impact assessment. Based on the audit results, the Champagne region set itself the goal of cutting carbon emissions 25 percent by 2020 and 75 percent by 2050.
 
To achieve this, there are currently more than 40 initiatives to reduce the region's environmental footprint. For example, after the CIVC determined that the production, packing and shipping of wine bottles accounted for 33 percent of the region's carbon emissions, it announced a new standard bottle in 2010 which, at more than two ounces lighter, will reduce the region's annual CO2 output by 8,000 metric tons, equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions of 4,000 cars. The new design consists mainly of changes to the neck of the bottle and was tested extensively to ensure that it maintains the performance, safety and character of the bottle historically used in the region.
 
"In 2002, the Champagne appellation showed true leadership by engaging in the most comprehensive environmental audit of a wine region that had ever been conducted," continued Heitner. "Introducing a lighter bottle, reusing wood waste and capturing wastewater are small steps that, when implemented throughout the region, help make a significant difference in the carbon emitted from the Champagne appellation."

- Information obtained from the Champagne Bureau