Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Valley Restaurants are Wining Diners

Nope, that’s not a typo. Wine Spectator’s list of restaurants with award-winning wine programs, released online today, shows that Coachella Valley restaurants are elevating their diners’ wine experiences, wining their diners if you will.
In addition to the 15 valley restaurants that made the list, another six restaurants are located in other parts of the Inland Empire, including Cabazon with its steakhouse Cielo at the Morongo Casino Resort.

Not surprisingly, seven of the valley restaurants garnering an award are steakhouses. Of the 15 local winners, Palm Desert is home to six while Palm Springs claims four. Three of the 21 in the greater region are in casinos.  

Most local restaurant wine programs earned the “Award of Excellence” or “Best of Award of Excellence” designations (only 88 worldwide earned the highest “Grand Award”). However, Wine Spectator gave many valley programs a 2 of 3 in “wine strength”, with only Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar in Rancho Mirage reaching 3 of 3 in this new (to date, undefined) category.

These awards and similar types of accolades have been slammed. Their critics claim that such honors are instead creative marketing because getting an award may require little more than showing up, doing the paperwork and paying the fee, akin to being listed in a “Who’s Who” directory. (Current application prices for the Wine Spectator awards range from $325-375.)

Not so, says Wine Spectator. Their website specifies basic requirements for a wine list to be considered, including its appearance – yes, spelling counts – and overall presentation. The list entered into competition must reflect the exact wines currently being served at the restaurant at the time of submission, that is, the wines that customers can truly review on a list and be served. This requirement likely discourages applications from status-seeking restaurateurs and beverage program directors who might consider padding the application list with fantasy wines, depth or variety sure to please the judges.

The list itself must include vintages, appellations and prices for all the wines, including by-the-glass selections. In all, at least 90 selections must be presented for “Award of Excellence” consideration. Restaurants seeking the two higher-level awards typically offer at least 350 and 1,000 selections, respectively.

Besides the actual wine list and current dinner menu, the application’s cover letter includes other relevant wine program information such as the wines’ storage conditions, pricing, inventory and other aspects that distinguish the applicant’s wine program. After that, it’s up to the judges, whose methods and identities remain unknown.

Whether you believe this or any other type of wine award accurately reflects the strength of a restaurant’s wine program, diners who seek a quality dining experience should still find Wine Spectator’s list a useful guide, especially when traveling or choosing a special night out. Their new geomapped interactive guide makes it easy to find a winning restaurant nearby.

One way to view these types of lists positively is that in general, restaurants that invest in developing strong wine programs are more likely to serve food that merits their range of carefully chosen wines. They also tend to offer better service. Though many can be pricey, others are more moderately priced, as with valley awardee Cork and Fork.

Sadly, the reverse is not true – that is, plenty of restaurants with fabulous food have wine lists in need of major resuscitation. Some establishments have wine lists that are out of sync with the style of food served, perhaps due to clients’ loyalty to tried-and-true favorites (Rombauer and Caymus or Prisoner with everything!) or owners’ particular reasons for not putting more energy or creativity into the wine list and wine service. Also, dedicated wine service doesn’t come cheaply, starting with glassware, proper storage space and perhaps a sommelier.

Other times you encounter what might be considered a lazy wine list, for example, at Italian restaurants with exceptional food that deserves excellent wines but whose lists instead present an uninspiring, safe or predictable range of Italian and California choices that will sustain but not elevate the meal.

Enjoy your next memorable food-and-wine experience at some of the restaurants included in Wine Spectator’s list below, whether here in the valley or within an hour’s drive. (Dates in parentheses denote the year they first won a Wine Spectator award.) See the full list in the magazine’s August 31, 2016 issue.

Coachella Valley:

Cork & Fork, La Quinta (2014) 
Cuistot, Palm Desert (2005)
Europa Restaurant, Palm Springs (2005)
Mastro’s Steakhouse, Palm Desert (2013)
Morgan's In The Desert, La Quinta (2012)
Morton's, The Steakhouse, Palm Desert (2016)
Ruth's Chris Steak House, Palm Desert (1997)
Sullivan's Steakhouse, Palm Desert (2001)
Spencer's Restaurant, Palm Springs (2011)
The Steakhouse, Palm Springs (2004)
The Steakhouse, Rancho Mirage (2007)
Vue Grille and Bar, Indian Wells (2015)
Zin American Bistro, Palm Springs (2015)

Inland Empire and Environs:

Caprice Café, Redlands (2015)
Cielo, Cabazon (2015)
Citrone Restaurant & Bar, Redlands (2015)
Mario's Place, Riverside (2004)

The Sycamore Inn, Rancho Cucamonga (2003)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Beat the Heat at Dan's Wine Shop

Dan's Wine Shop has been keeping desert residents, visitors and snowbirds hydrated with quality juice for more than a decade. This summer, proprietor Dan Sullivan is taking a hiatus and giving his loyal wine-loving fans a send-off: a 10% discount on his already value-priced wines through Saturday at 5 pm on this holiday weekend.
A trio of wines from Dan's Wine Shop in Palm Desert

Dan's is one of the last of the mid-valley's small wine boutiques.  Over the past couple of years, as big-box retailers like Total Wine, BevMo and Costco have upped the ante, many small wine sellers have packed their bags. The desert lost LA Wine Company last summer and the bistro and wine shop Third Corner a few months before that. Through it all, even before most of those other spots opened, Dan has been there with his ever-changing quality wine selection.

La Quinta has gained a couple of newer wine venues during that time, including LQ Wine, which is also strong in craft beers, and La Rue Wine Bar. While Cathedral City lost Vino 100 many years back, Palm Springs is holding on with Desert Wines and Spirits.

Right now, Dan's has a buffed selection of his hand-picked winners, included international stars, American favorites and of course, those producers you might not know who are making fantastic wine. Dan's tagline of "Great advice...great price" holds true.

Whether you want to stock up for summer or find a few cellar-worthy gems to enjoy when it finally cools down, you'll have plenty of choices at Dan's. Find the shop at 73-360 Highway 111 between Lupine and Sage in central Palm Desert just a couple blocks west and across the street from the Jensen's on the service road facing south. He'll be open from 10 am to 5 pm Friday and Saturday, July 1st and 2nd. Or, call the shop at 760.674.0305, email danswineshop@aol.com.

Be sure to wish Dan a well-deserved vacay!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Trader Joe’s Wines: Winners and Losers

With Chef Janet Ebright churning out one fabulous dish after another, our Cooking with Class spring dinner and tasting of Trader Joe’s wines was a home run. Not that I wasn’t a bit nervous about it beforehand, because I was.
The quality:price value of the Friexenet Cordon Negro Cava is tough to beat.

The source of my jitters: all the empties plonked down behind the school’s demonstration kitchen, most of which were the TJ wines that didn’t make the cut. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Night after night and with high hopes, my co-tasters and I had tasted through all of them, kissing a lot of frogs. Finding bottles on a budget that would be worthy of Chef Janet’s food and effort, and that would uphold my wine cred, turned out to be tougher than I thought.

Undaunted, we found wine redemption, charging through the TJ aisles to find these five winners you too might want to try or share proudly with friends.

We began with bubbles, of course, giving the value nod to the Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut Cava. Housed in a classy frosted black bottle, this Spanish sparkler – made in the traditional style used in Champagne but with native Spanish grapes – pours with a fine mousse, delivering refreshing citrus and peach flavors with a hint of nuts and flowers. Paired with the mixed charcuterie platter that had everyone abuzz, this lovely bubbly makes a perky partner for other appetizers and light dishes (tempura is especially divine). It flies solo too, a fitting companion for the warm days ahead. For only $8, it will beautify your table any day of the week or, at this price, you might find yourself reaching for it all week long.

This taste of Latour delivers at Trader Joe's.

Next, we uncorked the Maison Louis Latour 2013 Grand Ardèche Chardonnay, a $9 steal that often sells for two or three times as much. Diners who were not fans of Chardonnay were instead asking for another taste of this juice. Medium in body, the Grand Ardèche has lovely balance with citrus and apple fruit, a touch of oak and bracing acidity. Try it in honor of the recently passed Louis Latour, who ran the tenth-generation company from 1958–1998, the sixth Latour named Louis to do so. He saw the promise of the warm Ardèche region south of Beaune, where he expanded the business and built a winemaking facility in 1986. Merci, Monsieur Latour.

The third course was accompanied by two reds: the Château Roudier 2010
Montagne-Saint-Emilion and TJ’s own, the Trader Joe’s Reserve 2013 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, Lot #71.

 These two bottlings brought big smiles to the red wine lovers. 

Whoa, you might wonder at first, good 2010 Right Bank Bordeaux at TJ’s? And what, for $13? Yup. Though lacking the conversation-stopping complexity of pricier Bordeaux, the Château Roudier allows you to experience one of the best Bordeaux vintages in the past 20 years at an everyday price. The wine shows characteristic Saint-Emilion dark, plummy fruit with cassis flavors and a velvety texture. Drink this one now and over the next 1–5 years with a grilled steak or, at this price, your favorite hamburger, pizza or steak sandwich.

The second red for the main course was just as popular as the Château Roudier, if not more – Trader Joe’s Reserve 2013 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, Lot #71, one of TJ’s new tiers of wine. Medium in body, this Zin had plenty of Zinny character without the harshness and raisiny overripe fruit often found in low-priced bottlings.

To finish with a perfect ending, Chef Janet dazzled everyone with a luscious dessert that featured different elements that all go well with Port – walnuts, blue cheese (Gorgonzola, in this case), pears and chocolate.

Try this affordable and thoroughly enjoyable introduction to Port, the Noval Black.

The final tasting treat was the Noval Black Porto, an absolutely lip-smacking Port in the fresh and fruity ruby style. Much like the ‘I don’t like Chardonnay’ drinkers who were clamoring for more of the Grand Ardèche, the non-Port drinkers were dumbstruck to have found a new drinking buddy, especially for only $15, nearly half of the usual retail price. Housed in a slick black box, this wine, like the Cava, makes a terrific gift. Just remember to keep your opened, tightly corked bottle in the frig at home and nurse it to emptiness over the course of a week or two.

An honorable mention must go to one of my TJ favorites that wasn’t in the tasting but easily could have been: the Marques de Caceres 2014 rosé from La Rioja. This fruity Tempranillo-based beauty is a must-buy every vintage. With its screwcap and a $7 price tag, you can savor a taste of springtime all year long.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss TJ’s new tiers of wine and offer a few conclusions. Meanwhile, let us know your favorite TJ wines in the comments section. No slams, please.

Lastly, join us for our last food and wine pairing dinner of the season on Saturday, May 21st starting at 6 pm. Even though it won’t be Trader Joe’s, you can be assured of going home happy, well-fed and juiced about your evening’s food and wine adventure.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Trader Joe’s Wines: Bargains or Bust?

For five years running, the topic that always seems to come up at our Cooking with Class wine dinners is the wine selection at Trader Joe’s. Guests enjoy dishing about their favorite picks, passionately engaging in rounds of “Have you tried…” and ‘Yes, but have you tried…” Other times, our guests want to know what we wine professionals think about TJ wines or our opinion of their go-to TJ picks.

 Which of these Trader Joe's wines made our cut?

This Saturday, starting promptly at 5:30 p.m., we’re taking on TJ wines at a special Trader Joe’s wine dinner and class. The tasty three-course spring dinner – followed by dessert, of course – will be accompanied by five wines from TJ’s current selection. The Chef Janet Ebright-designed menu features a few TJ specialties you might want to put into heavy rotation at home. Chef Janet will also demonstrate different ways home cooks can get creative with TJ products, including items you may not know or not know how to use in your cooking.

Plus, you’ll learn a few different ways to navigate Trader Joe’s every-changing wine aisles and how to spot the store’s value bottlings, beyond price alone. You’ll also taste a few gems we’ve found, from weekday quaffers to wines that will be the talk of your next dinner party.

Call Jane Angwin to reserve at 760.777.1161 or make your reservation online. Bring your TJ passion and a big appetite for food and fun.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Napa Valley Weekend

Visiting Napa Valley in the off-season has its charms. For starters, daytime temperatures are comfortable, tasting rooms are less crowded and restaurant reservations can indeed be had. Plus, with a minimum amount of planning, you can secure private tasting appointments at great wineries where you won’t feel rushed or rustled by season-harried staff. For those on a budget, bargains and hidden gems abound, from restaurants to lodging and shopping.

El Bonita Motel has an Art Deco history dating back to 1956.

We chose St. Helena as home base for sisters’ weekend, in part because a two-bedroom unit at the El Bonita Motel was available for only $150 a night. Located in the renovated building farther back from busy Highway 29, our rooms were comfortable, clean and warm, each with its own balcony and with breakfast included. Parking is ample and the location is within striking distance of Yao Family Wines, Yao Ming’s beautiful new tasting room, V. Sattui (a 15-minute walk away for the daring) and only a few miles from Corison, Vine Cliff and Beaulieu Vineyards, among many others.  

Fuel your Napa Valley adventure with lunch at the reliably excellent Rutherford Grill. After petting the bronze pig in the garden, step into the expansive dinner room with its open kitchen and hunger-stoking hickory smoke aromas. Settle into a cozy booth or, if you sit at one of the long counters, you might find yourself seated next to a local winemaker grabbing a quick bite, probably washed down with a palate-refreshing beer.

Your Napa arrival deserves a toast and Schramsberg brut rosé fits the bill, a delectable pink bubbly served in classy flutes. For starters, go with the grilled artichokes or share a grilled seasonal vegetable platter (ask about it if it’s not on the regular menu). For your main course, you won’t go wrong with any of the Rutherford burgers, the BBQ combo plate or rotisserie chicken, especially with their perfectly cooked wild rice. Lighter choices include the flying tuna platter and the kale and tender rotisserie chicken salad with roasted peanut vinaigrette. Save room for the cornbread, too.

With food in your tummy, wine tasting is next. As more Napa tasting rooms now require appointments, plan ahead to visit some of the more in-demand or prestige wineries. Be flexible to improve your chances of securing a hot ticket by requesting a visit outside of the busy 1 – 4 pm time slot. This trip, we chose Quintessa, perched high atop a hillside along the Silverado Trail one day, and picturesque Rombauer the next. More on those awesome experiences in another post.

Drop-ins are welcome at St. Supéry in Rutherford. The bright and airy new tasting room offers different tasting flights of the winery’s 100% estate-grown wines, served by friendly and informed staff.  For variety and quality, the broad and consistently delicious St. Supéry portfolio is tough to beat. Standouts from the two different tasting menus included the Napa Valley Estate 2014 oak-free Chardonnay, the outstanding 2012 Élu Estate Blend – a great food wine – and the silky Dollarhide 2012 Elevation, a blend of Cabernet, Malbec and Merlot. Considering joining a wine club? St. Supéry offers value, perks and options, including red-only or white-only wine clubs. Devotees of their popular Moscato can choose to belong to its own club. Yes, it’s that good.

By now, a down-home dinner might sound about right. If so, head to the Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch. Housed in an old barn, the restaurant sits alongside a popular café and gift shop. The reasonably priced menu features organic, farm-fresh vegetables and grass-fed beef and lamb from their own farms. Don’t miss their fresh-smoked dishes too – the heritage St. Louis ribs are sure to hit the spot after a long day in the tasting rooms lifting and lowering wine glasses. Like the excellent American bistro Market in downtown St. Helena, corkage fees are either waived or much-reduced. We took the bring one, buy one approach. 

The next day, venture into downtown St. Helena for a range of shopping and yes, more wine-sampling ops. The hip and cavernous tasting room at Orin Swift Cellars, maker of Papillon and the I, F and S Locations wines, welcomes up to six people, with appointments required for larger groups. Don’t look for Prisoner here, however. Winemaker David Phinney sold that label in 2013 to Hunneus Vintners, owners of Quintessa.

The staff next door at St. Helena Wine Center, owned by the Beringer family, will help you find even more wine to purchase, bring to dinner or ship. They offer a wine club customized to what you like and don’t like, plus a selection of rosés seldom seen outside of Napa Valley.

Even if you’ve blown your budget in the trendy boutiques, wander up to Steve’s Hardware & Homeware where you’re sure to find something you simply can’t live without. Comb through their well-stocked kitchen section tucked away on the right and their Napa-themed gifts.

Cross the street to savor a tasty energy boost at Woodhouse Chocolates. Another family-owned business, Woodhouse boasts sparkling glass display cases housing perfectly arranged small and irresistible chocolates. Sad to have missed their seasonal Oscar-like chocolate statuette, we consoled ourselves with petite heart of darkness, dark hazelnut and espresso treats.

The name of the Napa Valley drive-in was changed, but the sign remains.

Don’t even consider leaving town without a stop at Gott’s Roadside, also on Highway 29 in St. Helena. Surrounding the grab-and-go food mecca are shaded and sunny picnic areas where you can relax and relish your meal in comfort, hardly aware of the whizzing traffic nearby. Known for their burgers and shakes, keep an eye out for specials such as the po’ boy on a crunchy toasted egg bun and their special shake selections (peanut butter and chocolate, oh my). Want fish instead? The ahi burger is not to be missed.

Best of all, you can wash down all this goodness with a half bottle of Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc, a perfect ending to a perfect weekend.