Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays!

'Tis the season to reflect on the past, anticipate the future, appreciate our blessings and loved ones, and enjoy food fit for the holidays. Here's a brief list of some of the things I love about this time of year.

Sweetened hot drinks - hot chocolate, gingerbread latte, apple cider

Baked goodies

Wine and champagne

Seasonal decor - glass ornaments, twinkling lights, furry stockings

Warm soup

Snow ... or maybe just powdered sugar
Carols that you start humming spontaneously

And of course, family and friends. Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Italians Crack Open DNA Secrets of Pinot Noir"

By Ben Hirschler
Tue Dec 18, 8:59 PM ET

Original story here

Italian scientists have cracked open the genetic make-up of Pinot Noir, responsible for the great red wines of Burgundy, in a breakthrough that may lead to hardier vines and cheaper fine wines.

The researchers said on Wednesday they had found more than 2 million genetic variants within the Pinot Noir grape, providing winegrowers with a "treasure trove" in the hunt for new strains. Pinot Noir, made famous by the 2004 film "Sideways," has been dubbed the "heartbreak grape" because it is so difficult to grow and susceptible to disease.

Understanding what makes up the variety at the DNA level means it may now be possible to breed disease-resistant grapes without sacrificing taste, according to Riccardo Velasco, head of genetics at the Istituto Agrario San Michele all'Adige.

"Discovering these 2 million molecular markers is a tremendous tool which will help in the breeding not only of Pinot Noir but every cultivated grape variety," he said in an interview.

While the genome of Pinot Noir has been mapped in draft form before, Velasco and his team are the first to catalogue the myriad single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, found scattered amongst its 30,000 genes. SNPs are single-letter changes in the genetic code.

The Italian team have also identified a large number of genes related to disease resistance, 289 of which contain SNPs, they reported in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.

Brian Dilkes of the University of California said this information was a "treasure trove" which should fast-track the traditional breeding selection process.

"When I told sommelier Andrew Meadows about this recently, his reaction was, 'Good! I would love to offer a decent Pinot for less than $30'," Dilkes said.

There are no plans to introduce artificially genetically modified grapes into some of the world's most revered vineyards.

"We're not interested in GMOs (genetically modified organisms). GMOs are not allowed in Europe and would not be accepted in the grape world, which is extremely conservative," Velasco said.

His full paper is freely available on the Internet at

Brunch at Tra Vigne

The last of my Napa posts for now - photos from our brunch at Tra Vigne.

A quiet place for a meal

Ouvo Benedetto All' Italiana - Italian-style eggs benedict with poached eggs, crispy pancetta, and basil hollandaise ($12.95)

Frittata Tra Vigne - smoked chicken, leeks, crimini mushrooms, and fontina cheese ($10.95)

Pasticcio di Costata di Bue - slow braised beef short ribs hash with poached eggs and sun dried tomato pesto ($12.75)

Tra Vigne
1050 Charter Oak Avenue
St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-4444

Monday, December 17, 2007

Terra - Heaven on Earth

It's hard to stay grounded while eating at Terra. Chef Hiro Sone's classic European dishes, intricately balanced with Asian flavors and impeccably presented, make him a culinary hero in my book. My meal here was absolutely spectacular.

Thanks to Lauren for shooting the photos and noting the names and prices of our dishes. I apologize if the photos are somewhat dark - the lighting in the restaurant wasn't great, and I can only do so much on Photoshop.

Robert Mondavi 2003 Merlot
Always a solid choice for food

Tartar of hamachi with hijiki (a sea veggie) and yuzu (a citrus fruit) viniagrette ($16.50)
Very fresh fish and beautiful presentation

Lobster chowder with sweet corn and potatoes ($14.50)
Beats every chowder and lobster bisque I've ever had, hands down

Grilled quail on sweet corn and chanterelle mushroom risotto with truffles ($29)
Juicy and tender quail, great balance with the texture of the risotto

Grilled Maine lobster and scallops with lemon garlic paisley butter ($32)
Seafood lovers' delight

Liberty Farm Duck "Three Ways" - shredded duck meat crispy roll, seared duck breast, and duck pate with mushroom sauce ($28.50)
A winning trio for the best entree of the meal

Tiramisu ($8)
Not as rich and creamy as I'd like, but very creative interpretation

With such an innovative menu, wonderful staff, cozy ambiance, and top rated wine list, Terra is the perfect place for an intimate and memorable meal in wine country. My only complaint is that the restaurant isn't closer to where I live, so I could go more often!

Terra Restaurant
1345 Railroad Avenue
St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-8931

Friday, December 14, 2007

Napa Wineries!

I've decided that my ultimate dream wedding would take place in Napa. We'd have the ceremony and read our vows in a pretty vineyard on a warm spring day, then follow up at a reception overflowing with champagne (Chandon seems like a good choice), and finally, dinner at one of the many great restaurants there, or perhaps a winery that could accommodate all the tables. And of course, an impressive wine list at each venue. And flowers. And maybe a mini orchestra, which could include my many musically-talented friends.

Of course, there's only an infinitesimal chance of my wedding actually turning out like this, but it's still nice to imagine.

On my Napa trip a few months ago, I came across several wineries and wines that would be perfect for my dream wedding. One of the things I love about going to wine country is that there's so much more than just wine that's waiting to be experienced. Each winery has its own approach to making the nectar of the gods, as well as its own unique history, architecture, and marketing style.

Our first stop was Darioush, a gorgeous winery reminiscent of a Persian palace (indeed, the owner's first name is Darioush, which is also the name of Persia's most famous ruler). The entrance was bold but inviting, with 16 free-standing columns and water fountains with floating lily pads. The building itself was constructed from some kind of yellow-colored stone, and the interior featured ancient Persian sketches, modern Italian furniture, and a 20-foot-high wall of cascading water. Pretty fit for a king, in my opinion.

The wines were very promising as well. Darioush specializes in Bordeaux reds, along with Shiraz and Chardonnay. Very solid Cabernet Sauvignon from 2004 and 2005.

Silver Oak was a pleasant stop on the trip. The winery only produces Cabernet and had two current releases for tasting - 2002 from Napa Valley and 2003 from Alexander Valley. Ten bucks will get you a generous pour of both wines, along with a complimentary souvenir wine glass.

I always try to stop at V. Sattui when I'm in Napa. The winery reminds me of a quaint little cottage, with a pretty picnic area. Plus I'm in love with their sweet wines, including their Muscat and their award-winning Gamay Rouge (I would really love to have this at my wedding reception). The winery is family-owned without any distributors, so their wines are only available from the winery.

My favorite winery overall for the trip was Joseph Phelps. We attended a personal tasting seminar where the instructor taught us ways to taste and make notes consistently, using a variety of whites and reds from the winery. The Insignia is JP's finest signature wine, with the 2004 release selling for $200 per bottle now. But what really stood out for me was their Le Mistral, which had me chirping to the heavens (in my mind, of course). Delicious blackberry and cherry flavors, balanced amount of tannins, aged in French oak barrels. And it's a great investment at $40 per bottle.

Pine Ridge was another beautiful winery, although I didn't do the tour and tasting because we were a few short on the reservations. While waiting for some of my friends, I walked around through part of their vineyard.

My friends loved the tour, and judging from the photos, it looked like a really beautiful winery. The most amazing part? Naturally-insulated, underground volcanic caves, lined with over 4,600 French oak barrels filled with wine for aging. And the caves are lit and structured in a way that make them pretty romantic, in my opinion.

Now wouldn't that make a nice setting for a wedding dinner?

Our last stop on the trip was the renowned Opus One, the child of the creative forces of Robert Mondavi and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild. Just like its wine, the architecture and interior design of the winery reflect a blend of classical European and contemporary Californian elements.

After a tour, we sat on the balcony level and sipped on their 2003 vintage while enjoying the view.

Overall, a wonderful trip. Even if I won't get my dream wedding in Napa :)

Special thanks to Lauren for some of these photos.