The Golden State

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Opening Night Cheese Tasting

The Golden State

“Eureka! There’s gold in them thar hills.” That was the cry of the 49ers who came to California in the 1800s looking to score a fortune in the gold rush. Now up in the hills of Marin and scattered throughout the state, is gold of different kind. It still of the land, but in the form of milk and dairy products.

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Northern California has long been considered a food epicenter – focusing on family owned farms producing organic product. The establishment of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) helped assure that the area of Marin would continue to support farmers and green space rather than being overrun by condos. You can learn more about MALT here: http://www.malt.org/

The call of gold lured me and Wally to load up our wagon and head up north to those very same hills in March to attend and help with the California Artisan Cheese Festival which was held in Petaluma from March 22nd-24th.

The weekend was filled with tours of local cheese makers’ facilities and farms, seminars (beer and cheese at 9:30 am anyone?), tastings, meals, and a Marketplace on Sunday. We attended our first festival last year and immediately became members of the Guild which gave us the opportunity to help set up and run their booth at the Marketplace. Having to be there at 9 am was difficult, but talking about the work the Guild does and the classes they offer in conjunction with the College of Marin was gratifying.

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New Kids on the Block Seminar

Since we teach classes and hold tastings in our shop, we like to get as much insight as we can from the Cheesemaker perspective to share with our students. This lead us to the New Kids on the Block Seminar early Saturday where we got to listen to and ask questions of four Cheesemakers who were bringing new cheese to the market. They spoke frankly about their development process and the challenges in introducing a new cheese to the American public. Janet Fletcher of the San Francisco Chronicle lead the discussion with the cheesemakers and asked pointed questions to keep the info flowing. One of our favorite new cheeses is Point Reyes Bay Blue. Cuba, the cheesemaker for Point Reyes, talked about how he has refined this recipe for years before releasing it. While visiting Point Reyes two yeas ago we had the opportunity to try it in its first stages! Patience pays off. The new Bay Blue is astounding and already winning awards. But it took over two years to get it right! That is a lot of time and effort. We felt fortunate to be able to experience its evolution, it gave us terrific insight into the process of taking a pretty good cheese and turning it into a great one.

New Kids on the Block

New Kids on the Block

Luckily for our Fancifull Customers we have an in with the dairy, so they shipped us a wheel even though it isn’t in wide distribution yet. Nice to have friends in high places.

Toward the end of the seminar, our moderator, Janet Fletcher, let us know that she had just released her latest book: Cheese and Beer . I bought one immediately (and had her sign it). It has lots of information that should contribute to some tasty classes at Fancifull in the near future.

At lunch, we shared our table with the folks from Cypress Grove, another of our favorite cheese companies. Wally would eat Humboldt Fog every morning if he could and I have to say the same about Midnight Moon.

The afternoon held a wine pairing seminar with old world and new world cheese and wine. Old World basically means Europe while new world speaks to the U.S. and Australia. The class was very similar to what we offer in our classes at Fancifull but it was fun to be a student rather than the teacher. There is always so much to learn and Laura Werlin, author of several books on cheese, was a terrific tour guide.

Laura Werlin, our fearless leader

Laura Werlin, our fearless leader

This cheesy weekend left us brimming with ideas and new product to bring into our shop. There is just so much great cheese out there, how do we sell it all? Answer: One wedge at a time.

OId World/New World Wine and Cheese

Old World/New World Wine and Cheese

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Quit Wining and Enjoy Life

I’ve been on forums and read many a discussion regarding fine wine and “cheap” wine. One recent discussion revolved around what is the lowest cost wine you are willing to drink if you have a fine palate.
It is funny, because even though I sell wine for a living and have tasted thousands of wines from all regions of the world, I am intent on not becoming a wine snob. As I read about the pain people go through drinking “lesser” wines it made me think. I certainly love a good white burgundy, which is rarely a bargain, but I’ve also had $10 bottles of wine that are fine. I have no desire to go through life wearing blinders, closing myself off to whole categories of things and people. Here is what I realized: traveling is what can really make the difference in your palate and sensibility.

Our Wine Garden In UmbriaRecently, in Umbria, we bought many a bottle of local red wine at under 7 euro a bottle, some as little as 3 euro. When you are sitting on a porch in the hills, looking over Lake Trasimeno surrounded by herbs and olive trees, eating wild boar salami, peccorino cheese, focaccia and the like this wine is fine. I can’t imagine lamenting the quality of the wine – and some were better than others, and noted for the next trip to the store. It opens my taste buds to a greater variety of wines and food when I get home as well as how to enjoy them. This “far niente” is contagious. I grab a bottle of red, create a cheese plate and sit in my backyard with friends and enjoy the day, bringing a bit of Italy to them. For my formal Christmas dinner with prime rib I may opt for a better Bordeaux or perhaps a burgundy, it just seems to go with that particular flow and meal. Pairing food, wine, and atmosphere is one of my passions, so I indulge at every opportunity.

The impact traveling has had on our relationship with food and life is significant. I am thankful that it has taught me to relax and enjoy what is in front of us and take it as a whole rather than pick it apart. While attending a seminar on Italian wines I heard a famous restaurateur speak who had a wine cellar of tremendous renown. Tasting a simple wine from Sicily, he explained its virtues: it was a well made wine yet you don’t expect too much from it but it would be great with Pizza Margherita. He said it isn’t a “meditation wine,” meaning one of those big complex wines that you sip in front of a fire and marvel at the depth and textures in the wine – and possibly your life.
Isn’t that true of so many things we enjoy? There are movies you see to just relax and laugh and those that shift your viewpoints, books to read on the beach and those that require more time and attention, art that is playful and that which has a message to impart. Wine is no different. You still want well-made wine with balance and a degree of complexity, just as when I read a light book I still want good story telling.

The secret is to always find the good in life, relax and drink it in.

A Taste of Fate: Meeting Winemaker Jacky Blot

Many of my vacations truly are “working vacations”. Yes, we spend three weeks in France, but we are visiting wine makers, cheese producers and the like. Yeah, I know, tough job but someone has to do it. I can’t complain. I do work at hunting out products . Much like the truffle pig, I am always sniffing around, looking in local shops, watching what the locals are eating. Of course this often means eating and drinking many things to be assured of quality – I never just take someone’s word for it- but that is another story altogether.

When I eat a cookie I like in Italy, I will find out who imports it to the U.S. I am quite vigilant. This is just the best way to bring my customers items they might not find otherwise, such as many of the wines we have in our shop. Sometimes I find them through a focused tasting or meeting wine makers. Sometimes greatness just falls in your lap, almost like Divine Intervention.

Forces were at work when we discovered the lovely wines of Jacky Blot: Domaine Taille aux Loups (whites) and La Butte (red).

Jacky Blot
The Intervention came by way of a kindly Paris wine shop owner, Christophe Vidal. While we were buying some wine from his shop, I noticed some odd whiskeys from Japan which started up a conversation (and some sampling of said whiskeys, did I mention how nice this guy was?). In our discussion of the wine business, we mention that we are planning to visit a winemaker or two in the Loire Valley. As we are about to leave we hear a shout. He comes running up to us with an open bottle of wine. Turns out that the winemaker, Jacky Blot from the Loire Valley, had been in his shop earlier for a tasting of his wines. Jacky had left an open bottle but Cristophe didn’t need it, perhaps we could take it back to our apartment and enjoy it. We took our Taille aux Loups wine, happily skipping back to our apartment and marveling at the kindness of strangers.

The wine is a delightful surprise. Chenin Blanc grapes, light, crisp, wonderfully balanced. What a nice gift! Wally, ever diligent, looks up the winery and I can see he is contemplating, actually becoming determined, to find the winery in our travels. We move on to the Loire and are having dinner in the city of Tours when, lo and behold, the Taille Aux Loups is on the wine list by the glass. We have to order it, and yes, it is as good as we remembered. Okay, that settles it, we have to find this winery.

After a few days of trying wines in Chinon and Saumur (both great cities to visit and sample wine), we track down the winery Taille Aux Loups. We drive along curvy roads, follow the river (because we don’t know exactly where it is) along the south bank of the Loire east of Tours. Eureka, we find it! Jacky’s daughter Françoise greets us warmly as we come in from the rain, and sets up quite a tasting for us. We try sparkling wines, the whites that we love, and reds from nearby Bourgueil. It is quite fantastic, especially since we don’t even have an appointment. Jacky pops in and gives us an exuberant hello, but he is quite busy with a bunch of clients in another room. We write down the name and phone number of their distributor in California and buy some bottles to add to the collection we have amassed during the previous few days. We high five ourselves once we get in the car, feeling the excitement of another successful hunt. We rub our hands in anticipation of tasting this wine for our clients back home, and hope that the distributor, Adventures in Wine, carries the wines we want. We have never bought from them before, or even heard of them.

We return to our Paris apartment a few days later with our cache of prized wines. I really want to serve Jacky’s wine at our upcoming tasting in two weeks. I need to email my assistant Dave to find this company. As I am looking in my purse to find the business cards from the wine makers we visited, I find a card for Adventures In Wine! I have no idea how it got there. I don’t remember ever meeting the person whose name is on the card. There is no other business card from America in my bag, having cleaned it out before we left. Françoise at the winery did not give me a card, she just had me write down the name in my notebook. But here it is. Magic! That did it. We were obviously destined to have this wine in our shop.

The importer has the whites I want, not the reds, but they are ordering them for me. So with this happy set of circumstances, I am able to offer this fantastic wine to our customers. And it all began because I had noticed some odd whiskeys at a Paris wine shop and started asking questions.

Terry August

Ground-breaking wine maker Sylvain Fadat visits Fancifull

Feb 9, 2008

What do you do when you find out that a ground-breaking French wine maker is in town for only two days and he especially wants to see you? Well, if you’re us, you throw a party!

Fortunately we already had a Valentine Wine Tasting planned, so we just turned it into a Meet Sylvain Fadat party instead.
Sylvain is one of a handful of wine makers who is making the wines of the Languedoc something to be sought after rather than scorned. We first met him last year when we made a pilgrimage to his winery in the small town of Montpeyroux in the south of France.Wally August and Sylvain Fadat
Wally August and Sylvain Fadat

We already knew he made great wine. We, and our customers, had fallen in love with his Domaine d’Aupilhac Montpeyroux Rouge. We were selling lots of it in our shop and gift baskets. What we didn’t expect, upon meeting him, was to find someone so warm and gracious and so willing to share his knowledge. And his wines.

So here he was last night in our shop talking with everyone in the eager crowd about the wines he had brought with him. The Domain d’Aupilhac Rouge, of course, but we were also treated to his Carignan and two wines from his new vineyard Les Cocalieres, both a white and a red. Ooh la la la la. All so good. All so different from one another. The Domaine d’Aupilhac strong and muscled with dark red fruit, the Carignan dark, smokey and deep, Les Cocalieres Rouge refined and elegant – suitable for an aperitif!
Sylvain answers questions about wine.
The story of how he created the Cocalieres vineyard tells a lot about the man. He wanted a vineyard at a higher elevation and north facing so the grapes would mature more slowly. An isolated location would also make it easier to farm organically – being separated from neighboring vineyards where some still use pesticides and chemical fertilizer.

200,000 years ago, Les Cocalieres was a lake and underneath the current soil was a bed of volcanic rock and limestone. This would be great for his wines. Unfortunately that bed was now like solid cement and would provide bad drainage and make it impossible for the roots to go deep. So he drilled down and dynamited the old bed! When you walk there today you see the larger chunks of the lake bed all around the vineyard. Then he hands you a glass of his wine and smiles. And you do too.

Well, we hated to see him go, but he had to quickly see some old friends and then get on a plane back to France. We hope to be able to meet up with him in San Diego in May when he returns to the US.

Kermit Lynch is now importing the Carignan and Les Cocalieres Blanc and Rouge. We’re told that we’ll have some in about two weeks. We have the Domaine d’Aupilhac now. You will also find it being poured at Campanile and Bastide.

You can read more about our visit with Sylvain at his vineyard here: Meet Sylvain Fadat.

Wally August