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Pair Up with La Sommelierre - April 2014

Spring Fling

This month I throw caution to the wind and suggest a menu entirely based on cocktail pairings. Cocktails can be a challenge to pair with foods because of their high alcohol content. This is why they are usually served with salted nuts; salt tames the heat of the alcohol. I have chosen two drinks that have additional non-alcoholic ingredients, which make them more food friendly. And, there is a strong cheese to complement a strong drink at the end of the meal.

Although our local berries have not yet come into season, blackberries from South America are fairly well priced and readily available in California. Start your evening off with a Blackberry Thyme Bramble, the perfect blend of sweet fruit, lemony thyme and woodsy gin. This refreshing gin-based drink is an excellent choice to pair with a creamy goat cheese spread on salty crackers. Both the cheese and the drink are tangy and light.

A hearty entrée of Cuban Pork Roast with Red Beans and Rice should be classically paired with its brethren, the mojito. The mojito, Cuba’s national cocktail, it gets its name from the African word mojo, which means, “to cast a spell.” Keep in mind, making mojitos in a pitcher doesn’t work—it’s impossible to distribute the lime and mint evenly, plus, the club soda tends to turn flat. Instead, muddle a large batch of mint, limes and sugar, then pour the mixture into glasses and top with ice, rum and club soda.

Finish off your meal with a classic pairing of sweet, salty and savory. Blue cheese, which is made all over the world, is a bold partner to stand up to the potent crispness of an appletini. Furthermore, sliced apples are convenient vehicles for eating cheese. Serve a plate of sliced apples with your appletini and include a couple varieties of blues: Stilton (English), Roquefort (French), Gorgonzola (Italian), Cabrales (Spanish) and the eponymous, Blue Cheese from the US.

So, go on. Pair Up!

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04/03/2014 22:10

Pair Up with La Sommelierre - March 2014

Fresh from the Garden

Every year, spring feels like a new beginning. Many people make New Year’s resolutions to eat more healthfully starting in January; I think spring is a more natural starting point. Here is a wonderful menu that takes advantage of fresh produce and offers wines to pair with them. Keep in mind that vegetables are notoriously difficult to pair with wine because they have bitter flavors. I chose a lightly sweet/floral white wine to offset the bitterness and a red wine lower in tannin, since tannin is the bitter component in a red wine.

Start with a salad of “less bitter” greens. Choose butter lettuce for its mild flavor, baby romaine for crunch, and young spinach for color. For added texture, include vegetables like mushrooms, green onion, and some diced Campari tomatoes (surprisingly good year-round). Top your salad with a dressing that is not too acidic, like the Tarragon Vinaigrette listed here. Pair with a white wine like Verdelho. Originally from Portugal, Verdelho is a white wine that reminds me of Pinot Grigio. It has soft citrus flavors accented by pretty floral notes. Quite a few wineries in California are choosing to make this wine in both a dry and lightly sweet style. Of course, if you can’t find a Verdelho, Pinot Gris/Grigio works in a pinch.

Next, we have salad’s quintessential partner, soup. Spring Vegetable Soup with Pesto has so many healthful ingredients; I feel healthier just reading the recipe! The good news is that it incorporates ingredients that soften the bitterness of the “green” ingredients and make it more wine friendly. The starchy richness of the beans and potatoes along with the sweetness imparted by the carrots and peas are helpful to a wine pairing. When choosing a partner for this soup, I immediately think of Italian grapes because of their naturally higher acids. Dolcetto comes to mind because it has relatively lower tannins than some of its brethren. Another low-tannin red is Pinot Noir.

For dessert, I wanted to share a recipe that I had as a child when visiting my grandmother who lived near the orange-growing capital of California, San Bernardino. This Fresh Orange Pie was so unique and delicious; I had to get the recipe from Edwards Mansion. It is possible to pair this dessert with an Orange Muscat wine, but perhaps sparkling water with orange slices would be a fresher ending to this deliciously fresh meal.

So, go on. Pair Up!

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03/04/2014 08:23

Pair Up with La Sommelierre - February 2014

Sunday Dinner

Sunday dinners are about family and close friends. There is a special quality to Sunday dinner; often, the food and wine is prepared and consumed in a more relaxed fashion compared to the hustle and bustle of a workweek meal. Sunday meals also give us an opportunity to talk about what is coming up in the week ahead.

I always like to have a beverage and something to nibble on when folks gather in the kitchen before a meal. If I don’t want to make anything elaborate, my go-to, wine-friendly starter is a salty bag of chips. They go with just about any wine and are easy to grab from the pantry. Two other staples are cream cheese and canned clams. My good friend John Horn gave me a recipe for clam dip that is super-quick to blend up and is loved by almost everyone. Pair it with Cava, Spain’s sparkling wine. You will love the citrus-floral flavors of the wine with the delicate brine of the clams enrobed in the creamy dip.

Roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy is a quintessential Sunday dinner. You will need to start it about two hours before you want to eat, but it requires almost no work. You could even slice the onions in the food processor before making the clam dip and just clean the bowl once. Roast Beef is a classic red wine dish. A great value-conscious choice is one of the rich, red wines from South America. Try a Chilean Cabernet or an Argentinian Malbec. It is easy to find terrific options for under $10 at any local store that sells wine.

Since dessert is rare during the week at my house, serving dessert makes the meal feel more special. Poached Pears With  Quick Chocolate Sauce fits perfectly with the simple, cook-ahead MO of the rest of this meal. Choose Sauternes, a sweet French dessert wine, to complement the pears. You can find some great values on half-bottles at Costco and other wine shops for between $10-20. They are super sweet and have classic aromas of honey, gardenia and pear. And, if you don’t finish the bottle tonight, it will keep in the fridge for up to a month.

So, go on. Pair Up!

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02/03/2014 10:24

Pair Up with La Sommelierre - December 2013

The holidays are laden with feasts for families and gatherings for groups. Sometimes an intimate dinner for two is a welcome respite from the holiday cacophony. Here is a menu that celebrates the best that Northern Italy has to offer, with delicious wines from the region and recipes that are quick and easy to make on a smaller scale.

I found this great recipe for Crispy Prosciutto Cups with Pear and thought it would be a fun twist on the classic prosciutto and melon starter. Although the recipe makes 24 cups, it could easily be divided into thirds to make a better portion for two people. The perfect partner for these salty-sweet bites is Italian Prosecco, an off-dry sparkler from the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions. The bubbles are a romantic way to start the evening and will cut through the fat of the meat and complement the sweetness of the pears. Even the lemon drizzled on the pears will resonate with the citrus flavors in the wine.

While the appetizer for this meal is light and delicate, Rosemary Lamb Chops with Red Wine Reduction is hearty. Serve it with Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara or Ghemme. All these wines are made from the Nebbiolo grape and come from the Piedmont region. Nebbiolo based wines offer earthy aromas of herbs and tar along with sweet fruit notes of cherry and fig. Any one of these wines would be harmonious with the slightly gamey flavor of the lamb. Alongside, serve some creamy polenta and your favorite roasted vegetable.

Conclude your Italian tête-à-tête with the wine and dessert pairing of Recioto and Sbrisolona, a Lombardian cake with a crumbly texture. Another blended wine, Recioto, is made primarily from Rondinella, Corvina, and Molinara. It comes from the Veneto region, where only the best grapes are selected. They harvest only the highest, ripest grapes on the bunch, the part that gets the most sun. In Veronese, they call these grapes the “recia” (“ears”) of the grapes. Once the grapes are dried, the small amount of juice liberated results in tiny quantities of Recioto produced each year. The wine has a beautiful, crushed velvet texture, a spicy bouquet, and hints of dried plums and chocolate on the palate.

So, go on. Pair Up!

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12/02/2013 10:39

Pair Up with La Sommelierre - November 2013

Last year, I offered suggestions for the best wines to give as gifts based on their ability to pair with the most foods. This year I am providing three, homemade food items that are great for gift giving, AND I am adding suggestions for wines to pair with them.

The first food gift is a classic breadstick called Parmesan Grissini. In general, salted bread is delicious with any wine: sparkling, rosé, red or white. This recipe includes crushed fennel seeds, which add the subtle flavor of black licorice, crushed red pepper to give a kick of spice and, of course, Parmesan cheese. The perfect pairing partner is a buttery Chardonnay. Look for Chardonnays that have undergone malolactic fermentation and are aged in oak barrels. The oak will complement the low notes of the licorice and the Parmesan will echo the buttery/dairy flavor provided by the lactic acid from the secondary fermentation.

The next food item is Curried Cranberry Snack Mix. Bold curry flavors in this mix require wine that is very fruit forward. Additionally, the flavor of dried cranberries is often found in red wines; it is a smart mix-in. I also loved the addition of French-fried onions. Fried onions are terrific with wine because they have a sweet/savory quality that brings out the fruit flavor in the wine. Fruit forward varietals like Grenache and Pinot Noir are my first choice pairings but just about any red wine will be fantastic.

Sweet treats are always welcome and Fleur de Sel Toffee will fill the bill, especially since sweet and salty combinations are all the rage. I like the idea of pairing toffee flavors with a little known, fortified wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region called Banyuls. It is made from Grenache grapes and has the flavors of toasted nuts, fig newton, dark chocolate and hints of roasted coffee. It is rich and thick will echo the caramel flavor of the toffee. As a bonus, the salt in the toffee will make it more wine friendly as it balances the wine’s high sugar content and tames any rough tannin.

So go on, Pair Up!

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10/18/2013 16:00

Pair Up with La Sommelierre - October 2013

Fall Soup-n-Salad

I throw a Halloween soup party every year, and this year I have a new soup and salad combination I am really excited about. After a long summer of white wines, I am happy to say that both recipes pair with red wines; this, I know for many of you, is cause for celebration.

To start is a warm salad with sautéed onion, mushrooms, and craisins, which are all wine friendly ingredients. The dressing has just a touch of lemon juice, which brings freshness without over powering the wine. Then the salad is topped with Manchego cheese, another wine friendly additive. You may remember that Pinot Noir is usually my go-to wine with mushrooms, but Grenache (or Garnacha as they call it in Spain) is a great substitute for Pinot Noir. It has softer tannins than wines like Cabernet, Zinfandel or Syrah and offers bright berry fruit with substantial acidity, two qualities that will work with this salad.

Following the salad comes the soup.  Every year one of my favorite Livermore Wineries, Fenestra Winery, does a Soup & Wine event on the “football-free” weekend in January. The Garlic Sherry Cream of Mushroom Soup, courtesy of Blue Sage Catering, makes it onto the menu almost every year. The substantial amount of cream gives it body, which makes it just right for a bold red wine, as does the meaty texture and taste of the chopped mushrooms. Fenestra’s recommended pairing is a delicious Fenestra Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep, red and black fruits offset the pungent garlic, and the contrasting colors of white soup against the red wine are a beauty to behold. Serve warm crostini sprinkled with truffle salt on the side. It is perfect for dipping and adds a welcome crunch.

Usually, I make a trip through the Caldecott Tunnel to find Vin du Bugey-Cerdon. It is a sweet, pink, bubbly wine and the only wine I pair with milk chocolate. Much to my dismay, none of my usual suppliers had any in stock this year! The good news is that it can be purchased online. This year I am going to focus on pairing it with Twix. I think the caramel, chocolate and cookie crunch will be terrific with the sweet strawberry flavors of the fruit and toasty bakery flavors courtesy of the yeast, which turned the sugar into alcohol!

So, go on, Pair Up!

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10/01/2013 09:12

Pair Up with La Sommelierre - September 2013

Golden Days

September in Northern California epitomizes the phrase “The golden days of summer.” The sunsets arrive earlier, but the days are still filled with sunshine. The promise of fall is in the air, and the nights offer a hint of crispness. This menu celebrates our golden state with golden fruits, golden vegetables and even golden candy!

California provides beautiful ripe fruits and vegetables for a Cornucopia Salad. Tart apples, sweet mango, crunchy celery and creamy avocado, this salad has it all. And, because it has it all, only sparkling wine can handle all these flavors and textures. Consider a rosé wine made from Pinot Noir grapes to provide full-body and intense flavor. And, if you like your bubbles with a hint of sweetness, the sweeter ingredients will welcome an off-dry wine.

With fall’s arrival, comfort foods become a staple in my house. Bright yellow, Butternut Squash Mac-n-“Cheese” will fool you into thinking you are about to partake in tangy cheddar pasta, but the lightly sweet flavor of butternut squash touched by earthy sage and piquant garlic will be an unexpected pleasure. Look for a slightly smoky chardonnay to partner the dish. Chardonnay develops a deep golden color when it spends time in oak, and that color will complement the golden pasta. Toasty oak will balance the sweetness of the squash, and the chardonnay’s full-bodied, creamy texture will harmonize with the cream in the sauce.

Golden Butterscotch Bars are too sweet for wine, but would be perfect with hot, black coffee. Coffee’s acidic bitterness is exactly right with the super-sweet decadence of this dessert. Try a coffee made from beans grown in Mexico, particularly from the Oaxaca and Chiapas regions. Mexican coffee beans produce a cup that is soft and smooth, yet still bright with light to medium body.

So, go on. Pair Up!

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08/16/2013 16:00

Pair Up with La Sommelierre - August 2013

Burger’s Down Under

My family loves burgers, but sometimes it is nice to break away from the beef and put something else in the bun. Another twist is to go with a white wine for your summer burger BBQ. It is cool and refreshing at the end of a hot summer day.

Ground turkey is a healthy burger choice, but it can be a bit bland and is often dry. Turkey Burgers with Avocado Butter are full of flavor and topped with a creamy, lemony compound butter that will guarantee a juicy burger. Other than the requisite French fries, a great side dish with these burgers is piquant Cilantro Slaw. Both recipes go great with white wines from Australia. Aussie whites are often intense in flavor and high in acidity so they will stand up to these two acidic, highly flavored dishes. Recently I had an Australian Marsanne from Wine Thieves in Lafayette. Marsanne is a classic southern Rhone white that is often blended with Viognier and Roussanne. When grown in Australia, it has a bright citrus flavor and even has a touch of complexity from a hint of petrol that you will find in the nose. If you can’t find Marsanne, look for either Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. Both are grown in Australia and will substitute nicely.

For dessert, let’s go for something really sweet. Australians make great dessert wines that they call “Stickies.” They are appropriately named because they are sticky sweet. But, like their dry white counterparts, they retain the acid needed to balance the sugar. You can find Stickies made from many white grapes: Muscat, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, to name a few. Most white dessert wines have stone fruit aromatics and flavors. To echo those flavors, try the Apricot Crème Brulée found on my website ( It has a delicate, velvety texture and you get a burst of apricot flavor in each bite.

So, go on. Pair Up!

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07/30/2013 19:10

Pair Up with La Sommelierre - July 2013

Best of Summer

Judging wine competitions is one of the best parts of my job. This year, I had the pleasure of judging the North of the Gate Wine Competition at the Sonoma-Petaluma County Fair run by Valery Uhl. The wines for this competition are limited to California wines made from grapes that are grown north of the Golden Gate Bridge. After personally tasting over 150 wines, this competition confirmed that Northern California has some of the highest quality wines in the world.

Here is an evening that features the “Best Of” wines from this year’s competition. The 2012 Handley Cellars Riesling from Anderson Valley was a shoe-in for the top white. The Anderson Valley has textbook growing conditions for Riesling. Low night and morning temperatures keep the acid levels high and lots of daytime sunshine ripens the grapes to their peak intensity. Riesling is my favorite cheese wine. Its ripe apricot flavor offers a lovely counterpoint to the pronounced flavor of monastery cheeses that have been washed in brine, wine, beer, or brandy. Additionally, it goes well with cooked, pressed cheeses like Swiss and Gouda. Arrange the cheese on a cutting board with bright green and red grapes. Slice up some crunchy baguette and you have a beautiful, delicious starter.

The Red Sweepstakes winner was the 2010 Trentadue, La Storia, Cuvée Evelyna, also from Alexander Valley. The wine is made from classic Bordeaux grapes and it is a crowd pleaser. It would be terrific with Dean Carr’s 6-Hour Tri-tip because its bright acidity will stand-up to the lemon in the marinade. Additionally, standard BBQ sides like potato or macaroni salad, baked beans and coleslaw will all match seamlessly with the herbal and dark berry flavors.

The grand finale to your evening and at the fair is the Best of Show wine, the 2012 Navarro Vineyards, Anderson Valley, Cluster Select, Late Harvest Gewürztraminer. It is rich and honeyed, with a caramelized, floral-pear flavor that makes it perfect with the Upside Down Pear Polenta Cake.

So, go on. Pair Up!

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06/14/2013 16:00

Pair Up with La Sommelierre - June 2013

Raspberry Beret

Fresh raspberries were on my mind this month. Wine made from grapes offers a variety of flavors, including the flavor of raspberry, even though there isn’t a raspberry anywhere near the fermenters when the wine is made. Yeast is truly nature’s little miracle worker, creating brand new flavors from what the grapes give them. Of course, we do find wines made from a variety of fruits and vegetables that actually taste like their antecedents. As long as there is a sugar for the yeast to consume, you can make wine from it.

A terrific place that makes grape wines is The Terraces at Quarry Vineyards in Napa, just off the Silverado Trail. I had the pleasure of meeting with Ryan Calder on a warm spring day, and we started our tasting with his new Rosé blend. The wine is an ingenious blend of (white) Riesling grapes, early-picked Zinfandel, and saignée of Cabernet Sauvignon. Each component leaves its delicious footprint on the wine. The low-alcohol Zinfandel gives the wine an unmistakable berry quality; the Cabernet imparts a deeper tobacco, earthy quality; and the Riesling contributes the perfect high note of stone fruits like peach and apricot. Light and refreshing, this wine is a great partner for a starter of Watermelon and Red Onion Salad with tangy, spicy Raspberry Dressing.

Cabernet Franc wines can also exhibit berry flavors, but the fruitiness is usually offset with black olives and rich soil. Maybe that sounds odd, but those dark flavors keep wine from tasting like alcoholic Kool-Aid. Bring out red fruit flavors in wine by drizzling grilled chicken with Leslie Stiles’ balsamic glaze (Pair Up, Feb 2010 Add mashed potatoes and roasted carrots to the plate and you have a super-fast supper that is elegant enough to serve your most discriminating guest.

For dessert, see if you can find wine made from fruits other than grapes. (If you can’t, a ruby port will substitute nicely)..I happen to have had the fortune to come across black raspberry fruit wine. Try this recipe for Cayenne Pepper Chocolate Truffles to nibble on while you sip the super sweet, concentrated raspberry flavor. Both are so intensely flavored, the smallest amount will satisfy your sweet cravings.

So, go on. Pair Up!

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06/03/2013 20:50
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