AG Pick Under $20: B.R. Cohn Silver Label Cabernet Sauvignon

I’ve been a fan of B.R. Cohn’s wine since visiting the Sonoma winery earlier this year. Their 2006 Silver Label Cabernet Sauvignon is one of my favorites. It’s a big and tasty wine that is a great value, costing around $17.

The wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the B.R. Cohn Olive Hill Estate Vineyard and other North Coast vineyards. It’s aged in French oak for 18 months.

The taste is of ripe black fruit: blackberries, cassis and black cherries. The oak aging gives the wine a touch of vanilla on the smooth finish. It’s a lush and full wine that’s very pleasant to drink. It pairs nicely with beef, lamb and well-spiced chicken and pasta dishes.

B.R. Cohn makes other delicious wines. My two favorites are the Sonoma Valley Zinfandel and Moose’s Red, which is named after Bruce Cohn’s dog. These wines cost around $26 and $40 respectively. Click here to see my earlier article about visiting the winery and tasting these wines.

For more information on B.R. Cohn’s wines visit www.brcohn.com.

Click here for more wine recommendations under $20 or click on “under $20″ in the tag cloud on the right.
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Soya e Pomodoro: Downtown Miami Hangout Serves Up Delicious Italian Fare

“Hole in the wall” would be the best way to describe Soya e Pomodoro. From the street it looks like an unlikely spot for a restaurant. It’s squeezed into an alcove in a former bank building between watch and jewelry stores in downtown Miami. It’s a space that looks like it was abandoned for years until someone moved in chairs, tables and plants.

The decor is second-hand chic. Mismatched chairs surround tables of different heights and sizes. A well-worn couch shares a low wooden coffee table with a couple of comfortable chairs. Bookshelves filled with old books in several languages create a wall. If you peek behind you’ll see the stunning architecture of the former bank in a space that’s used for parties and live performances.

On a street where many of the signs are in Spanish it’s strange to be greeted with a “buon giorno.”But once you step through the wrought iron gates into the eclectic dining room it feels as if you have entered a café on a side street in Rome.

Soya e Pomodoro’s motto is “simple food made with love.” It’s clear the chef and staff take great pride in making their food with love. When I asked the server if one of the pasta sauces was homemade he said, “of course it’s homemade, everything here is homemade! We’re Italian, that’s how we cook!”

For a small space it has a big menu. There are a variety of salads, paninis and pastas, with several chicken, steak and fish options for the main course. Everything is made with the freshest ingredients, which comes through in the food’s fresh taste.

One of the dishes Soya e Pomodoro prides itself on is its homemade gnocchi. It’s some of the best gnocchi I’ve ever had. The gnocchi are small, light pillows that are cooked perfectly and bursting with flavor. The sauce is delicious, a slightly creamy tomato sauce with Parmesan cheese and fresh basil. Meat lovers will enjoy the lasagna, which tastes like a recipe that was passed down through generations. It’s oozing with cheese and well-seasoned meat.

For dessert, the tiramisu is not to miss. It has a great espresso taste and just the right amount of mascarpone cheese so it’s not overly sweet or creamy. A generous sprinkling of cocoa powder on top will satisfy any chocolate craving.

To complete the Italian experience, I ordered an espresso. It was slightly more bitter than the espressos I remember drinking in Italy but just as strong. Sipping an espresso while watching people walk by, it’s easy to imagine yourself in Rome.

Soya e Pomodoro is busy during the day and is really hopping at night. Wednesdays through Fridays the restaurant is packed until late in the night with an eclectic mix of people listening to live music. Soya e Pomodoro’s website is still under construction but you can find out about upcoming events on the restaurant’s MySpace page.

Whether you’re looking to be transported to Italy for lunch or for a hip late night hang out spot, Soya e Pomodoro is that hidden gem in downtown Miami.

Soya e Pomodoro is located at 120 NE 1st Street in Miami.


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AG Pick Under $20: Jean Albrecht Cremant D’Alsace Brut Reserve

If you’re looking for a nice bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate the New Year, skip Champagne and head farther east in France to Alsace. Crémant D’Alsace is a sparkling wine made in the traditional Champenoise method but doesn’t carry the same price tag as Champagne. For the taste and the cost, Crémant D’Alsace is hard to beat.

The Alsace region is on the eastern border of France, adjacent to Germany and Switzerland. Crémant D’Alsace is mostly made from Pinot Blanc grapes but may also contain Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.

My pick for a great Crémant D’Alsace is the Brut Reserve from Jean Albrecht. I found it for $17.99 at my local wine and spirits store. It’s a Blanc de Blanc made from 100% Pinot Blanc. It’s a beautiful pale straw yellow in color with small energetic bubbles. The taste is subtle and delicate. It’s dry and crisp with light toast and a hint of apricot. The gentle fruit flavor makes this sparkling wine really enjoyable to drink. It’s just the right amount to serve to people who like their sparkling wine dry, and will please the palates of people who prefer some sweetness. Champagne drinkers may be converted to Crémant D’Alsace drinkers after trying a glass.

The complex and delicious taste at a relatively low price point makes Jean Albrecht’s Crémant D’Alsace Brut Reserve a great value. It’s a sparkling wine I’m looking forward to serving at my New Year’s Eve party.

Fun with Older Wines

My husband and I spent the weekend in Atlanta, where much of his extended family lives. In between visiting with his maternal grandmother, aunt and uncle, cousins and one of his sisters, we were reminded of how much we enjoy Miami’s winter weather.

Our trip included a visit to his paternal grandparents’ home and a look inside their wine cellar. They have a large collection of wines, some dating back to the 1960s. My husband’s grandparents were not big wine drinkers or collectors. Many of the bottles were likely received as gifts or were used when they entertained guests. Even though I wasn’t expecting big name wines, I was excited to see if I recognized any of them and to try wines that were much older than me.

Of course, we weren’t sure if any would be drinkable. The wines weren’t kept at an ideal temperature for storing and they were recently moved around. Still, we hoped we’d open a bottle and find something really special.

The first bottle we tried was a 1966 Chateau Capet from St. Emilion in Bordeaux. The wine had a deep orange rust color, indicative of its age. We took our first sniff of the wine and were excited to smell red fruits and not vinegar or some other unpleasant smell. Our first sip was quite pleasant. There were flavors of cherry with some strawberry. There was a little bit of earthiness and a touch of smoke on the finish. The tannins were very light because of the wine’s age, which made for a very smooth mouthfeel. Overall, the wine was surprisingly enjoyable to drink. After about 5 minutes, the wine opened up and tasted even better. But about 10 minutes after that, the wine began to fade and took on the aroma and taste of vinegar. It was like a flower that bloomed just for a few minutes before dying.

The next bottle we tried was a 1970 Sterling Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley. I’ve tried several of Sterling’s wines (more recent vintages, of course), and it was neat to see the old label. Sterling is available almost everywhere (it’s sold at Publix), and always sticks out on the shelf because of its silver label. We poured a glass of the 1970 Cabernet and were disappointed to find it was no good. There were several more bottles of the Cabernet and some Merlots in the wine cellar, so I’m hoping there’s a good bottle in there.

The final bottle we tried was a 1981 Chateau Simard from St. Emilion. I had high hopes for this one after trying the 1966 wine from St. Emilion. The wine had some nice red fruit flavors but was starting to turn. It was drinkable for a few sips, but you wouldn’t want much more than that.

We may not have found a real winner this time around but my husband and I had a lot of fun experimenting with these older wines. Hopefully we’ll find something really special the next time we’re in Atlanta.

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Wine Worth Sharing at Wine 69

It’s good Wine 69’s address is in its name, otherwise you may drive right by it. The wine bar and restaurant is located at 69th Street on a quiet block of Biscayne Boulevard in Miami.

The décor is sleek and simple: a long wooden bar, tables covered in white tablecloths and a comfy white couch and two chairs that share a table made out of wine crates. The wine is arranged by country on shelves against the wall, like interactive art that’s always changing. You can select a bottle from the wine list but it’s more fun to pick one right from the wall.

Wine 69’s slogan is “wine for pairing, food for sharing.” It’s owner Ben Neji who does the wine sharing. He explains each wine and helps both the inexperienced and the experienced find the right one. “I wanted to introduce locals, the neighborhood, to what wine is, because wine is very complex and it changes a lot,” he says. Mr. Neji’s enthusiasm for wine is clear; he calls his wine his babies and explains their unique qualities and tastes like a proud father.

Mr. Neji grew up drinking wine in his native France. A civil engineer by training, Mr. Neji traveled around the world and came to Miami while working for Save the Children. In Miami Mr. Neji moved into the wine and food business, working as the Vice President of the World Trade Center Miami. He discovered the concept of a wine and food bar during a trip to London about 20 years ago. “It really emphasized the wine, and good quality wine,” Mr. Neji says. “I fell in love with it because I really love wine.”

Mr. Neji is passionate about encouraging customers with limited wine knowledge to develop their own love of wine. He first tries to put them at ease, which may be difficult when looking at Wine 69’s wine list.

“I try to explain the range of wines, and let them experiment with these wines and let them find something they like.”

To do just that, Wine 69 offers a variety of wine flights: three smaller glasses of one varietal or wines from one region. “People get to understand wines and compare them, and then discover something new,” says Mr. Neji.

If you’re looking for a bottle, Mr. Neji is happy to suggest one from his always evolving wine list. Prices range from around $20 to close to $200. Says Mr. Neji, “I tell everybody you never buy a wine based on price, you can find a bottle for $15 that scores 91 points in Wine Spectator, you can find a bottle for $200 that scores less than that.”

Wine 69 hosts tastings every Thursday night. For $15 you can try wines brought in by local distributors, and sometimes meet the winemakers. The wines are available for purchase at a discounted price. It’s also a chance for customers to make recommendations to Mr. Neji about wines he should offer at Wine 69.

The food for sharing is a Mediterranean-themed menu that features organic ingredients. Just as with the wine list, great care is put into selecting and crafting dishes — and it shows in their great taste. For appetizers, the beef carpaccio is delicate and flavorful. My personal favorite is the escargot. It’s a generous portion in a delicious garlic butter sauce that you’ll want to soak up with the accompanying bread. For entrees, the braised lamb shank is so tender you can eat it with a spoon and so tasty you’ll want to lick the bone.

On Mondays through Wednesdays, Wine 69’s prix fixe menu is hard to beat. It’s a three-course dinner for $29.69, which includes a glass of wine. If you’re looking for a light bite, Wine 69 has a dozen cheeses to choose from that are served with complementing sauces.

Along with wine and food, Wine 69 features local art. Says Mr. Neji, “I think the concept goes together because people who love wine in general love art, and people who are artistic like wine and good food.” The paintings that hang on the walls are available to purchase, with all the money going to the artist. Wine 69 also hosts live musical performances on Friday and Saturday nights. The next pairing Mr. Neji is working on is selecting wines to serve at a poetry and book reading.

The friendly and welcoming environment encourages customers to linger for more than just one glass. Wine 69 is open from 5:30 to 11pm Monday through Thursday and until midnight on Friday and Saturday. It’s not a firm closing time; if people want to stick around and enjoy the wine, Mr. Neji is happy to stay open.

“Nice conversation, nice music, nice wine, nice food, what’s better than that in life?”

Wine 69 is located at 6909 Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. For more information visit wine69miami.com.

Photos by Isaac Levitan

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AG Pick Under $10: Camino de los 7 Lagos Cabernet Malbec

In July 2006 my husband and I traveled to Buenos Aires where we spent four days drinking great wine and eating all sorts of meat. Our friends from Argentina did the ordering so I’m really not quite sure what parts of a cow we tried or even if it was all from cows. There was some blood sausage and sweet breads in the mix, along with a squiggly light brown thing that may have been brain or intestine, I still don’t know. We took a bite of everything and it all tasted delicious with the wine.

While eating our way around the beautiful city, we tried a great Malbec from Neuquén. It’s a province located in the Patagonia region of Argentina, bordered by Mendoza to the north and Chile to the west. There, temperature variations of warm sunny days and cool nights produce grapes with a nice balance of fruit and acidity.

Since our trip we haven’t found many Argentine wines from Neuquén. But this weekend we discovered Camino de los 7 Lagos wines at Sunset Corners Liquor in Miami. Camino de los 7 Lagos was the first winery in Neuquén. They produce mostly red wines, along with a Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc Semillon. We bought a bottle of the 2007 Cabernet Malbec to try. It’s 60% Cabernet, 40% Malbec.

At $8.99 this red blend is a great value. The wine is dark garnet in color with a touch of purple. It has aromas of red cherries and earth. The taste is more fruit forward than the nose may lead you to believe. There are flavors of red fruit – cherry, plum and raspberry. There are very light tannins that give the wine a silky mouthfeel. The finish is warm and rounded. It’s easy and very pleasant to drink. Camino de los 7 Lagos’ Cabernet Malbec blend is one of Sunset Corners’ best sellers and it’s easy to see why. For the price, the wine is well-balanced and sophisticated and would pair nicely with a variety of dishes.

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A Family Favorite: Ethiopian Food

It’s one of my family’s most cherished food traditions: sharing a delicious meal at our favorite Ethiopian restaurant in New York City. It started in the early 1990s with my first taste of Ethiopian food in Washington, D.C. and has become a meal my family looks forward to. My sister orders the food, I control the plate of bread, my mom takes the chicken meat off the bone so it’s easier to eat and my dad finishes all the lentil and vegetable dishes. We eat almost everything in front of us and complain how full we are for hours after the meal. Yum.

My sister and I have become vary particular about our Ethiopian food outings. We don’t invite just anyone into our dining group. No fast eaters (they’d finish everything before we got our fill), and no one who would be frightened by our carnivorous, overeating ways.

If you’ve never tried Ethiopian food, you wouldn’t understand my family’s enthusiasm. A meal at an Ethiopian restaurant is something everyone should experience. Even finicky eaters should give it a try – the taste is too good to resist.

If you like the spice and complex flavors of Indian food, you’ll like Ethiopian food – though the two taste nothing alike. It may not look that appetizing but the flavors are intense. Chicken, beef, lamb and vegetables are mixed with peppers, herbs and spices that create a bold and savory taste. You don’t use utensils; you pick up the food with injera, a flat, spongy bread that resembles a crepe and tastes like sourdough. The intense flavors of the food with the tangy taste of the injera is a combination I often find myself craving.

When my family goes out for Ethiopian food we always order the same dishes: doro wat, gomen besega, special tibs and a vegetable dish of green beans and carrots sautéed in a tomato sauce.

Doro wat is chicken stewed in a spicy berbere sauce and is served with a hard-boiled egg. Simply put, berbere sauce is really really good. It’s made with chili pepper, ginger, cloves, cardamom and other spices. If you enjoy wines that have big and complex flavors, you’ll like berbere sauce. The sauce is so big it’s hard to identify all the elements that combine for its taste.

Gomen besega is beef sautéed with collard greens. The collard greens are what make this dish. They have a delicious and slightly tart taste that refreshes your mouth after a bite of the spicy berbere sauce. I’ve tried to recreate the taste in my own kitchen with a mix of lemon juice and spices but haven’t come close.

If it’s your first time at an Ethiopian restaurant and you’re dining with one other person I recommend ordering doro wat and gomen besega to split.

Special tibs is chunks of lamb sautéed with onions, tomatoes and green pepper. It looks simple but the taste is an explosion of flavor. I like to dip it in the berbere sauce when the chicken and egg are gone.

The dishes are served together on one big platter for sharing. On the bottom is injera, which soaks up the sauce and tastes great when you’re getting towards the end of the meal. The food comes with a few side dishes; this past weekend it was two lentil dishes and collard greens flavored differently than the greens in the gomen besega.

It didn’t matter that my family had eaten a huge Thanksgiving dinner two nights before or that we started saying we were getting full halfway through – we finished nearly everything on the platter, including the injera on the bottom (the evidence is to the left). Each time we go out for Ethiopian food it’s the same – I eat way too much and am uncomfortably full for hours. I can’t help myself! The food tastes so good that I keep eating it until it’s gone.

If you don’t live in a city it may be hard to find an Ethiopian restaurant. If there is one in your area you should definitely make dinner plans. My family goes to Meskerem on West 47th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues in New York City. There are a few other Ethiopian restaurants in Manhattan. In Washington, D.C. you’ll find a bunch of Ethiopian restaurants in Adams Morgan. I’ve only found one restaurant in Miami: Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant, located in the Design District. The restaurant is currently closed and it’s not clear if or when it will reopen.

I’ve found recipes for injera and my favorite Ethiopian dishes online. I hope to try them sometime to see if I can recreate the great tastes in my own kitchen.

AG Pick Under $20: Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Merlot

Of the many Chateau Ste. Michelle wines I’ve tasted, I have yet to find one I don’t like. I’ve tried several different vintages of the Columbia Valley Merlot and have always found it to be a good, solid wine that can pair with a variety of different dishes.

Chateau Ste. Michelle is the oldest winery in Washington State. The winery sources its grapes from a few different vineyards in the Columbia Valley. The Columbia Valley Merlot is made with grapes from vineyards in eastern Washington including the Cold Creek and Canoe Ridge Estate vineyards.

Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Columbia Valley Merlot is a deep garnet red in color. On the nose are notes of red plum, cherries and cedar. The taste is of ripe red fruit, with some blackberry and cola flavors. There’s a slight taste of smoke on the finish. The wine has a light and silky mouthfeel with gentle tannins. An alcohol taste comes out at the end, leaving a warm feeling in the mouth that lingers for a bit. The alcohol taste lightens as the wine opens up. I’d recommend this wine with grilled fish, lamb and poultry dishes.

The Columbia Valley Merlot retails around $16. At my last trip to Publix I found the 2004 vintage for $15.99 and have seen it around $13 at wine stores. Chateau Ste. Michelle makes a variety of red, white and dessert wines that range in price. If you’re not big into Merlot, pick up something else from Chateau Ste. Michelle (there are several for under $25), and I think you will enjoy it. Their Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon costs about the same as the Merlot and is also a very tasty wine at a good price.

For more information on Chateau Ste. Michelle visit www.ste-michelle.com.

Click here to see my other recommendations for wine under $20 or click on “under $20″ in the tag cloud on the right.

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Clo Wine Bar: Blending Taste with Technology

I hope my friends enjoy coming uptown to meet me when I’m in New York City because I’ve found my new favorite wine bar. Clo is a wine bar of the 21st century that blends taste with technology.

Clo’s glowing rectangular box is on the 4th floor of the Time Warner Center, with views of Columbus Circle and Central Park. Inside the space is sleek and modern – a long white bar and more than 100 wine bottles arranged in the wall in temperature-controlled dispensing cases.

You’re immediately drawn to what’s on the white bar: an interactive wine menu projected from the ceiling. Think an iPhone meets 2001: A Space Odyssey. If James Bond had a wine collection, he’d use this to select a bottle. With a wave of your hand you can scroll through the wine list. Select a bottle and you’ll get information on the wine, tasting notes and its location along the wall. You can also search the wines by grape and country.

I want this for my own wine collection.

The name Clo comes from the French “clos,” which means a walled-in vineyard. Clo was created by Andrew Bradbury, who developed the interactive wine menu technology. His eWinebook, an electronic touch screen wine menu, is featured at many of Charlie Palmer’s restaurants.

After playing with the wine menu, you get the wine yourself using a Clo smartcard. It looks like an ATM card and it works in a similar way. Insert the card into the slot above the wine dispensing case, press the button above your desired bottle, and a 4 oz pour of the wine (2 oz for dessert wines), comes out. Just make sure to check the price above the button before making your selection – wines range from around $9 to $98, so one accidental click can be costly! When you’re ready to leave you return your smartcard and pay the tab.

Walking along the wall of wine with your card and glass you feel like a kid in a candy store – lots of tasty options at your fingertips. It’s a great way to try unfamiliar wines and find new favorites. My sister discovered she really likes Chilean reds. My friend was pleasantly surprised by a great tasting wine from Israel. I tried a Pinot Noir from Burgundy that I wouldn’t necessarily order and found it to be really good (and a good price).

Clo offers a selection of cheeses and lite bites to accompany the wine.

Clo is a simple and fun concept that would be a huge success in Miami Beach or in places with limited space like airports. Its only flaw is the small size; the long table takes up a lot of space and makes the bar feel crowded with fewer people – and a wine bar like this is sure to attract a crowd. As long as there’s space and the wine selection is as varied, I’ll be returning to Clo. I just hope one day I’ll be able to have similar technology in my own home!

For more information on Clo visit www.clowines.com.

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Pumpkin Soup

This pumpkin soup recipe is from my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother found it in one of her cookbooks years ago. It’s delicious any time of year, not just on Thanksgiving.

Here’s what you’ll need:

2 tbsp. butter or cooking oil
1 onion, finely diced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
1 carrot, sliced
2 tbsp. flour
1 cup pureed pumpkin (canned)
3 cups chicken broth
½ tsp. salt (optional)
1/8 tsp. white pepper
pinch of sugar

Directions:

Melt butter in soup pot and sauté onions until golden brown. Add celery and carrots and cook for one minute. Remove from flame and blend in flour well.

Add pumpkin, broth and seasonings, stirring well to combine. Return to flame and bring to a boil, uncovered. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Cool and puree in a blender. Reheat on stove or in microwave to serve. Serves six.