Wines from the Land of Milk and Honey

One of the oldest wine producing regions in the world is producing some great new wines.

Israel is no longer the land of sweet, syrupy wines.  Today Israel’s wines are winning medals and finding their way onto wine lists at top restaurants.

Though winemaking in Israel goes back to biblical times, Israel is considered a producer of “New World” wines.  It really wasn’t until the 1980s, with the influx of new technology and more popular grape varietals, that Israel came onto the world wine scene.  Boutique wineries have been popping up since the 1990s and today the government estimates there are more than 200 wineries.

Wineries in northern Israel are making very tasty wine.  Upper Galilee in particular is well-suited for winemaking with a high elevation, cool breezes and rich soil.

For a taste of Israel’s impressive reds try Yarden’s Cabernet Sauvignon.  The wine is aged for 18 months in French oak barrels.  It has big flavors of blackberries, cherries and cassis with a hint of vanilla and spice that lingers in the finish.  This wine pairs nicely with steak and lamb dishes.  A bottle of the 2004 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon costs around $27.

A less expensive alternative is the Yarden Mount Hermon Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc fermented in steel.  Wild berry and cherry flavors are complemented with a hint of herbs.  Serve this with grilled meats, duck or pizza.  A bottle of the 2005 Yarden Mount Hermon Red costs around $12.

Another great value is the Galil Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and fermented in steel.  This big, juicy red has flavors of ripe plum and blackberry with a hint of bell pepper and spice.  This wine goes well with beef, lamb and hearty chicken and pasta dishes.  A bottle of the 2005 Galil Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon costs around $14.

On the white side, the Golan Moscato makes a great aperitif or dessert wine.  It’s 100% Muscat Canelli and made in the style of Moscato d’Asti.  The sparkling wine has mouthwatering floral and honeysuckle notes.  Tiny bubbles and a crisp finish make this wine light and refreshing.  A bottle of Golan Moscato costs around $12.

A bonus to all these wines — they’re all Kosher.  So you don’t have to drink Manischewitz ever again.

Italian Wines You Should Be Drinking

When you think of Italian wines, what comes to mind?  I think of Chianti, Barolo, Pinot Grigio, Brunello, Prosecco and Super Tuscans.

How about Pecorino or Gaglioppo?  You may not have heard of these Italian grapes but you should be drinking them.

Wine has been made in Italy for more than 4,000 years.  Today Italy produces and consumes more wine than any other country; the variety of grape types and wine styles is staggering.  Some grape varieties are marketed better than others in the United States but now it’s time for these lesser-known grapes to get the publicity they deserve.

The name Pecorino may sound familiar because it is the name of an Italian cheese.  The Pecorino grape has no relation to the cheese.

pecorinoPecorino grapes are grown in Abruzzo, a region in east-central Italy on the Adriatic Sea.  Pecorino produces medium to full bodied white wines with moderate acidity and gentle minerality.  The wines have flavors of ripe green apple and pear.  Some have notes of almond and hazelnut or ground spices like white pepper and ginger.  This wine pairs nicely with shellfish, light pasta and poultry dishes and soft cheeses.  I recommend Colle dei Venti 2007 Terre di Chieti, which costs around $12.

Gaglioppo is a red wine grape grown in Calabria.  This region is the “toe” in Italy’s boot.  Gaglioppo produces a wine that is light cherry red in color with an elegant taste.  Ripe flavors of cherry, strawberry and raspberry are rounded out with licorice and a hint of spice.  Gentle tannins give the wine a nice structure.  Drink this with veal and grilled chicken, meat lasagna and tomato-based pasta dishes.  I recommend the 2007 Ceraudo Grayasusi, which costs around $22 or Ippolito 1845 “Liber Pater” 2006, which costs around $12.


liber paterPecorino and Gaglioppo may be harder to find than the more popular Italian varieties.  But try a bottle and you’ll wonder why they’ve been kept hidden for so long.

The Sweet Taste of Kracher Wines

Trockenbeerenauslese is one of my favorite words to say.  And I enjoy drinking it just as much as I enjoy saying it!

Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) is a German wine term that refers to the ripeness level of the grape.  The riper the grape, the higher concentration of sugar; more sugar means a sweeter wine.  TBA is the highest category in the German and Austrian classification system and the wines are intensely sweet.

TBA grapes look almost like raisins hanging from the vine because they’re overripe and shriveled from noble rot.  The grapes must be individually picked as part of a labor-intensive process which means TBA wines can be pricey.  But the taste is delicious.

kracherI recently had the opportunity to try a few Trockenbeerenauslese wines from Kracher, a family winery in Burgenland, Austria.  Kracher is managed by the enthusiastic and charming 27 year-old Gerhard Kracher, who took over after the death of his father, Alois Kracher, Jr. in 2007.

I’ve had some great dessert wines but Kracher’s dessert wines are on a different level.  The lush, lip-smacking taste of ripe fruit and honey lingers in your mind long after your glass is gone.  You’ll find yourself craving more.

The names of the wines may be hard to pronounce so just look for the gold label and pick a number.  I tried a couple of number 7’s and really liked both.

The 2004 Welschriesling TBA Zwischen den Seen No. 7 is made from 100% Welschriesling, a traditional Austrian grape that’s grown throughout Central Europe.  It’s fermented and aged in stainless steel.  The wine is deep golden yellow in color and has flavors of honey, ripe apricot, peach and pineapple, with white tea and marshmallow on the finish.  A 375ml bottle costs around $45.

The 2005 Grand Cuvée TBA Nouvelle Vague No. 7 is a blend of Chardonnay and Welschriesling.  It’s fermented in new barrels and aged 22 months.  It’s medium golden yellow in color and has notes of yellow apple, honey, dried fruits and subtle oak.  Luscious flavors of juicy orange and apricot fill the mouth.  Well-balanced acidity gives the wine a nice structure.  A 375ml bottle costs around $50.

Try a glass of Kracher TBA with cheese, fruit, dessert or on its own.  It’s truly a sweet experience!

AG Pick: Heron Hill Riesling

I’m really excited about the wines that are coming from my home state, New York.  There are some impressive Rieslings being produced in the Finger Lakes region.

That’s where Heron Hill Winery is located.  It’s in a town called Hammondsport, about a 5 hour drive from New York City.  The scenic route will take you through New Jersey and Pennsylvania before crossing back into the Empire State.

I normally select a specific wine for my AG Pick but with Heron Hill I couldn’t pick just one.  I tried the Ingle Vineyard Riesling, the Semi-Dry Riesling and Semi-Sweet Riesling and liked all of them for different reasons.

The 2005 Ingle Vineyard Riesling is a nicely structured wine that goes well with a variety of food or on its own.  Citrus and melon flavors are complemented by a pleasant minerality.  There’s a slight petrol character in the wine like with German Rieslings.  Overall, this is a very pleasant wine to drink and a good introductory Riesling for people who may not be fans of or familiar with the grape.  Serve this with seafood, sushi, pasta or cheese.  The Ingle Vineyard Riesling retails for $15.99.

The 2007 Semi-Dry Riesling is a delicate mix of ripe peach, apricot and mango.  It’s sweet and yet crisp at the same time, with good acidity.  This is a versatile white wine that pairs nicely with Asian cuisine.  Try it with stir-fry or Thai coconut curry.  The 2007 Semi-Dry Riesling retails for $12.99.

The 2007 Semi-Sweet Riesling has a gentle floral aroma and flavors of juicy peach and apricot.  The finish is soft and lingering.  Sweetness-wise it’s similar to a German Spätlese Riesling, the lightest of the late harvest wines.  It’s great for wine drinkers who want a hint of the sweetness that the Riesling grape can offer.  My husband who is not generally a fan of Riesling really enjoyed this wine.  This pairs nicely with fruit, cheese and spicy Asian dishes like an Indian curry.  It’s also great for an afternoon picnic.  The 2007 Semi-Sweet Riesling retails for $12.99.

At one of the wine stores I most often visit, the wines from New York State are given a small shelf in the “Atlantic Wines” section, hidden between Kosher wine and specialty beer.  I rarely pass by it when I go to the store — though that’s going to change.  Heron Hill may be hard to find in your local wine store, but it’s definitely worth searching for.

For more information on Heron Hill visit

Sipping Saperavi

Anytime I’m in a specialty foods store I always check out the wine section to see if there’s anything new and interesting to try. I recently was at a Russian and Eastern European food store and came across wines from Georgia.

Georgia (not to be confused with the U.S. state), is one of the oldest wine producing regions in Europe. Its winemaking roots date back to between 7000 and 5000 BC. Today Georgia ranks 4th in grape production in the former Soviet Union behind Russia, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova.

Saperavi is the most important grape for Georgian red wines. It originated in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia and is now grown throughout the country. Its name means paint or dye, which refers to its dark red color. Outside of Georgia, Saperavi is now being grown in the Finger Lakes area of New York and in Australia.

The three main types of wine made from Saperavi are categorized by age. Mukuzani is aged three years or more and Kindzmarauli is aged two years. Wine aged one year is called Saperavi.

I picked up a bottle of 2005 Saperavi made by Georgian Royal Estates in Kakheti, Georgia for $12. The dry red wine has a deep cloudy purple color, closer to brown than red. It’s a mix of spice, wood and game on the nose and the palate.  Flavors of cedar, cinnamon, plum and mushroom mingle with big tannins. There is a little bit of that barnyard smell and taste which may turn off some wine drinkers. The alcohol is pronounced, more so than I would think for a wine with an alcohol content of 12 percent. The taste tapered off fairly quickly though the warmth from the alcohol lingered a little longer.

Saperavi has a robust taste that’s meant for pairing with traditional Georgian cuisine. Try it with hearty stews, grilled meats and game dishes. Saperavi wine comes dry, semi-sweet and sweet.

A Wine for Everyone at Cavas Tasting Room

A wine bar for indecisive oenophiles has arrived in South Florida.

cavas tasting roomCavas Tasting Room and Cafe is the adult version of a candy store.  A huge selection of wines is right at your fingertips — with a press of a button you can sip your favorite grape or try something new.

The pressure of selecting just one wine from a long list is gone.  At Cavas you can help yourself to a taste of more than 60 wines, many not normally found by the glass.

Cavas is the latest wine bar to use the Enomatic wine dispensing system.  I first fell in love with Enomatic at Clo Wine Bar in New York City.  Using an ATM-style card that keeps track of your tab, you select a wine and the machine dispenses the exact amount.  At Cavas you pick the amount of wine to try, so you don’t have to commit to an entire glass (great for when the wine you picked isn’t to your liking).  You can select a 1 oz tasting portion, a 3 oz half glass, or a 5 oz full glass.

cavasMost 1 oz pours range between $1 and $3, which enables you to try a wide range of wines and styles without spending a lot.  Brunellos and big name Napa wineries are now within your budget.  You’ll also enjoy experimenting with unfamiliar grapes or blends.  I discovered a delicious Malbec and Corvina blend from Argentina and a light and fruity red from Austria.  A full glass of wine ranges from around $6 to $40.

All the wines available to taste are available to purchase.  The prices are slightly higher than at a liquor store, but not by much.  If you drink the bottle at Cavas you’ll pay a corkage fee ($10 for bottles under $30, $20 for more expensive bottles).  If you’re looking for something different than a wine you tried by the glass, Cavas offers more than 200 other wines by the bottle.

cavasMost wine is meant to be served with food.  Cavas has a menu of light bites to pair with the wine.  You can select your own assortment of sliced meats and cheeses or have a sandwich served on a fresh baguette.  If you prefer something sweet, Cavas has several tempting desserts that you can order individually or as a trio.

At Cavas you prepay for your wine card, starting with a minimum of $20.  When you’re down to your last couple of dollars the machine will pour an amount that’s equivalent to your remaining balance.  If you stick to your prepaid budget (plus a little extra for food and a tip for the friendly waitstaff), it’s sure to be one of your least expensive outings in Miami.

Cavas has locations in Miami and Broward Counties.  I visited the Miami Beach location on charming Española Way.  I like it because it’s off the touristy beaten path of Lincoln Road.  When you go there be sure to chat with owner Luis Duarte, who is always ready with a wine recommendation or to talk about his trips to France and Spain’s wine regions (look for his photographs on the wall).

Cavas on South Beach is located at 437 Española Way.  There are free wine tastings every Thursday from 7pm to 9pm, and from 5pm to 7pm on Fridays you get $25 added with the purchase of a $25 card.

For more information on Cavas Tasting Room and Cafe visit

AG Pick: Blackjack Ranch Chardonnay Wilkening Vineyard Reserve

There’s no gamble involved when it comes to the wines from Blackjack Ranch.  This winery, located just north of Santa Barbara in California’s Santa Ynez Valley makes some delicious reds and whites.

Among their great Chardonnays is the 2006 Wilkening Vineyard Reserve.  This wine looks like sunshine in a glass with its brilliant golden yellow color.  The smell is of ripe tropical fruit.  The taste is full and buttery, with notes of pineapple, banana, honeysuckle and ripe golden apple.  The warm lasting finish has flavors of toasty hazelnut and coconut.

This wine tastes great with a variety of seafood such as shrimp, crab cakes and Chilean sea bass.  It also pairs well with chicken and pork dishes that are prepared with an olive oil or cream-based sauce.  Or serve it with fruit and triple-cream cheese.

The Chardonnay Wilkening Vineyard Reserve 2006 costs $35.

For a delicious Chardonnay at a lower price, try Blackjack Ranch’s “Twenty-One,” appropriately priced at $21.  On the red side, I’m a big fan of the Double-Down Syrah ($26 for the 2006), the 2005 Allusion (81% Cabernet Franc and %19 Merlot for $30), and the Harmonie, Blackjack Ranch’s signature Bordeaux blend that ranges from $48 for the 2006 vintage to $100 for the 2003 vintage.

For more information on Blackjack Ranch visit

Related: Wine Tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley – Blackjack Ranch

Start Stir-Frying with the Ultimate Wok Star Kit

If you love the flavors of Asian stir-fry, it’s easier than ever to create them in your own home.  All you need is the Wok Star Kit from South Florida resident and Wok Star Eleanor Hoh.

wok star kitEach kit comes with a lightweight, pre-seasoned cast iron wok and metal lid.  Cast iron is the ideal material for the wok because it gives the food flavor, conducts heat evenly and is easy to clean up.  What makes this kit unique is the pre-seasoning.  Eleanor does the time consuming work so you don’t have to.  This means your wok is ready to go as soon as you take it out of the box!

The kit includes a special stainless steel spatula that’s great for stir-fry and a magnetic wok mitt so you can grip the wok without burning your hands.  Also included is a caddy basket organizer and dispensers for your seasonings, instructional DVDs with Eleanor’s recipe-free visual technique for cooking, and seasonings so you can skip a trip to the Asian grocer.  Stir-frying is easy when all the hard work is done for you — all you need to do is pick up a few ingredients at the supermarket.  Once you learn the basics you’ll be able to improvise your own dishes and adapt your favorite recipes, not just Asian stir-fry.

I started using my Wok Star Kit the first day I bought it.  The kit makes creating delicious and healthy stir-fry easy and fun!  The pre-seasoned wok gives the food great flavor.  With Eleanor’s simple to follow cooking tips I have created many tasty meals.

Successful wok cooking requires high heat.  In particular, it’s very difficult to get the right amount of heat on an electric stove with a flat surface.  The best way to heat your wok is to use a portable butane stove, sold separately from the Wok Star Kit.

Anyone can be a Wok Star with the right tools and technique.  The Wok Star Kit costs $145 and the portable butane stove costs $65.  These make great gifts and can be shipped anywhere in the world.

Click here to learn more about what makes the Wok Star Kit unique and to purchase your own kit.  Be sure to mention you found it on Amateur!

If you live in South Florida and would like more information on Eleanor Hoh’s Wok Star cooking classes click here.

A Pasion for Coffee

If you’re very particular about your coffee and your typical order takes an entire sentence to explain there’s a new coffee shop for you.  At Pasión del Cielo you order you drink exactly how you want it — right down to the coffee beans.

pasion del cieloPasión del Cielo is located off Miracle Mile in Coral Gables.  Whether you’re ordering coffee, espresso or cappuccino you can choose among eleven coffee beans from different countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Maintaining the unique characteristic of each country’s bean is part of Pasión del Cielo’s mission.  That’s why the beans are never mixed.  If you’re looking for a big flavor try Brazil; for a milder taste go for Honduras; if you like a lot of acidity try Mexico.  Hawaiian and Jamaican coffee beans cost a little extra.

pasion del cieloThe choice can be a bit intimidating.  On my first trip to Pasión del Cielo I was worried I was holding up the line while trying to make up my mind (I ended up going for beans from Costa Rica, a nice complement to the chocolate in my mocha).  Fortunately the varying intensities of the aroma, flavor, body and acidity of each are noted on the wall of beans behind the bar.  It’s fun to look at even after you’ve made your selection.

Besides coffee, Pasión del Cielo offers other drinks and standard coffee shop fare — muffins, pastries, desserts and pre-made sandwiches.  Pasión del Cielo is also passionate about the environment.  Coffee cups and sleeves are made from corn and recycled paper.

Pasión del Cielo is a great spot to meet for coffee or relax with a book on one of the comfy couches.  You can also bring your laptop and use the free WiFi.  The early opening and late closing times during weekdays make Pasión del Cielo ideal for your first cup of the day or an evening jolt of java.

Pasión del Cielo is located at 100 Giralda Avenue in Coral Gables.  It’s open from 6am to 11pm Monday through Friday.  On the weekends Pasión del Cielo opens at 8am and closes early on Sunday, at 6pm.  For more information visit

If You Only Own One Cookbook

If you only own one cookbook I’d recommend “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman.

how to cook everythingThis cookbook has 2,000 recipes that cover anything you could ever want to make.  When I want to know how to prepare an unfamiliar protein or new ways to spice up my favorites I reach for my copy.

Think of this book as a crash course on cooking.  If you’re a novice, you’ll enjoy cooking in no time.

The recipes are straightforward and easy to follow.  There are also sections that explain techniques and how to equip your kitchen.  It’s great for any skill level.

Just a warning to those who like color photos in their cookbooks — there are none in this cookbook.  But at least you don’t have to worry if your finished dish doesn’t look exactly like the photo.

The Hardcover 10th Anniversary Edition of “How to Cook Everything” costs $35.  The paperback edition, released in 2006, costs $21.95.

Click here for more information on “How to Cook Everything” and for other cookbooks by Mark Bittman.