Wine Tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley: Blackjack Ranch

From Santa Barbara I headed northwest into the Santa Ynez Valley to kick off my first full day of wine tasting.  It’s about a 45 minute drive on a two lane road that winds up and down the mountains with gorgeous — and sometimes scary — views of the valley below.

My first stop was Blackjack Ranch Winery, located about five minutes outside downtown Los Olivos (though it has an address in Solvang).  I’ve greatly enjoyed their wines since joining their wine club a couple of years ago, though this was my first visit to their tasting room.  Earlier this year I wrote about their delicious 2006 Wilkening Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay.

Blackjack Ranch makes some great tasting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Bordeaux blends that typically range between $20 and $50.  All the wines have the depth and complexity you would expect of wines carrying this kind of price tag.

At the tasting room I tried three of Blackjack’s four Chardonnays.  Each has a great mix of tropical, citrus and stone fruits, with nice minerality and gentle oak.  Even if you mostly drink red wine, you would enjoy these whites with their layered flavors and texture.

For a splurge try the 2005 Black Cap Reserve Chardonnay.  It has rich flavors of white peach, pineapple and honeysuckle that culminate in a long and elegant finish.  The Black Cap Reserve costs $48.

On the red side, the Double-Down Syrah is a sure bet.  Aptly described as a ‘crowd pleasing, user friendly Syrah,’ this wine is both juicy and smoky with flavors of blackberries, blueberries, violets and a hint of lavender.  The 2005 and 2006 vintages are out now and cost $26.

I’m also a fan of the Alix de Vergy Pinot Noir (and it’s not just because we share a name).  I found out from Asta, the friendly sales manager who led our tasting, that Alix de Vergy was the Duchess of Burgundy in the 13th century.  Today this region in France is famous for its Pinot Noir.  The Alix de Vergy Pinot Noir is just the way I like my Pinot Noir — big, thick, chewy and earthy with notes of raspberries, cherries and violet.  The 2005, 2006 and 2007 vintages cost $48.

If I had to pick a favorite wine from Blackjack it would be the Harmonie.  This red is a Bordeaux-blend, with a different percentage of the Bordeaux varietals each year.  For a great value try the 2004, which is 58% Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot making up the remaining 42%.  It has lush flavors of blackberry, black cherry, coffee and truffles.  The 2004 Harmonie costs $35.

My favorite of the Harmonies is the 2005 vintage.  The best way to describe it: incredibly delicious.  Blackjack Ranch proprietor Roger Wisted calls this vintage his ‘baby;’ it’s clear he put in a lot of effort to make it a great wine.  Grapes were harvested over the course of five passes and the wine was aged in new French oak.  Bursting with juicy black fruit, this wine feels like velvet in your mouth.  Unfortunately at $90 a bottle it’s a bit out of my price range.  But if you can afford it, I highly recommend it.

I only found one fault with my visit to Blackjack Ranch — as the first winery of the day, it set a very high bar for the other wineries I visited in the Santa Ynez Valley.

For more information on Blackjack Ranch Vineyards & Winery visit blackjackranch.com.

Next: A Taste of Los Olivos & Solvang

Travels in Central California: Santa Barbara

This week I’m traveling through central California.  Starting just northwest of Los Angeles in Santa Barbara, I’ll be working my way up to Santa Cruz, visiting wineries, farm stands and other unique attractions along the way.  Check back over the next week as I share some of my adventures.

Santa Barbara is a charming city on a relatively quiet stretch of the Pacific coast.  Off the beach you’ll find shops, a few tasting rooms, and restaurants that feature fresh seafood and Mexi-Cali cuisine.

If you visit be sure your stay includes a Saturday — you’ll definitely want to check out the Downtown Farmers Market.  It’s held rain or shine on Saturdays from 8:30am to 12:30pm at the corner of Santa Barbara and Cota Streets.  Arrive early to beat some of the crowds.

carrotsI have been to many farmers markets around the world and Santa Barbara’s Downtown Farmers Market ranks way up there among my favorites.

The variety and quality of fresh produce is incredible and there are tons of great locally-made products and locally-grown flowers.

berriesWhen I visited the farmers market I had almost as much fun taking photographs as I did picking out fruits and vegetables to eat.  On the morning I went I tasted fresh and juicy strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and boysenberries.  I saw orange, yellow and purple carrots, as well as purple onions that were larger than softballs.  One stall had such fragrant basil that I was able to smell it several stalls away.  I just wished I had a full kitchen to take advantage of all the fresh ingredients!

lavenderThough Santa Barbara has several wineries and tasting rooms I only got to visit one: the Santa Barbara Winery.  It’s the oldest winery in Santa Barbara County, established in 1962.  They make several whites (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris), and a range of reds that include Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.

My favorite wine was the 2007 Santa Ynez Valley Sauvignon Blanc.  It is a crisp and refreshing mix of tropical fruit with well-balanced acidity that adds texture.  As someone who tends to stay away from Sauvignon Blanc, I found this wine to be quite tasty.  I bought a bottle and enjoyed it at dinner a few days later.  It was delicious with raw oysters and ahi tuna.  The wine costs $16.

Santa Barbara WineryOn the red side, I really enjoyed the 2007 Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills.  When you see this AVA on the label you know it’s going to be a tasty Pinot — and this one delivers.  This wine has juicy red fruit flavors with a hint of cedar and spice from aging in French and Hungarian oak barrels.  A bottle of the Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir costs $25.  Santa Barbara Winery makes a Central Coast Pinot Noir as well.  It’s lighter in flavor and lacking some of the complexity of the Santa Rita Hills Pinot, but it’s a very food-friendly wine.  A bottle costs $16.50.

Santa Barbara Winery has a great deal for shipping — it’s a flat fee of $9.50 anywhere in the U.S.

With one winery under my belt I’m warmed up for several full days of wine tastings.  Next up: Los Olivos.

Add Color to Your Meal with Locally-Grown Organic Veggies

Have you ever tried purple carrots, neon Swiss chard or candy-striped beets?  They sound like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.  But these unusual vegetables do exist – and they’re growing right here in South Florida.

These veggies are much more than a way to add color to your meal.  Once you taste them you’ll want to eat them all the time.

Despite the vibrant colors, these veggies are a bit hard to find.  They’re sold mostly at local farmers’ markets and grown behind rows of palm trees at Tropical Treescapes in West Perrine.  The produce is a new addition for the field nursery, run by longtime Florida resident Dean Richardson.

Dean, a friendly and loquacious man whose dirt-covered nails and tanned skin give away his love of the earth, fell into the role of vegetable farmer much like the way he fell into the nursery business – by chance, during difficult economic times.  Dean was working as a marine biologist in Miami in the early 1970s and found himself without work when a recession hit, wiping out research grants.  While waiting for the grant money to return, Dean was hired for a job in the nursery business when an employer mistook him for a different job seeker. Dean has been in the nursery business ever since.

Fast forward 30 or so years to the current recession, which slowed down business for Tropical Treescapes (though it has recently picked up).  To compensate for slumping sales, Dean’s friend Gina Melin suggested they look into growing organic vegetables.

After a little bit of research, Dean decided it could be a successful venture.  His first step: selecting plants that would thrive in South Florida’s climate, and be both unusual and visual.  He sought to make his own niche, growing the kinds of vegetables you don’t find in South Florida.

Among the produce he planted were the purple carrots, neon Swiss chard and candy-striped beets, as well as pak choi, burgundy-colored Marshall lettuce and Romanesco Veronica, a variety of cauliflower that has lime-green spiraled florets.

Fortunately for Dean, the cost of starting the vegetable business was fairly low because he already had a lot of the materials he needed.  Besides the seeds, all he needed to buy was plastic, black tape and screws to assemble the raised growing tables.  Since planting the first seeds in October 2008, the venture has turned from self-sustaining to profitable, an impressive feat for any startup company in its first year.

Over the past growing season Richardson worked with experts from the University of Florida and local chefs to improve the vegetables.  The result: produce that looks and tastes great.

Dean took me on a tour through the vegetable garden, picking out produce for me to taste on the spot.  I was amazed at how some of the vegetables that I would normally eat cooked tasted delicious straight out of the ground, in particular the pak choi and Swiss chard.

It is the Swiss chard that has benefited greatly from Dean’s collaboration with local chefs.  At their suggestion Dean harvests the Swiss chard when it is young.  The result: a sweeter and less leathery vegetable that you can eat raw or as a salad green.

The purple carrots look like small trolls that could spring to life at any second.  They come out of the ground all twisted and gnarly, unlike the carrots you find at grocery stores.  Boil them and add a little bit of maple syrup or brown sugar for a sweet addition to any meal.  Don’t throw away the carrot tops like you would with store-bought carrots – the greens with their slightly bitter carrot flavor make a nice accent to a salad.

The candy-stripped beets are also surprisingly sweet.  Roast them in the oven with a little bit of olive oil to bring out their great flavor.  Even if you’re not crazy about beets, try some from Dean’s garden and you’re likely to see the vegetable in a whole new light.  I could easily eat these every day.

Dean’s colorful vegetables make a great addition to any dish, whether you’re cooking at home or dining out at a restaurant.  It’s also a great solution for parents of picky eaters who refuse to eat their vegetables.  Just be warned – it may cause them to play with their food!

Dean Richardson sells his organic produce at farmers’ markets and small grocery stores around South Florida.  He also sells to local chefs.

Dean also offers a “virtual farmers’ market” where you can order produce from him via email.  For information on the virtual farmers’ market and where Dean sells his produce, email him at troptree@bellsouth.net.

AG Pick Under $15: Finca La Linda Torrontes 2008

When you think about the characteristic grapes of Argentina, the first varietal that probably comes to mind is Malbec.  You may not be as familiar with Argentina’s characteristic white wine grape: Torrontés.

The Torrontés grape produces fresh and aromatic wines that are meant to be enjoyed young.  Though Torrontés is related to the Malvasian group of grapes that originated in the Eastern Mediterranean, you won’t find it grown in Europe.  The only other country you’ll find Torrontés in is Chile, where it is mainly used to make the liquor Pisco.

Finca La Linda TorrontesFor a nice wine to drink with a light summer meal try Finca La Linda Torrontés 2008.  This wine is from Bodega Luigi Bosca and comes from Mendoza, Argentina.  It’s 100% Torrontés grown at more than 5,500 feet above sea level.

What I like about Finca La Linda Torrontés is that it has a nice balance of sweetness and acidity.  It’s a white wine that red wine drinkers will enjoy.  There’s just the right mix of floral and fruity characteristics to give the wine depth.  On the nose are aromas of rose, lavender, orange blossom and honey.  On the palate are fresh flavors of white peach and apricot, rounded out with just a hint of tart green apple.  The finish is crisp and satisfying.

Finca La Linda Torrontés pairs nicely with fruit, seafood, salad and grilled chicken.  Serve it at your next outdoor meal or picnic.

Finca La Linda Torrontés 2008 costs around $11.

If you prefer red wines, Fina La Linda makes a very tasty Malbec that also costs around $11.

Bodegas Farina Returns to the U.S.

For years the wines of Bodegas Fariña have been one of Spain’s best kept secrets.  But now the winery that put Toro on the map as an important wine making region is returning to the United States.

Manuel FarinaLast month I had the opportunity to meet winemaker Manuel Fariña and taste several of the current releases.  Mr. Fariña, who inherited the winery from his father in the late 1960s, comes across as friendly and passionate about winemaking.  His somewhat reserved demeanor hides his truly impressive achievements.  Mr. Fariña is considered the founding father of the Toro wine region and played a key role in the region’s modernization.  He was the first to install stainless steel fermentation tanks, the first to implement temperature-controlled fermentation and the first to use a destemmer.  Mr. Fariña also moved up the grape harvest by one month to September, which resulted in more elegant wines with lower alcohol levels (13% to 13.5% instead of 17% monsters).

Today Mr. Fariña and his son Bernardo produce wines that celebrate Toro’s native grape: Tinta de Toro.  You’ll know it elsewhere in Spain as Tempranillo.  In tasting Bodegas Fariña’s wine, it’s interesting to see how the flavor of Tinta de Toro can vary dramatically with oak and aging.

Colegiata whiteThough Bodegas Fariña primarily produces red wines (as do other wineries in Toro), its white wine shouldn’t be overlooked.  The Colegiata White is 100% Malvasia.  It’s a perfect Miami wine — aromatic and refreshing, ideal for sipping outside on a hot evening.  Crisp flavors of green apple and white peach are balanced with mineral notes and lively acidity.  It’s a nice match for seafood, salads and soft cheeses.

The Colegiata Rosado is the bridge between Bodegas Fariña’s whites and reds.  It’s made from 100% Tinta de Toro.  The skins remain in the juice for 12 hours, giving the wine a deep pink color.  The Colegiata Rosado is a rosé for red wine drinkers.  Packed with strawberry and raspberry flavors, it tastes more like a light red wine.  It pairs nicely with seafood, salads and white meats.

The Colegiata Tinta de Toro displays all the characteristics of the Tinta de Toro grape.  Like the white and rosé, it is fermented in stainless steel tanks.Gran Colegiata Barrica This fruit-driven wine is bursting with red fruit flavors.  Juicy cherries, raspberries and strawberries are enhanced by good acidity and soft tannins.  This wine is very versatile and is a nice alternative to Pinot Noir.  Pair this with meat dishes, pasta and cheese.

For a more sophisticated red, try the Gran Colegiata Barrica.  It’s 100% Tinta de Toro from approximately 30 year old vines and is aged for four months in 50% French oak and 50% American oak.  The wine is elegant and well balanced with ripe berry flavors and a hint of violet.  Subtle oak flavors give the wine extra complexity.  The Gran Colegiata Barrica pairs nicely with grilled chicken, lamb and beef.

Gran Colegiata CampusThe crème de la crème of Bodegas Fariña is the Gran Colegiata Campus.  It’s 100% Tinta de Toro handpicked from pre-phylloxera vines that are between 70 and 140 years old.  The wine spends 15 months in 50% premium new French oak and 50% premium American oak.  The final product is a muscular yet elegant wine with a lush, three dimensional taste that you’ll want to savor for a long time.  Intense flavors of cherry, plum and raspberry mix with licorice, spice, vanilla and tobacco.  Enjoy this with grilled meats and deeply flavored foods.

Bodegas Fariña wines start around $10 to $15, with some of the barrel-aged reds costing in the $40 to $50 price range.  The wines will be available first in Florida, then elsewhere in the country.

For more information visit bodegasfarina.com.

AG Pick Under $10: Pierre Rougon Cotes du Rhone 2007

Yes, it is possible to find a nice Côtes du Rhône for less than $10.  I recently discovered the 2007 Pierre Rougon Côtes du Rhône, an upbeat red blend that’s bursting with ripe red fruit flavors.

Cotes du RhoneIf you like the light and fruit forward red wines of Beaujolais you will enjoy the Pierre Rougon Côtes du Rhône.  It has similar flavors but with added complexity and depth.

This medium-bodied wine is a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsault.  It has lively flavors of cherries, raspberries and strawberries with a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg.  The fruit and spice culminate in a warm finish.

You can taste the higher alcohol percentage in the finish but it’s not as overwhelming as you might think for a wine that has 14.5% alcohol.

This wine pairs nicely with chicken, pork, turkey, mushrooms and cheese.

The 2007 Pierre Rougon Côtes du Rhône costs just under $10.

Eos: A New Dawn for Old World Cuisine

You’d better visit Eos now because once word spreads about the great food you’ll need a reservation.

EosEos is the new Mediterranean-inspired restaurant from Chef Michael Psilakis (whose New York City restaurant Anthos is one of only two Greek restaurants in the world with a Michelin star), and restaurateur Donatella Arpaia.  It’s located on the 15th floor of the Viceroy hotel at the northern end of Brickell Avenue, a short trip over the bridge from downtown Miami.

EosThe word Eos means “new dawn” in Greek.  This idea is captured in both Psilakis’ modern take on his native cuisine and the restaurant’s bright mix of geometric shapes and eye-catching furniture.  At intimate tables for two you’ll feel like a king, sitting on the oversized grey chairs.

The menu at Eos is part Greek, part Mediterranean and part Japanese.  You order from it like you would order at a tapas bar.  From sashimi and salads to poultry and fish, everything is meant to be shared.  The friendly waitstaff are happy to guide your selections.

If you like sushi, you’ll find an array of fresh fish on the menu.  However, the portions are smaller and the fish is more expensive than most sushi restaurants, so you may want to skip it unless you’re craving raw fish.  I’d recommend trying the Beausoleil oyster ceviche or lamb tatare instead.

lobster and sea urchin risottoMy favorite dish on the menu is the lobster and sea urchin risotto.  It is just as rich and decadent as it sounds.  The creaminess of the risotto is enhanced by the melt-in-your-mouth texture and salty taste of the sea urchin.  There’s plenty of large chunks of lobster to share, even though you won’t want to.  There’s even caviar thrown in for good measure.  I could easily eat this risotto every night.

smoked octopusAnother must-taste dish is the smoked octopus.  It’s a dish I couldn’t get enough of during my trip to Greece two years ago.  Biting into Eos’ version transported me back to my favorite tiny cafe overlooking the dazzling blue-green Aegean Sea.

I also enjoyed the whole grilled Loup de Mer (seabass).  Though it looks basic in preparation, the fish is moist and flavorful.  Even if you don’t like having to work for your food, this dish is worth trying.  The seabass is cut into sections which makes it easier to get to the meat, and there are very few small bones.

A big disappointment was the crispy rabbit, which came out looking more like chicken fingers.  The meat was hidden under a thick and salty crust and was fried beyond recognition.  Even after I peeled off the crust the meat was dry and salty.  I kind of felt bad for the rabbit — the poor little guy deserves more respect than this preparation!

If you know you’ll be dining at Eos at least three days in advance and are feeling adventurous, call ahead to order from the “big party” section of the menu.  It’s modeled after traditional celebratory feasts held throughout the Mediterranean region.  The chef will prepare spring lamb, baby kid goat or suckling pig for your special dinner.

While Eos excels with food, it falls a little flat with drinks.  Many of the cocktails sound better than they taste.  The bright pink Pisco Campari Sour I ordered was too sweet to drink with the meal.  If you like rum I’d suggest ordering it neat or on the rocks instead of in the Eos Especial or the Viceroy Old Fashioned.  Though the wine list is a little limited, it does feature bottles that you won’t find at many other restaurants.

This month Eos is launching a Wine Dinner Series organized by the restaurant’s wine director, Sergio Caceres.  The first dinner on June 23rd will feature winemaker Peter Figge of Figge Cellars in Monterey County, California.  The dinner is from 7 to 9pm and costs $95 per person, including tax and gratuity.  To reserve a spot call 305-503-4400 ext 7151.

If you’re a fan of Greek sweets you’ll be disappointed by the lack of Greek desserts at Eos.  Sure there are tasty options like tiramisu or flan but you can find those at many other restaurants.  Even a basic baklava would be a welcome addition.

Still, all I need at Eos is the lobster and sea urchin risotto and the smoked octopus.  A warning to my future dining companions: order your own since I’m not sharing!

Eos at Viceroy Miami is located at 485 Brickell Avenue in Miami.

AG Pick Under $15: 2005 Side Yard Reserve Malbec

Argentina may be best known for Malbec but its neighbor to the west offers some tasty competition.  If you love the bold spice of Malbec, try the 2005 Side Yard Reserve Malbec from Chile.

Side Yard MalbecThis zesty wine from the Maipo Valley in central Chile is full of black fruit and pepper.  Juicy flavors of blackberries and black cherries mingle with olives, green pepper and black pepper.

This Chilean Malbec is more herbaceous than Malbec from Argentina, with hints of rosemary and oregano.  Notes of cedar round out the smooth and lingering finish.

Medium tannins give the wine a nice body and make it easy to drink.

Serve this with steak, barbecue, grilled chicken, game meat, hamburgers and pizza.

A bottle of the 2005 Side Yard Reserve Malbec costs around $12.