Atlantis Casino’s hidden gem: Sommelier Christian

I spend quite a bit of time in Reno, and one of my favorite restaurants there has also become my favorite post-work wine stop. Bistro Napa at the Atlantis casino is phenomenal! The food is delicious and fresh and interesting. But better than that is the wine! Or maybe I should be more specific: the staff’s knowledge of the wine, the variety on the wine list, the atmosphere that’s comfortable for lounging or holding a business meeting, and the love for wine that is immediately apparent. And the very best thing about the wine? Sommelier Christian Okuinghttons.

Christian Okuinghttons

I want to make Christian my wine guru. I could listen to him talk all day about varietals and regions and winemaking styles. He’s the reason I tried malbec – and thank you, Christian, for that great tip! He will gladly pair a wine with your meal or suggest something new to sample. Christian is undoubtedly one of the hotel’s secret weapons, but I found out last night that he’s not the only one the hotel should be proud of.

Last night I met a friend at Bistro Napa for a pre-dinner glass of vino, and I was disappointed to not see Christian mingling among the diners. Hmmm, guess he had the night off. I didn’t give much thought to the bartender as I perused the wine list. I spotted a red blend I’ve never heard of before, but from a winery I know I like. I ordered the Turnbull “Old Bull” blend and remarked that I’d like to know why it was listed in a special section of “Wines for a 21st Century Palate.” What does that even mean?

That bartender, Stephen, immediately launched into a comparison of Old World and New World wines, and what a “21st Century Palate” means to Sommelier Christian and the restaurant. Stephen quickly proved that he was no ordinary bartender, and  it sunk in again why I love that restaurant so much. They hire sommelier students like Stephen and put them on the front lines of customer service. He was a wealth of knowledge and took the time to chat about our selections and the wine list in general. Tip: Take the time to ask questions about your wine, you’ll enjoy it so much more!

The Old Bull was fantastic, by the way. It’s a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, sangiovese, syrah, petite sirah, and merlot. It was so smooth with bold, ripe fruit and not a hint of heaviness. I didn’t take note of the year, but the grapes varied just a bit from the 2009 Old Bull that I found online.

The night became a complete success when my friend and I entered the Atlantis Steakhouse and were greeted by Christian! He was working in the steakhouse that night rather than Bistro Napa. All is well that ends well, and the night always ends well when Christian is selecting your wine. Cheers!

Cafe Diablo, the delicious flaming coffee drink at the Atlantis Steakhouse

Turnbull "Old Bull" red blend at Bistro Napa

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Chameleon Semillon

This year’s post-Thanksgiving festivities involved leftover pumpkin pie and a father-son-grandpa-uncle pheasant hunt. Planned killing of (yummy) birds gives Black Friday a whole new meaning, huh? While I stalked one-day-only markdowns, my husband stalked brilliantly feathered birds. And tonight we reaped the rewards from his hunt. (I’m still trying to convince him we’ll reap the rewards of my hunt when my credit-card bill arrives. Wish me luck!)

He skinned the birds and stuffed them with green onion and oranges, rubbed them with “kick’n chicken” seasoning and wrapped them in bacon. He basted the pheasants throughout the hour-and-a-half cooking time with teriyaki sauce and garnished the finished product with a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

I decided to pair his wild game with a wild deal… 2011 Bungan Head Semillon-Chardonnay (Australia), $5.99 from Wine Insiders. Have you noticed a trend in this blog? More and more of my wines are coming from either WineInsiders.com or BarclaysWine.com, two discount wine websites that I discovered through Groupon. I’ve been having a lot of fun trying wines I don’t ordinarily see in my local grocery store. (and for unbelievable prices!)

I’m not very familiar with semillon wines, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this bottle or how it would pair with the pheasant. The color coming out of the bottle was sunshine yellow, a clear yet deep shade of gold. I don’t know if this is due to the semillon or chardonnay, or perhaps the blend of both.

The aroma is almost like poached pears, lightly fruity with a wonderful hint of vanilla and nutmeg. Likewise, the flavor is not overly tart or citrusy, just a calm, mellow stone fruit toned with vanilla. It has a hint of earthy spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and perhaps cardamom.

This is definitely a white wine I could sip on with or without food, but tonight it’s all about the pheasant dinner! And this is where I have to mention the chameleon nature of this wine. It goes well with everything! The buttery French bread brought out hints of yeast and butter in the wine. The chipotle-ranch dressing on my salad brought out the spice notes. The seasoning on the bird and the tinge of bacon brought out the heavier, earthier flavors in the wine. And when dinner was over and I poured my second glass, it was still perfectly mellow and soft with just the slightest kick of lemon all on its own.

This is the white wine to pour for those who think they don’t like whites. It is so easygoing without being buttery, oaky or heavy. It’s good with a main dish and would be outstanding with a bowl of vanilla ice cream or chocolate-chip cookies. It would be good with a plate of fruit and crackers or a grilled fillet of fish (a mild white fish like mahi-mahi).

I will be adding Bungan Head Semillon-Chardonnay to my permanent wine rack to use when I just don’t quite know what else would be better.

Waving the Bear Flag on the first day of summer

The first day of summer warrants a crisp, fresh white wine. From the girl who prefers reds, it takes a really hot day to make me crave a fruity white. Enter Bear Flag Bright White Wine Blend. I made salsa chicken, which is basically salsa (homemade and home-canned, in this case!) poured over chicken breasts and baked until done, Mexican-style Rice-a-Roni and green salad. I needed a spry, crisp white, nothing woody or heavy to complement the spice in this dish.

The Bright White is a dry blend of chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc and gewurztraminer. I like each of those on their own, so blended together they make a dynamite combo of mellow fruit — pear and melon, perhaps — with a hint of fizz. There are no oaky or vanilla-y flavors here, and no detectable sugar. The fruit is naturally sweet but not syrupy.

A friend recently turned me on to adding a splash of San Pellegrino to white wine, and this is a perfect wine for that. I wouldn’t adulterate it with 7-Up, c’mon, I’m not a barbarian! But a splash of Pellegrino plays up the natural fizz of the wine without diluting the crispy flavor.

This wine would also be an excellent complement to a citrus-marinaded fish or a light lemon-tinged chicken alfredo. I found the Bright White on sale at Trader Joe’s for around $8, a steal for a weeknight meal! Pair it with an easy zesty dish like I made tonight and enjoy! (If you enjoy this wine, check out the rest of Bear Flag’s Modesto, Calif., wines – very approachable table wines that can be respectably served any night of the week.)

By the way, spend some time studying the wine-label art by Eduardo Bertone, an artist with a distinctive style of refined mania. His illustrations are almost graffiti-like, but that is an injustice to his art. Check out his website and come to your own conclusion of what he represents.

2009 Climber Red

I saved my 2009 Clif Climber Red and Climber Sauvignon Blanc for Thanksgiving to go with my quasi-sustainable meal. I won’t repeat all my reasons for why the Climbers were a great fit for the meal, all the reasons like how the winery sources its grapes from local, organic growers, and how the winery is activly reducing its carbon footprint. You can read all about that on the Clif website, but now let’s get to the to fun part — tasting the wine!

I know that white wines go best with turkey, but I’m such a sucker for reds. So I gave hearty thanks for the folks at Clif Winery, and I twisted open the Climber Red. The aroma is fruity and slightly peppery. The blend is primarily zinfandel, then cabernet, rounded out with syrah, merlot and petite sirah. The flavor is a nice, round berry — not jammy or sweet, but perfectly tart, fresh and mild — with a smoky finish. The smoke isn’t quite as prominent as in the 2008 blend; rather than making a strong statement, it is now a barely-there nuance in a very complex wine.

Clif hasn’t let me down yet, so I will surely continue to seek their every release with excitement. At $14.99, it’s a wine I’ll proudly serve to guests — guests who know their wine and guests who just want something that tastes good. It’s a sure-bet wine, and this busy mom can’t afford to waste time on anything less.

Spicy Sebeka

The cheetah leaping across the blazing yellow label stopped my eye. Hmmm, I don’t recognize this one. Sebeka — how do you pronounce that? Cabernet pinotage — what is that? Only $5.99, on sale from $8.99 — ok, I’ll try it!

Sebeka is pronounced “se-BEEK-a” and is named after an orphaned cheetah taken in by wildlife conservationist Lente Roode. “Sebeka Wines aim to share with wine lovers the same sentiment of awe and excitement that one experiences when in the presence of a cheetah’s speed and prowess.” (from the Sebeka website)

Pinotage is South Africa’s signature grape (re: wikipedia) and is a cross between pinot noir and cinsault (hermitage). Hmm, didn’t know that! But now that we know the basics, let’s get to the tasting.

I tasted it immediately after the pour, and it made me pucker; too much alcohol, too tart. But after about 10 minutes of mellowing in the glass, the second taste was much better. It still had a heavy alcohol bite, but the alcohol melded well with the earthy coffee taste. I think I taste fresh green beans and green pepper, but it’s hard to pinpoint the flavors because I can’t quite get past the pucker.

This wine would be a fantastic base for a spritzer if  you’re like me and don’t like sweet, fruity drinks. I like the occasional spritzer, but they tend to be too sweet. The alcohol and peppery taste would stand up well mixed with seltzer (NOT 7-Up) over ice, and it make a great grown-up spritzer.

It should be clear that I don’t LOVE this wine, but I am intrigued by the varietals and appellation and will be trying more with the Sebeka label.

The Joker and Pillar Box

My husband is a big joker. So I could have sworn he was up to his old tricks when I opened the 2007 Pillar Box Red (Australia) and smelled grape juice.

“Ok, honey. Really funny. How’d you do it?”

“Do what?” he asked with his usual devious grin. (I still don’t know what that grin was all about!)

“Pour grape juice into my wine bottle. It’s a screw-top, and I didn’t even notice that it was already open.”

“I didn’t do anything!” he said with that omnipresent smirk. (Really, what was that about?!?!)

So I tasted the wine, and sure enough, it tasted like wine. I stand corrected. It’s not grape juice, but wow, I’ve never smelled a wine quite as juicy as this!

Fortunately, I care more about taste than smell, and taste is downright yummy! (ah, I beg to differ with those who say the memory is the first to go. For me, it’s the vocabulary.)

The Pillar Red (regularly $11.99, on sale for $8.99) is bright with berries and jam, but not heavy and overly sweet like many jam-rich wines are. The wine is shiraz-cab-merlot blend, and the shiraz really dominates with the bright fruits, and the cab and merlot mellow the tang that’s sometimes overpowering in shiraz.

Ok, so my husband hadn’t tricked me after all, but I still say he could have. And my 3-year-old agrees.

“Mommy? Why are you drinking grape juice?”

“Um, mommy likes grape juice with dinner.”

“Oh. Me too!”

Sigh… that’s what I’m afraid of.

Clif Climber Red … we meet at last!

Have you ever had one of those awkward near-meetings that never seems to actually happen? A friend tells you about the most wonderful man you just have to meet — you have so much in common! — and you chat or e-mail about getting together for coffee. The big day comes and you look forward to meeting the mystery man who is apparently your perfect match. You even shave your legs.

Then he calls, desperately apologizing that he has to fly off to Chicago for a meeting, and please don’t hate him, but he has to reschedule. You’re disappointed but understanding that these things happen. The date is reset for next week, and that morning you wake up with a fever, hacking cough and bloodshot eyes. Noooo!!! You can’t possibly dazzle him with your wit and beauty from your deathbed! Reschedule again. He’s understanding too, but now it’s starting to get awkward.

You plan to meet this weekend. You both know you can’t cancel, and you’re hyper-sensitive to anything that could get in your way. Is that a tickle in your throat? Don’t order anything for lunch that might upset your stomach later! If your mom calls begging you to dog-sit again, you will absolutely go through the roof! Miraculously though, no obstacles leap into your path, and the big date approaches.

The moment of truth is here. He will walk through the door, and you’ll find out if all this build-up was worth it. Was your friend right? Are you perfect together, or will you end up wishing you’d spent the evening with your mom’s dog after all?

That’s been my relationship with Clif lately. The winery owners sent me copious information on their wines and farm, and I have decided that this is, indeed, the perfect match for me. They sent me two bottles of wine — the Climber white and red — and the white was a wonderful introduction to the family, like meeting the younger brother of your long-awaited date. But I still haven’t met my match. After several broken dates, it seems that every force of nature (and believe me, sick kids ARE a force to be feared!) is working against us.

But tonight’s our night, dear Clif. The laundry is folded and put away. The dishes are washed. The kids are in bed and the husband isn’t watching. Shhhh, it’s just you and me tonight. The awkward moment has arrived when we find out if our expectations were too great. Will this bold red rock my world, or will it fall flat? The time has come to find out.

Mr. Good Lookin’ makes a nice first impression. That red label, simple yet distinctive logo, you dressed up for me didn’t you? Let’s pop that cork and see what you’re all about.

Clif smells like a mix of coffee and cigars. Hmmm, a professor, perhaps? Berries make a strong appearance in the supporting role and keep it fresh and lively. I do believe this is wine is more complex than meets the eye… or nose.

The first taste is true to the smell — coffee, cigars and dark berries. But what’s that? Licorice? And did you bring me chocolate too? This first-meeting is off to a great start! We watch a little TV together, get to know each other, and it turns out Clif is just my cup of tea, so to speak. It was worth the wait.

Clif may be a little out of my league — professors usually are — but that doesn’t have stop us. At $17 a bottle, it’s more than my budget for an everyday wine, but this was a special occasion. This was no $10 date. I brought out the nice wine glasses, I dimmed the lights. I even shaved my legs.