Return of the easy dinner and easy wine

I’ve been trying some rather complicated recipes lately, and they haven’t all… um… worked out that well. After last night’s tasteless “Sicilian Meatloaf,” (yeah, you can’t make meatloaf fancy just by giving it a fancy name) I decided it was time to simplify. A return to the easy 30-minute meal was in order. I also needed a no-thinking-required wine. Something tasty and inexpensive.

My back-to-basics (read: slacker) menu centered around a pizza braid made with leftover lunch meats and refrigerated crescent rolls. This is the easiest recipe that can be adapted with just about any filling (ham, broccoli and cheese is pretty good too!). Add a packaged Caesar salad as a side and it’s a complete meal with almost no prep. 

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We mastered the easy dinner, so let’s bring in the wine! I twisted the top on a $15.99 red I found on NakedWines.com (it’s only $9.49 for members, hint, hint!); this is a 2012 Sonoma County Pinot Noir by Ryan O’Connell under the label Kid Sonoma. I love that this younger half of a father-son winemaking team decided to return to the States from their stint in France to make his own wine. How’s that for striking out on your own? Image

On its own (you know, that glass you drink while hiding from your kids in the kitchen, aka making dinner?), the wine is young and fresh, evoking bell peppers and green veggies. The salami and pepperoni in the pizza bread did nothing for the wine, but the bread opened up flavors of clove and vanilla. I love wines that are surprisingly layered! 

This was an all-around home-run family dinner. Easy. Inexpensive. Fast. And capped off with a fun, spry wine from a young winemaker working his magic on Sonoma grapes. Doesn’t get much better for a weeknight.

Note: Read more about investing in new winemakers here

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Trione treat

A box of samples from Trione Winery have been taunting me for the two-plus months they’ve been sitting on my shelf. The array of mini sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, syrah and more has been not-so-patiently waiting for me to get around to tasting them. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, but you don’t just drink a sample of $35 wine for the fun of it – it has to be savored. And who has time to savor anything these days?

Who would have thought that my daughter having the flu would present me with an occasion to savor? She slept all day, only waking when I ventured beyond the confines of our living room and kitchen – her Spidey Sense knows when I break the 20-foot barrier. Confined to the living quarters closest to her while she slept off her fever, I had a chance to try a new, rather complicated dinner recipe that I suspected would pair perfectly with the Trione Pinot Noir.

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I served the pinot with flank steak roulade – beef rolled with steamed spinach, red onion, feta cheese, coriander and pepper. A green salad with more feta, almonds and basil vinaigrette shared the limelight with creamy garlic rice.

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The pepper and coriander on the meat did not make the wine sing as I thought it might, but oh, the feta made it divine. The creaminess of the cheese crumbles played up the silky quality of the pinot, as did the garlic rice.

The Russian River Valley red is worth every penny if your budget allows. It’s an almost herbal pinot with the smoothest smoke and wood flavors. I’ve found that a really good pinot noir is hard to describe because it abounds with subtlety. There’s fruit and herbs and a touch of green pepper, but each is so perfectly intertwined with the next that it’s a taster’s challenge to single them out.

While subtlety is a challenge to the simple taster like me, it’s what the Trione family has spent three decades perfecting. They have grown some of the best grapes in the Sonoma region, providing other winemakers with their complex grapes, and in 2005 they decided to use those grapes themselves under their eponymous label.

The Trione varietals are small-batch productions, using only the best 3 percent of their grape harvest. The winemaking is a family affair, with three generations overseeing production and management.

While this label is certainly out of my standard weeknight budget, it’s a treat to taste the best from a family that only produces the best. The winery is located in Alexander Valley and the tasting room and picnic area is open to the public Thursday through Monday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

If you have ever traveled on Interstate 5 south of Portland, Ore., you have passed Willamette Valley Vineyards. Its beautiful tasting room towers over the freeway, surrounded by sloping hillsides of grape vines and pine trees. It’s hard to miss, but for years I drove past it and didn’t take the time to stop. wvv 3

In August 2012, I righted that wrong while on a tasting trip with the Wine Bloggers Conference in Portland. The winery is even more beautiful up close. And bigger! There are 50 acres of vines on the Estate Vineyard, and the winery imports from non-estate vineyards to round out its production.

Did I mention that it’s sustainably grown too? You can read about the soil, climate and elevation here, and I’ll move on to the taste!

Tonight I opened a 2009 Pinot Noir, a fantastic example of why Oregon is wvv 1known for its pinots! The color is a ruby-jewel color, clear and crystalline and almost pink during the pour. The aroma is black pepper, green pepper, tobacco and plum.

The aroma is mirrored in the taste — peppery, plummy, and just a touch of smoke. This is something I love about good pinots – deceptively complex flavors in a seemingly thin wine.

There are a great many pinot noirs that are just watery and hardly worth the effort to drink them. But the ones I like to drink — like this Willamette Valley selection — are spicy like a good zinfandel but light and in feel and aftertaste.

Bonus points to Willamette Valley Vineyards for an abundance of info on thewvv 2 label. I have never seen a label that includes the grape clone names, soil type, date of harvest, and best dates to drink it. This wine is best consumed between 2011 and 2013, so I feel quite confident in what I’m tasting now in 2013.

King Estate Winery

My family in Eugene, Ore., has long been taunting me with pictures and stories from their favorite Willamette Valley winery, King Estate. The wine is among Oregon’s best, and the winery itself rivals any well-established estate – sprawling and stunning. And the restaurant, well, the fact that Eugene residents will drive 30 minutes outside of town on a two-lane windy rural highway to eat there speaks volumes.

King Estate exterior

So on a recent clear and brisk December day, my sister, brother-in-law, husband and I  escaped the pre-Christmas madness of Grandma’s house and drove out to King Estate for lunch.

We arrived a little late, but the kind hostess pushed back our lunch reservation so we could squeeze in a wine tasting first. A flight of, um, I lost count, was $9, I think. And that was refunded when we bought a bottle of wine, which of course we did!

King Estate is really known for its pinot noir (this is Oregon, after all) and most

Quentin Ransone, lead wine educator, shows us the layout of the vineyard.

of the grapes are estate-grown, the rest sourced from Northwest vineyards and all sustainably grown. We tasted a riesling that was surprisingly dry and refreshing, not syrupy sweet as so many rieslings tend to be. The gentleman pouring our wine called it a “patio wine,” something you a can drink all day on the patio, with or without a meal. And he was right!

We ordered lunch (I had the KE Burger, which is delicious, but the surprise was the homemade ketchup that came with the fries!) and shared a bottle of pinot noir. The restaurant atmosphere relaxed yet refined – in other words, you feel fine in whatever attire you arrive in, whether you’re out for a casual weekend drive or dressed up for a special occasion.

I can see why this is my sister’s favorite winery in the Eugene area. Oregon is proud of its wine and its own wine culture – this is not Napa – but King Estate raises the bar for what Oregon’s wine country can be.

My husband and me toasting to a fantastic lunch.

Bond… Double Bond

A good friend invited me over to try a new wine today. Enter Double Bond. She poured a glass of what I expected to be  just another good red wine. I was wrong. This was a great red wine!

The 2009 Pinot Noir is fantastic. It’s so smooth, light silk rather than heavy velvet. I asked her what it sells for and she said “$45 or so.” And I have no doubt that it does. It tastes like $45. It’s no wonder I fell in love at first sip.

It’s a dark cherry color, not watery as so many pinot noirs can be. The aroma is a blend of fruit, clove and vanilla. Lest you be fooled into thinking this smooth drink is weak, let me argue that it’s complex in its simplicity. This is the Harry Connick Jr. of  red wines – disarmingly charming, full of finesse, yet obviously deeper and more complex than just a pretty face (and a voice like butter). You could drink the entire bottle without giving it a second thought, or you could spend an entire night studying its nuances and tones.

The winery sources its grapes from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo in California. The whole Central Coast region is known to produce excellent pinot noir, thanks to the cool nights.

Double Bond gets its name from chemistry – the state of molecules forming two bonds rather than one, creating a stronger, more complex bond. The winery and winemaker pride themselves on marrying biology and art, creating the best wine based on both the science of vinification and the non-science of good taste. Quoting the website: “Science and art; both are required to make fine wines and they define our connection to the craft.”

While this wine is certainly out of my usual $10 budget, I thought it worthwhile to mention because it is a reliable pick for a special occasion (unless $45 is your everyday price point, in which case, bottoms up!). And let’s be honest, since “Sideways,” every Central Coast pinot noir purports to be The Best. But this is one I’ve tasted and can say it truly is a fantastic wine.

Follow what the winery is up to or to find out where to get it through its Facebook page or on Twitter @DoubleBondWine. It’s available in most well-stocked wine stores. Get shopping!

Martinborough Vineyard and Wairarapa region

A recent trip to New Zealand led me to the tiny wine town of Martinborough. Let’s not confuse this with Marlborough, the more famous wine region on the north end of the South Island. No, Martinborough is a tiny, picturesque town in the Wairarapa wine region – on the southeast corner of the North Island –  and it accounts for only 1 percent of New Zealand’s wine, producing primarily pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. For comparison, consider that the more famous Marlborough region comprises 146 wineries while Wairarapa comprises only 62 (re: www.nzwine.com).

This particular tour I was on included Martinborough’s first winery, the aptly named Martinborough Vineyard. Only 31 years old, the vineyard claimed international attention when it won the Bouchard Finlayson Trophy for best pinot noir in the world at the International Wine and Spirit Challenge in 1997. Winemaker Paul Mason explains that the climate in Martinborough is remarkably similar to Burgundy, France, which also specializes in pinot noir. Martinborough Vineyard only grows 120 acres of grapes, 75 percent of which are pinot noir. (while not certified organic, bonus points to the winery for its organic practices!)

My tour was fortunate to taste two pinot noirs at Martinborough, produced from its youngest and oldest vines. The 2010 Te Tera vintage, from the winery’s newest vines, tasted of sharp tannins and evident alcohol while the 2009 (from the vineyard’s oldest vines) was noticeably more mellow. The 2009 was aged in oak for 12 months which lent a honey scent and savory, mineral flavor to the wine. The 2009 was by far my favorite… and of course costs about twice as much as the 2010 ($70 NZD vs. $32 NZD).

Another winner for me during this tasting was the 2009 chardonnay, from some of the original vines planted at the winery. This chardonnay has a slight butter aroma that belied the heavy buttery taste. But don’t be scared off by the butter; the wine was richly balanced with toast and honey.

Martinborough Vineyards exports about 50 percent of its wine and is distributed nearly worldwide. Don’t worry, my American and Canadian readers, you can find in North America, but it may take some searching.

Bicycles outside Martinborough Vineyard

If you happen to be fortunate enough to travel to New Zealand, take time to stroll through the tiny town of Martinborough. Note the layout of the town square – designed after the Union Jack! (check it out) You can take the train – the Tranz Metro – from Wellington to Martinborough, and get off at Featherston (about an hour-long ride).  The all-day excursion ticket to Wairarapa is only $20 NZD and can be purchased at the Wellington station, and there is bus service from the Featherston train station to the town center of Martinborough. I saw several wine-tasters bicycling to wineries, and that would be my top recommendation for hitting the various wineries in town.

Another option is a private tour.  Zest Food Tours led the group I was with, and in full disclosure, the tour was built into the price of the conference I attended, so this was a hosted excursion. However, they did a fantastic job! If you want to see the region like a local but with the expertise of a professional, book a tour. They can pick you up from the train station or from your hotel if you’re staying locally, and the tours are for two to four people (if you hate big group tours like I do, this is a huge bonus point!).

Martinborough may not have the name recognition of Marlborough, but it produces some seriously great wine and has earned a solid reputation for its boutique wineries and hand-crafted wines. The countryside is positively idyllic, and is an unexpectedly wonderful way to get away from the bustle of Wellington for a day and explore one of the world’s up-and-coming wine regions.

NOTE: This trip was part of the Society of American Travel Writers National Convention, so many activities such as this wine-tasting tour were included in the registration fee for the convention. I consider it a hosted trip, and I hope my readers do too.

Champagne, mon cheri!

Today is International Champagne Day! Cheers! Now before you pop the cork on that bottle of Cook’s (or even Barefoot Bubbly, which is delicious!), let me repeat: Today is International Champagne Day. Champagne comes from Champagne, France. Put the sparkling wine back in the fridge and join me while tasting Champagne.

I couldn’t find real champagne at the local grocery store, so I stopped in at Ben’s Fine Wine & Liquor, which never fails me. An off-center sign led me to the belief that the half-bottle of Moet & Chandon Imperial Champagne was $9.99. It  was not. Twenty-five dollars later, I left the store with my mini-bottle of champagne, a heavy dose of buyer’s remorse and confidence that I would REALLY like this champagne!

The pour is wonderfully fizzy and frothy. The bubbles simmer down quickly, but the initial fizz is everything a chamapgne should be, playful but not trying too hard. The aroma is pear, vanilla and sandlewood. And the taste… Oh, the taste! The most important part. Will it live up to its $25 price tag?

What a wonderful blend of tart fruit and mellow vanilla. There’s no bite or pucker, just a refreshing pear and melon taste that cleanses the palette followed by a warm hint of vanilla and honey. The vanilla is wisp-like, almost like a vanilla-scented candle was burned nearby during fermentation and lent lightest warmth to the grapes without actually flavoring the wine.

I admittedly have a red bias. I love red wines and have a hard time finding whites that aren’t too sweet or too tart. This champagne, made primarily of pinot noir,  is what I wish all white wines could be: light, refreshing, whole.

So cheers to International Champagne Day! Settle into a soft corner of the couch, open a good book and enjoy a little bubbly. You deserve it!

Lindemans on a late summer night

I could have sworn is was fall already, but the thermometer and calendar are not in agreement around here. Today was in the 90s and my much-anticipated smoky 7 Deadly Zins just didn’t sound good tonight. So I turned to a warm-weather standby red: pinot noir. I love pinots in the summertime because it’s usually thin, mildly tart and easily paired with summertime meals like fettuccini alfredo, barbecued pork chops or grilled brats.

I was delighted to find Lindemans 2009 Pinot Noir on sale at Smith’s (Kroger) for $8.99. It was a savings of several dollars, and I’ve never been let down by Lindemans. This pinot has a light black pepper aroma with a hint of cherry. he taste is cherry with a tart tannin mouthfeel. It’s light enough to refresh in heat of Indian Summer but isn’t watery or wimpy.

* Bonus points to Lindemans for having a great Twitter presence. I’d barely hit “send” on my tweet about tasting the wine and I got a reply. Love it!