Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wine Goddesses Around the World

Last week I had a delightful dinner at Tra Vigne Restaurant in Napa Valley with the owner of Silenus Vintners ( This winery makes small lots of artisan wine as part of a custom crush operation, and the cabernets and chardonnays he shared over dinner were rich, concentrated, and fulfilling. When I asked him what “Silenus” meant, he said that he was a Greek god who was the tutor and faithful companion to Dionysus.

The conversation reminded me of the article I wrote last year about wine goddesses. It was at a time when I started wondering why we always heard about wine gods, but never the female version. Since women consume more wine than men, this started to bother me. Eventually I did some research on the subject and published a short article in Wayward Tendrils Quarterly (Vol 18, No. 2, April 2008) which I am reprinting here with permission from the publisher. It highlights wine goddesses from around the world.

The Ancient Goddesses of Wine

Most historians now agree that wine was most likely discovered by a woman. However what is often left out of the history books are the ancient stories of the goddesses of wine – most who came into being centuries before Bacchus and Dionysus.

Modern technology and carbon-dating has helped us prove that wine from cultivated grapes was being made in what is now modern-day Georgia, in the Caucasus Mountains around 6,000 B.C. There are also reports of wine remains in Armenia, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and China which claim to be older than those found in Georgia – though there is some confusion over whether it is grape, rice, date, or honey wine. Regardless of the birthplace of wine, it is commonly agreed that because women were involved in the gathering of berries, grapes, and other crops that it was most likely a woman who picked some grapes and placed them in a pottery container in a cool dark corner. When she remembered to check the container a few weeks later, she found a fermented beverage that had a delightful flavor and a pleasant inebriating effect. Thus wine was born.

From Persia, there is an ancient legend documented in the Epic of Gilgamish that supports a woman discovering wine. She was a member of the harem in the palace of King Jamshid, and she suffered from severe migraine headaches. One day the king found that a jar containing his favorite grapes had a strange smell and was foaming. Alarmed he ordered that it be set aside as unsafe to eat. When the woman heard of this, she decided to drink from the container in an effort to end her life with the poison inside. Instead she found the taste of the beverage very delightful. Furthermore, it cured her headache and put her in a joyful mood. When she told King Jamshid, he tasted the “wine” as well and then ordered that more should be made and shared with the whole court.

It was from this same part of the world, in the Sumerian Empire in what is modern-day Iraq, that the most ancient goddess of wine is first mentioned. Her name was Gestin and she was being worshiped as early as 3000 BC. Gestin, which translates as wine, vine, and/or grape, is also mentioned in the ancient Indus manuscript, the Rig Veda. Experts believe that it is quite reasonable that the first gods of wine were women, because the oldest deities were female agriculture goddesses of the earth and fertility. Gestin was most likely born from this agriculture base and over the centuries came to represent wine.

Later, in 1500 BC, we find mention of another wine goddess, Paget, in the same part of the world. The clay tablets refer to her as working in the vineyard and helping to make wine.

Then around 300 to 400 BC as wine became more prominent in Sumeria, a new wine goddess, Siduri, is described as living near the city of Ur. She is reported as welcoming the hero in the Epic of Gilgamish to a garden with the tree of life which is hung with ruby red fruit with tendrils. Siduri is referred to as the Maker of Wine.

Across the deserts in Egypt the wine goddess Renen-utet is mentioned on hieroglyphic tablets as blessing the wine as early as 1300 BC. Interestingly she is known as both a wine and snake goddess. She usually had a small shrine near the wine press and often her figure would appear on the spout where the grape juice flowed into the receiving tank. She is sometimes joined by Ernutet, the Egyptian goddess of plenty, in blessing the grape harvest.

What is intriguing about these wine goddesses is how little is known about them, whereas Dionysus and Bacchus have much more coverage in the literature. It is possible that this is because they are more recent. The earliest records of Dionysus, the Greek wine god, show he appeared around 500BC in the Greek Islands, whereas Gestin dates from 3000 BC. However, the concept of Dionysus, as a child god who was born of a mortal woman and a god, is very ancient and can be traced back 9000 years. These depictions however -- which are amazingly similar to the images of Mother Mary with the Baby Jesus – do not include wine. Dionysus as a wine god came later. Indeed, another legend says that Dionysus came from the lands near Sumeria to the islands of Greece. Is Dionysus somehow connected with Gestin, Paget and Siduri?
Bacchus, the Roman name for Dionysus, became known in the literature around 200 BC as the Greek Empire was fading. Other wine gods included Osiris from Egypt and I-Ti from China.

So what are the implications of these ancient connections between women and wine? Why have the ancient wine goddesses been lost in the history of time? Is it because the culture changed towards a more masculine image, which gave rise to the male wine gods? Is this why in the period of the Roman Empire, women were banned from drinking wine? Indeed, a husband who caught his wife drinking wine could legally kill her on the spot. And the depiction of the raging Bacchanalia rites, in which women chased after Bacchus in drunken ecstasy while they tore animals to shreds is hardly flattering to women.

So perhaps it is time to resurrect the image of the ancient wine goddesses, and the blessings of a plentiful harvest and the joy that wine can bring in moderation. After all, the cultural tides of the world have changed again, and today in wine-drinking countries, women are the primary purchasers of wine. The connection between women and wine has always been there. Today it is growing stronger, with a focus on friendship, romance, health and balance.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Grape Alley, Wine Tourism, and Journey Home

(8/25-26/09) On our last day in Turpan, we were also pleased to be able to visit the famous Grape Alley. This is one of their major tourist attractions, and, after visiting, I agree! You enter through a very large and impressive gate (paying a small fee) and then drive along the river with huge sandstone cliffs on the right side, and charming adobe houses with the colorful painted doors on the left. If you look closely you can see the indoor patios with the grape arbors overhead and small bald children playing. (According to our guide, the Uyghurs believe in shaving the heads of their children until they reach the age of 7. This helps keep them cool in the summer, and prevents the hassle of fighting with kids over brushing their hair – smart!).

Eventually you come to an indoor market with many restaurants covered in grape arbors, and shops selling dried fruits of all types. It is very colorful and quite tempting. From there you enter Grape Alley which is a series of walkways which large overhead grape trellises (Thompson Seedless). These go on for quite a way, and it is very beautiful with dappled sunlight coming through the grapevines; a stream; waterfalls; small shops; ponds; and eventually a wine bar at the far end with some interesting antique wine presses. Unfortunately it is only one winery and they only sell rather expensive glasses (no tastes) at around 40 to 60 RMB each ($6 to $10!). Why they are not selling small 1 ounce tastes – when that is the tradition here – is beyond me? They also should be selling bottles, and doing a refundable tasting fee. Needless to say, we didn’t stop to taste wine.

Instead, we headed to a wonderful Arabic restaurant where you could actually lay down on pillows near the table and look at the grapes overhead. There was a waterfall, and servers dressed in beautiful Uyghurs clothing. We had lamb kabobs, fresh melon and grapes, rice, many small vegetable dishes, and tea. It was very exotic, and once again, I felt like I was in ancient Persia or Arabia, instead of China!

As we finished our day of visiting fascinating tourist sites, Qin told us our presence was requested at a 9-11pm meeting to provide our input on what the region could do to improve its grape and wine industry. When I received the same question about wine tourism, I was ready with an answer.

It seems to me that given the long distance between the 12 wineries; plus some serious infrastructure issues– that the best approach is to establish a XinJiang Wine Education and Tourism Center in Turpan. This reasoning includes the fact that currently more than 400,000 Chinese and Japanese tourists visit this city each year to see the ancient sites and attend the famous Grape Festival. A regional wine center would be an additional tourist attraction for this population. Because of the political unrest, it is not feasible that many Western tourists will visit this region until it is resolved.

Furthermore, the 12 wineries could collaborate in a Xinjiang Wine Region Association and all feature their wines within the one center. This could include educational tours, videos, tastings, blending seminars, a demonstration vineyards etc. More importantly, they could sell wine -- including packaging to take on the airplane. By charging a small fee (10RMB; $2) for a tasting of 5 different wines with a refund of the fee if a bottle is purchased, they could encourage sales. Different tasting flights could be established, e.g. white, red, reserve, etc. at varying pricing schemes. Apparently Loulan has a nice wine tasting center in Urumqi, but as yet there is not a regional wine center – this might help to jumpstart the concept and help to build Xinjiang wine brand recognition.

After our late night conference, the 7 of us headed to the lake bar for one last beer. It was a sweet good-bye, and an even shorter night of sleep. Finally climbing into my rock hard bed around midnight, we receive a wake-up call at 4:30am and climbed on the van to drive back to the Urumqi Airport at 5:10am. Our plane left on time at 9:10am and we were back in Beijing by 12:30pm.

After a 30 minute taxi ride and checking back into the Taiwan Hotel, we had one last celebratory lunch of Peking duck, pork, beef, chicken – and you guessed it – beer! Next a 2 hour power nap; shower; and then back to the airport at 6pm in order to catch my 9pm flight home. A very long day…….but a once in a lifetime incredible trip! I’m very grateful to have been given the opportunity, and to have met such fabulous people – especially my travel mates, plus Qin and Demei. This trip will remain one of the highlights of my life.

Turpan’s Colorful Market

(8/25/09) Later in the day, our guide took us in a taxi to the local market in Turpan. It was immensely fascinating with so many bright colors, scents, and textures that it was a feast for the senses. I went with one of the Israeli professors who was a great negotiator and also a professional photographer. The pictures he took of children and old ladies were works of art.

My main goal was to buy some gifts to take home, and so I purchased some beautiful scarves, fabric, and small souvenir items. But then we wandered into the clothing section where there were many Uyghur women sewing clothes on ancient Singer sewing machines – like I learned on when I was very young from my mother. The dresses they were making were fabulous – all with modest high necks, but in bright colors and with very feminine designs. They also made many modest looking “belly-dancing” costumes with gold sequins. I purchased one in green for my daughter.

The prices were good, and they were willing to bargain a little – but not much. My Uyghur guide said to walk away, and then to come back 2 or 3 times. She said that each time the price would be lowered a bit. This seemed to be the case, but it was nothing like the aggressive negotiating in Beijing. Here it was much more subtle.

Equally amazing was all of the fresh fruit, dried snakes coiled in rings; dead lizards; strange native medicine; and wonderful dishes being grilled over open coal fires – including the tempting spicy lamb empanadas; whole grilled chicken; and huge sides of beef. I felt like I had stepped back in time --- and perhaps this was similar to the market during the heyday of the Silk Trail.

The Ancient City of Jiaohe, China

(8/25/09) The third and last day of the conference did not include any translators, so we asked if we could visit some of the local tourist sites. A van and tour guide was kindly provided and all 7 of us climbed aboard to drive the 15 minutes from the hotel to the ancient city of Jiahoe. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site and quite amazing. Apparently it is more than 2000 years old.

Perched on a cliff top between two rivers, the ancient and abandoned city was in a perfect location to protect itself from attack. The remains of the buildings show the inhabitants built houses right into the rock and then used mud bricks to form other walls. There were windows and shelves carved into the rock. You climb to the top via a steep walkway, and then can wander around the ruins. All of the signs are in Chinese and Arabic, so it is helpful to have a tour guide.

The most fascinating part for me was the ruins of the ancient Buddhist Monastery. Our guide told us that if we walked around the center stone where the giant Buddha used to sit, that a wish would be granted. So we walked around the stone 3 times in the very hot heat (90F+), and then I made a wish.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Visiting Vineyards and Loulan Winery

(8/24/09) The next day of the conference was a field trip to several table grape vineyards, a raisin and dried fruit processing firm, and Loulan Winery in Shanshan County. They were harvesting the table grapes – primarily Thompson Seedless – using small wicker baskets. It was very charming to witness. I learned a lot about trellising techniques and pruning for table grapes, which are quite different from wine grapes. They were using a low pergola system and the grapes intertwined in the middle. The workers had to stoop quite low to harvest the bunches. It was exhausting to realize that in November, they would have to prune back the vines and then bury everything in the dirt to protect the vines from the harsh winter cold.

We also visited several modern irrigation systems connected to the ancient karezes which pull water from the snow-capped mountains. In the past they had used flood irrigation here, but now they have switched to drip. According to the viticulture professors with us, they are still using too much water and nitrogen (fertilizer) on the vines.

Loulan Winery was the last stop of the day, and is about a 90 minute drive from Turpan. As I was supposed to provide advice on wine tourism for the region, I observed our path carefully and in the first 30 minutes drive from Turpan, I felt hopeful. The highways were brand new and very clean. We passed well-marked tourist attractions such as signs to Grape Alley, the Karezes, the ancient cities of Jiaohe and Gaochang, the 1000 Buddha Caves and a camel riding operation. All of these appeared to be excellent additional tourist attractions – plus the landscape was very compelling with beautiful red and yellow rock formations.

Then we entered the mining and petroleum region of Shanshan County and the scenery changed abruptly. The roads were under construction; ugly shanty towns for workers lined the street, as well as garbage in the ditches. The sight and smell of poverty assaulted our senses. As we entered the major town in the region, I noticed they had planted flowers in the middle of the road in an attempt to beautify the area, but it didn’t cover up the poverty.

Arriving at Loulan Winery, we discovered it was a large industrial looking complex that would not be impressive looking to Western tourists. They did have a nice tasting room with a tasting bar, but it was over 90F and I shuddered to see all the wine on the counters in such high heat. When I asked to go to the restroom, I discovered another ancient trough in the floor. No – this wouldn’t work for wine tourism.

The operation tour of the winery was enjoyable, and they had kindly harvested some Riesling grapes (22 brix, 7 acid; 3.8 ph) so that we could see everything working. They brought the grapes in on small tractors and used a sorting table with 4 workers to pull out leaves. The grapes were destemmed and crushed using modern equipment, and then pumped into temperature controlled fermentation tanks. I was also surprised to see large rotary fermentors which they said they used for the red grapes. Total production is 2000 tons (approximately 170,000 cases – quite large). As mentioned previously, they age their reserve cab in 100% new French oak for 12 months. When I asked to see the vineyards, I was told there were a few hectares near the winery, but that the majority were 3 hours away in the Gobi Desert. We never did get to see the vineyard operations of this winery – disappointing.

We had tasted through all of their wines the previous day at the conference center during the breaks. My favorites were the 2006 Loulan Cabernet Sauvignon which had a rich red fruit nose with touches of berry and cassis; moderate tannins; and medium to long finish. However, when I tasted from another bottle later in the day, the wine was not nearly as good – bottle variation? The 2007 Reserve Loulan Cabernet Sauvignon, which we had at the banquet dinner the night before, was also enjoyable, but a bit too young with a slightly tart finish. We also tasted their Dry White, Semi-Sweet White, Chenin Blanc and Dry Red, but I was more impressed with the cabs. Apparently Loulan had won some awards in a London wine competition about 5 years ago, and their new general manager is trying to make this happen again.

Characteristics of Chinese Wines from Xinjiang Region

After tasting over 20 different wines from 4 of the wineries in the Xinjiang region (they only have a total of 12 wineries), I tried to identify the major characteristics. All of the wines were clean and fresh – probably due to organic viticulture, modern winemaking, and little to no oak – thus no bret. The majority have a fruity New World nose, but on the palate are thin with very little concentration/intensity, and no complexity. Most are low alcohol (12.5 to 13%), light to medium-bodied, and have a short to medium length finish. They make nice bulk wine, but I didn’t really find much that could be called great – at this point. I wonder if it is because they are picking the grapes at too low brix and they are not physiologically ripe. It also could be a matter of over-cropping. Furthermore, all of the vineyards are on the flat valley land (like the table grapes). I wonder why they don’t plant some wine vineyards on the hillsides closer to the water source and perhaps more interesting soil?

What is impressive about these wines is their labeling. Almost all of the wines were in very fancy bottles; many with gold engraving. They looked much more expensive than they tasted. I was also very impressed with the wine advertisements in magazines, on billboards, and on TV. Lots of fancy marketing….but perhaps more time and money should be put into viticulture if they are serious about making more prestigious wines and moving away from bulk production.

Wine and Grape Conference in Turpan City, China

(8/23/09) The Turpan portion of the conference started promptly at 9am the next morning in Turpan’s brand new conference center next to our hotel. There was much fanfare with the news media there, many photographers and important government officials. Over 200 people showed up from China’s wine and grape industries, and they actually took a group photo of all of us at one point. There were many speeches with simultaneous translation, and my presentation on the California wine industry and wine tourism seemed well received. Each us of was interviewed for the local television station, and had our photographs taken multiple times. We were made to feel like celebrities.

We sat through more than 10 presentations, and learned much about the local table grape industry. If you include table grapes in the statistics, then China is currently the world’s 3rd largest producer of grapes. However, the Chinese government does not want to expand table grapes, but instead to focus on wine grapes. The Turpan area – even though it is the birthplace of wine in China – is almost all table grapes and raisins. The closest winery – Loulan – is a 90 minute ride from the city (see posting on Loulan Winery). They mentioned again the two important native Chinese grapes – Longyan (Dragon’s Eye) and Shelongzhu (Chinese Cabernet) – but none are grown in this region.

That evening, we had another huge banquet with the largest round table (seating 30 people) and matching lazy susan I have ever seen. I was told later that it took 10 men to set-up the glass lazy susan on the table, and I believe it. The center of the table was filled with a large red rose bouquet, and all of the important dignitaries and their translators sat at our table. The food was amazing of course – with at least 25 different dishes ranging from all types of vegetables, shrimp, fish, beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and many other delicacies. One of my favorites was a type of minced lamb empanada with spices – very tasty. I saw it being cooked in the local market a few days later over coals.

Of course, the meal included countless gambay toasts. I smiled when I saw that they had set each place setting with a one ounce pour of red wine, the nasty rice grappa, and a large glass of green tea – what a combo! (See photo above). The wine was actually quite nice, but rather young – a 2007 Loulan Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. It had a bright red berry nose; firm tannins; medium-bodied; but a slightly tart finish. We found out later it had been aged 12 months in 100% new French oak. I think that if it had another year of bottle age, it would be a little more elegant and rounded. As we continued to eat dinner, I found myself rather frustrated, however, at only having a one ounce pour. I kept having to wait for the server to refill my glass and wished I could grab the bottle out of his hands and pour a normal size glass of wine to enjoy with the food. Instead it was a stop and start affair.

The other interruption to the meal was the standard gambeys. Each time someone wanted to toast, we all had to stop eating and stand up. We proceeded through about only 8 gambeys (not very many compared to most banquets), and I noticed that many people only took sips, rather than downing their glass. We wondered later if they did this for us Westerners. The meal actually ended rather abruptly with people getting up to leave and saying good-bye. Therefore, since the night was still young, the 7 of us decided to walk down to the lake for a beer. I never did touch my stinky smelling rice grappa. We ended the night relaxing by the beautiful lake with lotus blossoms, fountains, and singing rocks – and drinking beer, because – regretfully for me -- there was no cold white wine.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Enchanting City of Turpan and the Uyghurs

(8/23/09) – I fell in love with the city of Turpan. It seems to be a cross of ancient Arabia and Santa Fe with its Persian looking buildings, mosques, and charming adobe mud brick houses. Turpan is about a 3 hour drive from the Urumqi Airport, and as you approach you are surrounded by stark brown desert and large white windmills. Then the city slowly appears like a mirage in the distance with green trees and the strange looking raisin houses as the first visible objects. The architecture of the raisin houses is ancient; they are rectangular in shape and made from mud bricks which are stacked so that holes are created in the walls. This is to allow air to enter and dry the grapes that are draped on wooden racks inside. These unusual looking buildings surround the outskirts of Turpan.

When you finally enter the city, the boulevards are wide and tree-lined with small canals running down both sides of the roads, with pink roses bordering the sidewalks. Off to the side, you can see acres of green table grapes growing on short pergolas. The modern downtown has new and impressive stone and marble buildings with Arabic design. All the signs are in both Chinese and Arabic. There are beautiful parks with lakes, as well as the colorful local markets. As you move out of downtown, you find yourself lost in time as donkey carts pass pulling women in colorful Arabic dresses and men with long white beards and small caps. This part of the town is filled with small brown adobe houses with brightly painted wooden doors with pictures of flowers, birds, and fruit. Every once in a while you pass a colorful mosque with turrets. It is like something from a book, and completely enchanting.

We ended up having two different female guides during the course of the conference, and both were Uyghurs (pronounced “weger”). Uyghurs are part of the ancient people who first settled in the area in 300 B.C. They are thought to be of either Persian or Turkish decent; as they do not look like the Han Chinese, but there could be some Mongolian mix. They speak Arabic and are Moslem, which they adopted sometime in the mid 800’s as the religion was imported to the area along the Silk Trail.

The two Uyghur girls explained much of the culture to us, and I was fascinated to learn that many of the Uyghurs drink wine. They also do not conform to orthodox Moslem dress of heavy black cloth and face veils. In fact, they seem to go to the opposite extreme, in that they dress in very bright multi-colored silk and wear small colorful hats with gold trim. I was fascinated to learn that this region discovered how to make silk and kept the secret for thousands of years – thus creating the Silk Trail industry – until it accidently leaked out and the Europeans learned how to cultivate the silkworm and grow mulberry trees.

They said that Xinjiang is 60% Uyghur, 14% Han Chinese, with the remainder other mixed ethnicities. It is supposedly the Uyghurs who led the revolt in Urumqi two months ago because they felt they were being mistreated by the Hans. Interesting, the girls told me the Chinese government does allow minorities, such as the Uyghurs, to have 2 children (3 in the villages), rather than the mandatory one child per couple.

Another interesting fact about Turpan is that in the heat of the afternoon, everything seems to shut down – similar to a siesta in Spain. Our lunch break was from 1 to 4pm, and when I tried to go for a walk, I not only nearly melted from the heat, but couldn’t find much open. However, in the cooler evenings, everyone seemed to be on the streets. The lake garden near our hotel was filled with families with children every night – boating and playing on the lake. They also held what appeared to be large line dances, and many people danced late into the night. What an amazing place!

Caveat: In reading back through this posting, it sounds as if I am romanticizing Turpan – and it is possible that I am. However, I really did find this city enchanting. I’m sure it has its dark corners and poverty-stricken neighborhoods similar to those we saw in Heshuo and ShanShan County. At the same time, I’ve seen the same type of small rundown houses along the borders of Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico and the Deep South of the US. The fact that I didn’t see it in Turpan, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Poverty is something that is a sad fact in many parts of the world. What I did find in Turpan, however, was magic in the air….in the architecture, customs, clothing, ancient sites, and the stories of our guides.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Traveling to Turpan City, China – Along the Silk Trail

(8/22/09) The conference continued the next morning, and it was our turn as invited specialists to make recommendations on what the Heshuo Region could do to improve its wine industry. While my colleagues focused on viticulture, I was asked to comment on how they could improve wine tourism and marketing.

Interestingly, wine tourism is one of the five prongs of the government 2015 vision for the area, along with: 1) doubling wine grape production; 2) training more people in viticulture, winemaking and wine hospitality; 3) collaboration with associations and universities; and 4) new product development to match consumer needs. The fact that this area still has many hectares of unused sand/gravel land, as well as water (though we questioned for how long), makes it an ideal place for wine vines. On the positive side, wine grapes require far less water than table grapes and prefer less fertile soil. The government wants to use the more fertile land for other crops, with a focus in Heshuo on tomatoes and chili peppers.

In my comments, I pointed out all of the positives of the region for tourism, as well as the challenges – including a very long distance from airports, infrastructure issues, medical care, lack of boutique wineries, etc. In addition to addressing these issues, I suggested that they begin by focusing on the Chinese tourists who usually come to see Lake Bosten. Except for adventure and eco-tourism travelers, there are very few Westerners who will be able to make the journey to this remote and pristine valley at this time. Furthermore the current political unrest in the area makes it even more unlikely.

We left after a celebratory lunch which included a shot of the grappa-like rice drink. Personally I found the sickly sweet rotting banana/mango smell to be quite off-putting, and it only took one small sip of the burning liquid before I set it back down on the table. However, the rest of the Chinese officials continued to use it to make gambey toasts throughout the lunch. By the time we were done, I became more accepting of the government’s stance to replace the drink with wine – even though it seems like an abuse of wine to me to gulp it.

Around 3pm we all piled back into the van to drive back through the mountains and across a new desert towards the ancient fabled city of Turpan (pronounced Turfan by the local). The journey took 4 hours, and it became much hotter as we approached what the Chinese told us was the 2nd lowest spot on earth after the Dead Sea. Turpan lies in an old lake bed at 500 feet below sea level, and is surrounded by tall snow-capped mountains ranging from 12,000 to 16,000 feet high. It is from these mountains that they receive their water using an ancient and amazing system of “karezes,” which are underground canals with air holes every few hundred yards. This creates an unusual crater formation along the desert floor. The result is that Turpan is an oasis city – one of the oldest along the ancient Silk Trail. It is also the birthplace of wine in China, with ancient residue confirming that vitus vinfera grapes were fermented into wine here more than 2300 years ago.

We checked into the 4-star Turpan Houzhou Hotel with its magnificent marble lobby, and the first thing I did upon reaching my modern room was to take a long shower. It felt so good to be clean again! Dinner was at 8pm -- a Chinese buffet with decent, but not the gourmet food we had been treated to in Heshuo. After dinner, 5 of our group decided to take a walk and see if we could find a bar that could make a cold gin & tonic. With the evening still hovering in the low 90’s F, we were craving something cool. Our hotel only served beer and warm wine, so we wandered around outside to find a lovely park with a man-made lake complete with fountains, boats, and music piped from fake rocks. There were elegant Chinese bridges on the lake and pink lotus blossoms in full bloom. The area was packed with many local families eating at outdoor restaurants and playing cards and drinking in outdoor bars.

We made our way around the lake to the 5-star Tufa Petroleum Hotel where we had been told there was a western bar. The hotel is very magnificent with even more marble than ours, plus a jewelry shop, swimming pool, restaurant, and a small bar tucked away on the 2nd floor. The bartender had to call for help when we ordered a gin and tonic off the menu, but eventually I was served a glass of gin, a can of tonic, a lemon wedge, and most satisfying – a large crystal bucket of ice. It was the only ice I was to receive on the whole trip, and I thought back on it longingly several times after that evening.

On the walk back to our hotel, we decided to bar hop and purchased a Chinese beer for only $1.30 at one of the sidewalk cafes. We then relaxed and watched kids playing on boats and people dancing in the outdoor pavilion. It was 11:30 on a Saturday night, and Turfan was hopping! Eventually, I made it to bed and discovered it was extremely hard and uncomfortable – but at least I had a hot shower.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Lake Bosten in Xinjiang Region, China

(8/21/09) Later in the day we visited Lake Bosten which is a beautiful expanse of water, but quite low – perhaps due to global warming, high temperature, or overuse of water. The very nice (and empty) hotels that surrounded it were rather far from the water’s edge. You could tell that in the past the hotels probably were much closer to the water than the large expanse of grey sandy beach that separated them from the lake’s edge. We walked down to the shore where a few lone people were wading in the shallow lake. Umbrellas, tables, and boats were scattered around the sand, and you could tell it was once a thriving tourist area.

We were informed that the recession and swine flu had cut down on tourism for the past 2 years, and the beautiful new hotels and restaurants were almost empty. All of the hotels were painted in bright pastel colors – pink, light blue, yellow, etc – and each room had its own air-conditioning unit with elaborate rococo design decorating the buildings. Unfortunately the roads to the lake were very bumpy – quite unlike the very new and modern freeways we drove from Urumqi through the mountains.

Near the edge of Lake Bosten, a small group of locals was grilling fish over an open BBQ pit to sell to tourists. We took a group photo by the lake, and I felt rather sad that in the height of summer this region was currently so bereft of visitors to enjoy the lake. As the Canadian wine writer who lived in Beijing commented, it was rare to find such a lovely beach in China so empty. Most beaches are so crowded there is barely room to walk.

That evening jet-lag caught up with me, and I begged off going to another massive dinner banquet. Instead I sat in my room and watched the sunset over the tall snow-capped mountains and enjoyed 2 glasses of the 2006 Reserve Merlot from Aromatic Gardens. They had kindly left 6 bottles of local wines in our room to sample. As this was my favorite from the morning’s tasting, I opened it up – and it was even better. Perhaps it was the fact that I finally had time to relax after long hours of travel and discussion. Perhaps it was the setting sun, the peace and beauty of the region, the classical music playing on my MP3, and the local peach and airplane granola bar that I paired it with for dinner…... Afterwards I slept solidly for 10 hours, and was not in the least dismayed to discover the next morning from my colleagues that all I had missed the evening before at dinner was even more slugging back gambay toasts. Instead I had enjoyed some beautiful Chinese wine…and fell in love with this remote unspoiled region of Xinjiang.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Visiting Champion Dragon Winery (Guanlong) in Heshuo, China

(8/21/09) Champion Dragon Winery is located in a modern industrial looking building and produces 6000 tons, with most of it being sold off in bulk. They produce 10,000 bottles on their own, uniquely specializing in chardonnay and the unusual malvasia we tried the evening before. Pricing ranges from 80 to 200 RMB. They were harvesting the chardonnay when we arrived, and we noticed that they pick rather early – at 22 brix. Some of the grapes appeared to be slightly unripe, and we didn’t see any sorting. However, the chardonnay we tasted out of tank (after only 1 day of fermentation) was fresh, crisp with sharp apple and some citrus. It was simple and uncomplicated with no ML at this point; no oak; and no lees stirring. All of it was to be shipped in large tankers to wineries in other parts of China where it would be mixed into different brands, with perhaps some oak aging. They employ 20 full-time employees and 100 at harvest.

A unique feature of this winery were its floors made of marble in the tank rooms. Marble is another of the major products of the region (along with oil, coal, jade and gold mining), and it is used extensively in hotels and other facilities. It was beautiful, but as we were exiting, one of the Chinese officials slipped and almost took a nasty fall because the red marble floor was wet from winemaking cleaning procedures.

Vineyards and Wineries in Heshuo, Xinjiang, China

(8/21/09) The next morning we met at 9am in the lobby and then drove to the restaurant – scene of the banquet from the night before. Breakfast is more challenging for me to eat in China than other meals, because they eat a lot of vegetables and a milky rice porridge that reminded me of cream of wheat. Fortunately they also served hard boiled eggs, doughy white buns, and fresh melon and grapes which I ended up eating all 8 days for breakfast. They also serve green tea mixed with salty soy milk, which is a little difficult to get used to. Kindly, Demei brought packets of powdered coffee which I blended with warm milk.

The Heshuo portion of the conference (we were to travel to Turpan for the next part) started at 10am with Chinese officials and research professors providing an overview of the local wine industry. This was all translated from Chinese to English for us by Demei – a winemaker and researcher himself. We learned that Xinjiang is the 2nd largest grape producing region (80% table; 20% wine) after Shandong near Shanghai. Heshuo and a large vineyard called Suntime produce the most wine grapes, with the Heshuo region currently producing 3,000 hectares and plans to increase to 7,000.

The region is high desert with sandy rocky soil – perfect for wine grapes. It is in a valley (3000 feet) surrounded by tall mountains (over 19,000 feet in some locations) and is close to a large body of water (Lake Bosten). Summers are quite hot at 40 C degrees (high 90’sF), but winters are freezing – dropping below -25C. This issue requires that they bury all grape vines during the winter – an incredible amount of labor as there are currently no machines invented that can handle this type of operation. However, since the going rate is 60 RMB ($10 US) per day for labor, the cost is not yet that high.

As mentioned previously, because of the pristine protected climate, all grapes are organic – they even use natural fertilizer. The wines from here tasted much better than those I tasted in Beijing 2 years ago, and didn’t possess that acrid taint that seemed to reflect the pollution in the skies of Beijing – though to their credit, I saw less pollution in Beijing this time. Furthermore, I learned that much of the wine produced in Xinjiang is shipped in bulk to supplement the wine made by the 4 large producers in the Beijing and Shandong areas: Cofco (owner of Great Wall brand), Changyu, Dragon Seal, and Dynasty.

Currently in Heshuo there are only 4 wineries, but the local growers want to increase this number so they can produce more fine wine, rather than just be a bulk wine producer. At the break, we tasted the wines of Aromatic Garden, Champion Dragon (as mentioned previously), and an all organic winery called Refine. Unfortunately 3 of the 4 Refine wines – three 2005 Cabernets with varying oak applications and a 2005 Riesling – were oxidized, most likely because they didn’t use SO2 according to organic winemaking standards. The one that wasn’t oxidized – an unoaked cab – had a nice red fruit nose, was medium bodied with an elegant mouth feel, but ended with a bitter finish. We never did find out the name of the 4th winery. During the break, they paired the wines with table grapes and different varieties of Chinese cookies. I found that, amazingly, their soft easy-drinking cabs went quite well with mooncakes!

They only plant 4 different varietals in Heshuo: 60% cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, and Riesling. The Chinese still produce 90% red grapes, because they believe red wine is more healthy than white. Personally, I think that many Chinese do not like the taste of wine, and only drink it because it is fashionable and because the government encourages it. Besides, since they gulp it in toasts, they really don’t taste it. When they asked us for ideas on new grape varietals to plant, I suggested that they not only research what will grow well in their climate, but conduct some market research on Chinese taste preferences (as the Australians have done in China) to determine what will sell in their market. It is highly probable that white, rose, and sweeter wines will eventually sell better, as beginning with more tannic red wines is often difficult for the novice wine drinker.

In the afternoon, we had a field tour and visited several vineyards and a winery. Spacing is 3.2 meters by 60mm (approx. 12 x 3 feet). The reason the middle aisles are so large is to allow them to lay the vines down and bury them in the winter. They use an unusual training system of single cordon which is tied vertically to the wire and pruned to 2 buds per spur. This is the same method they use for table grapes, and according to the viticulture professors with us, is probably not the most efficient. All vines are irrigated using water from Lake Bosten or snow run-off in the mountains. No rootstock is used, as the vines are all on their own roots. In most parts of the world this is unheard of due to disease risks – but here, in this remote valley, they are still safe with this practice. Hopefully it will stay this way.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Fabulous Banquet in Heshuo China at Aromatic Gardens Winery

(8/20/09) If I was asked to name the best thing about the trip to the Xinjiang Region of China, I would have to say it was the hospitality. Everyone we met was incredibly charming, friendly, and helpful. They went out of their way to treat us well and serve us fabulous meals.

The winery owner of Aromatic Gardens is a beautiful Chinese woman. She, along with the mayor of Heshuo, 3 other local winery owners, and many other government officials (40 people in all), welcomed us to a wonderful banquet dinner that first evening starting around 9:30pm. We started with 6 different types of greens – all so delicious and fresh, I was in heaven. One, called “luo le”, tasted like a type of spinach with mint spices. The tomatoes were juicy and bright. The vegetables here were the best I’ve had in my life. I think it is because they are organic and very fresh. Plate after plate of food was delivered to the lazy susan on our table (all Chinese meals are served in the center on a rotating glass plate so that everyone helps themselves.) I lost track of the number of courses, but every type of dish was served ranging from beef, chicken, pork, tofu, fish, multiple vegetable dishes, and exotic courses such as farm-raised swan and pigeon (the last with the head on the plate too!)

In terms of wine, we started with a Malvasia from Champion Dragon Winery (Guanlong, in Chinese). It was floral with strong minerality, and unfortunately was served too warm – as is common in China with all wines. Next were the 2006 Cabernet and 2006 Reserve Merlot from Aromatic Gardens. Both were quite good with a ripe berry nose, medium-bodied and soft tannins, but the merlot actually had better concentration and some spice. Neither wine showed any complexity and both had medium-length finishes. As it was to turn out, the Merlot ended up being the best wine of the trip. Unfortunately, I was told that it is only available locally.

As is traditional, they served the wine in very small glasses and provided about a one-ounce pour so that we could “gambay” (toast) with it. This required you to drink the complete glass, upon which it was promptly refilled. I was familiar with the custom from my last visit to China and knew as a woman it was expected that I participate in the first “bottoms up,” but afterwards could sip. Demei, our English speaking guide on this portion of the trip, kept cautioning and reminding me of this – which I appreciated. However, the whole custom is rather upsetting to me personally, because wine is not tasted for pleasure, but is knocked back as a shot. On the plus side, the Chinese government is encouraging people to drink wine (12-13% alcohol) over the obnoxious distilled rice spirit (40-60% proof) to cut down on riotous drinking and death from alcohol poisoning, as well as to save rice for food.

As we proceeded through the evening with approximately 10 toasts, the men became more and more inebriated. This was accelerated when a troop of dancing women brought full goblets of wine to us on 2 occasions. The goblets were made of jade, gold, and silver – rather like the chalices at church, but without the stem. After toasting, they placed silk scarves around our necks to welcome us to the region. Soon we were all invited to dance with the dancers, who wore wonderful Arabic, Mongolian and Chinese costumes. Their dances were amazing, and this was truly one of the highlights of my wine travels around the world. We finally stumbled back to our rooms around midnight and didn’t have any trouble sleeping.

Traveling from Beijing to Heshuo, Xinjiang - China

(8/19/09) Earlier this year, I was honored to receive another invitation to present at a conference in China – all expenses covered by the Chinese government, with the location being the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. As China is now the 6th largest wine producing country in the world and has over 600 wineries, I was very excited to attend.

When I arrived in Beijing on the non-stop United flight from San Francisco, I was amazed at how the city had changed since I had been there two years ago. Last time I arrived in an old crowded terminal and stayed near the Agriculture University in a rather run-down part of town with people camping out on the sidewalk. It was a colorful side of China, but we were cautioned not to walk the streets on our own. This time, we flew into the brand new international Terminal 3 built especially for the Olympics and took a taxi to the Taiwan Hotel downtown. The terminal is a work of art, and flawlessly clean with signs and announcements in multiple languages, including English. I was very impressed. The drive downtown had obviously been beautified with trees, gardens and lakes lining the modern freeway, as well as elegant Chinese buildings.

Professor Qin Ma had invited me, and she sent two of her students to meet me at the airport and escort me to the hotel. I landed at 2:15 and was in my hotel room by 4pm – about a 40 minute ride from the airport. The Taiwan Hotel is clean and basic, but situated in a good location in the heart of the city and near the famous outdoor eating stands. I unpacked, took a power nap, showered, and then met the rest of the team at 6pm in the lobby as planned. Qin had recruited 6 of us from around the world specializing in grapes and/or wine - with two professors from Israel, one each from Italy and Australia, and a wine writer originally from Canada who was living in Beijing. I was the only female, except for the wife of one of the Israeli professors and Qin. By the end of our 7 days together, we would know each other quite well.

Dinner was a happy affair at a local Chinese restaurant within walking distance, and then I went back to the hotel and promptly fell asleep in order to be ready for our 8am departure to Heshuo – the first stop on our itinerary. We caught a 3-hour Air China flight to Urumqi (the site of the ethnic riots where 197 people were killed 2 months ago – but we were assured it was still safe to travel), and then were treated to a banquet lunch at the newly opened Urumqi Airport Hotel by local wine government dignitaries. The food was fabulous (see photo of spicy mutton) with many local specialties such as mutton, pork, melons, and lamb pizza. However instead of wine, they served beer.

One of the dismaying aspects of arriving in Xinjiang is when we discovered that our cell phones and Internet access were blocked. This was due to the unrest in the area, and all of us were upset that we were not told this in advance. Demei, our guide for this portion of the trip called Qin, who had remained in Beijing and would join us several days later in Turpan, to voice our concerns. It turns out that Chinese cell phones were not blocked – just ours. Qin kindly phoned our families to let them know we were safe and that they would not hear from us for a week. It was strange to spend a whole week cut off from the Internet and all news from the rest of the world.

After the 2 hour lunch, we climbed into a mini-van and drove 5 hours through the desert and high mountains to Heshuo. The drive was part fascination and part hell as we passed windmills, camels, vendors selling table grapes – and stopped at the most appalling restrooms I’ve ever visited in my life. With the temperature hovering in the 90’s F, the open stall bathrooms stank so bad it was hard to enter – and looked like the scene from Slum Dog Millionaire. As we left the desert and started the climb through the mountains, the road became winding and it was easy to get carsick. The scenery reminded me a bit of the Badlands of South Dakota with no trees, grass, or animals – only huge rocky hills and giant sand-dunes rising on all sides. As the sun set and it grew darker, I prayed the journey would end, but we didn’t arrive at Heshuo until 9pm.

The Heshuo portion of the conference was hosted by the Aromatic Gardens Winery about 5 miles from the China’s largest freshwater Lake Bosten. The winery is one of the largest in the area, and also boasts huge gardens, a hotel, conference center, restaurant, and other agriculture crops such as tomatoes, red peppers, and wonderful fresh vegetables. The whole place is organic – in fact, all of Heshuo is. It is so isolated from the rest of the world, that there is no other industry but agriculture. Amazingly, it is so pristine that no herbicides, pesticides or fungicides are needed. They don’t even have to put sulfur (which is an organic substance) on their wine grapes, because the climate is dry and they don’t suffer from powdery mildew.

The inside of my hotel room was very nice – in fact, the best on the whole trip – but the outside of the building looked like an army barrack; very bare with paint chipping off the wall. They had tried to make the area look like a resort with a few yurts (Mongolian tents) and a swimming pool, but lining the drive-way with old tires didn’t help the overall appearance. The other downside is that during the 2 nights we stayed there, we never had hot water, so I didn’t get to shower and wash my hair for several days. Not enjoyable. On the positive side, however, was the hospitality – see next posts for details.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Private Tasting in Stanley, Idaho with 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards

The next day we drove in a caravan of 4 vehicles to Stanley, Idaho – taking the scenic route over Highway 12 through some amazingly steep mountain passes, but breath-taking scenery. Though Google Map told us it would take 3.5 hours, we managed to make it in 2 hours and 50 minutes. The family reunion was scheduled to take place in Stanley because my uncle owns the Sawtooth Luce restaurant there. When we arrived, they had prepared large pizzas to welcome us for lunch.

Next we headed out to Smiley Creek Ranch where we had rented out the place for all 40 family members who arrived from across the nation. Smiley Creek offers standard lodge rooms (which we booked); cabins; teepees; and campsites – something for every budget. They also provided 2 wonderful dinners and scheduled a private wine-tasting for us with 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards out of Eagle, Idaho.

Sara, a marketing rep for 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards, ( set up a long table for us outside and provided an informative lecture on the farming philosophy of the winery. They are one of the only Certified Organic vineyards and wineries in the State of Idaho; have 41 acres and produce 10,000 cases. Sara let us taste through 7 different wines, and I found myself extremely impressed with their Rhone varietals (viognier, roussanne and syrah). She said that many experts are starting to believe that Idaho has the right terrior to grow good Rhones. I have to admit that their Roussanne was the best I’ve ever tasted – however this is a rare grape, even in the Rhone, so I’ve only tasted a few other 100% Roussannes, but this one was exceptional -- along with two others:

2008 Estate Grown Roussanne, 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards – lovely aromatic nose of pear with floral notes; dried pear on the palate with a refreshing crisp acidity; complex mineral notes, and a very long finish. Amazing!
2008 Estate Grown Viognier, 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards – classic apricot and honey nose/palate with no oak; clean with a dry finish; lighter bodied and more elegant than most viogniers. Refreshing, but finishes with a slight burn.
2008 Estate Grown Chardonnay, 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards – a very pretty elegant chardonnay with a kiss of oak to mingle with bright apple and citrus notes. Good balance with crisp acid and an intriguing floral nose.

Our 3 days in Stanley also included drinking much wine and beer around the campfire in the evening, with some people staying up quite late into the night. The kids loved playing Tag and racing around the hills every evening. Saturday night’s special dinner of steak, Idaho trout and stuffed chicken prepared by the chef at Smiley Creek Lodge was excellent. We spent one crazy morning rafting down the Salmon River with 30 of us piled on 5 rafts and having huge water fights over the rapids. We all emerged completely soaked. We spend a sunny and fun afternoon at Redfish Lake swimming and renting paddle boats. Hiking and horseback riding were other fun events, as well as time catching up with all the relatives. Altogether, it was a wonderful reunion and wine-tasting trip to Idaho!

Finding Great Idaho Wines at the Grape Escape Wine Bar – Cinder and Fraser

After asking around during the day for a restaurant recommendation – a place where we could get fresh Idaho trout and a good wine list – the name Red Feather came up so often that we called there to book a table. It is located in the charming downtown area of Boise near the river and all of the shops. When we arrived a farmer’s market was in progress selling fresh produce and other goodies.

Red Feather, like most of the restaurants along the street, had outdoor seating, and as the night was a balmy 80F, we hoped to sit outside. Unfortunately we were escorted upstairs to a dark table with leopard skin booths in what seemed like the bar area. It seemed a strange place to seat 4 adults with 4 kids under the age of 12, but perhaps they were trying to hide us.

Despite my disappointment over our table, our server was excellent and the food was outstanding. We started with the smoked Idaho trout appetizer, and then ordered other fresh fish on the menu. They have an incredible wine list focusing on West Coast wines with a good by the glass selection, and an amazing glassed-in wine cellar that is 2 stories tall. Perhaps because we had tasted Idaho wine all day, I started with a glass of the Gruet NV Sparkling Brut from New Mexico – one of my standard favorites; and then moved on to an intriguing gruner vetliner from the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

After dinner, we wandered around a bit and then settled into a wonderful outdoor table at the Grape Escape Wine Bar just down the street from the restaurant. Our server, Jackie, whose business card listed her job title as Room Brightener, was absolutely delightful and very knowledgeable about Idaho wine. She was also very good to the kids and had no problem with us ordering them ice cream from across the street and letting them eat it at our table -- while we 4 adults had our ‘ice cream.” We each ordered a big glass of red wine. My sister decided on an Oregon pinot noir; while my cousin Matt went for a Napa blend. Stacie and I chose to stay with Idaho and we asked Jackie for her recommendation on a big red. Her suggestions were right on…. and we ended up with two of our very favorite Idaho red wines:

2007 Cinder Winery Syrah – dark purple-black wine with rich blackberry and spice nose/palate. Good concentration and complexity with hints of smoke and espresso. Very long finish. Wow – this was the best red wine I tasted in Idaho. It reminded me of a big chewy Walla Walla syrah in style. Afterwards, we found out from Jackie that this wine was made by a woman winemaker who worked in Washington State at St. Michelle Winery for many years. (

2007 Fraser Cabernet Sauvignon – an elegant cabernet with cassis, clove and herbal notes. Medium-bodied, but with good concentration. Finishes with a tart berry note. The wine bottle itself is very attractive with a plaid motif to emphasis the Scottish connection. (

So we ended the night on a great high at the Grape Escape Wine Bar, and I would recommend it as a definite stop on any Idaho wine-tasting trip.

Great Idaho Wines at Bitner, Koenig, and Snake River Winery

One thing we didn’t realize is that many Idaho wineries are only open on the weekend, and since we had scheduled our appointment with St. Chapelle for Thursday (they are actually open every day), we were disappointed to find that several other wineries we wanted to visit were not accessible. Fortunately Bitner Vineyards was willing to make an exception and the owner, Ron Bitner, greeted us with warm Idaho hospitality.

Bitner is a very small winery located in a cute adobe building with a large wooden deck overlooking the hillside vineyards. Fabulous view! They have been farming grapes for over 27 years, but make a small amount of wine – less than 2500 cases -- with the assistance of consulting winemaker, Greg Koenig. We tasted 6 wines (no tasting fee) and my favorites were: 2008 Bitner Chardonnay ($16) with a nose/palate of ripe apple, pear and vanilla with a delightful butterscotch finish. Yes, it was oaky, but not overdone. 2007 Dry Riesling ($12) – a great value with peach and spice nose/palate and a refreshing high acid finish with a touch of lemon. 2006 Bitner Merlot – highly fragrant nose of plum and spice with a ripe red fruit on the palate and a long finish.

When we asked where to go for lunch, Ron suggested the Orchard House down the road where we enjoyed sitting outside on the patio while the kids played on the hammock in the garden. The restaurant had just been filmed for the TV show Diners, Drive-in & Dives, and their specialty is home-made onion rings and steak fingers – which, of course, we promptly ordered along with some sandwiches and salads. Since the day was so hot – in the 90’s – we opted for a white wine and we very pleased with their extensive Idaho wine list. Even more pleasing were the wine prices which were set to match tasting room prices. Why can’t the rest of the US follow suit?

I was so impressed I asked the owner about her wine pricing philosophy, and she answered that since many visitors came during the week when the wineries were closed that she wanted to make the wines available. Now that’s collaborative wine tourism – impressive! Since Koenig was one of the wineries we had hoped to visit, we ordered their 2007 Koenig Vineyards Viognier for only $17 a bottle. It had a classic nose and palate of peach, apricot, and honey, yet had a pleasing dry finish (1.5 RS) and a moderate alcohol of only 13.2%. Very well made, and perfect for such a hot day.

After lunch we headed back to Boise where there are 2 tasting rooms in the downtown area. Snake River Winery is open during the week and they were kind enough to give us directions when we called. You will need money for the parking meters, but plan to spend some time because the tasting room is in the middle of the shopping area. Boise has a delightful downtown with a walking mall, fountains, a park, and many wonderful restaurants.

Snake River Winery is impressive in that they have 88 acres and grown a wide variety of different grapes ranging from the classic to unusual varieties such as Zweigelt, Tinto Cao, and Orange Muscat. We were allowed to taste 5 wines complimentary, and we all fell in love with the 2006 Malbec Snake River Winery ($17.29). It was very impressive with dark velvety berry notes; spicy cloves; smooth tannins and good concentration. Everyone in our party bought at least a couple of bottles. I also found the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon to be rather unique in that it had some Old World characteristics of restrained red fruit with touches of smoke, leather, bacon and mint on the finish. Quite complex.

We finished tasting around 4pm; did a little shopping; and then headed back to the hotel (Marriott Springhill Suites) to relax by the pool before getting dressed for dinner at 8pm.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Idaho Wines – Great Rieslings at St. Chapelle Winery

When I received the invitation for the family reunion to be held in Stanley, Idaho, I immediately began planning a side-trip to Idaho wine country. When my wine-loving Seattle sister and cousins from Oregon heard about the outing, they asked to join, and we had several fun-filled days tasting Idaho wine from 8 different wineries.

You may be amazed to learn that Idaho now has 29 wineries and one AVA (American Viticulture Area) called the Snake River AVA. The majority of these wineries are located close Boise, though there are a few in Northern Idaho. See for a list of wineries and directions. Grapes were actually first planted here in 1862, but didn’t make it through Prohibition. The oldest and largest winery is St. Chapelle established in 1976, and when I reached out to my network, I was pleased to learn that the winemaker there was still Chuck Devlin whom I had met several years earlier at the West Coast Wine Competition.

Chuck immediately responded to my email requesting a private tour and tasting, and he greeted us at the winery at 10:30am on July 30. With 4 adults and 4 kids we were rather a boisterous group, but Chuck was a wonderful host and welcomed us with his famous dry Riesling, which was one of my favorites.

St. Chapelle and most of the other wineries of the Snake River AVA are about a 40 minute drive from Boise going East on 84 and then taking Exit 28 at Caldwell. The valley is beautiful with the Snake River flowing through the center, and surrounded by hills with vineyards and the larger Owyhee Mountains in the background. There is also a famous and distinctive rock outcropping known as Lizard Butte. St. Chapelle itself sits up on a hill overlooking the valley ( The architecture is designed to look like a chapel because the owners wanted to build a winery that reminded them of the famous chapel in Hermitage, France (see my earlier blog on visiting this area).

Viticulture – Chuck took us into the vineyard and we saw that it and most of the other vineyards in the AVA are on 12 x 8 spacing, spur-pruned, and use sustainable farming with irrigation. He said the climate was primarily high desert with long hot sunny days in the summer and cool nights. It was 97 F degrees the day we visited. In most years they only receive around 11 inches of rain, so irrigation is necessary. The soil is very sandy and drains well. It used to be an old lake bed. Vines on southwest slopes with more afternoon sun exposure do best, as well as those that receive some wine. This helps the grapes ripen in time for the frosts of October, and the wind and dry weather also help to decrease threats of powdery mildew. Due to early frosts and snowy winters, they actually produce ice wine in Idaho! News to me!

In terms of varietals, riesling seems to be one of the most prolific grapes and Idaho has gained some good press and following for their rieslings. At the same time, they seem to be growing many other types of varietals which traditional viticulture logic would NOT recommend growing together, such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and malbec next to riesling and gew├╝rztraminer, as well as Rhone varietals like syrah, roussanne and viognier. I also couldn’t get any clear answers on rootstocks and clones, and so I am assuming that they are in an experimental mode and trying to determine what will grow best here.

Riesling is actually an interesting choice as the summers are quite hot in the Boise area – not at all like Riesling’s cooler mountain home in Germany. However, Idaho may be more similar to the Clare Valley of Australia with its hot days and cool nights; yet Idaho Rieslings do not have the distinctive lime character of Clare. It will be interesting to see how this grape plays out here -- as there are those who believe the climate is better suited to Rhone varietals.

In terms of St. Chapelle, we tasted 13 different wines, and I found 4 definite favorites:

2008 St. Chapelle Dry Riesling – very aromatic nose of roses and honeysuckle with peach and lime on the palate. Medium to long finish with refreshingly crisp acid. Delightful!

2007 St. Chapelle Merlot – medium bodied red with spicy nose/palate of plums and cloves. Aged half and half in used French and American oak for 6 months.

2008 St. Chapelle Cabernet Franc Late Harvest – a rare wine which is difficult to find (have only had one other from Canada) in a lovely pink color with sweet strawberry rhubarb nose/palate; viscous body; and great acid finish. R.S. around 18%.

2008 St. Chapelle Late Harvest Riesling –lovely golden yellow sweet wine with honey and apricot on nose and palate. Some kiwi on finish. Yum! R.S. around 18%.

St. Chapelle also makes a sparkling Riesling, and has just introduced 3 semi-sweet wines they refer to as “soft.” There is a soft white, red, and rose, and they purposely leave residual sugar in the wine at around 6.5%. They created these wines in response to customer feedback and requests for sweeter wines – good for them! And guess what – the wines are flying off the shelf. Very popular. This is good, because St. Chapelle is quite a large winery at 150,000 cases made from over 600 acres of purchased grapes. They do not own any of their own vineyards.

Winemaking - since they have won so many medals and awards for their rieslings, I asked Chuck to focus on winemaking for riesling only. They generally pick the grapes in early October at an ideal brix of 23.5 to 25 (of course, late harvest wines are picked at a much higher sugar level). Grapes are destemmed and then crushed in a large Bucher press. They are then cold-soaked for 24 hours with no settling enzymes. If not clear enough, he will use a centrifuge. Juice is transferred to large temperature controlled stainless tanks where Steinberg yeast is added. The dry Riesling generally takes around 3 weeks to finish fermentation at cool temperatures (55 – 65F), but the sweeter ones are stopped by adding a small amount of SO2 and filtering. Finished wine generally stays in the tank for at least a month and is protected with nitrogen gas. They have their own bottling line which processes 85 bottles per minute. Bottles sparged with nitrogen and more SO2 added before corking for a total of 30-35 ppm free.

Interestingly Chuck mentioned that during the years in which he makes ice wine, he uses a continuous screw press to extract the small amounts of sweet juice from the frozen grapes. When asked about the temperature at which he harvests ice wine, he said that Idaho does not have a required F/C level such as the -8C in Canada and Germany.

Altogether our visit to St. Chapelle was very enjoyable. We purchased about 2 cases of wine before we left, as well as some other goodies from the beautifully appointed tasting room. My sister and cousins were delighted with the visit.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Day Trip to Monticello – Jefferson Vineyards, Kluge and Veritas Wineries

I must admit that Thomas Jefferson is my favorite president, and not just because of his love for wine and dream of Americans growing winegrapes -- but also because he was a world-traveler, well read, and the author of the Declaration of Independence. When we discovered that his home, Monticello, was only a 1-hour drive from our resort, we immediately decided that a trip was in order.

The day greeted us with a perfect blue sky and a balmy 85 F degrees, and when we arrived at Monticello, it was even warmer. The $20 admission fee seemed rather steep at first, but it was worth it because it included an inspirational 20 minute movie on his life, then a shuttle ride and guided tour through his house, gardens, and plantation. They actually have a small vineyard planted below his house now, though it didn’t survive when he was alive.

It turns out that the place that Jefferson had selected to plant his vineyard is actually one mile away, and is now the location of the Jefferson Vineyards. So of course, that was our next stop, and we had another delightful tasting with a relaxed down-to-earth pourer. The winery was started in 1981, has 29 acres, and is on Rabun Clay loam soil. They produce 5,000 to 9,000 cases ; are 60% estate wines, 100% Virginia grapes, and sell in 34 states. Wine Spectator has awarded them the “most consistent” wines in Virginia with decent scores in the mid to high 80’s. We tasted 9 wines, of which I had 4 favorites:

2008 Jefferson Vineyards Pinot Gris – lovely floral and citrus nose with grapefruit palate and very crisp refreshing high acid finish. Yes! I could drink this all summer.($18)
2008 Jefferson Vineyards Viognier – classic viognier with honey, peaches, apricot, bigger body, creamy and a slightly sweet finish. Very well made, but I wish it could have been completely dry.($25)
2006 Jefferson Vineyards Meritage – inviting dark berry and spice nose; medium body; elegant; coffee and herbs. Good acid; great food wine. 37% cabernet franc; 30% merlot; 23% petite verdot; 10% cab. ($30)
2007 Jefferson Vineyards Petit Verdot – perfumed nose of spice, dark berry, and tobacco with consistent palate. Good concentration and bigger structure than the 2006. We purchased a bottle of this and had with rib-eyes at our condo a few nights later – it was so good! ($20)

Next stop by Kluge Estate, about 15 minutes up the winding road through beautiful green meadows, vineyards, and leafy trees. It turns out the Kluge specializes in sparkling wine and is the largest vineyard holding in Virginia with 210 acres. When we arrived people were sitting outside on the porch tasting wine in the most intriguing glasses I have seen in a long time. They were thin triangle shaped “thimbles” and were placed in a wooden rack holder – 6 glasses per rack. When we received ours, I was surprised to find that the glasses were made of a light plastic. How very clever, and what a unique and beautiful presentation.

Unfortunately the reception at Kluge was not as charming as the wine presentation. We were kept waiting along with several other customers for almost ten minutes while the one tasting rep talked loudly on the phone in the other room. When she finally came back in the room she announced that it was her boss who was detaining her on the phone and seemed quite flustered and not very friendly. She couldn’t answer our viticulture and winemaking questions, and there was nothing written up to explain the process to us.

We decided to sit inside the air-conditioned tasting room to try the six wines in the $12 tasting. Outside it was quite humid and felt like the temperature had climbed into the 90’s. My favorite wine was the basic Kluge SP Blanc de Blanc for $28 which was made from 100% chardonnay and had a very refreshing citrus finish. My husband, who has opposite tastes from me when it comes to sparkling wine, preferred the bigger more yeasty Kluge SP Reserve 2005 for $48. The rose and blanc de noir both had a strange sweet tart finish and lacked finesse. We also tasted 2 still reds which had a very green edge to them. Definitely a place to buy sparkling. We left without any acknowledgement or good-bye from the stressed out tasting rep.

On the way to our next winery, we stopped at the historic Michie Tavern established in 1784 and enjoyed walking through the shop filled with so many unique items. Next we headed west towards Veritas Winery – which had been recommended to us by 3 different people along the way. It turned out to be a great suggestion, as one of the owners, a woman from the UK, was helping out at the tasting bar. She was extremely informative and passionate about Virginia wine, and we had a great time tasting with her and the staff.

The location of Veritas is about 30 minutes from Charlottesville and off the beaten path a bit, but is surrounded by vineyards and hillsides, and includes a large welcoming wooden tasting room with a big porch with rocking chairs. They have 24 acres, produce 14,000 cases, use riparia and 3309 rootstock, and are planted on the famous red clay soil of Virginia. She explained that most of the vineyards are on a south-facing slope so they can get enough sun. She also mentioned that the reason you don’t find much cabernet sauvignon in Virginia is because the growing season isn’t long enough and they can’t get it ripe. Therefore, cabernet franc triumphs here.

All of the wines we tasted were well-made, and the owner told us her daughter was studying winemaking in California. We actually tasted through 12 different wines, including some unique varietals such as Petite Munseng, Traminette, and the Tannat and Touriga Nacional in their signature port Othello. My favorites included the following:

2008 Veritas Sauvignon Blanc ($18) – a bracingly high acid, fresh grapefruit white wine that I fell in love with. It had a classic grass and citrus nose, and a pleasing lime blossom accent. Perfect with seafood.
2008 Veritas Chardonnay Saddleback 2008 ($18)– modeled after a Chablis, this is a clean minerally unoaked chardonnay (well – some neutral oak), with hints of green apple and a long well balanced finish. Elegant!
2008 Veritas Viognier ($20)– lovely floral nose; palate of peach and apricot. Classic, and with a dry finish.
2008 Veritas Rose ($14) – a very dry rose with spicy fruit nose and strawberry palate.
2007 Veritas Vintner’s Reserve ($25)– a blend of cabernet franc, merlot and petite verdot, this oak aged red provided dark red fruit, cedar, and some herbal notes. Elegant, but with a firm tannin structure; it will pair well with a big steak.

The rest of our week in Virginia included 2 days in D.C. where we visited the National Art Gallery, the White House, and the Smithsonian – including the space shuttle exhibit near the airport. It was my first visit to this great city, and I was amazed to find that all of the sites are free! A nice benefit to tax paying citizens. We also parked our car outside the loop and rode the subway each day. By the time we were finished touring the capital, we were happy to drive the 2 hours back to Massanutten and relax in the peaceful Virginia countryside.

We continued to taste Virginia wine by the glass at the various restaurants we visited, but didn’t have the chance to go to anymore wineries. I found several more excellent chardonnays which were crisp and refreshing – not the big over-oaked butter bombs we often find on the West Coast. In the end, I left impressed with Virginia wines – especially the viogniers, chardonnays, cabernet francs and petite verdots. We also met some wonderful people at the wineries, and would recommend that others visit charming Virginia wine country. The wines are well-made, elegant and distinctive – with a sense of place. The people are passionate, friendly, and fun.

Day Trip to CrossKeys Vineyards – Great Virginina Cabernet Franc

After lunch we drove to the nearest winery, CrossKeys Vineyards ( in Harrisonburg, and had a delightful tasting. The winery is very impressive with a large stone courtyard and beautiful cream stucco buildings. It is surrounded by vineyards – all with vertical shoot positioning (VSP) and 8 by 4 feet spacing. They have 29 acres, and produce 5500 cases of estate wine. It was a rather crowded tasting room for a Monday afternoon, and while there we couldn’t help but overhear how many people came in asking for their sweet wines. It appears that Virginia wine drinkers have a sweet tooth, because we did encounter sweet wines at every winery we visited and on the grocery store shelves – along with many fruit wines as well. I was impressed that they are trying to cater to all types of customers, and most every place we visited was friendly, relaxed and casual. We tried 7 wines at CrossKeys and found them all to be well-crafted, but our favorites were:

2008 Fiore CrossKeys – a delightful rose of Cabernet Franc that was flying off the shelf. They sold several cases while we were there and were running out of stock. It had a lovely berry nose and creamy mouthfeel with raspberry and pomegranate on the palate. Though it ended with 1% RS, it was still quite refreshing. I could see why it was selling so well ($16.50).

2007 Cabernet Franc CrossKeys – this was a lovely spicy fruity cabernet franc – just how it should taste. Both Mike and I were delighted with it, and bought a bottle. Plum, spicy and earthy nose; medium bodied; plum and blackberry on palate; good acid. $21.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Virginia Wines – Fun, Elegant and Distinctive

It’s hard to believe that Virginia is now 5th in the nation in terms of wine production, but it is true according to several Virginia wineries I have visited this past week. What’s more – Virginia has over 140 different wineries and 7 AVA’s (American Viticulture Areas). The most prolific AVA in terms of total number of wineries and highest production rate is the Monticello AVA – where Thomas Jefferson’s famous house and estate are located. At the same time, there are also many wineries about one hour’s drive outside of Washington DC in what is called “Mid-Northern Virginia, but is not yet an AVA. I was fortunate enough to visit both areas, as well as the Shenandoah AVA, and I found the wines to be elegant and food friendly. Maps and directions can be found at

This was not my first time to taste Virginia wines, as I’ve tried them at the Unified Conference in California each year during their trade show tasting, as well as during the Grand Harvest wine competitions. I’ve always been very impressed by the viogniers – for which Virginia has already achieved much acclaim, but while here this week, I found myself equally impressed with some of the cabernet francs and petite verdots. In addition, they seem to be experimenting with other unique varietals, as we encountered tannat, touriga national, rkatsiteli and others!

We flew into Dulles on Saturday, June 27th and then drove 2 hours to the Massanutten Resort in the Shenandoah Mountains. It is a beautiful resort with 2 golf courses and a ski area, as well as many activities. Our condo is perched high on the hillside and we are surrounded by the tree covered hills. Just a few miles up the road is the famous Skyline Drive that runs along the Appalachian Trail.

On first glance, it doesn’t appear to be a place where you would think of planting grapes. There are many trees which had to be cut down, the weather is humid, and the soil is primarily red clay. However, there are several wineries within a 20 minutes drive, and one hour away is Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia; Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home; and a multitude of wineries. Of course, this is where Jefferson had his original vision of growing grapes and encouraging every family to live the Agrarian Ideal by farming and making wine. Unfortunately, though he tried to plant his vineyard 7 different times between 1774 and 1816, it always failed due to the powdery and downy mildew that haunt this part of the world. Today, however, his vision is alive and well, and there is a burgeoning pride in Virginia wine.

The first night we arrived, we stopped at a grocery store and I bought a bottle of 2005 Merlot from the Williamsburg Winery in southern Virginia. It was a great deal at $9 and we weren’t sure what to expect, but it was pleasant, elegant with subdued plum fruit and soft tannins. Definitely more European in nature that the big concentrated fruity wines of California. However, it paired quite well with the meatballs we had the first evening – around 11pm when we finally made it to our condo, after a 3 hour plane delay in SFO. However, it was only 8pm at home, so we were still wide awake.

Waking up the next morning, however, was more challenging, and if the front desk hadn’t called us at 9am to invite us to a timeshare presentation who knows when we would have awoken. We politely declined the presentation and enjoyed coffee on the deck in the warm 80 F weather while viewing the amazing Appalachian Mountains rising around us.

After checking out the resort and golf courses, we had lunch at the Fareways Restaurant and I was delighted to see that they offered a flight of 4 Virginia wines for only $6. Of course, I promptly ordered it, and they brought it out with impressive presentation on a wooden board with all 4 wines proudly presented and a card describing each wine. I am always pleased to see restaurants which feature local wineries in this way, even though they were missing vintage dates:

Rapidan River Semi-Dry Riesling with a rather subdued nose for a Riesling but citrus and peach on the palate and diesel plus residual sugar (RS) on the finish. Simple and straight-forward, but we found out later it was actually “American” grapes made in Virginia.
Horton Rkatsitel – lovely floral nose; honeysuckle, peach and citrus palate. Good attack, but rather cloying finish with some yeasty notes. I had only had a Rkatsitel once before – from Bulgaria – and I thought the Virginia one was better made. The most prolific grape in Russia, this is a varietal that is not often found, so it was fun to be able to try it. There was a trace of RS on this one, but not as sweet at the Riesling.
Prince Michel Merlot – Red berry and plum nose; medium bodied with a very tart finish and high acid. Not as elegant as the merlot we had the evening before, but the acid allowed it to work well with food. It paired well with my sirloin burger.
Prince Michel Cabernet Franc – Lovely violet nose, medium body, but strong herbal palate with sour finish.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Chateau de Crain, Entre-Deux-Mers

I had never visited this part of Bordeaux before and was surprised to see how lushly green it is with rolling hills and many ancient chateaux and fortresses. It was only a 20 minute drive from the restaurant to Chateau de Crain, and yet it felt like we had quickly entered another world. Entre Deux Mers is one of the oldest parts of Bordeaux and it seems to have a magical unspoiled quality – almost as if fairies might live in the fields and trees.

We found Chateau de Crain quite easily as there were signs posted, and even though we arrived 10 minutes early, the owner Marie-Cecile Fougere was there to meet us. I had specifically requested to visit a winery in this area, and was pleased to see that Marie-Cecile was dressed like a California winemaker – in jeans and a black long sleeved shirt. The winery is separate from the ancient chateau that looks like a fairytale castle from the distance. However, Marie-Cecile told us that it is drafty and vacant, and that she lives in a small house behind the castle.

The winery, which looks like an ancient stone barn, is apparently the oldest chai in Bordeaux with the estate being described in records in 1290. Marie-Cecile said they have 47 hectares of red and 11 of white. The red (merlot, cab, CF, malbec) is Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Superior AOC, as only white wine (SB, Sem, Sauvignon Gris, and Muscadelle) falls under the Entre-Deux-Mers AOC. The soil is clay and limestone, and we could clearly see the white of the limestone in the dirt road. She told us that there were huge caves under the vineyards where they had quarried for limestone, and that for many years the caves had also been used to grow mushrooms. However, now the estate only focused on wine.

In the vineyards the spacing is wider at 2 meters x 1 meter to allow for mechanical harvesting. They have around 5000 vines per hectare, and though on double guyot, the trellising appeared higher to me. Total buds per vine are 12. They hedge and de-leaf mechanically as well. Method: lutte raisonne, with a consultant from the coop coming in once a week to check for insects, disease, etc – rather like the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) process in the US.

In the cellars, they produce around 250,000 bottles of red and 60,000 of white. Marie-Cecile says that even though they harvest mechanically, she personally performs triage on all of the grapes as they enter the cellar. For the whites, she does 20 hours of skin contact at a low temperature; crushes using a pneumatic press, and then ferments in stainless for 1 month at 15-20C using a selected sauvignon yeast. The wine does not go through ML or see time in oak, but she lets it rest on the lees and does some battonage in tank. She fines with bentonite, assembles one month before bottling and filters.

The reds are destemmed/crushed and then go through 4-5 days of cold stabilization in stainless steel (inox) tank before adding Mediterranean yeast. She ferments at 22-28C with a total of 1 month maceration. She hires a man to do pigeage 2 to 3 times a day in the beginning, and then does remontage with a little oxygen to finish. ML is also finished in tank, and then she presses and puts part of the wine in large 300 liter American oak barrels. The Bordeaux AOC gets 1 month, and the Bordeaux Superior receives 6 months. She purchases 40 new barrels each year, and only wants a “touch of oak” on her wines.

We tasted out of tank, which was rather fun. Starting with the 2008 Chateau de Crain Blanc, it was still cloudy, but had a fresh grassy nose; minerality on the palate and a very high acid. Marie-Cecile said it paired well with oysters. We then moved onto the 2008 Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superior in tank and tasted different lots. It was enlightening to see the variation in each one. Some were filled with ripe fruit, whereas others were harshly tannic. At the end she opened a magnum of 2006 Chateau de Crain Bordeaux Superior which was a dark ruby with ripe fruit, a hint of spicy American oak and vanilla. It was rich with soft tannins, and I would enjoy drinking it with food. We tried to buy a bottle of her white, but she ended up giving it to us. How very kind.

Chateau de Crain is able to produce all of their wine with only 5 full-time employees and a few consultants. Marie-Cecile sells much of the red to Carrefour, as well as to restaurants in Paris, the Novetel hotel chain, and small wine shops in France. She exports 20% to Japan, UK, Germany Switzerland and Florida.

Heading Back to Sonoma, California – since we had enjoyed such a large and late lunch, we just made a green salad and snacked on pate, cheese and wine back at the hotel while we packed. When the alarm went off at 4:30am, it was difficult to get up. As we stepped out of the hotel, we were surprised to find it was raining. Amazing that we had a whole sunny and warm week in Bordeaux, and the day we depart, it starts to rain. Thanks for being so kind to us – Bordeaux!

The flight home was uneventful. KLM treated us well in coach and gave us wine from South Africa. We left Bordeaux at 6:15am on Saturday, May 9 and arrived back in San Francisco at 1:10pm on May 9. The weather was sunny and warm. My mother told us it had rained the whole time we were in France, and that yesterday was the first sunny day. Perhaps the sun was following us?

Lunch at Jean Marie Amat Restaurant in Bordeaux

Since May 8 is a holiday in France, we were not sure if we would find restaurants open. So the evening before we attempted to make an online reservation at the very famous Jean Marie Amat in the gutted Chateau du Prince Noir. Barnard from Chateau Monlot had recommended it – providing a nice article written by the New York Times. However, by morning we had still not heard back from them, so I telephoned and was delighted to hear them say they had received my request and were holding a table for us at 1pm.

Unfortunately finding the restaurant is much more difficult than making online reservations. We got hopelessly lost in the old and hilly town of Lormont across the bridge from Bordeaux. We finally called the restaurant for directions and they asked if we had a GPS. When we said no, I could hear them sigh into the telephone. Eventually however, we found it by their clue that it was behind a grocery store.

The site is impressive – encased in the old Chateau overlooking the bridge. D├ęcor is modern with white Corian tables and no table cloths. I really enjoyed the large framed photographs of the hands of winemakers. We ordered the famous 30E lunch menu with glasses of white and red wine. It was absolutely heaven, and the service was perfect. I would eat here again anytime.

The lunch menu started with an amuse bouche of fish soup. First course was tartare de thon aux olives, which looked like a sculpture on the plate with a pleasing scoop of beet sorbet. We enjoyed both of these dishes with a white Graves. Next was pastille de pigeon et salade d’herbes. Mike described it as spicy pigeon with pine nuts, saffron and cinnamon encased in pastry. It was heavenly. The salad was the freshest I’ve ever tasted with mint, basil, and a spring carrot that looked like it had just been picked from the garden. We had this course with a Bordeaux Rouge that was very well made. Dessert was ananas – a masterpiece of caramelized and grilled pineapple on a bed of chopped mango, apple, tiny strawberries and garnish of fresh spearmint. It was served with a side of pineapple sorbet. We finished with coffee, canales, and small petite fours. Wow!