Category Archives: Wine

What I’ve Been Drinking of Late, Part 19

A rosé that delivers on much more than taste.
A rosé that delivers on much more than taste.

2021 Monarch Challenge North Coast Rosé

In 2016, Carlo Mondavi — yes, grandson of Robert Mondavi — created the Monarch Challenge to bring attention to the plight of the beautiful Monarch butterfly, whose population has been devastated since the advent of Roundup.

Every year since then, he and his brother Dante have produced a limited rosé through their RAEN Winery in Sebastopol to bring attention to this environmental calamity befalling this invaluable pollinator, and to inspire other like-minded vintners to do the same.

I had a chance to try a sample of this year’s 2021 Monarch Challenge North Coast Rosé ($30), sales of which will benefit the conservation organization, the Xerces Society, and Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating sick or orphaned wildlife.

Produced from RAEN Pinot Noir grapes and old-vine Grenache, all farmed organically, this pale salmon wine is an exuberant expression of strawberries and raspberries, with a hint of guava. It is crisp, tangy, and laced with minerality. It’s pure deliciousness.

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Dining Outside at Chez TJ

Dry-aged squab with confit mushrooms at Chez TJ.
Dry-aged squab with confit mushrooms at Chez TJ.

Operating a restaurant during the worst of the pandemic has untold challenges. But imagine if it’s one that’s housed in a historic circa-1894 Victorian with small rooms and tight hallways, and a tiny kitchen geared toward turning out exquisite upscale tasting-menus, not takeout fare in cardboard boxes.

Michelin-starred Chez TJ in downtown Mountain View not only weathered all of that, but also made a big chef change mid-pandemic, remodeled its interior, and even added a splashy outdoor dining area complete with modern fire pit, and a snazzy louvered roof that can close in inclement weather.

It remains a lovely and special experience, as always, as I found when I dined outside last week.

Owner George Aviet has a gift for spotting talent. Among the celebrated chefs who have headed Chez TJ early in their careers are: Joshua Skenes, who went on to open San Francisco’s Saison and Angler; Christopher Kostow, who went on to earn three Michelin stars at The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena; Bruno Chemel, who later opened his award-winning Baume in Palo Alto; Scott Nishiyama, who worked at the French Laundry, and is expected to open Ethel’s Fancy in Palo Alto this year; and most recently, Jarad Gallagher, who left to open Smoke Point BBQ in San Juan Bautista.

You can see the new outdoor dining area to the right.
You can see the new outdoor dining area to the right.

Christopher Lemerand took over in summer 2020, bringing along an equally impressive background, having cooked on the team at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco when it received its second Michelin star, and at Coi in San Francisco when it received its third Michelin star.

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What I’ve Been Drinking of Late, Part 18

A formidable wine to go with a formidable steak.
A formidable wine to go with a formidable steak.

2019 Shafer One Point Five

When it comes to wine, one of my most painful regrets happened decades ago at Napa’s Shafer Vineyards.

I was enrolled in a multi-day wine course at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Campus in St. Helena. On the last day of class, we took a field trip to Shafer. Arranged in front of each of us was an array of nearly half a dozen glasses of some of the most impeccable Cabernet Sauvignons I’d ever had. I sipped, savored, enjoyed each mouthful blissfully, and then — I spit it all out.

Because right after class, I had to drive home in traffic, hours away. Ouch, the pitfalls of being your own designated driver.

All that glorious wine down the spittoon. It still haunts me. So, when a sample bottle of the 2019 Shafer One Point Five landed on my porch, I nearly leapt for joy.

The name “One Point Five” takes its name from “a generation and a half,” which is how John and Doug Shafer described their father-and-son wine-making partnership. This wine is 83 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 12 percent Merlot, 3 percent Malbec, and 2 percent Petit Verdot.

The grapes come predominantly from Shafer’s two Stags Leap District sites: the “Borderline” vineyard near the winery and Shafer’s hillside estate vineyard, which is the source of some of its most coveted wines.

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What I’ve Been Drinking of Late, Part 17

La Crema's Brut Rose is the perfect sip for a romantic dinner.
La Crema’s Brut Rose is the perfect sip for a romantic dinner.

La Crema Sparkling Brut Rose

A lovely pale pink-salmon in hue, the La Crema Sparkling Brut Rose Russian River Valley ($45) epitomizes Valentine’s Day in a glass.

Girly yet sophisticated, it fairly bursts with bright strawberries and raspberries with just a twinge of ginger on the finish. Crisp and zingy with plenty of acidity, it’s a blend of 65 percent Pinot Noir and 35 percent Chardonnay.

This nonvintage sparkling wine, of which I received a sample, is right at home, be it at a romantic holiday dinner or a casual backyard get-together. It’s sure to make any occasion feel that much more festive.

It’s available on the La Crema site, Safeway, and Marketview Liquor.

Cheers: Did you know that La Crema was founded in 1979 in Sonoma County, when most wineries in California were focusing on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, and turning a blind eye to Pinot Noir? It took the late-great winemaker Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke, founders of Kendall-Jackson Winery, to shine a spotlight on Burgundian-style Pinot Noir with a cool climate, single-vineyard focus with their La Crema wines.

Lagunitas Hoppy Refresher

What has hops, brewer’s yeast, but no alcohol? And isn’t beer or even non-alcoholic beer?

Meet Lagunitas Hoppy Refresher by the clever folks at that legendary Petaluma brewing company.

This uncanny, clear beverage pours with a thick foamy head just like beer, as I found when trying sample bottles. But it doesn’t try to mimic the taste of beer whatsoever.

It's made with hops, but isn't beer at all.
It’s made with hops, but isn’t beer at all.

Instead, it is its own thing — akin to sparkling water in texture and weight on the palate. It’s quenching and refreshingly dry, with a moderate hoppy bitterness on the finish and unexpected bursts of mango, orange and grapefruit on the palate.

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Dining Outside at Mago

A hearty wheat berry porridge finished with mustard greens and bottarga at Mago.
A hearty wheat berry porridge finished with mustard greens and bottarga at Mago.

If you’re on the hunt for a relatively reasonably priced tasting menu full of soulful flavors, where you don’t have to get dressed up fancy, and can sit comfortably at a heated outdoor patio, look no further than Oakland’s Mago.

Its name is Spanish for magician, and Chef-Owner Mark Liberman and his staff of just five certainly perform wizardry with such a small crew.

Opened in 2019, it’s Liberman’s first solo project, following his stint in San Francisco at the shuttered AQ restaurant.

Last week, I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant for dinner. There’s only one tasting menu offered each night, though vegetarian and vegan versions are always available on request.

It’s $75 per person for about eight courses, which are moderate in size, but all together will definitely leave you sated at the end. Because Liberman takes a vegetable-focused approach to his rustic, Colombian-meets-California dishes, you’ll leave plenty full yet still feeling buoyant.

Chef Mark Liberman manning the live-fire grill.
Chef Mark Liberman manning the live-fire grill.

With the tasting menu lasting about two hours, I was pleasantly surprised at how many diners were indulging in it on a school night (Wednesday). Ease-dropping, I could tell quite a few were regulars, too, which is always a good sign.

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