Cheers!

I realize it’s a cliche for me to post to my blog on December 31, vowing to write more in the new year. It’s even is a cliche for me to make fun myself for being a cliche. But while this time of year shouldn’t be the only opportunity for self-reflection, it’s as good a time as any.
The simple act of moving back to Wooster has itself been responsible for a great deal of self-reflection. Perhaps because my life has slowed down a bit, I’ve recognized some aspects in myself that I didn’t realize were there before, both positive and negative. I’m hoping that in 2012, I can use that knowledge to achieve goals, as well as avoid making mistakes… some time and time again.
I also started a new job this year that has tested my skills in many ways. Selling wine, as silly as it may sound, is both the most fun and the hardest job I’ve ever had. Certainly promoting wines that I love is enjoyable… but trying to convince a land of California wine lovers that they should open their palates to indecipherable French labels is a bit more difficult. Realizing that I have faced few true challenges in my life is humbling, and to think that I would give up on this job just because it’s difficult borders on embarrassing. I sell an amazing product, my coworkers are supportive and whip-smart, and my customers (for the most part) are a pleasure to work with and in several cases have even become my friends. I’m looking forward to proving that I can be successful in a difficult, competitive market.
I can say with 100% conviction that every year of my life has been better than the last. Growing older (or less young!) has meant getting to know myself better, improving my relationships with other people, pursuing activities that are meaningful to me, and in general, always learning how to have more fun. I’ve had my setbacks along the way, and I’m not always proud of of the decisions that I make. The best I can do is take responsibility for those lapses in judgment and understand why they happened.
Perhaps the most fundamental resolution I can make this year is to love people – including myself – for who they are, and not for who they aren’t. A very happy new year to all those loved ones! And of course… drink plenty of bubbly tonight! Cheers!

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Happy New Year, Woo and Wine Fans!

Happy 2011 everyone! The beginning of a new year is always a good time for reflection, and I have been thinking a lot about how much has changed over the past year. I’ve found my passion, become closer to my family, met lots of wonderful people, adjusted my priorities, and of course, drunk lots of amazing wine! I’ve also realized that some improvements could be made, starting with this blog. If I am serious about  making wine my career, this is a good launching pad – not necessarily because it will make me famous, but because it is an ideal place to post both tasting notes and describe the fun times I’ve had. I look forward to a wonderful year of love, laughter, and libations! Cheers!

A Very Chill Christmas

Ahhh… getting out early on Christmas Eve and then having two days off in a row is rather unprecedented in my world, so I was prepared to thoroughly enjoy a lovely, relaxing weekend. Christmas Eve started off with a breakfast meeting with my college roomie and her mom, as well as their holiday sweater-clad dogs. After work, I raced over to City Square Steakhouse to meet some friends. Knowing that I could grab a quick drink with some friends before heading to my folks’ for dinner truly made my day. My parents had a delicious dinner waiting for me – fried catfish (which looked delicious, but I did not partake), deep-fried mushrooms, mashed potatoes, roasted butternut squash and apples, and . To accompany it, we enjoyed a 2008 Oregon A to Z Pinot Noir and a Shooting Star Blaufrankisch from Washington State. The former was a bit light with basic cherry flavors, but food-friendly, and I really loved the latter, which was a shout-out to Central Europe. In Hungary, the grape is known as Kekfrankos. We topped it off with an out-of-this-world White Chocolate-Raspberry Cheesecake – wow! We all opened a gift that night, per tradition, and I received a very useful straightening iron, which I am hoping I will continue to have to patience to use on a daily basis.
We started Christmas Day fairly early – 9:00 – as I brought over freshly-baked Cherry Banana Muffins with White Chocolate Chips (mmm!). I inadvertently left out the canola oil, but you couldn’t even tell! We then proceeded to toast with our Christmas Cocktail – a Champagne Cosmo. No better way to start the holiday! The nephews – well, Olley at least – were thrilled to tear open their gifts, although we discouraged them from ripping open ALL the gifts. Sadly, Lilly and her fam had to leave for Christmas dinner at her in-laws’, but I stayed all day at my parents’, barely moving from the couch. I would highly recommend the 1938 The Christmas Carol and The Godfather as an ideal holiday movie combo. 🙂 We eventually dug into a late lunch/early dinner. My parents prepared the traditional duck, and we also had a Fennel and Parmesan Gratin I had made, soup that had been cooked with the duck’s leftover parts, braised red cabbage and apples, and some leftovers from the previous day. With the meal, we opened a 2009 Cline Viognier, which is a steal at $9.99! It has the unctuous and peachy qualities of a Viognier twice the price.
I’m always a bit down when Christmas is over, but I have a feeling that 2011 has a lot more fun in store!

The Wine of Kings and the King of Wines

Now that I’ve been back from my Central Europe trip for a week, I think it’s about time I pulled myself together and arranged my thoughts on the screen. From an emotional standpoint, the trip was indescribable. I so rarely get to see my Hungarian relatives, and although we had to rush around quite a bit to see everyone, it was well worth it. As I keep telling people, I forget that I’m rather fortunate to actually LIKE my relatives – and I don’t think it’s only because I see them so infrequently! Bottom line, it was wonderful to reconnect with everyone and see how well they’re doing.
If I tried to describe everything that happened on the trip I could go on forever, so I think I will stick to the wine aspects. I’ll devote one post to Hungary and the other to Austria, starting with the motherland.
Hungary is of course best known for its acclaimed dessert wine, Tokaji Aszu, which inspired the above exclamation from King Louis XIV. As that indicates, Aszu has been made for a few hundred years, and Tokaj and its hillsides was the first legally delineated wine appellation in the world – even older than Port. I just happen to be very fortunate that my dad is from Tokaj – in northeastern Hungary – and that he was attending his 50th high school reunion! Seven grapes can be used to make Tokaji wines, although Aszu is made primarily of Furmint and Harslevelu. Aszu is made from grapes affected by botrytis, or noble rot. The microclimate in which Tokaj is situated is ideal for this beneficial rot, which concentrates the sugars in the shriveled grapes. Moist morning fog, which allows the rot to develop on the gently sloping hillsides, followed by generally dry days, which prevent the rot from ruining the grape, contribute to the creation of this golden wine. Perhaps more than any other wine (except for its kin Sauternes in France and Trockenbeerenauslese in Germany), Aszu vintages are very much subject to the whims of climate. If conditions aren’t right for enough botrytized grapes, then Aszu may not be made at all in a particular year, or only be available in limited amounts.
Fortunately, the grapes grown for Aszu are also used for other wines. Furmint can be made into a dry wine, with different styles depending on whether it is aged in stainless steel or oak – I of course prefer the former. Interestingly, the botrytized grapes can be made into a variety of wines, from dry to sweet. A combination of botrytized and normal, ripe grapes are used to make a wine called Szamarodni, as well as late harvest wines. The former can be fermented dry or sweet, based on the percentage of botrytized grapes in the mix. Apparently, the dry version is reminiscent of a dry sherry. As for Aszu, its sweetness is measured by the number of puttony, which of course means little to most people outside Hungary. At one point, a puttony was actually a basket in which the grapes were harvested, and the number of puttony added to a set amount of base wine (the botrytized grapes are made into an Aszu paste, and then fermented with a base wine) determined the wine’s sweetness. Today, while these baskets are no longer used, the puttony number on a wine (ranging from 3 to 6) is still based on how many botrytized grapes are added to a set amount of base wine. If Aszu is properly made, even the 6 puttonyos is beautifully balanced and not at all cloying.
While Aszu is the king of wines, there is one more – very rare – concoction that can emerge from Tokaji wineries, and it is the uniqueness of the wine, rather than the desire to actually drink it, that makes it so sought after. Tokaji Esszencia is the result of the botrytized grapes being crushed under their own weight, which produces a very small amount of very sweet liquid. Due to the high sugar levels, Esszencia takes years to ferment and still ultimately only has about 1% alcohol. Due to the time and effort involved in making Esszencia, a 375ml bottle costs around $600! At the wineries we visited, we were told that typically only collectors and Russians (I’m assuming mafia guys) buy Esszencia.
And finally, I will describe the wineries we toured! For better or for worse, we just visited two large, foreign-owned wineries, so I didn’t get to witness a locally-owned, smaller operation. It is likely that the latter category is mainly for domestic consumption, and especially for that reason it would have been great to try these wines and compare them to those produced by the behemoths. Another time, I guess! The first winery we visited was Disznoko, right outside of Tokaj in Mezozombor. Its best vineyards are situated on hillsides, although they own about 150 hectares total. Disznoko came into French hands in the early 1990s, during the transition from a command to a market economy, and before that it was locally-owned, although very few Tokaji wineries produced quality wines during the communist era, when winemaking, like other industries, was state-controlled. Many of my family members were able to attend the tour and tasting – my parents, cousin, two aunts, and an uncle – which made it extra special. The grounds were beautiful, and we tried several wines, including a dry Furmint, late harvest, and a 5 and a 6 puttonyos Aszu.
Oremus winery, owned by Spanish giant Vega Sicilia, was the focus of our second day of wine tasting. Here, we weren’t taken around the grounds, but we did get to wander through a small part of the 4km of caves for which Oremus is famous. Here we witnessed the “noble mold” that blankets the wines made from noble rot grapes. Apparently the mold only grows in caves where these wines are stored, as the mold feeds off of the wine itself. The mold also imparts flavors – positive ones! – to the wines. The New York Times detailed the mold in its own coverage of Tokaj and Oremus. We tasted the wines in the caves, and our guide provided us with fur vests to keep us warm, as the caves maintain a constant cool temperature year-round. In addition to the wines we tasted at Disznoko, we were also able to sample Esszencia, which added $10 to our tasting! While nice, I certainly wouldn’t pay $600 for it.
One tidbit about Oremus – which was revealed to us at Disznoko – is the interesting story of grapes and copyrights. Of the 7 grapes that can be used in Tokaji wines, one of them is known as Zeta. However, this name was given to it only recently – it was previously called Oremus. When Vega Sicilia bought the winery, they decided to name it Oremus and copyrighted the name, meaning the varietal could no longer have the same name. To me, this came across as shockingly imperialistic, and I wasn’t surprised that the Oremus tour guide didn’t disclose that story. I tried to imagine what would happen if an American winery opened up shop in Burgundy and tried to copyright Pinot Noir – there would be an uproar!
That sums up our Tokaji experience – not such a short summary, after all, but this is why I can’t delve into the other aspects of my trip. The Austria post is coming soon!

Eastern Europe-bound

The day is finally (well, almost) here – I am going on vacation for the first time in a year, and not only that, but I am traveling to Hungary with my parents for the first time in 12 years. Although I’ve been to my homeland several times in the past decade, it’s never been quite the whirlwind tour with the family that this promises to be. I can’t think of a more ideal vacation – I’ll get to spend quality time with my parents and all my relatives, meet up with old friends in Budapest, reconnect with some of my favorite places in the world, and drink LOTS of wine. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my dad happens to be from the most famous (and the world’s first officially designated!) wine region in Hungary – Tokaj – home of the “Wine of Kings and King of Wines,” the dessert wine Aszu.
I’ve already set up tours/tastings at the Oremus and Disznoko wineries (both of which are foreign-owned), and I’m hoping we can also get into some smaller, locally-owned wineries where we can have a more personal experience. My relatives have also been very gracious and have offered to take us to wineries in other parts of the country as well, particularly around Lake Balaton (Badacsony). And of course, let’s not forget the wine bars in Budapest!
The Austrian portion of my trip will also be pretty wine-centric. In Vienna, I plan to go to Palais Coburg, which received Wine Spectator‘s highest honor – the Grand Award – for the quality and breadth of its wine list. I will spend a few days in the village of Durnstein in the Wachau region, which is home to several famous wineries producing mainly Gruner Veltliner, including Emmerich Knoll. I’ll be there during harvest, which may sound ideal, but it might mean that the winery staff will be in the vineyard most of the time. How dare they not stay focused on self-important American tourists?? 😉 The town, situated on the banks of the Danube, is apparently quite beautiful and of great historical significance, primarily because Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in its castle.
I can’t wait to get there – more detailed reports to come! (Check out a recent New York Times article for a fabulously-written piece on Tokaj, and the WaPo covered Austrian wines earlier this summer.)

Celebratory Saturday

Although I was excited for this past Saturday to arrive, it admittedly didn’t hit me until the last minute just how fun it was going to be. I was helping to throw a baby shower for my very best friend, and several of my chicas from high school were going to be in town to join the party. It had been quite some time since this particular group had been together, but it was just like old times. I am always so happy to witness how confident, beautiful, and successful my friends have become. Not that they weren’t all those things before, but they truly have gotten better with age. This is perhaps most true of the mom-to-be, who genuinely has a life that we should all aspire to have – loving family and friends, a career she adores, and a gorgeous new house. What more could anyone ask for? As cheesy as it sounds, perhaps the best part of the baby shower was seeing that love of life radiate out from her. (Just to add a culinary aspect to this part of the post, I made this delicious Pull-Apart Cheesy Onion Bread for the shower, which I thought turned out pretty darn well!)
And speaking of people who are very important to me, we were also celebrating my sister’s birthday! She made the fantastic choice of the South Market Bistro as her dinner venue, and she planned to go bar hopping from there. I was psyched, as the Bistro had literally just that day introduced several new menu options. I went for the Penne with Pesto, Oven-Roasted Tomatoes, and Feta. While delicious, I was slightly disappointed that I had two little tomatoes in my entire dish. (I was also mildly annoyed that the waitress had no idea which cheeses were on our cheese plate.) Of course, I am one of the Bistro’s biggest fans, and these minor complaints certainly did not prevent me from thoroughly enjoying the food and company. I savored my dinner with a bottle of 2008 Erath Pinot Noir from Oregon. Yes, I did say bottle. I know the Bistro/Steakhouse wine list so well (yikes!), that I wanted to try something new, even if only one other person helped me out. I got to take the rest of it home and enjoy it later, and thankfully, the Pinot did open up a bit a day later, although it is overall a rather simple, if pleasant, cherry-dominated wine. For dessert, I indulged in a cherry chocolate cookie ice cream sandwich, filled with vanilla. That was a great cap to the meal!
Sadly, I couldn’t hang as long as I wanted to, as by the time we had a drink at City Square Steakhouse, I was both fairly tipsy and broke. I am happy to report that my sister went on to party like a rock star the rest of the evening, so her rare night out was well worth it!

Lakeside Birthday Dining

My family embarked on one of its rare outings for my Mom’s birthday last week. It’s difficult to find a day when we can actually all take off work, considering our crazy schedules. As a result, these occasions are always special! Mom chose The Oaks Lodge in Chippewa Lake as our dining destination, which sits lakeside and has a gorgeous view. We sat on the patio, where Olley had the opportunity to run around and be entranced by the frogs jumping in the little fountain. The Oaks is not exactly a vegetarian’s dream come true, but I did enjoy my pecan field green salad, as well as my “fallen” chocolate souffle, which I ended up having to take home because I had to go back to work! Everyone else also enjoyed their food for the most part, from seafood kabobs to shrimp pasta to salmon. To combat the heat, I savored a Domaine Rothschild White Bordeaux, which was perfect for the sultry evening. Mom’s neighbor downtown was kind enough to send us a complementary bottle of Fetzer Gewurztraminer. I did have to warn my parents that this would not be like the Alsatian Gewurz they like (snobby, I know), but it was kind of her friend to send it nonetheless. Sadly, we all had to rush home – me to work, and my sister to put the kids to bed – but I still cherish these memorable, even if brief, moments with the whole family!