Sunday, April 27, 2008

St. Michaels Wine & Food Festival

On Saturday, April 26th we attended perhaps the best wine festival in terms of location and presenters, the St. Michaels Wine & Food Festival. Held in the small harbor village of St. Michaels, the festival encompasses several days of wine dinners, cooking demonstrations, wine and spirits presentations, and of course, three days of tasting. The festival’s organizers are congratulated for inviting several winemakers and wine growers such as Jim Bernau from Willamette Valley Vineyards, Hank & Linda Wetzel from Alexander Valley Vineyards, and Margo Van Staaveren from Chateau St. Jean. Then there was Even Cattanach, Master Distiller Emeritus, discussing Scotch, Lynne Tolley discussing Jack Daniels, and Robert Kacher discussing Burgundy. Not to mention the dozen of chefs giving cooking demonstrations. We stumbled upon one of these demonstrations when we walked over to a local farmers market before the main tasting event. While tasting pastries, a cooking presentation broke out in the park’s small pavilion. Similar events were planned throughout the town.

The grand tasting was located at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Besides the wine and presentation tents, attendees could climb the lighthouse, tour the museum exhibits, or as we saw throughout the day, picnic with the family among the grounds. Our first stop was to the Biltmore Estate booth. Located near Ashville, North Carolina, the Biltmore estate was built by George Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius, and although still family owned, is now a resort – and winery. The wines are made through the talents of Bernard Delille and Sharon Fenchak from estate grown grapes or grapes sourced from several Californian appellations. We had tasted several of their wines previously, but never their sparklers, which were quite good. The Château Reserve Méthode Champenoise Blanc de Blancs – 2004 North Carolina – Brut is made from locally grown chardonnay - aged three years on lees - and is awesome – dry, citrus flavors, and subtle carbonation. Then we tried the sweeter, Méthode Champenoise Pas de Deux – Sec, made from Muscat Canelli grapes. The aromas stood out, then blended with the unique muscat flavor. In 2007 both these sparkling wines received Gold medals at California wine competitions.

We turned next to Alexander Valley Vineyards, where we met owners Hank & Linda Wetzel. The Wetzels are in the middle of a three week tour across the United States which you can follow at their blog. Hank Wetzel started Alexander Valley Vineyards over three decades ago, and along with their family, makes several of our favorite Zinfandel and Bordeaux styled red wines – particularly their CYRUS. The Sin Zin and Redemption Zinfandel brands are jammier and less spicy than the Lodi – made versions. We had never tasted their whites so we tried their New Gewurz (Gewürztraminer) and Viognier as well as their dry Rosé of Sangiovese. These are three excellent summer choices, the dry Rosé our favorite. The Wetzels were also conducting a seminar later that day, discussing Old World Grapes - New World Style.

We wanted to make sure we said hello to Jim Bernau, owner of Willamette Valley Vineyards, who besides pouring his wines was presenting a seminar on Terroir Influence, the Dirt in Oregon. His booth was located in the Navy Point tent, which was the most scenic surrounded on three sides by water. Mr. Bernau was pouring several brands of Pinot Noir as well as Pinot Gris and Riesling. The winery had just released its 2006 Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir which is awesome – full of raspberry texture and a smooth finish. We couldn’t think of another wine to sip in the evening sitting on the docks. He also mentioned that their Whole Cluster Fermented Pinot Noir was very popular the previous day. For whites, their Riesling is by far one of our favorites.

Turning around from Willamette Valley’s booth, we noticed Even Cattanach, kilt in all, standing alone behind several bottle of Scotch. We did not want to waste this opportunity. During the next 20 minutes, Mr. Cattanach poured us several Scotch brands while explaining the difference between highland and lowland scotch (the water) and the influences of the wind and sea on west coast scotch. He also suggested cutting the scotch with a few drops of water in order to enhance aromas and sweeten the whiskey. We also learned where he was the master distiller when each of his children was born and how to actually drink scotch. Don't "chew" the whiskey by swirling it in your mouth like wine; instead let it move from the lips to the tongue on its own, then swallow. We tried several single malt Scotch brands and all which were remarkable. The 14 year old Oban is distilled on the west coast and the influence of the seas create a sweet citrus flavor; yet the finish is long & dry. The 10 year old Talisker, from the Isle of Skye, was smokier with a more peaty flavor. The two Dalwhinnie 15 year old brands were our favorite. These highland whiskeys - actually the highest water source in Scotland - were aged 15 years in used bourbon casks with the black label getting another 6-9 months in sherry casks. This produces flavor similar to a fruit cake - and once again, a smooth finish.

Sticking to whiskey, we stopped at the Jack Daniels booth and met Lynne Tolley, who not only works as an official taster at the distillery, but is also the great grand niece of Jack Daniels. After meeting her, we decided to attend her afternoon presentation on "A History of Tasting at Jack Daniels". Ms. Tolley is one of twenty or so tasters for the traditional black label brand and one of only five for the single barrel brand. She has also just written a cook book, Cooking With Jack The New Jack Daniel's Cookbook, and based on the long lines waiting for her to sign it, was hugely popular among the attendees. Basically, Jack Daniels can be used in most recipes, particularly as a replacement for vanilla. The book is also filled with stories about the nation's oldest registered distillery and Jack Daniels himself. Ms. Tolley’s presentation was fascinated, not only the stories and myths concerning the distillery, but also because she brought alone samples of whiskey to show us the affects of their unique charcoal filtering process. Jack Daniels is a Tennessee whiskey and not bourbon and their Black Label is now the largest selling whiskey in the world. The distillation and aging process is exactly the same as bourbon – they use over 51% corn (actually 80% corn, 12% barley and 8% rye) and the corn liquor is aged in new charred oak barrels. The reason Jack Daniels is a whiskey is that the distilled product is filtered through layers of charcoal 12 feet deep. This process mellows the whiskey even before aging. For this presentation we sampled the corn whiskey just after distillation and then after filtering. The transformation was amazing. The original corn whiskey tasted like the locally produced Virginia Lightening – sweet, but a rough finish. The filtered product was more like vodka – smooth at the finish. Then the liquor is aged usually 4 years, sometimes longer in the new charred oak barrels. We next sampled the Gentleman Jack, which is filtered twice, so you can imagine the smoothness of this product. Then we tasted the traditional Black Label brand – old No 7. This whiskey is spicier and is ready to mix - either as the popular Jack and Coke or in a Lynchburg Lemonade. Finally we tasted the Single Barrel made from whiskey stored in barrels in the upper floors in the warehouse. Each bottle tasted slightly different, but in general this whiskey is slightly bolder, but smoother than the Black Label. Ms. Tolley also informed us how they dispose of the used barrels. Some are sent to Jamaica to age Appleton rum, some to Scotland to age Scotch, and some to Louisiana to age and store Tabasco. Consumers can purchase the barrels for planters or if you are willing, you can purchase a single barrel of whiskey and have the bottles plated with your name or organization. Nice, if you have $9,000 to spend.

Switching back to wine, we visited with Chateau St. Jean Winery, whose winemaker, Margo Van Staaveren was tasked to present Cinq Cepages Cabernet Sauvignon Blending
Merlot. Their Fume Blanc is a very refreshing sauvignon Blanc, but our favorite was their Sonoma Merlot. This wine is full of fruit flavors – blackberry and cherry – with low tannins at the tail. And close by was the Robert Kacher Selections of South American and French wines. These were awesome wines. The Domaine Du Tariquet Classic - Ugni Blanc-Colombard was a refreshing citrus flavored white wine whereas La Font Du Vent Notre Passion is a light, earthy red wine. An interesting wine was the Inacayal Carmenere - possibly the best Carmenere we've tasted with a big cherry flavor. Inacayal also produces a Malbec which is even better with an interesting vanilla and chocolate finish. The best wine in this collection was the Domaine Font de Michelle Chateauneuf-du-Pape. This is an earthy full bodied red wine with raspberry flavors and a smooth-smooth finish.

While searching for food, we noticed an interested product, potato vodka from Maine. Not normally interested in vodka, but intrigued about its origin, we discovered an amazing spirit: Cold River Vodka. The ingredients are simple, Maine grown potatoes and water - nothing else. John Arsenault, the distiller's representative first had us try the vodka neat - where it tasted similar to other potato vodkas - but nothing special. Then he added a splash of water and ice and the spirit transformed into one with an amazing aroma - how many vodkas even have an aroma - with a smooth sweet tail. Don't bother mixing, this vodka is fine with just a little water and ice. Don't just take our opinion. This product won a double gold at the 8th annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition and was listed as the 47th Best Spirit in the World and Best North American Vodka of 2008 by F. Paul Pacult in his book Kindred Spirits 2. What a find.

In total, there were hundreds of wines to sample from and obviously we couldn't try all. We skipped over several that we normally flock to, such as Trefethen Vineyards, Lockwood Vineyard, Tablas Creek Vineyard, JanKris Winery, Beaulieu Vineyard, and J. Lohr Winery. Some new ones we recommend you exploring are Zaca Mesa Winery Syrah, Anton Bauer's Gmork (Gruner Veltliner); Cline Cellars Rhone styled wines: Cashmere, Carignane, and Mourvèdre, plus their nice Zinfandel; Sipp Mack Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner; Silverado Vinyards Cabernet Sauvignon; Girard Winery Artistry; Firesteed Cellars Cayalla; and Zinfandel from Bonterra Vineyards and Mariah Vineyards.

We finished the day, feet dangling in the water, drinking a glass of Willamette Valley Vineyards Riesling – which we confiscated when Mr. Bernau left for the day - with some Kerrygold cheese and a sweet olive oil cake from Cakewalk Confections. We couldn’t think of anything better, relaxing on the pier, watching the boats come in for the evening.
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