Monday, December 28, 2009

Domaine Chandon: Sparkling Wine Comes Alive

Yountville, CA – The French describe champagne like the laugh of a pretty girl. At 48-years-old, I’m past the pretty girl phase, but boy do I love me some champagne! Or should I correctly say sparkling wine—the elixir of life. At Napa Valley’s Domaine Chandon’s tasting salon, it’s always New Year’s Eve as bottles of their signature war horse Brut Classic are uncorked and poured to a thirsty, wine tasting crowd—me at the front of the line. Let the celebration begin.

Kristin Brott, our purveyor of the liquid nectar, has been with Chandon as a wine educator for three years. She moved to this fertile valley from Southern California on a whim. I ask her what it’s like working there, and she quickly tells me it’s the best job in the world. “Everyone’s in a good mood. I love to talk about food and wine.” This reminds me of the 30’s Gershwin song "…nice work if you can get it…"

My favorite tasting is the more exclusive 90 point etoile—French for star, Brut. It’s a lighter, more delicate sparkling wine with a bouquet of Fuji apple, Meyers lemon, and toasted almonds. The tiny bubbles give me an instant lift—as if I need it; I’m already filled to the brim with mirth and merry-making. Being at this first French-owned sparkling wine venture in the United States, established in 1973, makes me feel giddy—so much bouncy history. Plus, I’m right next to an advertisement that makes me giggle. It’s for Saavy Sippers, a gadget you place inside a champagne bottle that allows you to “drink out of the bottle in a classy way.” Kristin, our hookup, tells me “You never know when you need an emergency bit of bubbly, like at the movies.” I believe she’s on to something, so I buy one.

The coup de grĂ¢ce of the tasting is a sensual cocktail called the Hibiscus Royale—a combination of Blanc de Noir sparkling wine, wild hibiscus flower in syrup, and rose water. The flower sits in the bottom of the champagne flute and slowly opens up over three to four minutes, creating a piece of art I can both admire and drink. Along for this adventure is my pleasure-seeking friend Charlene, a connoisseur of all things hedonistic, who just got back from her honeymoon in Bermuda and indulged in this almost immoral love potion and claimed it as “an aphrodisiac; you eat the flower and it’s got lots of Vitamin C.” Indeed. Decadent, divine and oh-so-Napa classy, just like our Domaine Chandon experience. Cheers!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sierra Nevada Adventure: Miracle on the Mountain

Truckee, CA – Executing a 360-degree spinout in a snowstorm while entering Highway 80 seemed effortless with Rachel behind the wheel—like a trained ballerina twirling a pirouette—only we were doing it in four-wheel drive with snow chains on the front tires. My heart went into my throat. Rachel—fresh from celebrating her 40th birthday—quickly got us back on the road. “Okay, that was the first time I ever did a complete spinout,” she said. “Glad that’s over.” She pointed the white Acura SUV due west toward Sacramento. Like the Donner Party who made this crossing in the winter of 1846-47, on this same exact pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains, we were trying to make our way home. Pioneers! O Pioneers!

This was our second attempt at getting off the Sierra. The snowstorm came in earlier than expected the day before and Caltrans closed the highway, ending any wide-eyed hopes of watching 60 Minutes from the comfort of our own homes. The dream of a St. Bernard dog with a barrel of brandy around his neck coming to our Alpine rescue was just that—a fantasy, much like watching Carrie Bradshaw trying to marry Mr. Big in a lavish wedding in Sex and the City on the tiny television in Rachel’s car. Beth, the doe-eyed beauty of the group called a friend of a friend, of a friend, who owned a second home in Truckee and our base camp for the night was secured—we were ready to hunker down for the evening.

There are times in life when the kindness of newfound friends is so profound that the opportunity for repayment is not possible, and so it was with our hosts: Tanya and her mother and father in-law, Nonni and Nonna, affectionately known as the Italians. Their generosity embodied the biblical “water into wine, two fish into a feast” story. We drank ample bottles of Nonni’s homemade red wine. We watched in amazement as Nonna’s pasta dish grew from an original serving of five, to fill the bellies of ten. It was a glorious rigatoni concoction of spicy tomato sauce, diced chicken, and mozzarella cheese. A spinach and romaine lettuce salad with olive oil and vinegar dressing filled in the gaps along with two pizzas: one cheese, the other a meat and veggie combo. Where this freshly delivered pizza came from remained a mystery. File it under the “Marriage of Cana” miracle. For desert, we dined on Nonna’s pie made with homegrown apples from their Napa Valley trees.

Nonni told us stories of his hometown near Naples, Italy; and learned about the family restaurant that they owned for 40 years in Napa; and watched as their three grandchildren, all under the age of seven, showered them with affection by tearing up pieces of tissue paper and sprinkling their heads with it. Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it snow.

In the morning, two feet of snow covered our cars and the driveway. The world looked like a freshly shaken snow globe. Highway 80, the main artery to our deliverance from this snow covered paradise was finally open and we were ready for adventure. Our hands and feet were frozen from shoveling snow and putting on tire chains, but our hearts were warm from the memory of our unexpected evening of international camaraderie including a rousing game of Scrabble, tossing the grandkids on the coach and the gift of newfound friendships.