Highbrow wine with lowbrow, peasant food? Why not?

Matanzas Creek Winery 2005 Sonoma County syrah

There’s a wonderful, sense-assaulting winery on the southeastern edge of Santa Rosa, California. Its history affirms the common-sense, intuitive notion that it isn’t just the quality of a wine that makes it sell, but it’s in marketing that assaults all the human senses enough to overwhelm people with strongly positive feelings.

Feelings. You feel something when you approach the winery. In season, lavender plants dominate the scene. It’s done intentionally, the winery wanting to evoke a sense that, magically, you’re in some particular part of Tuscany in Italy. It works.

You carry the feeling into the tasting room. There you find, let’s say, the 2005 local syrah. It’s alcoholic — 14.5 percent — but it’s smooth . .  s m o o t h . . . !

And fruity. For $15 to $20 bucks you can experience extreme comfort and uplift.

So . . . you save it to drink with a truly special food.

Or, not.

This noon, I smeared one half of an Oroweat thin sandiwich muffin with reduced-fat mayonnaise. I shredded a couple of tablespoonfuls of peccorino romano on that, and topped it with a couple of slices (broken up) of thick, platter bacon. (Judy gets “ends and pieces” of this from a high-quality Chinese grocery — might you be so lucky, or smart, or both, to find such a supplier).

I sliced Cabot aged cheddar cheese and some Monterey jack on top of that, put the assemblage on an ovenproof salad plate, and gave it 30 seconds of microwave poison (or, maybe the microwaves are safe, I don’t know; ask me if I care).


Sandwich powerful by itself. With the syrah, WOW! Try it. Not just with any California syrah, with this one. –Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster.

Party time (old folks special of course)

Six people, most retired; umpteen bottles of wine (two reviewed here); a rousing game of Encore (you think you know more songs, and more of their words, than you actually do!) . . . and a California-Italian rustic meal.

Chef Bob and wife Judy hosted Judy’s sister, Barbara and her husband, Don, who got to know Judy’s teaching partner Sharon and her husband, Craig. With long careers behind us, and with our career patterns having sometimes been just a tad unconventional . . . conversation was animated to say the least. (The two dogs were animated, too, in their way.)

If you don’t know the game, Encore, Google it. People may think they won’t like it, but it’s easy to get sucked in. It’s a team game, shrinking violets tolerated.

Craig showed up lugging two bottles of wine, Don offered one, and I had opened three.

I didn’t open Don’s Justin Vineyards 2004 Isosceles Paso Robles bordeaux blend (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot, unfiltered). I’ll write about that one when I think of a good party meal to drink it with.

I did open Craig’s Cooper-Garrod 2004 Santa Cruz Mountains Francville Vineyard cabernet franc, which was super; I’ll write a bit about that some other time. When I spotted the offering of Edna Valley Vineyard 2008 Paragon chardonnay from San Luis Obispo County, I knew it would be perfect and that it’s a high-value wine that the buyer can’t go wrong in purchasing or presenting at a party.

I opened my own bottle of Matanzas Creek Winery 2005 Sonoma County syrah. From all that wealth, the two you’ll meet today are:

Edna Valley Vineyard 2008 San Luis Obispo County Paragon chardonnay, often found at around $15. The winery points to its peach and sweet spice character. I’d agree. Its acid mix is perfect, leaving a lovely mild-spice finish. It’s meant to accompany chicken and pork. Always a safe buy.

Matanzas Creek Winery 2005 Sonoma County syrah was a keeper, as I knew when I bought it a couple of years ago at the Bennett Valley winery. It’s inky dark with its edges fading to light, clear purple (meaning it’s still youthful!). All kinds of lush dark fruit surround dark, sweet cherry and a sensation I’d call Rutherford Dust if the wine were a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. This is no bordeaux experience, though — it’s pure Rhone, a benchmark syrah. It too matched a rustic California-Italian meal well: two very different wines with what I’d have to admit is a “different” meal.

So: the food. I’ll mention the steamed asparagus first, just to get the veggie covered. I usually serve this veggie “naked,” that is, no sauce, not even butter. I heard no complaints.

Saltimbocca: This is a signature Roman dish, whose name means “jump in the mouth” because it’s usually generously herbed, and textures and flavors definitely catch one’s attention. I went easy on the herbs, for company, but it certainly was not mild.

One of the guests eats little meat but chicken and turkey and occasionally some beef are okay. Saltimbocca combines at least three elements. Some Romans roll it up (roulade) but more serve it layered with generous pan drippings. That’s how I handle saltimbocca.

This was a combination of turkey and cheese; and, changing the Italian convention because the bottom layer was not firm, I built each serving atop those new, thin whole-grain sandwich rounds that are absolutely delicious — one 50-calorie half of the muffin pan-toasted.

Atop the bread, half a generous turkey-breast tender, pounded out to shape, dusted with Trader Joe’s Italian seasoning blend, garlic granules, and fresh-ground black pepper before lightly pan-braising.

Atop that, slow-fried turkey platter bacon and, to finish, a layer of cheese — two-thirds New Zealand sharp white cheddar, one-third Monterey jack. At serving time the saltimbocca went into our combination convection oven/microwave.

The carbohydrate belly-filler was potato gnocchi (I confess: Trader Joe’s sells the very best, at $2). It was dressed with olive oil, grated imported peccorino romano, and garlic granules. It comes out as toothy pillows robed in Pure Italy!

Our house is heated only by a wood-burning fireplace, so with that going full tilt, how could this evening have been anything other than a pleasant success? –Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster.

Kenwood reds are always dependably good; their 2006 merlot can post a ‘Fearless Taster’ 88 on the wine-shop shelf

Kenwood 2006 Sonoma County Merlot, $13-23.

Ron gave me, in his baker’s-dozen case at Christmas, a pair of Kenwood reds.

When you see Kenwood on the label, it’s going to be good. I think Ron’s merchant figured these two wines — a merlot and a cabernet sauvignon — to be better than good, at a decent price. We haven’t tried the cab yet. But last night we opened the merlot to go with an American comfort-food meal.

First, the wine. It’s delicious and perfectly balanced. It would go with anything, including many seafood dishes; and it’s great for drinking by itself (although if you’re going to do that, how about popping a nice chocolate treat with it?).

The label points out plum and berry flavors and soft, full mouthfeel. I agree.

But there’s more. Many people look for cherry hints in merlot, and this one has some. I was reminded of cassis liqueur, although it’s subtle. Point is, it’s not a simple wine even though it’s  labelled only with the broad Sonoma County appellation.

Just the right amount of alcohol — 13.5 percent — contributes to a rare overall balance, rare for a merlot at this price range. The color is a deep, blackberry red and it still looks young in the glass.

This wine won a bronze medal, by the way, in the Sonoma County Harvest Festival, which attracts many great wines. I might have judged it a silver, given its fine structure of firm tannins, clean, citric, lingering aftertaste.

Now for what I mean when I say you can enjoy this wine with anything.

Visiting our nearby ShoKoWah casino, Judy and I had gotten two pulled-pork tortilla wraps, so huge we brought one home. The meat needed more seasoning so I sliced the wrap in half, moistened each half with a tablespoon of olive oil, and added cumin, Trader Joe’s 21-seasoning salute herb blend, garlic granules and a shot of balsamic vinegar. This went into a convection oven for a few minutes at 400 degrees; I finished it with a slice of pepper jack and four more minutes in the oven.

To a pan of Kraft macaroni and cheese I added two pan-fried and chopped slices of bacon, plus some Velveeta and a couple of tablespoons of capers.

Steamed broccoli and carrot slices finished the offering. The Kenwood merlot hit all the right notes, as I’d expencted. Soon I’ll describe how I use the cabernet sauvignon. I hope I’ve convinced you that this quality, reasonably-priced and approachable merlot can go with just about anything! –Bob Cramer, The Fearless Taster.

Seafood, wine and ale in a perfect corner of a perfect northern California seaside harbor

Lucas Wharf Restaurant at Bodega Bay, Sonoma County, California

It was the day after Valentine’s, but for us it was still a heart-warming experience.

Judy had spent the weekend with her long-time teaching partner at Gilroy and Salinas — something Sharon does every year, visiting her mother in Salinas and spending time at the oversized Gilroy Premium Outlet Mall. Judy just retired, but she does continue to help Sharon in her kindergarten classroom in Petaluma. Judy felt, okay, this year I can go. And she did. And she loved it.

So, yesterday morning, visiting me during my daily “brain workout” (reading The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times) at our Airport Health Club, Judy took both my hands in hers, fixed her eyes on mine (oh, boy, here comes something I may or may not want to hear!) . . . and she suggested going to the nearby Pacific coast for what we call “dinch” . . . a mid-afternoon substitute for evening dinner.

Sigh of relief! I said yes, sighing with relief; Judy accepted my acceptance, sighing with relief. Hey, it doesn’t always go that way, but when it does . . . celebrate!

So we did. She finished her one-hour Master’s swim class and another hour of yoga, and off we went, zigging and zagging along northern Sonoma back roads in the incredibly variegated beauty of this place where we live.

I knew where I wanted to go, and Judy loves it, too: Lucas Wharf seafood restaurant, right on Bodega Bay. When the restaurant was established a quarter century ago, they at first hired a first-rate San Francisco seafood restaurant to set up and run it. The quality continues; the place was packed at 3 on a holiday Monday afternoon.

Lucas Wharf has a lovely fireplace with a handful of little tables and comfortable chairs, where people wait for the big tables near the big windows. Locals know we can settle in, right by the (gas) fire, and order anything we want.

When I go by myself, infrequently, I order a crispy fried “appetizer” platter of calamari and a glass of Balletto pinot gris. Same yesterday. The calamari, however, for the first time, came cooked in a rich butter-cream sauce. The heap of rings and tentacles was as generous as the fried variety, cooked not quite as well (just a tad chewy, but just a tad). The wine is a good choice with calamari made either way. Wonderful!

Judy wanted  linguine with several kinds of seafood in alfredo sauce, and the best India Pale Ale we know — the IPA from a Petaluma microbrewery, Lagunitas. We brought home half of her treat, and a third of mine!

The on-and-off sunlight skidded over the tops of the nearly-worn-out swells splashing against the wharf. We just luxuriated for an hour while Abby, our sweet terrier mix, waited in the car. (Abby got a nice long walk, later, further up the Sonoma Coast state park at Shell Beach).

Balletto is a fine Sonoma County producer of Burgundy varietals, chiefly pinot noir and, in the past four years, pinot grigiot. The Russian River Valley rivals Burgundy, France and the Pacific Northwest in quality. In my mind this area consistently beats the Carneros region, but of course that’s my opinion.

Balletto wines are underpriced! The pinot gris, for instance, sells for about $12 (of course, in the restaurant, I paid $7 for a glass — but, at Lucas Wharf, the glass is filled well above the snooty-correct lower mid-point: it’s nearly full).

Green figs, apricots, and Meyer lemons (Meyers are low-acid and sweet) join some floral aromas to provide just enough acids to point up foods’ buttery richness. Those acids don’t bite back when the pinot gris is sipped as an aperitif. Balletto is a wonderful, affordable introduction to one of the world’s prime areas for Burgundy varietals — pinot noir, pinot gris/grigio, chardonnay. Buon appetito!

A delicious, gold-medal 100% cabernet sauvignon

Angeline 2008 Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon, $12-16

Our Valentine’s Day dinner last night was greatly enhanced by one of the wines Ron Dumont gave me for Christmas.

I’d been studying the list of gold-medal winners at the 2010 San Francisco Wine Competition — but had managed somehow not to see this local product in that august company. (The Chronicle show is the largest showing of wines from every American appellation, so Martin Ray’s Angeline had plenty of competition.)

This is a rich and delicious wine that’s delightful when consumed all by itself. That’s unusual for an Alexander Valley full-bodied cabernet sauvignon which has none of the other classic Bordeaux varietals to modify this varietal’s usual muscle.

Before describing it further, let me tell you that its appeal increased with the meal. We had prime rib of beef, baked potatoes (with bacon gravy!), a mixed-green salad with al-dente broccoli and cauliflower florettes, cucumber, and shredded carrots.

Martin Ray, Angeline’s “parent,” doesn’t bother to say much about the wine on its back label. What it does say I certainly agree with: “Concentrated fruit and elegant structure.”

I found a rather shy nose but, in the mouth, intense fully-ripe blackberries and a rich background of currants and red stone fruit. Tannic acid is firm but very approachable — which I mention because many readers like Bordeaux blends more than cabernet sauvignon by itself. As young as this wine is, the tannins feel like a cabernet-merlot blend but the winery says nope: nada. The cabernet sauvignon grapes, however, do come from a variety of Alexander Valley vineyards.

The reason this wine can be enjoyed without food is that its flavors are really rich and its acids are totally balanced with absolutely no “flat spots” on the palate or in a moderately-long aftertaste. The aftertaste, by the way, reminded me of fresh-fruit cocktail. That’s in a cabernet sauvignon? Yep. Alexander Valley gives Napa and Bordeaux, France a good run for the money. And “the money” isn’t all that much considering the treat this bottle will give you.

Ron assembled a “baker’s case” (13 bottles) of affordable, surprisingly high quality reds (the 13th bottle is a chardonnay). The first two bottles got away from me before I’d made notes on them (I took them to a party; won’t do that again!). This is the fourth wine. I have to say Ron and his wine merchant are doing great as they see if they can impress a long-retired commercial (if part-time) wine writer.