As promised, I attended the Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Charlottesville, VA for a few days. I’ve been back long enough now to digest and think about what to write. Many of my fellow attendees posted detailed recaps of the weekend (if you’d like some examples look here, here, and here), so I’m not going to. We were lucky to taste a lot of very good wines, so I’ll talk about those. After all, for some reason you insist on drinking some wines that aren’t from first vine… 😉
But first, a few impressions. It was nice to be addressed as a fellow wine writer by people of the stature of Jancis Robinson and Eric Asimov. They both gave us their 30,000-foot views of wine blogging and its place in the world, and the spirit of collegiality was truly
enjoyable. Like good keynote speakers, they were reassuring, thought provoking, and as they should be, annoying. I mean annoying in a good way: some of their ideas were way out of reach for the vast majority of us with day jobs and who don’t have significant journalism backgrounds. Still, we all need something to aspire to, if only to kick our butts a bit, and taking up small pieces of their challenges to us – specifically to do more investigative writing (Robinson) and to reject most of the wine-writing conventions we’re used to (Asimov) – are good ideas. I don’t mind being pushed out of my comfort zone for that.
I didn’t learn anything new about blogging per se, so you don’t have to worry that I’ll get all experimental on you or anything. The new things for me were the live-blogging sessions where we had five minutes with 12 different winemakers to taste, ask questions, and blog or tweet about the wine. My tablemates with wine review blogs fit right in. I don’t do that in this blog (and am not adept enough to taste, talk, and type at the same time) so I focused on asking questions instead. In the process, I had a great conversation about sustainability with the marketing director for Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma. I’ve never met a winery rep who could speak as knowledgeably on the subject as he could, and it made me happy to know there are people like him out there. (I liked the Rodney Strong Zinfandel too, and their blend-your-own-Meritage after-party was pretty cool.)
Like any conference, a big part of the experience is networking. I spoke with a lot of fellow
bloggers, from wine civilians to people in the industry. I was glad to meet a few retailers among them, since most of the other bloggers are strictly wine consumers, and it was comforting to know that the brick-and-mortar and internet-only retailer experiences aren’t that much different. I also had a good time hanging out with DC-area bloggers. One of them, David White, won the award for Best New Blog, presented at Saturday night’s celebration dinner. His blog, Terroirist, is a fun wine news roundup, including interviews with winemakers and others (even some of us from first vine, believe it or not! ) I’ve added a Wine Blogs in the DC Area category in the blogroll so you can check out folks who live in the area but whose blogs you may not have read before.
Of course, we drank wine. And, being in Charlottesville, a lot of Virginia wine. VA wines were the centerpiece of a reception at Monticello, with dozens of wineries set up there to pour for us despite the grueling heat. But as difficult as it was to taste in wet furnace conditions, the winery reps were troupers and their enthusiasm encouraged many of us to do our best to sample as much as we could, with plenty of water in between.
On Saturday we boarded buses, about 30 of us in each, to go to two or three “mystery” wine destinations. My bus went to three: Virginia Wineworks, First Colony, and Blenheim. First Colony’s wine was mostly not yet released, and I’m not a good enough taster to discern the final product from very young wines. The other two were very different experiences, but both with excellent wines.
Virginia Wineworks is a winery that uses grapes from growers all over the state of Virginia. They have a big custom crush operation, making wine for other vineyards. But they also make two brands of wine of their own: Virginia Wineworks Wines and Michael Shaps Wines. Michael Shaps is the winemaker for both. He also owns a winery in Burgundy, and his tasting room made me nostalgic for our French producers. Unlike a lot of VA wineries with showplace tasting rooms, Virginia Wineworks has an old table top supported by three barrels for tasting in the middle of the winery itself.
In a previous post, I mused that one of the reasons that VA wine hasn’t caught on as much as it could was price. Michael Shaps has taken up that challenge by making three-liter bag in box (BiB) wines that retail for $30, which translates to $7.50 per 750 ml standard bottle. The Wineworks BiB 2009 Chardonnay and 2010 Viognier are good everyday wines that you’d welcome for most meals. I liked the rosé and Cabernet Franc less. The rosé didn’t have the freshness I like in that style of wine, and the Cab Franc was just too light for my taste.
The Michael Shaps label is more expensive at $32/bottle, but worth the extra money when you want a much nicer wine. The 2008 Chardonnay, 2009 Viognier, 2009 Cabernet Franc, 2008 Petit Verdot, and 2007 Merlot were all very good. The Viognier is more European in style, with more acidity than many other VA Viogniers I tried, and with more minerality too. The Chardonnay is oaked, but only lightly, while the reds were excellent too. Much of the VA Cab Franc I’ve tasted has kind of a green pepper flavor to it. According to Shaps, that comes from the seeds not being ripe even if the grapes are.
Whatever the reason, his didn’t taste that way, and I think it was my favorite Cab Franc of the weekend.
Blenheim Vineyards is definitely a showplace. It’s gorgeous. The tasting room looks out over the vineyards, across rolling terrain to a mountain range. It should be magnificent in the fall after the harvest and the vines start to turn colors. The tasting room and winery are lovely too – you can see through the floor of the tasting room down to the winery. Kirsty Harmon, the winemaker, is partly responsible for the design. She’s also a lot of fun to talk to, with a refreshingly self-deprecating sense of humor (“I try these different things because I don’t know what I’m doing.”) The wines are all very good and the prices range from $14 to $20. Kirsty and her coworkers made us lunch, and we tasted the 2009 and 2010 Chardonnay, 2010 Viognier, 2009 Merlot, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, and finally the 2009 Syrah. The Syrah was my favorite. Tasty. Following Eric Asimov’s advice, no other wine words for you there. Just try it!
A few other randomly-sampled good wines: If I had a chance to grab a bottle to take to
surprise my friends, it would have been Afton Mountain Vineyards’ 2008 Tête de Cuvée, a “Methode Champenoise” that’s 50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir. Really tasty, very smooth. It could use a touch more acidity to be absolutely perfect, but that’s strictly
nitpicking on my part. I don’t remember the price, but it’s upwards of $30. Veritas Winery’s 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Reserve was also excellent – a cross between a Sancerre and a New Zealand Sauv Blanc. Again, upwards of $30, not cheap, but I liked it a lot. Finally, a non-Virginian. Tabarrini Wines from Italy was a conference sponsor, and Giampaolo Tabarrini, the owner, was everywhere, seemingly, all the time. But he’s a hoot (picture Roberto Benigni as a winery owner), and the best ambassador any business could have. His Montefalco Sagrantino “Colle Grimaldesco” 2005 is delicious. Life is beautiful, indeed, when you can drink a wine like this one.
Some of the least pleasant experiences at the conference were the sponsor presentations. Our last morning there were a bunch of them, with a few blogger presentations thrown in to keep us from total mutiny. (I didn’t realize we’d be hearing from any of the sponsors or I might not have gone to the session.) Luckily, only one was completely egregious (more on that one in another post), and at five minutes each at least we weren’t squirming in our seats for too long.
So what does this have to do with a recipe for this week, you ask? One of the presenting sponsors was Entwine Wines, a joint venture of Wente Vineyards and the Food Network. If you’ve ever wondered why the Food Network never came out with wine before, well, wonder no more. The best thing was that they put food to go with each wine on the table, just in time for lunch. The wine was ordinary, nothing great or awful to say about it. It will retail for $12.99 per bottle, and I’m sure you all know how to find something better for the price.
Anyway, their food was all good. One dish was a small biscuit topped with a bacon-onion jam and a piece of Virginia ham. Of course, they gave us recipes, but oddly not for the food we actually tasted. So instead of their recipe, I’m giving you our friend Darrene’s recipe for Onion-Bacon-Serrano Jam. It’s even better than what the Food Network served us. Darrene made up the recipe taking pieces of other recipes she thought sounded good. She and her husband, Chris, served it to us on grits cakes (a la fried polenta) topped with spicy shrimp, and it was unbelievable.
I upped the bacon and onions from Darrene’s recipe because you might as well make more if you’re going to the effort, but otherwise it’s about the same. Stirring in liquid in three additions, like you would for risotto, gives the onions and bacon time to absorb the flavors — and you don’t have to stir it all the time either. After the risotto-style cooking, blend it up until it’s still a little chunky, and at that point you can also adjust the taste a bit if you’d like it sweeter, hotter, or prefer more vinegar. I prefer it more savory, with just enough bite from the vinegar to cut through the richness.
Serve the jam on slices of baguette, with a little salty ham on top. And try it with Domaine de Mairan’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($14). Cab fruit but not too much, some spice, a little oak. Or go with Domaine Chaume-Arnaud’s La Cadène Blanc 2008 ($20). A blend of Viognier and Marsanne, it’s also got a little earthiness in there to stand up to the bacon.
Next year’s conference is in Portland. Oregon wineries, prepare yourselves for thirsty bloggers!
(Makes a lot less than you think it will, but it’s super rich.)
1 pound excellent smoked bacon, strips cut into 1/2” pieces
1-1/2 pounds yellow onions, peeled, halved pole-to-pole, then sliced (you can do this in the food processor if you like), about 3 large onions
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3/4 cup very strong coffee
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar (plus more to taste)
1-3/4 cups low-sodium vegetable stock (preferably roasted vegetable stock)
2 tablespoons maple syrup (plus more to taste)
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
2-3 Serrano chile peppers, seeded and ribs removed, minced fine (If they’re really hot Serranos, use two, or go for the third if you like it that way)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon hot smoked Spanish paprika (plus more to taste)
Cayenne pepper, to taste
Put the bacon pieces in a large non-stick skillet (12″ is good, 14 is better) for which you also have a lid. Set the pan over medium heat and cook until the bacon is really crisp and brown. Remove the bacon to a plate with a slotted spoon and set the bacon aside. Pour the bacon fat into a measuring cup, then put half of it back into the skillet (you’ll have a total of about a half a cup after cooking the bacon, keep the other half for another use). When the bacon has cooled, chop it up into even smaller pieces — they’ll soften up in the jam mixture more easily that way.
Stir the onions into the bacon fat in the skillet, turn the heat to medium-low, and cover the pan. Cook the onions for 15 minutes, then remove the lid and stir the onions up. They will have shrunk down a lot and may be starting to brown, that’s OK. Replace the lid and cook another 10 minutes. Remove the lid, stir the onions, and continue to cook until the whole thing is lightly browned. Add the minced garlic and Serranos and continue to caramelize the onions until they’re a nice brown.
Stir in the chopped-up bacon, then stir in the brown sugar and maple syrup. Cook for a minute, stirring. Meanwhile, combine the stock, coffee, and vinegar in a large glass measuring cup (you’ll have 3 cups total), and heat in the microwave until hot. Add 1 cup of the hot stock mixture into the skillet and stir it in. Bring the mixture to a simmer if it isn’t already, then lower the heat to medium-low, and cook until the liquid is almost all gone. It will take about 20 minutes. You don’t have to stir it constantly, just every few minutes. Repeat two more times, heating the stock mixture and adding it in a cup at a time, cooking it all down until you don’t see liquid in the bottom of the skillet (you will see bacon fat, that’s OK).
Using a heatproof rubber spatula, scrape every bit of the contents of the skillet into a food processor and pulse the mixture until it’s smoother but just a little chunky. Return it to the skillet, then taste it for vinegar, sweetness, salt, and heat — adding Cayenne pepper if you’d like more heat, or more smoked paprika; also vinegar and more maple syrup if needed. Cook over medium heat for a few minutes until the mixture darkens in color even more. Don’t let it burn, but it will definitely darken. Scrape the jam mixture into a small bowl to cool.
If you’re not going to serve it that day, put the mixture in a jar and pour a little bit of the reserved bacon fat over to cover the top, then put the lid on the jar. Refrigerate it for up to a few days. Serve it slightly warm or at room temperature.