Oh The Opportunities! – GAJA Winery

Oh the opportunities that have come my way since coming to Italy in April 2007. I have been taking them all in with utter amazement. The experiences and adventures have been just incredible.

One such experience took place in May while traveling through the Piedmont region in Northern Italy. My husband, me and some of our favorite wine-crazed friends, the Stockermans, were on our way to Burgundy. We stopped over in the famous town of Barbaresco just to have a look around (by the way, the expanse of vineyards flowing over the land enroute was absolutely beautiful). It was a rainy day but the town was still welcoming with its quaint shops and picturesque streets. We spotted an Enoteca opened and excitedly parked our cars across the street. Upon exiting our car, we became even more excited when we spotted the GAJA winery right next door to the Enoteca! Oh my goodness! I can’t even begin to tell you the adrenaline rush to literally stumble on such a prestigious find! We went into the Enoteca and my friend, Cathy (who thankfully speaks fluent Italian), asked if GAJA was open for tours. The lady behind the counter graciously offered to call and ask. She said they usually do not give public tours but by nothing short of a miracle, we were given the opportunity for one.

Let me take a moment to give you a little history – Four generations of GAJAs have been producing wine in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy’s Langhe hills since 1859. That is the year Giovanni GAJA founded GAJA Winery in Barbaresco. Today, the winery is owned by Angelo GAJA. Besides combining respect for traditions with bold innovations in the vineyards and cellars, Angelo also introduced GAJA wines to the foreign markets. In addition, he recently started introducing wines, spirits, and accessories such as wine coolers, decanters & wine glasses to Italy through “GAJA Distribuzione.” Angelo’s wife, Lucia, and 3 children, Gaia, Rossana & Giovanni also work with him. In fact, Gaia GAJA officially joined the winery in 2005 making her the fifth generation of GAJAs to work at the winery. Besides the 250 acres of vineyards GAJA has in Barbaresco and Barolo, they have added 40 acres of vineyards in the Tuscan town of Montalcino and 250 acres in Tuscany’s Bolgheri district. Guido Rivella is the very talented winemaker for all three of these estates (a busy man no doubt).

So there we went. We arrived at a large, ominous door which began to creak open and expose the vast, beautiful business structures with views of the vineyards beyond. We walked in and were showed a room to wait in until someone came for us. We were sitting there so giddy with glee, it was hard to actually take in the whole gamut of where we were, what we were doing, etc.

As if we were at the end of the rainbow, luck was continuing to overwhelm us. Our tour guide showed up and introduced herself as Sonia, Angelo GAJA’s personal assistant! Sonia was a delight and spent a generous amount of her time taking us all over this lovely winery. And I do mean lovely, the building where the press, tanks, and barrels, etc. dwell were decorated as if on the pages of “Architectural Digest.” Beautiful sculptures, lighting, wall hangings – even the floors were shiny, black and uniquely exquisite. We were shown an art gallery on the premises that displayed several wonderful pieces (there was a painting I would’ve loved to have in my home 🙂 ).

As our tour came to an end, we were taken into yet another beautiful room where a tasting was set up for us. Ok, I know I keep going on with ridiculous adjectives to describe this whole experience, but the wines we were able to taste were absolutely divine. We tasted 5 wines:

Sori Tildin 2006 Langhe Nebbiolo DOC

Costa Russi 1997 Langhe Nebbiolo DOC

Sori San Lorenzo 1997 Langhe Nebbiolo DOC

Conteisa 1997 Langhe Nebbiolo DOC

Rennina 2001 Brunello di Montalcino DOCG

It would take a whole other post to describe this tasting so let me just say – SPECTACULAR!!!

As you can tell, I was awestruck by this day in the life of living in Italy. I can hardly wait to see what adventure awaits us around the next corner…..just not sure if it can top this one!

If you ever have the opportunity to pick up a bottle of GAJA wine, you must! This is the time to splurge (prices range from $40-$350+). Here’s a great source that carries some of the exact wines I tasted (or similar vintages) – WineAccess.com.  Also, you can click on my “snooth” search window.  Buy a bottle for a special occasion or to open for a time you want to remember for years to come -the wine will actually help make your special occasion even more memorable. I would be remiss if I didn’t inform you that your life will not be complete without it. 🙂

Buying Gourmet

Shop igourmet.com
This weekend, I was making a vinaigrette for a salad and as I was doing so, it dawned on me……”Hey, the ingredients I’m using are authentic – the “real deal” – from the places that made them known.

My ingredient list consisted of Dijon mustard that I actually just purchased a week ago in Dijon. Olive oil that I picked up from a small Tuscan town by the name of Scarlino. Lemon juice that was extracted from the lemons I picked on the tree behind my little Italian villa and herbs grown in the backyard.

As I pondered how awesome this predicament I found myself so gloriously in was, I thought about my blog and how this would be a perfect way to share with you a great website I found – igourmet.com. It’s a wonderful site to buy gourmet food from around the world (i.e. Dijon mustard from Dijon, olive oil from Italy, etc). I found igourmet about 5 years ago. I was living in Kansas and absolutely “Jonesing” for a tasty cheese I had at a bed & breakfast in Kinsale, Ireland several years ago. My biggest obstacle was that I knew the cheese was from only one area of Ireland and nowhere else. I started searching the internet and reigned victorious when my search led me to igourmet.com. I purchased the cheese and was estactic when it arrived and tasted as good as I remembered.

Another time, I spotted a way cool salt cellar in a pricey mail order magazine. I really wanted it, but just couldn’t justify the cost – a whopping $89 for the cellar with some fancy, grey salt. By chance, I was shopping through the internet pages of igourmet looking for something else when I stumbled on the exact same salt cellar I was envying from that other place. The great news, this one didn’t come with the fancy salt, but it was only $10! I’ve been enjoying my $10 salt cellar ever since. 🙂

So, as you can see, this is a great site full of the ordinary and extra-ordinary! I highly encourage you to scour the internet pages of igourmet.com. If you’d like, you can click on the banner on the right side of my blog and receive a 5% discount. By the way, most of the items I mention on my blog are available on igourmet.com so keep this in mind if you’re “Jonesing” for something gourmet. Have fun!

In case you’re interested, here’s the recipe for the vinaigrette:

Lemon Dijon Vinaigrette
Juice of 1 lemon
1 TB basil
1 TB parsley
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/4 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4-1/2 tsp sea salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
1/2 c extra virgin olive oil
Whisk together lemon juice, herbs, garlic, mustard, salt and pepper. Gradually add the olive oil until combined.

Chevre in France

I have recently returned from a trip to the South of France. Another way to say it would be, I have recently returned from a week splurging on delicacies like foie gras, lamb, duck, tapenade, crepes, pain au chocolat, crème brulee…..I could go on and on but will just say “etc.” I’m in need of a fat detox program now but the experience was well worth every ounce of fat gained!
As most people know, France is known for their many decadent foods, but the one that stood out to me this trip is the goat cheese, Chevre. Chevre in French literally means “goat.” I’ve had plenty of goat cheeses, but none like these. They were the freshest I’ve ever tasted – soft, delicate and possessing the distinct talent of being tangy and subtle simultaneously. A few were topped with “savory” – an herb mixture that tastes like thyme with a pinch of rosemary and a teeny bit of sage. Frequently, it was served with fresh baguette, something the French have perfected more than anyone else. Many times during the week, my lunch obsession was mesculin beautifully presented with a lightly herb-breaded disk of warm Chevre looking up at me from the center of the salad and oozing out seductively when cut open.

Chevre comes in many shapes – logs, disks, cones and even pyramids. It is often topped with herbs, ash, pepper or leaves. Some of the most famous Chevre comes from along the banks of the Loire River. Traditionally, the cheese is handmade on farms with small goat herds where the land is lush and the climate moderate.
There are soft, young forms or hard, aged forms of Chevre. The soft, young variety reminds me of a texture somewhere between cream cheese and Feta. It is mild and creamy making it ideal for melting on fancy gourmet pizzas. It is also good in sandwiches, breaded for an upscale salad or appetizer, or simply served on a cheese platter with crackers or baguette. The hard, aged variety is dry and firm. It is slightly sharp and acidic. Some say it tastes similar to Gouda. Whatever the case, it is a lovely addition to sandwiches, pastas and cheese platters.

If all this talk of Chevre is making your mouth water, I encourage you to explore the world of artisan cheese and hunt down a log, disk, cone or pyramid. And let me encourage you to wash it down with a white wine from the Loire region, a Sancerre perhaps. By the way, many U.S. goat dairies produce some pretty darn good versions that can stand up quite well to the French…..just don’t tell them that I said that.

Another link for buying Chevre

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale

Wine is both a passion and a business but some would argue that the most passionate job in the vineyards is not in making wine but in making Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale.

The simplest explanation of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale (hereafter mostly referred to as ABT) is balsamic vinegar….. but not just any kind you’d find on the shelves of your grocery store. In fact, much like Itay’s DOC wine, it has it’s own consortium with strict guidelines and tasting to insure superb quality. The end result is a thick, syrupy vinegar that is both sweet and sour with a palate pleasing, velvety sensation – an experience all to it’s own.

About a year and a half ago, me, my husband and daughter took a trip to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. This is the region famous for Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. WOW, talk about having something to boast about – three of the greatest gifts a foodie could ask for from this country all in one region! We spent several days in Emilia-Romagna and toured all three productions but were most inspired by the production of ABT and in fact, ended up visiting several places that produce this extraordinary elixir.

ABT is only produced in two towns in the whole wide world. To me, that is utterly mind-boggling! But I guess when you consider the production process and that fact that it isn’t, what most would say, a lucrative business, it would make sense. And it makes even more sense, this syrupy potion comes from Italy because the beautiful people of Italy have done an outstanding job of upholding old-world tradition.

Reggio Emilia and Modena are the two towns that produce ABT and each have their own consortium with their own specific requirements, but both fall under the denomination of protected origin or DOP. Ask anyone from Modena, and they’ll say they produce the best ABT but ask anyone from Reggio Emilia, and they’ll assure you they produce the best. To me, it’s a toss up, but I tend to agree with Reggio Emilia.

ABT is made from the must of a white grape called, Trebbiano (a grape also prominent in Tuscany) and aged in wooden barrels. Often, the barrels are old wine barrels that are no good for producing wine but flavorful for producing vinegar. The origin of the wood can vary – oak, cherry, chestnut, acacia, etc. Anywhere from 5-7 barrels are used varying in size from large to small. Each barrel has a small, cloth covered hole on top to access the product. The production starts by filling the barrels with the must where it remains for a year. During that time, approximately 10% of the vinegar is lost to evaporation. After one year, the smallest barrel gets topped off with vinegar from the next size up, and that barrel gets topped off with vinegar from the next size up and so on until the largest barrel is reached and gets topped off with the new production. When another year passes, the same topping off occurs again. This happens for a minimum of 12, yes….count them, TWELVE years! After 12 years, a few liters of vinegar can be extracted from the smallest barrel and sent to the consortium for tasting and approval. Once the vinegar has met all the requirements, the consortium numbers, records and brands it. Then, and only then, can the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale be sold.

In Modena, ABT has two levels of quality – a cream colored cap indicates 12 or more years of aging and a gold colored cap in addition to the wording “extravecchio” (extra mature) indicates 25 or more years. Both are individually numbered and sold in a bottle specified by the consortium. In Reggio Emilia, ABT has three levels of quality – a red label for 12 or more years of aging, a silver label for 20 or more years, and a gold label in addition to the wording of “extravecchio” for 25 or more years. These are also individually numbered and sold in a uniform bottle specified by the consortium along with a wax seal and “AB” (aceto balsamico) on the label. Generally, ABT is not aged more than 30 years.

The prices of the different levels of quality range considerably. From Reggio Emilia, we purchased a silver label ABT for about 40 euro ($52) and a gold label one for about 50 euro ($65). From Modena, we stumbled on a bottle that was 56 years old – according to my calculations, the beginning of it’s production occurred about the time television was being introduced into the homes of Americans! That one was a splurge at 150 euro ($195).

Of course with something this prized, the suggested consumption is to show it off as much as possible. We often just serve ours on a small spoon as an aperitif to our guests. It is also very good drizzled over Parmigiano Reggiano, a fresh salad, risotto or a good steak. For a unique twist, drizzle it over strawberries or ice cream. No matter how it is consumed, I bet the experience will seem like you’ve just plunged into the best condiment on the planet! If you’d like to splurge on this delicacy, click on this: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale

Falanghina

I have run the full gamut of wine drinking over the years. I started, as most of you, with the natural progression…..occasionally drinking white zinfandel at an office party or restaurant then slowly working up to Chardonnay. After many glasses and some apprehension, I made the big switch to red wine – enjoying mostly merlots and maybe an occasional pinot noir. Then I expanded my palate to the oaky, tannic wines of cabernet sauvignon. From there, I drank all kinds of red but stayed exclusively in that color realm assuming that white wines were for sissys – beginner drinkers.
How wrong I was! I have become energetically aware of the beauty of white wine in the last couple of years and, once again, drink it quite often – especially in the summer. Remember in my last post when I said I had a great white wine I wanted to tell you about……well, sit back as I tell you about falanghina.
In southern Italy’s Campania region, falanghina is one of the more prominent white wines produced (along with greco and fiano). The primary area for falanghina runs mostly along the coast from the Falerno del Massico DOC zone in the north, past Naples, and down to the beautiful Amalfi Coast. It is believed that Roman merchants brought the falanghina grape over from Greece many, many, many, many, moons ago. The word, falanghina, originated from the Latin word “phalange” which means stake or pole in reference to the method used of training the vine on the pole.
Blah, blah, blah………let’s get to the good stuff. Falanghina is a wonderfully, light, refreshing wine with delicate aromas and a pleasant palate. It requires a dry, warm climate which makes it perfectly balanced with good acidity and fruity notes. This wine is best served as an aperitif at 8-10 degrees Celsius. Some say it tastes similar to pinot grigio. It is often produced in a blend with other local varieties such as verdeca, coda di volpe, biancolella, and greco but can be great on its own as well. Some of the more prominent producers are Feudi di San Gregorio in Avellino and Ocone in Benevento. Within the Costa d’Amalfi DOC subzone, “Cuomo’s Ravello” is some of the best available with distinctly floral and citrus notes.
I have become specifically infatuated with the Campi Flegrei DOC falanghina of my friend, Pasquale, at Cantine del Mare (http://www.cantinedelmare.it/)- a local winery in my town of Monte di Procida. He produces two types of 100% falanghina wine both with the typical straw yellow color and delicate, fruity bouquets. The first type is his mainstream bottling and shows hints of vanilla and peaches. This wine has the unique benefit of having 15% of it passing briefly through barrels before it is mixed with the remaining wine and bottled aged. The second, “Sorbo Bianco,” is a little more full-bodied with careful grape selection and a dominant aroma of green apple along with hints of peaches, pineapple and vanilla. This wine (100%) is stored in oak barrels for approximately 6 months before it finishes aging in the bottle. Besides being a lovely aperitif, both wines pair superbly with fish and shellfish.
The wines of Cantine del Mare are not exported (yet) but I have noticed falanghina popping up at local gourmet and grocery stores in America. If you’re intrigued, I encourage you to go out and find a bottle to try yourself. And while you’re at it, purchase the ingredients for “Insalata Caprese” that I wrote about in my inaugural post – these two paired together are a match made in heaven. Enjoy!

Sources: Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch, Vino Italiano, the Regional Wines of Italy, (New York, Clarkson Potter/Publisher, 2002); Rinaldo Pilla, www.pillawine.com, (Davenport, 2005)

Wines Of Italy

To write about the wines of Italy, is almost like attempting to write about the creation of the world. It could, quite possibly, take my lifetime and I still wouldn’t be done, nor would I know everything there is to know. So, I thought sifting through the designations might be a good place to start.

There are 19 wine regions in Italy and upwards of 1,000 different grape varieties. In some areas, the countryside is boundless in graceful vineyards spreading as far as the eye can see. Many people are familiar with varieties such as Chianti (the good and the bad), Amarone, Barolo, Barbaresco, and Brunello di Montalcino. Or, if you’re a wine drinker from the 70’s, wine in a straw cloaked jug. But there are many, many lesser known varieties. Some are not even open to exportation and only known in their local area. Since living in Italy, I’ve also become familiar with landlord wine which can range in taste anywhere from a dirty, wet sock to a lightly refreshing, frizzy summer pick-me-up. Believe me……..I’ve had both.

The wines in Italy are designated much like the wines of France. Specific regulations are followed in order to be named in a designation. These designations can help land you a good bottle; however, they don’t always guarantee a good one. As a matter of fact, surprisingly, many wines with lesser designations are just as good, if not better, as some of the ones with the more controlled regulations.

There are 4 basic designations for the wines of Italy: Vino da Tavola (VdT) – Table Wine, Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) – typical geographic location, Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) – denomination of controlled origin, and Denominazione di Origine Controllata Garantita (DOCG) – guaranteed denomination of controlled origin.

VdT is wine classified as table wine but that’s about it. It can be made of any grape(s), grown in any area of Italy and is often sold as bulk or blending wine. Many of the house wines in restaurants are of this designation. Although they don’t carry an illustrious designation, some of these wines are the perfect compliment to casual, al fresco dining in a scenic, little village. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, as some “Super Tuscans” are classified as VdT (more on Super Tuscans later).

IGT is wine classified as having been grown in the appropriate geographic location but other than that, no specific regulation is required. These wines encompass a large playing field and can be some of the best. In Italy, they are plentiful in enotecas, restaurants, and grocery stores.

DOC is wine classified as having followed the appropriate guidelines for growing region, varietal, production formula, and aging. Wines that fall under this designation go through rigorous tasting from a committee for every production year before they can be certified. Many of these wines are excellent; however, when you see this designation, it does not necessarily assure exceptional wine.

DOCG specifies the same as the DOC but, as mentioned above, the “G” stands for “garantita” (or guaranteed). This designation is usually set aside for the more historic wines like Brunello di Montalcino, Barbaresco, Chianti, etc. and is considered more strictly regulated.

In upcoming posts, I will travel through specific regions and wines (there’s a great white wine I want to tell you about). If you desire an in-depth look into the designations or any other wise counsel on the wines of Italy, I suggest Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy . This book is chock-full of information and has been invaluable to me as I’ve trekked through the different regions of Italy.

In the meantime, may I suggest going to your favorite wine store, and picking up a bottle of Italian wine. Whether you find a VdT, IGT, or DOC, I hope you have fun exploring.

Sources: Joseph Bastianich & David Lynch, Vino Italiano. The Regional Wines Of Italy, (New York, New York, Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2002); Robert M. Parker, Jr., Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide, 7th Edition, (New York, New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008); Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas Of Wine, (London, England, Octopus Publishing Group, 2007)

photo by Joe Overstreet

A Note To The Followers Of Deep Red Cellar

In my excitement of starting up a new blog and trying to get posts submitted, I neglected to learn all the features of editing and publishing. For you, that meant probably receiving several posts that looked very similar as I kept making minor editing changes and publishing over and over again. I apologize and promise, from now on, to do all editing before I publish.
In addition to stories, you will see posts on wines of Italy, gourmet chocolate, etc. I am also trying to get programs set up where I will be able to send you links to some of the items I mention as well as where you can purchase them.
Thank you for following my blog. I hope you will enjoy it as more upgrades occur.

Enate Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot

I am amazed sometimes at how life’s paths come together. I was living in Japan in the late 1990’s just starting to spread my “wine wings.” My friend, Lynn, and I were great partners in crime, seeking out places to buy wine. On one of the many adventures, we stumbled on this very stylish Enoteca in Tokyo. It became my favorite place. I would stock up and haul bags of wine back to my home on the train that was often filled like a sardine can.
That is when I found the Spanish wine, Enate, specifically their cabernet sauvignon – merlot blend. It was inexpensive and some of the best everyday drinking wine I’d tasted. I drank it regularly from the first day I found it until my feet left the ground of the Kanto Plain for America.
After relocating to America, I started looking for the wine I had grown accustomed to drinking and enjoying so much. I couldn’t find it in any store and even spoke to a few wine distributors. One offered to see if he could get it if I’d be willing to purchase several cases. By that time, I was living in Southern California with no air conditioning and no wine cellar. Lynn, my compatriot mentioned earlier, made a trip back to Japan during this time and was kind enough to get me a couple of bottles……..still the wonderful taste I remembered.
It was here where life’s paths collided. I had almost forgotten about my pal, Enate, until this past September when I was sitting at a wonderful tapas restaurant in Barcelona. As my husband and I were looking over the wine list, I was elated to discover that they had Enate – they even had the cabernet sauvignon-merlot blend! As I was sipping on a glass with great delight, a rush of memories came back about life in Japan, the Enoteca in Tokyo, the sardine can trains, etc. I like how wine has a way of taking you back to the moment when you first discovered a favorite bottle.
It was then that I decided I needed to find out where to buy this pal of mine and take it home. It didn’t take long……it was waiting for me at “El Cellar de la Boqueria” a quaint little store in the very lively “La Boqueria” market. Two cases came home with me and I’ve been savoring them sparingly in hopes of somehow not running out until I know for sure where I can get my next stash.
Tasting Notes: Enate Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot, Somontano, 2006
This medium bodied wine has a ruby red color with tastes of blackberry, vanilla and spice rounded out by a toasty finish and balanced acidity.

Insalata Caprese


It was 1992 and I made my maiden trip to Naples, Italy to visit my husband when I stumbled on “Insalata Caprese.” What – this is a salad? Who knew there could be variations.

As a child, I was used to salads consisting of that pale green and yellowish stuff called iceberg with maybe some carrots, radishes, a few tomatoes and trans fat laden bottled dressing. I had no idea something so fresh and yet so simple could be so good. That first bite of mozzarella di bufala was almost an outer body experience. It was like nothing I had ever tasted and just seemed to smoothly run down my throat. The contrast of the sweet, fresh, tomatoes that the Campania region is famous for along with sprigs of fresh basil, olive oil and the perfect amount of salt was what has kept me on the quest for more.

Fast forward to 2007 when I found myself moving to Naples and ecstatic at the prospect of tasting all the wonderful food (and wine 🙂 ) Italy has to offer.

Of course, I returned to the quest for more caprese and found that there are even slight variations on this salad…..some come with oregano instead of basil, some with a squeeze of fresh lemon, some chunk the tomatoes and mozzarella, and some slice them. The key ingredients – tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala – remain the same.

So, after living here for almost two years, I not only have my favorite way of making “Insalata Caprese,” I can actually tell the difference between good mozzarella di bufala and bad. Now, before I get the Italians mad at me, let me clarify. By bad, I don’t actually mean it is indigestible, I mean, it is not my preference. Because what I’ve also learned from living here is that many people have different opinions about what makes good mozzarella di bufala. Some prefer it slightly firm, some think salt destroys it, some only buy it from the town they live in or even more specific, from the same vendor they’ve been buying it from for years (because so-and-so’s brother owns the caseficio).

I can’t say I’m much different because I have tried almost all the shops that sell it in my town and can even tell who makes it slightly firm, with little or no salt, etc. Now, many Italians would probably think I’m crazy (although admire me for sticking to my personal quest for the best) but I don’t buy my mozzarella from any of the shops in my town. Instead, I drive to a nearby town and buy mine from a local Caseficio which, in my opinion, produces the most perfectly balanced, melt-in-your-mouth, mozzarella di bufala I have ever tasted. Add the freshest tomatoes, ripped (not cut) basil, enough salt to compensate for the exquisitely sweet tomatoes, top quality extra virgin olive oil and that, my friend, is what the love of food is all about! My quest has come to a very happy end!

Recipe: Insalata Caprese

2 servings
1 large ball mozzarella di bufala
8 cherry tomatoes, quartered
2 large leaves basil
extra virgin olive oil
kosher or sea salt
Cut mozzarella in half then each half into 4 pieces. Place on a serving dish with the tomatoes. Rip fresh basil over the insalata and drizzle extra virgin olive oil on every piece of mozzarella and tomato. Sprinkle salt to taste making sure you generously sprinkle on the tomatoes if they are sweet. Serve immediately.