Food, Wine, Good (and Evil) Spirits

coffee2A coffee farmer shared with me that the most injury prone job picking coffee involves climbing.  When one hand is holding the tree and the other a machete--what are you left with to swat the bugs?  

Last March I traveled to a coffee plantation in Nicaragua to help run a volunteer medical and dental clinic for the workers, their families, and the villagers.  The team set up shop in an open-air church and saw 1,200 patients in a week.  Babies with distended bellies from parasites, respiratory infections, decayed teeth, dehydration.  Patients lined up.  Machete wounds were common.  One involved a bee.

I was overwhelmed by the emotion of it--watching some brave person getting teeth pulled, barely betraying their pain.  I would walk out to the rainforest and indulge in a good cry.  I expected the week to be hard--what surprised me was the joy.  Despite the intense emotions, I also laughed harder that week than I could remember doing for a long time.  (Sometimes because the very earnest nurses were so bad at Spanish.  Also there was a broken toilet seat incident.)  It's no secret.  Volunteering feeds the soul.  

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merlotmenu.jpgYou never forget your first love...and mine was Merlot. Up to that sip of Chilean juice all my encounters with red wine brought mouthfuls of tannic unhappiness. I had no idea red wine could taste so smooth and juicy and, yes, fruity. I remember seeking it out and buying versions from Mill Creek, Lambert Bridge and Chateau Souverain on my first trip to Sonoma. And then, overexposure hit, causing many wineries to plant Merlot where they shouldn't – just to make a quick buck – and the lack of quality made many wine lovers, like me, desert the variety and move on to other grapes. It doesn't take many mediocre versions to turn people off, especially when you're paying good money for the pleasure.

This decline happened long before Sideways. The movie just brought the problem to a national audience. Miles' cry "I'm not drinking any f**king Merlot!", while funny, was all too true for many of us everyday drinkers. This once luscious grape was ruined by rampant commercialization, which was sad for drinkers, but had to be horrifying to the wineries who considered this a flagship variety. Lucky for us the ones in it for the long haul, held on and concentrated their efforts into making wines that would turn around Merlot's maligned reputation. Or so I've heard.

I got the opportunity to see whether they succeeded at Learn About Wines "Revenge of The Merlot" tasting. While clearly devised by the wineries participating to get people talking about and tasting merlot again, it was interesting to actually hear first hand the effects, if any, they had experienced since Sideways supposedly put the nail in Merlot's coffin.

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From the Huffington Post

holiday-cocktails.jpgThere are bartenders who make a living mixing cocktails, and baristas whose wages are earned behind espresso machines. There are high-concept tea masters, sommeliers, and soda jerks, too. At home we are never expected to be any of these, but when guests arrive for your holiday parties some simple instruction might be helpful. After all, there's a week's worth of celebrating still to be done.

I tend to restrict drinks at my dinner parties to champagne and wine and perhaps one great cocktail. I suggest you try all the ideas here, or create your own, but choose only one as your "house special." "What you don't need," says wine writer Anthony Dias Blue, "is people sidling up to your bar expecting a Singapore Sling or a mai tai," or both!

I know a thing or two about drinks. At age 16, I was a bartender, illegally, at the Olde London Fishery in Queens, New York. I was tall for my age and looked the part. Next, I had the ultimate pleasure of helping create two of New York's most spectacular bars -- the Rainbow Promenade at the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center, where Sleepless in Seattle was shot, and the Greatest Bar on Earth on the 106th floor of the now legendary Windows on the World. A great drink is always remembered.

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sgroppino.jpgIn Italy, digestivos are commonly drunk after the meal and when we were in Sicily, we certainly had our share of Averna after meals. But this digestive is drunk in the Venetian region of Italy and is bright, fresh and clean. A sgroppino is made by whipping together Italian Prosecco, lemon sorbet and vodka. Sgroppino means "to untie" as in, to "untie your stomach" after a meal. So you have a great excuse to make these after dinner! But hey, these are so refreshing we drink them on a hot summer day before dinner.

Some versions of this drink use gelato but most use sorbet, which has no dairy. When you make this drink, don't use a blender – whisk in the sorbet by hand so that it retains some of its texture. You don't want it too thick, but you don't want it real thin, either.

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wallys.jpgIf you spent three days driving throughout the Central Coast wineries, from Santa Barbara to Los Pasos, you could not have sampled a fraction of the wines you could have in an hour at Wally’s 8th Annual Central Coast Food and Wine celebration. The event benefits the Michael Bonaccorsi UC Davis Scholarship Fund and the endowment at Allan Hancock College for students who want to pursue careers in Viticulture and Enology. There were over 55 wineries serving 150 unique wines you could sniff, swirl, taste and savor. It was like wandering from room to room in one of your favorite art museums only to discover another gallery filled with astonishing paintings you’ve never seen before.

In addition to such luminaries as Au Bon Climat, Qupe, Melville and The Hitching Post, to name a few, there were dozens of small hands-on wineries. Hard to find wines whose producers grow their own grapes, ferment them, and even drive to local wine stores to sell them. You could chat, query, and get a deeper appreciation of what goes into making unique wines in a market increasingly dominated by wine consultants and corporate ownership. Although the Central Coast is known for its distinctive Pinots and Chardonnays there was a healthy dose of Syrahs and Grenaches. These grapes are poised to make the same kind of impact in California that Cabernets did in the 90’s and Pinots in the 2000’s.

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