Last week I returned to Asheville, North Carolina, where I had the pleasure of speaking with Sommelier-Chef-Restaurateur Vijay Shastri of The Continental Lounge and taste some of his fantastic wine selections. What a delight to share with you this exclusive video interview curated and produced by G Social Media.
Have you ever been on a wine tour in Asheville, North Carolina? When I was there last month, I visited three incredible wine and food venues in the area with creator, producer, and maker of video magic, Gary of G Social Media. The first stop was wine and dinner at Rezaz – Pan Mediterranean Cuisine. Next, we walked up the hill to sample a few wines at the tasting bar at Appalachian Vintner. Last, but not least, we took Uber to plēb urban winery to celebrate their Beaujolais Day release of the inaugural 2018 wine, a lovely rosé of Maréchal Foch from North Carolina. What an amazing time I had. I cannot wait for my next visit and tour.
For many, brunch is the earliest meal of the day when alcoholic beverages are deemed socially acceptable. It often conjures up images of Mimosas and Bloody Marys and calorie-laden breakfast and lunch foods, because after all, brunch is two meals rolled into one. People who brunch usually have limitless finances to spend on this leisurely and lavish, decadent meal. However, what if brunch were both more, and less, than that? What would happen if we envisioned brunch as a warm, casual meal for everyone, an educational experience, even a healthy approach to eating and drinking? The latter is the approach that friend, chef, and photographer, Gary Monday, decided to pursue when we planned our intimate brunch with friends.
Both Gary and I have been through major lifestyle changes in our lives, which have resulted in great weight losses and improved health and fitness. We both have learned which foods are good for our bodies. We also both discovered a passion for sparkling wines as standalone or food wines. They are lighter in style, lower in alcohol, available for all budgets, and fit with our newfound lifestyles.
With this vision, I invited sparkling wine producers to contribute to our brunch. We received seven wines at all price points from Italy, California, Michigan, and Virginia. Suggested retail prices ranged from $17 per bottle to $55 per bottle and case production ran the gamut from 109 cases to 240,000 cases. The samples included wines made both in the traditional and charmat methods, the difference being secondary fermentation in the bottle or tank. The wines were made from a variety of grapes: chardonnay, chardonel, glera, muscat, and pinots – noir, gris, and meunier.
Gary created a menu that he called Southern/Pacific Northwest infused food, a nod to both his North Carolina roots and current home in Seattle. His expenses were around $110 to feed six people, a brunch bargain. Food included bacon-wrapped jalapeño peppers; grilled pork loin and salmon; a kale, citrus, and pomegranate salad; a fresh fruit bowl; and biscuits and gravy. Since Gary is dairy free, he made dairy-free sausage gravy and purchased vegan biscuits from Redwing Café in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, along with making traditional milk-based sausage gravy and buttermilk biscuits. While all the food was amazing, the attendees delightfully discovered that the standouts were perhaps the healthiest foods: the grilled salmon; the kale, citrus, and pomegranate salad; the Redwing Café vegan biscuits; and the dairy-free gravy.
Gary learned the kale recipe in a dairy-free cooking class taught by Danielle Premo. Perfect for brunches and holidays, ingredients included kale from Full Circle – a community supported agriculture (CSA) delivery company – clementine oranges, pomegranate seeds, candied pecans, and Danielle’s dressing made from orange juice, vinegar, mustard, honey, salt, pepper, and olive oil. The kale is massaged with the dressing, left to sit for 15 minutes, then the clementine orange slices and pomegranate seeds added. The finished salad is garnished with the candied pecans. The beauty of this salad is that it can be prepared ahead of time without the kale becoming soggy. In fact, the flavors integrate the longer they are together.
For the dairy-free sausage biscuit gravy, Gary used the drippings from cooking bacon, sausage, and pork loins. He added all-purpose flour and cooked on medium heat until he had a thick paste in the pan. He introduced unsweetened cashew milk slowly until the desired consistency was achieved. He reduced the stove to low heat for simmering and thickening, stirring continuously, while adding salt and pepper to taste.
Gary bought vegan biscuits from Redwing Café, which specializes in healthy food options. I contacted the owners to ask what makes these biscuits vegan and they explained that they use olive oil and hemp milk in place of butter and buttermilk. After tasting these, I may never have another traditional biscuit again.
One of our brunch guests was Rhonda Hamlin, biscotti maker and owner of The Art of Crunch. As the dessert finale, in honor of National Biscotti Day, she contributed samples of her handcrafted biscotti, including a special test flavor for all of us to try and contribute our input as to the final recipe. It is not often I veer off my strict eating path, but these biscotti were a delicious way to conclude our brunch. To learn more about The Art of Crunch, visit this link to read my interview with Rhonda.
The beverage stars of our brunch were the seven sparkling wine samples we received. As an educational tasting experiment, we gave our guests an index card for each wine and asked that they take notes on the wines they enjoyed the most and with which foods, then we discussed the results. Below are our collective thoughts.
2017 Adami Vigneto Giardino Asciutto Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco Superiore Rive di Colbertaldo, SRP $22, 3700 cases produced
Across the board, our brunch attendees chose this wine as one of their top wines of the day, two writing “#1” and “Favorite! <3” on their index cards. In fact, someone said, “I didn’t know Prosecco could taste like this!” This floral, fruity, and spicy sparkling wine made from 100% glera, charmat method, was mesmerizing. It was also one of the most versatile food wines, pairing well with nearly everything, especially the fruit salad, biscuits with raspberry jam, even Rhonda’s biscotti.
2015 Enrico Serafino Brut Rosé Alta Langa DOCG, SRP $26, 5000 cases produced
This Brut Rosé, made from 100% pinot nero (noir) in the traditional method, was light in color, but big on flavor, exhibiting clean, bright raspberry and redcurrant flavors cradled in yeastiness. A hint of sweetness was beautifully offset by mouthwatering acidity. This wine was a perfect match for our kale salad.
2013 Frank Family Vineyards Blanc de Blancs, Carneros, SRP $55, 500 cases produced
This is wine that our attendees said tasted “the most like Champagne.” Made in the traditional method and hand riddled, the Blanc de Blancs was the elegant, grande dame of our brunch. Fine mousse, brioche, and freshly cut, tart apples dominated the palate of this lovely 100% chardonnay sparkler, which was the preferred pairing with grilled salmon and pork loin.
2014 Frank Family Vineyards Brut Rosé, Carneros, 2014 SRP $55, 1000 cases produced
I admit, I jumped the gun when I tasted this wine, exclaiming that it was my favorite. I am Brut Rosé gal through and through, and this blend of Carneros-grown 88% pinot noir and 12% chardonnay did not disappoint, bursting with red berries and a pleasantly creamy mouthfeel. One of our guests wrote, “Love it! This is great all by itself!” Our favorite food pairings were strawberries, the kale salad, and biscuits with raspberry jam. Click here to read how this wine gives back during the month of October.
NV L. Mawby/M. Lawrence Sex, Michigan, SRP $17, 246 cases produced
With a name like Sex and a price point of $17, how could you not like this wine? This sparkler, a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and muscat, was dry and crisp, with an interesting juxtaposition of cotton candy and white grapefruit on the palate, making it a fantastic accompaniment to fresh fruit. Exclaiming, “Yes, yes, yes!”, we drank every drop of this wine. Of course, it left us wanting more.
NV Mumm Brut Prestige, Napa Valley, SRP $24, 240,000 cases produced If you want a sparkling wine that consistently delivers palate-pleasing flavors and is and affordable enough to drink anytime you feel like bubbles, Mumm is the wine for you. A blend of 45% chardonnay, 45% pinot noir, and 10% pinot gris and meunier, Mumm’s signature wine is made in the traditional method. On the palate, think pears with a honeyed quality, coupled with soft effervescence. The Brut Prestige complemented rich foods like bacon-wrapped jalapeño peppers, biscuits and gravy, and grilled salmon. With a quarter of a million cases produced, Mumm is most likely available right around the corner from you.
2016 Rosemont of Virginia Brut, Virginia, SRP $25, 109 cases produced This wine was the most unique of all the wines we tasted. The only brut nature (no dosage) of the lineup and made from 100% chardonel (a cross between chardonnay and Seyval) using the charmat method, this wine showed zingy, citrus fruit flavors like white grapefruit, lemon, and lime. The bone dryness and racy acidity cut through the fattiest foods, like bacon-wrapped jalapeño peppers, sausage gravy, and grilled salmon. This vintage is sold out, but next year’s vintage will be released in early 2019.
I am thrilled to present my first Ten Questions interview and delighted to introduce you to Rhonda Hamlin, owner of The Art of Crunch and and magnificent creator of handcrafted biscotti. Rhonda and I met a little over a year ago at dinner at Russell’s in Bothell, Washington, and reconnected at a brunch tasting I hosted in Seattle. When I invited Rhonda to the brunch, I did not realize that September 29 was also National Biscotti Day until she shared that with me, so I asked her if she would be kind enough to bring biscotti for us to try. She brought a variety of flavors, including a new flavor test batch. The biscotti was so incredible that I knew I wanted to share her entrepreneurial story and love of biscotti. Below are my ten questions and Rhonda’s answers in her own words.
Tell us about your work and baking background. Was there an ah-ha moment when you decided “I want to bake for a living” instead of doing something else? Please describe.
I had worked in retail for 30+ years, 20 years at Nordstrom, before starting my biscotti business. I have no formal culinary training, just a love for baking and food! I started my company while working in cosmetics at Nordstrom. I had no idea at the time what I was getting into going into the food business.
What motivated you to create your own business?
I wanted more than punching a time clock. I am very grateful for the time I spent at Nordstrom and everything I learned about business, but I wanted to explore having my own brand.
How long has The Art of Crunch been in business? How did you choose the name?
The Art of Crunch is in its sixth year. The name was actually inspired by a men’s grooming line called The Art of Shaving. The crunch factor of my biscotti is very important, so I thought it was the perfect option.
It is the passion I have been given!
What are your flavor inspirations? Do you have any favorites?
I have many inspirations. In the beginning, my colleagues in the cosmetics department at Nordstrom and I would dream of flavor combinations at break at the Ebar. Some have been requests and some from Pinterest. I LOVE to play with flavor!
What do you enjoy pairing with biscotti?
Coffee, wine and beer. Italian tradition suggests Vin Santo wine, but Americans love coffee. I collaborate with a local beer tour company in Tacoma called Tacoma Hops and pair biscotti amazingly with beer!
Do you make other treats besides biscotti?
Yes, we have a line of dessert bars and savory crackers.
If you were not making biscotti for a living, what would you be doing instead?
What? Not making biscotti? I was born for this! Of course, I suppose I could go back to cosmetics…
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Anything with food! My daughter and I also love treasure hunting at thrift shops.
Where can we find your biscotti and other baked goods? Do you sell online
Wine tasting as a standalone activity is something I have never really enjoyed. Wine should be enjoyed with friends and food, so when my Seattle family invited me for a long weekend, I brought with me two recently received wine samples, the 2016 Château de Poncié Le Pré Roi Fleurie ($22), and 2016 Augusta Winery Vignoles, Augusta AVA, Missouri ($15), for a summer wine dinner party. A public relations representative pitched the Fleurie to me as a “Beaujolais, The Rosé for Fall” and a Thanksgiving wine, to which I countered, “I think Gamay is a perfect summer red, too, slightly chilled.” I decided to go with my angle. Missouri Wines sent me the Vignoles without a pitch or advanced notification. I learned it was in route thanks to an automatic tracking alert from UPS My Choice, then a follow-up email from Missouri Wines after the wine shipped.
Often wine consumers know Beaujolais because of the annual Beaujolais Nouveau release, but are unfamiliar with Cru Beaujolais. This was confirmed in Seattle by the dinner guests when I presented the Fleurie. Furthermore, none of the guests had heard of Vignoles, and my co-host, Gary, did not reveal that this wine was from Missouri until the next day. I will also confess that while not my first Missouri wine, this was my first Vignoles. If you have not had Vignoles, either, it is white grape that can be made as a dry, semi-sweet, or dessert-style wine. This sample was semi-sweet.
Gary had already planned the menu for the evening: grilled chicken and asparagus, always respectful of my healthy lifestyle. The other dinner guests brought brats for appetizers, green salad to accompany the meal, and fruit salad for dessert. When informed about the menu, I decided to serve the Fleurie with dinner and the Vignoles as the closer because of its sweetness. Gary seemed surprised that I chose a red wine with poultry, but I explained that this should be a good pairing with the chilled, lighter red. We had also selected a sparkling rosé for the evening, too, but as the evening progressed, we realized these two wines were enough.
Once everyone arrived, a discussion ensued about the preparation of the meal. Gary decided to cook the brats by simmering in a can of Rainier Brewing Company beer, then grilling them on a 600-degree infrared grill. He marinated the chicken breasts in Italian salad dressing for 36 hours, then grilled them at 450 degrees for 25-30 minutes, turning them over near the end. He tossed the asparagus in avocado oil with a dash of salt and pepper, then grilled them on low for 10 minutes.
We took the Fleurie out of the refrigerator about 20 minutes before we served it with the main course of chicken, asparagus, and salad. The commentary from the group was interesting to hear as everyone’s palate is different. The Fleurie expressed a much darker fruit profile than I expected, such as blackberry and plum. In fact, I think this wine would have paired wonderfully with the brats we had before dinner, which were nothing short of amazing, because of the fattiness of the meat and the acidity of the wine. This is also why this wine would work for a traditional Thanksgiving’s hearty, higher-fat, poultry-based menu. Gary, who is accustomed to drinking bolder reds, immediately noticed the much higher acidity and softer tannins, noting that this is a food wine, not a sipping wine. And, Kelly remarked that the wine had a lot more going on in the middle and back of the palate than upon first sip. This Fleurie is young and would be even more lovely a few more years in the bottle.
When we tasted the Vignoles, I thought, “This is the perfect pairing for this fruit salad”. Another confession: I am not usually a fan of wines with any sweetness. However, the Vignoles smelled and tasted like summer: a bowl of fresh apples, peaches, pineapples, and tangerines. The dinner guests took it a step further by adding the fruit to their glass, creating a delightful, adult summer cocktail. This was the shock and awe wine of the evening, and when Gary texted the group the next day telling them it was from Missouri, the surprise reactions continued.
Gary and I have talked about this dinner party over the course of the past week and have decided to plan future wine dinners together. He will be the chef and I will provide the wine. If you would like a wine to be featured at one of our dinner parties, please contact me in advance and send suggested healthy and flavorful food pairings, too. Oh, and stay tuned for the video that didn’t happen at this party!
As I tasted, then revisited the pairings, my palate kept gravitating towards the final pairing of mystery wine #4 and the soft, Munster cheese with apricot mostarda and toasted caraway seeds. I must confess, as soon as I tasted this wine, I knew it was the Domaines Schlumberger. I am afraid I cannot adequately convey the pleasure of this pairing, but it was exquisite. Ripe, sweet tree and stone fruit flavors meshed lovingly with the contrasting flavor and texture of the cheese as well as the similarly sweetness of the apricot. The Les Princes Abbés Pinot Gris (SRP $21) was all at once bright and rich, juicy and creamy. At the festival’s grand tasting, which followed the morning educational tastings, I searched for this beautiful wine to taste again. I left my heart at that table, longingly looking forward to my next Domaines Schlumberger moment. Do not hesitate. Find this wine, I know I will.