Brunch with Friends: Sparkling Wines and Healthy Food Choices for All Budgets

2018-09-29 11.30.29For 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

2018-09-29 11.03.47One 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.

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Photo by Adami Vigneto Giardino

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.

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Photo by Enrico Serafino

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.

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Photo by Frank Family Vineyards

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.

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Photo by Frank Family Vineyards

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.

Mawby
Photo by L. Mawby/M. Lawrence

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.

Mumm
Photo by Mumm Napa Valley

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.

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Photo by Gary Monday

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.

Ten Questions for Rhonda Hamlin of The Art of Crunch

Editor’s Note:
I have discovered I have a knack (I think) for writing interview questions that evoke an interviewee’s personality. Therefore, I came up with the idea of a Ten Questions for _____ series of articles that I will be publishing. Since this is a different approach for me as a writer and editor, I would love your feedback, so please comment below or visit my Contact Me page to share your thoughts.
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Rhonda Hamlin and The Art of Crunch (photo credit: Lisa Markman)

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.

Why biscotti?

It is the passion I have been given!

Biscotti
The Art of Crunch Brunch Biscotti

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

There are several locations in the Puget Sound area and in my Etsy store online.

*For biscotti lovers, I recommend The Art of Crunch 6-Month or 12-Month Crunch of the Month clubs. You will not be disappointed.

Fleurie and Missouri, meet Seattle!

IMG_8826Wine 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!

Cheers!
Elizabeth

 

 

 

Domaines Schlumberger Les Princes Abbés Pinot Gris 2015

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It was not my first Domaines Schlumberger moment. That took place seven or eight years ago at Bouchon in Asheville, North Carolina, and I fell in love. This recent moment, a blind, comparative food and wine tasting of international gewürztraminer, pinot gris, and riesling at the Anderson Valley Winegrowers’ 13th Annual Aromatic White Wine Festival, was sublime. Prepared and led by chefs Lars Kronmark and Christie Dufault of the Culinary Institute of America at Copia, in Napa, California, the stage was set for an incomparable sensory experience, and that it was.

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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.

Villa Maria Estate: The Beth’s Smart Sip Trifecta!

Villa Maria
On Wednesday November 15, 2017, I helped facilitate the latest Twitter tasting with Villa Maria Estate, and I could not be more pleased with the selections that the winery sent to me to taste and review. Time and time again, Villa Maria fulfills at a price point that all wine lovers can enjoy. Thus, I am declaring these three wines Beth’s Smart Sips, wines that over deliver with regard to quality versus price. Below are my thoughts. As always, your palate may vary.

2017 Villa Maria Estate Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough $14 (sample)
It is always exciting to taste this flagship offering from Villa Maria and this year’s vintage is no exception. Herbal notes lead to an abundance of citrus and tropical fruits on the palate. Mouthwatering acidity makes this the perfect aperitif wine. Pair this with light appetizers, salads, shellfish, and cheeses like chèvre, fromage blanc, and gruyère.

2016 Villa Maria Estate Private Bin Chardonnay, East Coast, $15 (sample)
My first taste of Villa Maria Chardonnay did not disappoint. Its balance of citrus and stone fruits and a kiss of toasty oak are gently cradled on the palate by a medium-bodied, luscious mouthfeel. For white wine lovers, this is the go-to wine for brie, charcuterie, salmon, poultry, and pork.

2016 Villa Maria Estate Private Bin Pinot Noir, Marlborough, $18 (sample)
Can you say cherry, spice, and everything nice? This Pinot Noir is oh, so approachable with its bright, red berry fruits and delicate tannins. This wine has it all: drinkability, softness, and food-friendly acidity that will be the ideal red wine accompaniment to casseroles, coq au vin, duck, roasted pork or turkey, and sausage stuffing.

Find your favorite Villa Maria wines at this link and stock up!

Happy Holidays!
Beth

The Comstock Experience

Turning into the entrance of Comstock Wines, I noticed The Residence at Comstock Wines behind the winery. I had been looking forward to this two-day getaway for months, especially after having a tough January with the death of my mother and off and on respiratory illness.

I met the concierge, Erin, in the winery, and then I followed her to the residence to check in and get my key. She gave me a rundown of how everything worked and gave me a brief tour of the residence. I could hardly contain my excitement at the thought of spending two days here. If there had been food, I would have never left. I kept thinking I should have stopped at a grocery store on the way. However, that would have been too much work. I was here to relax and take in the experience.

After Erin left, I was the only one at the residence as the other guests were out, so I took the opportunity to take photos. My master bedroom was beautifully decorated and included a fireplace, a sitting area, a work desk, and a welcome bottle of wine.

I have a thing for bathrooms and bathroom fixtures and the one that was a part of my master bedroom was nothing short of amazing, with both a spa bath and a separate shower. Similar to a high-end hotel, amenities such as a hair dryer, toiletries, and luxurious towels were included.

I ventured into the shared living spaces, the living room, the kitchen, and the media room on the second floor. The spaces were bright, modern, and spacious, with lots of natural light. They were impeccably clean, furnished, and meticulously well appointed.

Since I did not have food to prepare, I had asked Erin for dinner recommendations. Being the consummate concierge, she was a wealth of information and delighted to assist me. I told her I wanted something less expensive and touristy, so she directed me to Campo Fina, where I was able to sit at the bar in the patio outside and eat without a reservation. There, I enjoyed people watching and found something delicious and healthy to eat on the menu, Nonna’s Tomato Braised Chicken with sautéed Swiss chard and polenta, and splurged on a house cocktail, Plush, with Calle 23 Tequila Reposado, agave, pomegranate seeds, and Meyer lemon and lime juice.

After dinner, I walked to John & Zeke’s Bar, a local hangout, where the patrons had been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day since early morning. I had a half of a pint of Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA. I debated staying longer, but the sun was setting and the residence was calling.

I arrived back to the residence just in time to enjoy a beautiful display of Mother Nature’s glory, a cloud-laden sky at dusk. The only light in the middle of the impending darkness was the orange glow of the residence. I walked the perimeter of the property, snapping photos right and left. I didn’t want to go inside, but I also didn’t want to unexpectedly stumble upon vineyard creatures of the night.

Then I remembered the fireplace! It was chilly, but not cold, probably not really cold enough for the fireplace, but I wanted to use it. I sat for hours in front of it, mesmerized by its light and warmth. Finally, I settled into one of the plush beds in my room and slept uninterrupted until daylight.

I awakened and decided to explore outdoors as well as get in a workout. Although it was damp, overcast, and cool, I covered most of the property, getting in about two miles of walking, running, and photos over the course of a few hours.

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I needed to grab lunch somewhere, so I messaged a friend of mine to ask for a recommendation and he sent me to Taqueria El Sombrero, a local favorite since 1986, which was a perfect choice: plentiful, yummy, and inexpensive. I had the huevos rancheros, which was way more than one person could eat.

Back at Comstock, I joined winemaker Chris Russi for a tasting prior to the annual winemaker dinner that evening. I have written about that tasting experience for another outlet, American Winery Guide (to be published soon), so I will not say anything more at this point other than it was splendid. I felt like I had made a new friend, not just tasted with a winemaker.

After the tasting, I had about 30 minutes to get ready for the winemaker dinner. I was told to wear cocktail attire, so I wore a new Ralph Lauren dress with black boots, which turned out to be perfect for the evening.

I joined the other dinner guests in the tasting room, where we enjoyed Comstock’s 2015 Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc, 2016 Rosé, and 2014 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir with passed appetizers. A few of the attendees noticed I was alone and introduced themselves to me.

Shortly thereafter, we gathered for a tour of the winery with Chris Russi, which led us from the tasting room, to the crush pad, to the production area, and finally to the barrel space where we would be dining.

The dinner itself was nothing short of fantastic. It included two dinner courses, a cheese course, and dessert, all paired with Comstock wines: the 2013 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, 2012 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2014 Russian River Valley Zinfandel, and the 2016 Late Harvest Zinfandel. My favorite course of the night was the chardonnay with a Bodega Bay seafood chowder. The bright acidity and luscious mouthfeel of the chardonnay brought the creamy, rich chowder to life.

After dinner, I lingered to take photos. I met members of the Comstock family, including patriarch Bob Comstock. We hit it off so well that I have an open invitation to return soon.

When everyone had left except for some of the winery staff, I spent a few hours with them taking more photos and talking. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more welcomed by a winery family. The fact that they allowed me to stay with them as they cleaned up and prepared for the next day was a testament to their openness and gracious hospitality.

The next day, I didn’t want to leave. Erin allowed me to check out later than usual so I could enjoy the residence and winery a little longer. During these two days, I learned that Comstock Wines isn’t solely a great winery, but an all-inclusive wine destination experience that I will never forget. The residence, the hospitality, the winemaking, and the comradery are etched in my mind forever. After all, “we are all Comstock Wines.”