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.
A couple of years ago, I had a wine moment with Hudson-Chatham Winery’s Chelois. It remains today one of the most versatile and unforgettable food wines I have ever tasted, perfect for holiday meals and beyond. *CLICK HERE TO READ*
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!
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.
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.”
*This post is my entry for Wine Writing Challenge #31, Faith, as described at this link.Voting begins March 7, 2017 and goes through Monday, March 13 at this link.*
Elizabeth (Beth) Smith: She Said
The definition of faith is primarily religious in nature. However these synonyms struck a chord with me – affection, allegiance, commitment, constancy, dedication, devotion – and convey precisely what I feel when I attend Zinfandel Advocates and Producers’ (ZAP) annual Zinfandel Experience Grand Tasting.
As I entered San Francisco’s Pier 27 gorgeous, bright event space and caught my first glimpse of what seemed like endless tables of zinfandel, I immediately felt the sense of faithful community that brings together zinfandel producers and lovers every year. The room buzzed with excitement as winemakers shared the labors of their love with hundreds of people. The enthusiasm for all things zinfandel was contagious. Soon, Tony Maass, my partner in wine, and I joined the comradery, moving from table to table. We originally had a plan to see certain producers, but soon we were roaming without a care, caught up in the gloriousness that is Zinfandel Experience.
With around 130 wineries in attendance, there is no way to taste everything, but we gave it our best effort. We enjoyed wines made by old friends and made some new friends along the way. Some of my favorites this year included Bedrock Wine Company, Beekeeper Cellars, Bella Grace Vineyards, Robert Biale Vineyards, Day Zinfandel, D-cubed Cellars, Elyse Winery, Fields Family Wines, Limerick Lane Wines, Miro Cellars, Ridge Vineyards, Rosenblum Cellars, Scribble Scribble Wine, Talty Winery, and Turley Wine Cellars.
Bedrock Wine Company won me over with their sparkling zinfandel, my first, which was the perfect way to kick off the event. It was a reunion of sorts for me reconnecting with Bella Grace Vineyards and Fields Family Wines after spending time with them during the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi. Another reunion in the making was with D-cubed Cellars, whom I met and featured on my blog during the 2015 Zinfandel Experience, as well as Miro Cellars, whose winemaker, Miro Tcholakov, is also the winemaker at Trentadue Winery.
Tony and I enjoyed getting up close and personal with Tres Goetting, winemaker at Robert Biale Vineyards, and Michael Talty, winemaker and founder of Talty Winery, who for me represented what makes zinfandel a world-class varietal wine.
Both D-cubed Cellars and Elyse Winery brought wines from Korte Ranch in Saint Helena, which is adjacent to where I work at Ehlers Estate, so it was fun to taste wines made from our neighbor’s grapes to see how zinfandel does in the loamy benchland soils of the narrowest point between the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains.
I was especially enamored with new-to-me Limerick Lane Wines, who only produces wines from their estate, 30 acres, around 4500 cases. All are zinfandel-dominant field blends with grape varieties like alicante bouchet, carignane, mourvèdre, negrette, peloursin, petite sirah, and syrah. I love a winery that stays true to the land and the bounty provided to them.
Another up-and-coming producer that landed on my radar was Scribble Scribble Wine, the brainchild of winemaker and founder Dean Wilson. We tasted the evolution of his Lucille Zinfandel, named after his daughter, his inspiration: the 2014 current release vintage, as well as 2015 and 2016 barrel samples, and we knew we had tasted the work of a dreamer, a genius in the making.
This year we had the chance to participate in two Meet the Maker roundtables, where attendees had the opportunity to spend 15-20 minutes with a participating winemaker. The first was Green and Red Vineyards’ winemaker Jay Heminway, who purchased 31 acres of land in the Chiles Valley AVA of the Napa Valley in 1970 and planted it in 1972, replanting again in 1993-1998. We tasted his 2014 Chiles Mill Vineyard Zinfandel. It was dark and dense, with pervasive blueberry and a warm, peppery finish.
The second roundtable was with winemaker Kevin Riley of Proulx Wines in Paso Robles. With Riley, we tasted two wines. His 2015 Zinfandel was unfiltered and unfined, cloudy in the glass, with loads of juicy, red fruit flavors. The 2014 Dimples, a 11-grape blend that included enough zinfandel to be ‘ZAP approved’, was what he called the ‘Châteauneuf’ of blends. In contrast to his zinfandel, this wine exhibited a much darker fruit and spice profile.
As the day grew longer and our palates grew fatigued, we concluded our Zinfandel Experience with Proulx Wines. However, we departed knowing in our hearts that the ‘zinfandel faith’ is alive and well, thanks to ZAP and its devoted members, who will ensure the constancy, vibrancy, and diversity that is California Zinfandel.
Tony Maass: He Said
On Saturday, February, 25, 2017, I was able to experience my first large comprehensive tasting of a single varietal. I was able to attend this amazing tasting thanks to Elizabeth Smith, aka Travel Wine Chick, who also works in Saint Helena at Ehlers Estate.
My first impression of the event was that it was massive. There were 130 different zinfandel producers and each of them brought several wines, so you can imagine the sheer size and depth of this event. It was at Pier 27 in San Francisco and it covered the entire second floor.
Some of the standout producers and wines were:
Bedrock Wine Companies 2013 Under the Wire: Bedrock Vineyard Old Vine Sparkling Sonoma Valley and 2015 Heritage Vineyard Sonoma Valley
Beekeeper Cellars 2014 Monticello Vineyard Sonoma Valley and 2014 “Secret Stones” Rockpile
Bella Grace Vineyards 2014 Reserve Amador County
Robert Biale Vineyards 2011 Old Crane Ranch Saint Helena and 2015 Black Chicken
Day 2015 El Diablo Vineyard Russian River Valley and 2014 Grist Vineyard Dry Creek Valley
D-cubed Cellars 2000 Napa Valley, 2008 Brown Vineyard Chiles Valley, 2012 Napa Valley, 2012 Korte Ranch Saint Helena
Elyse Winery 2012 Korte Ranch, 2013 Morisoli Vineyard Rutherford, 2013 Korte Ranch Saint Helena
Fields Family Wines 2013 “Family” Old Vine Lodi, 2014 Lodi Native Old Vine
Green and Red Vineyards 2014 Chiles Mill Vineyard
Limerick Lane 2014 “1910 Block” Russian River Valley, 2014 Rocky Knoll Russian River Valley, and 2014 Russian River Valley
Miro Cellars 2011 Grist Vineyard Old Vines Dry Creek Valley, 2011 Pizetti Vineyard Dry Creek Valley, 2014 Reserve Algeria Vineyard Russian River Valley, and 2015 Gadis Old Vines Russian River Valley
Ridge Vineyards 2015 Barrel Sample Pagani Ranch Sonoma Valley
Rosenblum Cellars 2016 Barrel Sample Carla’s Vineyard Sonoma Valley, 2016 Barrel Sample Maggie’s Vineyard Sonoma Valley, and 2013 Planchon Vineyard, Contra Costa County
I participated in a couple of the Meet the Maker roundtable tastings with the owner and winemaker of Green and Red Vineyards where he talked about how he got started in the wine business, his philosophy about winemaking, as well as his thoughts on zinfandel and its importance to California. I also spoke with Kevin Riley, winemaker of Proulx Wines in Paso Robles, who gave me great insight into his philosophy of winemaking and his thoughts on blending and style of winemaking in Paso Robles.
Not only was this event jam-packed with amazing California zinfandels, but there were many delicious appetizers and small bites. Some of the standouts for me were Bob’s Steak and Chop House San Francisco, which made a fantastic prime tenderloin slider with toy box tomato jam, shaved midnight moon cheese, and micro greens served on a mini-brioche bun. It was fantastic and paired well with zinfandel, of course.
Another great appetizer was Canetti Roadhouse Italiana, which made a crostini of whole milk ricotta soufflé bread with smoked McFarland spring trout mousse and candied red onions. This also went great with Zinfandel, which I did not expect.
This world-class experience offered me the chance to try so many different zinfandels from all over California, from well-known producers such as Ridge, Biale, and Turley, as well as producers that were completely new to me – Green and Red Vineyards, Talty Winery, and Scribble Scribble Wines – all who brought something different, fun, and exciting to the world of zinfandel. I would recommend this tasting experience to anyone that loves zinfandel or is a wine geek like myself. It is must-do event and one that will make a lasting impression on you.