Thursday, August 29, 2013

Exploring Zins, Family Wineries, and Wine Dogs in California's Dry Creek Valley

They call them microclimates around here, which is exactly like it sounds. Go a few miles to the north or south in the Bay Area and it’s the difference between a foggy film noir and A Roman Holiday. It’s especially muted right now for those of us in San Francisco. During these summer months, the fog rolls in like cat fur. While everyone else is out having BBQs, we’re pulling on light sweaters and boiling tea.

But there’s an easy remedy for that. Josh and I have taken to driving north to wine country on those dreary summer days to catch some of the sunlight and warm breeze. The famed Napa has been an easy favorite. But a little while ago, we tried a new getaway: Dry Creek Valley.

Sure, Napa Valley is a landmark destination with famous, brand name wineries and tours. That will always be there. But at Dry Creek Valley, a 9000-acre stretch of wine country, we found a cluster of smaller batch, family-run winemakers, which created a very different experience.

(You can watch our short video tour of the valley above!)

Dry Creek Valley is actually one of the oldest wine regions in California, dating back to the days following the Gold Rush of 1849. Those who had taken part in the frenzy settled in the fertile valley near the Russian River and planted vineyards of Zinfandel, now the region’s most famous wine. During Prohibition, most wine production stopped. But the region resurged in the 1970s. Today, Dry Creek Valley is home to over 70 wineries, most family owned and operated.

The Winegrowers of DCV invited us to visit the region along with a handful of other writers, and we all climbed into a little bus that took us through the city, over the Golden Gate Bridge, and into glorious, glorious wine country! The thing that I love about wine is that wine grapes are like sponges. A little southwestern breeze of vanilla will alter the flavor, as will a winter that’s too harsh or a summer that’s too scorching. Because of that, wine country—Dry Creek Valley included—is always perfectly pleasant. The air smells sweet and the weather is always temperate.


We first went to Fritz Winery, where they led us through an aromatics seminar. A little sniff of strawberries, chocolate, anise, and blueberries to see how it matched up with the wine (a refreshing mix of Sauvignon Blanc, Rose, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon).


Fritz Winery Aromatics Seminar

The wine caves of Fritz.

Fritz Winery

After Fritz, we climbed back into the bus and headed to Mauritson Winery, where we were to participate in soil tasting. As it turns out, for all of the comfortable weather, the grapes don’t necessarily have it easy. For grapes to produce good wine, they must undergo some hardship. They must be pruned to produce good branches and good fruit. And they must live in rocky soil. The rocky soil stresses the plant and causes it to produce chemicals that thicken the skin. For some varieties, skin like that produces better tasting wine. Such rocky soil is one of the pluses of Dry Creek Valley.

Luckily, there was no actually eating dirt in this seminar! It was all about how the quality of soil—rocky or moist or peaty—affects the product.

Mauritson Winery Soil Seminar

Then we went to Quivira, which was an organic vineyard. "Organic" is actually a pretty difficult certification to receive. It requires unconventional methods to make the wine. Our guide slung some cold wines into a cute little sack (see below) and took us through the vineyards, walking through the grass and among the branches. Funnily, the destination was the compost pile, which turns out to be a very innovative aspect of organic grape growing.


So, the whole media trip, the organizers joked about some kind of wine blending "smackdown." I thought they were kidding. As someone with test anxiety, how could I ever come to drink wine under such pressure? Well, to my horror, it turned out to be very true.

We headed over to Dutcher Crossing where we were sat down at white-clothed tables and given glasses, vials, pipettes, and single-grape wines. I looked around. Everyone else was confidently mixing. Josh was talking smack to the other mostly meek-looking writers, making fun of everyone for having it in the bag. The others looked smug. Naturally, I panicked. Taste, panic, mix, panic. Taste, panic, mix, panic. I was the very last person to finish, to the point that the organizers needed to usher me out because I was holding everyone up.

I was sure that I lost. I was so embarrassed to even have anyone taste it.

But in the end, I placed third! Josh didn't even place (that's what ya get for smack talking!).


The finale was a stunning dinner at the personal home of Debra Mathy, the proprietor of Dutcher Crossing. It was May, and we were entering the crest of summer. The evening was bright and warm, and the air smelled sweet from the nearby grapes. We enjoyed plates of cold beets, grilled chicken, and rare slices of beef along with a beautiful array of Viognier, petite verdot, cabernet sauvignon, zinfindel, and sauvignon blanc from Thumbprint, Collier Falls, Amphora, and Dutcher Crossing.




Lastly, we got to meet a bit of a celebrity! Last January, I bought a Wine Dogs calendar for $5 from Silver Oak. I love that thing. And lo and behold, I got to meet one of my favorite dogs from the calendar! Dutchess! She is every bit as beautiful and sweet as she looked in the calendar and more. What an adorable yellow lab. If you go to Dutcher Crossing, you might get to meet her, too.

IMG_0155 IMG_0158

Fritz Underground Winery
24691 Dutcher Creek Rd Cloverdale, CA 95425

Mauritson Winery
2859 Dry Creek Rd Healdsburg, CA 95448

Quivira Vineyards & Winery
4900 W Dry Creek Rd Healdsburg, CA 95448

Dutcher Crossing
8533 Dry Creek Rd Geyserville, CA 95448

Friday, August 16, 2013

Video: How to Make a Classic Martini [recipe]

That darn 007 ruined martinis for the rest of us. Talk about a license to kill (womp womp). If you walk into any hotel bar, any fine dining restaurant, and even some cocktail bars, you're likely to see a people sipping over-diluted and under-vermouthed drinks that taste more like rubbing alcohol than a cocktail.

Ok, so maybe it wasn't James Bond alone who killed the martini. It was also the 1970s and 1980s, when vermouth really started to disappear from the recipe. By the 90s, people were drinking glasses of cold gin or vodka. Ew.


If you hate martinis, hate gin, or hate vermouth, it's possible that you actually hate crappy martinis. Try using a good dry gin, nothing that comes in a plastic bottle. Vermouth is an amazing ingredient, but it does have a short shelf-life. If you're drinking a martini with a vermouth that's been sitting out for eight months, no wonder you think vermouth tastes like a gross foot. Use a good dry vermouth (we love Dolin in particular, but Noilly Prat will definitely do the trick). Taste the vermouth when you first open it and take note––that's what it should taste like. Refrigeration will extend the shelf-life. A lemon garnish will make this drink sing. Olives won't cut it because they don't add the high note that all cocktails need. The orange bitters do make a big difference in this drink. We like to use a spicy bitter, alcohol based bitter, not a sweet one.  If the cocktail doesn't have fruit juice, it shouldn't see the inside of a shaker. We stir (not shake, don't listen to Bond) with cracked ice and whole ice, both of which are big and very cold. The hardest part to making to a truly incredible martini is proper water dilution. We found that cracked ice helps get the drink diluted pretty well, but it's still a hard thing to master.

Ratios vary from person to person. We offer a pretty wet recipe (meaning it has a good amount of vermouth). Some people like them dryer, some even wetter. Experiment to see what you like. If you already have a preference, please share it with us!

Our recipe:
2 oz gin
.75 oz dry vermouth
4 dashes orange bitters
lemon garnish

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Where to drink: Range

Range is most well known for its kitchen––it earned a Michelin Star from 2007-2010––but its cocktails are exceptional. Like Blackbird, Range blazes its own trail through San Francisco cocktail culture. Three things really impressed us with Range. First, Range is attempting to bring European drinking culture, particularly the aperitif hour, to San Francisco. Second, Range takes uniquely culinary approach to the cocktail menu. Finally, Range is going to, single handedly, integrate sherry into the San Francisco cocktail scene in a big way. Below, we'll walk through the entire aperitif menu, take a look at some of the culinary cocktails, and then wrap up with two fantastic sherries.

Spanish Bramble: amontillado sherry, blackberry-mint shrub (a fruit preservation method of old. It's somewhat like a gastrique), St. George Terroir Gin, soda.

Spanish Bramble at Range

Gemstone: Manzanilla sherry, pear eau de vie, lemon, verbena, grapefruit bitters. A clean drink, very light on the palate.

Gemstone at Range

Paris to Milan: Cocchi Americano Rosa, St. Germain, white verjus (unaged, unfiltered grape juice. It's tart and acidic, almost like a lighter vinegar), prosecco. I found this drink to be dangerous––I could drink it all day. Fortunately it's low ABV, so it's not the end of the world if you knock back a few.


Californio: Oloroso sherry, California bay, Gran Classico, soda. The California bay in this drink is incredible. The acidity of the sherry and the herbaceousness of the bay make for a very flavorful cocktail. With this drink, especially, you can see that Range takes a more culinary approach to its drinks.

Californio at Range

Uptown Downtown: Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Noah's Mill bourbon, bitters. This is basically a reversed Manhattan Cocktail. I think this drink is genius. First, it's has that amazing Manhattan flavor profile we all love. Second, because your'e only using a small pour of whiskey, you get afford a pretty nice one. Finally, you can enjoy more than one without the fear of over-indulging.

Uptown Downtown at Range

Third Rail: Buffalo Trace, Lillet, honey, lemon, Fee's orange bitters. I was very impressed with how well paired the flavors were in this drink. Basically it's bourbon, honey, and orange. The Lillet adds depth and the lemon adds acidity, but they serve only to highlight the main three flavors: bourbon, honey, and orange. Delicious.

Third Rail at Range

Sungold Zinger: 209 Gin, sungold tomatoes, agave, lemon. Another very culinary cocktail. It's not as savory as many tomato drinks are, thanks to the agave and lemon. It's even relatively simple for such a complex looking drink.

Sungold Zinger at Range

Sungold Zinger at Range

Braveheart: Monkey Shoulder Scotch, sherry, apricot, moroccan spices, bitters, lemon. The only thing wrong with this drink is that it's not low ABV, so I couldn't put four of them away like I wanted to. The peaty scotch goes perfectly with apricot. The moroccan spices leave a lingering spice that satisfies and stimulates your palate for more.

Braveheart at Range

Agua Fresca: Siete Leguas Blanco Tequila, watermelon juice, cilantro, lime. The tequila and cilantro go perfectly with watermelon juice. This drink tastes as fresh as it looks.

Agua Fresca at Range

Sweet Pea: Tito's Vodka, sugar snap peas, sage, lemon, celery bitters, tonic. I like neither peas nor vodka. Somehow, though, I liked this drink. It's perhaps the most culinary-inspired of the cocktails, powerfully herbal and vegetal. Delicious.

Sweet Pea at Range

La Cigarrera sherry and El Maestro Sierra sherry. These are two pretty standard table sherries. They've got interesting flavors. If you're a wine drinker, they're worth investigating, although they're going to be more acidic than you're used to.

Sherry at SF

I strongly suggest visiting Range for aperitif hour. Look for this guy, Tayler Buffington. He's the bar manager:

Tayler Buffington at Range

View the whole set on Flickr:

842 Valencia
Aperitif Hour: 5-6 every evening
Hours: Mon-Thu: 6-close
Fri-Sun: 5:30-close

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Where to Drink: Top of the Mark

The iconic Top of the Mark is famous for two things: stunning views of San Francisco from the top of Nob Hill and an irresponsibly large "martini" menu. Seriously, the thing has 100 cocktails. I generally avoid hotel prices like the plague, but a friend recently talked me into a Sunday evening cocktail hour at Top of the Mark and I relented. The view, as you might suspect, is immediately arresting.

Top of the Mark

It was foggy when we went, as it often is, so much of the time we saw this:

Top of the Mark

Or this:

Top of the Mark

But, every few minutes a fog bank would pass us and we'd see clearly:

Top of the Mark

A really beautiful spot. The interior is stunning as well. You feel as though you've stepped back in time:

Top of the Mark

Top of the Mark

The place has some cool history behind it. The menus explain it all, but in a nutshell, WWII soldiers would visit the Top of the Mark while on leave and buy a bottle for the next solider to have a free drink. Whoever finished the bottle would buy a new one and pay it forward. When you first walk in, you'll see some signed bottles, which I enjoyed reading.

The cocktails are pricey––$14 a pop.

Top of the Mark Martini

My favorite part of these drinks were the custom toothpicks, which say "Top of the Mark" and have a streetcar at the end.

Top of the Mark Martini

If you're a regular martini or cocktail drinker, I'd recommend opting for a beer or a glass of wine, sitting back, and enjoying the view.

Check out the Flickr set for more pictures and pictures of the entire (19 page!) cocktail menu:

Top of the Mark
InterContinental Mark Hopkins
999 California St.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Where to Drink: Blackbird [photos and recipe]

I'm almost embarrassed to write this post. I can't believe I've been in San Francisco for so long without visiting Blackbird. I assumed, inaccurately, that the Castro was a party scene and not good for cocktails. So here it goes: I apologize to the Castro and I apologize to Blackbird. I was wrong to avoid you both. Noelle and I were both very impressed with Blackbird, not the least because it's so far off the beaten path of cocktails in our fair city. If you frequent the big cocktail bars in San Francisco, you've probably noticed that there are certain flavor profiles and balances that are commonly repeated. Compared to the usual cocktail bars, Blackbird is from another planet. The flavor combinations are unique, interesting, and delicious. Don't misunderstand me. I love the other cocktail bars, but sometimes I just want to mix it up. Blackbird is a perfect place to do that. Take a look at their new menu, along with some tasting notes. I'll try to convey how different these flavors are, but you really should go try them yourself.

Sumo Wrestler: Whiskey, Nigori sake, yuzu juice, and (an amazing) yuzu marmalade. The yuzu marmalade in this drink is mind blowing, and the yuzu juice gives the drink a bit of a tropical feel. The whiskey and sake blend surprisingly well together; that, combined with the yuzu, make this a drink perfect for Hawaii––just sipping it makes me feel like I'm on the beach.

Sumo Wrestler at Blackbird SF

Hanami: Pisco, orgeat, calipico, lemon, and rosewater. Calpico is a yogurt-style drink from Japan, in case you haven't heard of it. It adds a lip-smacking tartness to this drink that kept me coming back for more. Pisco is pretty floral as it is, and the rose water and orgeat help pull out some of those flavors.

Hanami at Blackbird

Prospect Park: Trybox New Make Rye, Amaro CioCiaro, maraschino, vermouth. I generally don't enjoy clear whiskeys of any sor,. but I have to admit that the Trybox clear rye is quite good, and it gives this drink a brighter, lighter feel than an ordinary rye would without sacrificing flavor.

Prospect Park at Blackbird SF

Indian Summer: Pisco, tequila, lime, blueberry gastrique. I haven't seen gastrique used in a cocktail too often, so I was interested to see how it would work in the Indian Summer. I had my doubts, especially after trying too many terrible vinegar cocktails, but I was pleasantly surprised by this drink. The gastrique gave this cocktail a nice salinity, pulling out the blueberry flavor. The acid in the vinegar and the lime match perfectly with tequila and pisco. This is another cocktail that kept me going back for more.

Indian Summer at Blackbird SF

Hungary for Kentucky: Mellow Corn whiskey, Contrado Americano, Unicum Plum. I'd never had any of these ingredients, so perhaps that accounts for how blown away I was by this drink. The corn whiskey and the plum are a startlingly tasty, umami combination.

Hungary for Kentucky at Blackbird

Peach Julep: White peach (for now), sugar, whiskey. I've always wanted to make a peach julep myself, but it always tasted funny to me. Blackbird nailed it using white peach.

Peach Julep

On the Vine: Gin, celery bitters, pink peppercorn infused vodka, Imbue Vermouth. It's the summer of tomato cocktails, apparently. Besides Blackbird, Range has one on their menu. Miraculously, both cocktails are delicious, savory, and entirely different. On the Vine pulls out some of the savoriness of the tomato with the pink peppercorn infused vodka. The celery bitters pull it all together.

On the Vine at Blackbird SF

Adios My Friend: Tequila, Mezcal, Sotol (a spirit similar to mezcal, but distilled from a plant called, shockingly, sotol), Bacanora (basically a mezcal distilled from wild agave), dry curacao, Luxardo bitters. I loved this drink. Loved it. Cannot stress that enough. It's incredibly smokey, but because it's been barrel aged, the drink is smooth and drinkable.

Adios My Friend at Blackbird SF

Walk on the Wild Side. This drink is simple, light, and well balanced. It's a nice, refreshing summertime drink. You can make it at home using these proportions:

1.5 oz. Beefeater 24
.75 oz Dolin Blanc
.75 oz Amaro Nonino

Walk on the Wild Side at Blackbird SF

Rye N. Gosling: Old Overholt Rye, Black Seal black rum, Yellow Chartreuse, Averna, lactart. Topped with creme soda. This is Blackbird's crowd pleaser. It's sweet, naturally, but it's not a club drink, not by a long shot. The Chartreuse and Averna add a nice depth to this drink, while the lactart and creme soda add a smooth, creamy finish.

Rye N. Gosling at Blackbird

View the full slideshow:

By the way, if you haven't been to Blackbird in awhile there's been a few changes in decor. Pictures of that to come.

2124 Market St.
3pm-2am on weekdays
2pm-2am on weekends
Happy hour: 5pm-8pm on weekdays

Friday, August 9, 2013

Video: How to Make an Aviation Cocktail (recipe)

The classic Aviation cocktail has been one of our absolute favorites for years. Not only is it lip-smacking good, but it's also incredibly easy to make and thus great for get togethers. The only tricky bit is getting your hands on Creme de Violette––if you're not in a big city, you may have to turn to the internet to find this ingredient. You can omit the Creme de Violette, of course, but it will noticeably detract from the drink.

Some folks put a bar spoon of Creme de Violette straight in the drink, but we find that even a bar spoon is too much and turns the drink into a perfumed nightmare, or, as Toby Maloney of the Violet Hour said, "it is like licking a French whore's neck, in a bad way."

We also like to add a touch of simple syrup in addition to the maraschino; otherwise, the drink is too sour.

Anyone else have a specific recipe or modification?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

VIDEO: How to Make a Perfect Cup of Tea (recipe)

We've limited this blog to cocktails for a long time, but I think now it's time to branch out into the Joy of Drinking other things––at least when the occasion calls for it. Today, it's high time I share my absolute favorite beverage. The drink that gets me through every crisis, every calm, and frankly, every day. I'm talking, of course, about tea. I drink any kind of tea, usually in copious amounts, but today's video is about one specific type of tea. I'll have one cup of this stuff every day. It's excellent for the midmorning, mid-afternoon, or mid-week slump. It's delicious, comforting, warming, and invigorating. And best of all, it's easy to make.

A few years ago, Tony Blair complained that no on in Britain knew how to make a proper cup of tea anymore (here's the article). I'm not sure if mine is up to Mr. Blair's standards, but sir, you have an open invitation to my home to try it out. Tea is served at 10am and 3pm, sharp.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Where to Drink: East Bay Spice Company

East Bay Spice Company

Noelle and I found ourselves in Berkeley with an hour to kill before a reservation at Gather. We weren't hopeful that there'd be a decent cocktail spot, but we decided to have a look around anyway. Lo and behold, East Bay Spice Company recently opened up a mere block from Gather and literally across the street from the Cal campus.

East Bay Spice Company

East Bay Spice Company has an impressive concept: Cocktails + Indian food. Here are those menus: 

East Bay Spice Company

East Bay Spice Company

East Bay Spice Company

The cocktails are designed to match with Indian flavors and named after aspects of the Indian spice trade. There's a good mix of Indian street food, curries, and, of course, naan. There are three glorious words I especially want to share regarding the food menu: Late night naan. Pairing cocktails and Indian food is genius––part of the reason Dosa is San Francisco cocktail legend. 

We managed to squeeze in a few cocktails before dinner at Gather. 

Samsara: Smith and Cross, El Darado, and Mathusalem Rum, Cocchi Rosa, velvet falernum, Pernod, lemon. Like many of the drinks at East Bay Spice Company, this one has a tropical feel. The rums are accented nicely by the Cocchi and the Pernod. 

East Bay Spice Company

Ornament of the World: Rum, Cynar, sugar, lime, Mumbai bitters. The Mumbai bitters and the Cynar are the stars of this drink. They highlight the rum, while adding depth and spice. It would pair very nicely with a curry.

East Bay Spice Company

The Company of Merchants: Bols Genever, St. George Agua Libre, spiced grapefruit cordial, lemon, celery bitters, soda. The Bols and Agua Libre make perfect sense together, and the spiced grapefruit adds depth and brings out the citrus notes in the spirit. 

East Bay Spice Company

The Royal Charter: Bourbon, Cocchi Americano, Becherovka, coconut chai syrup, lemon, bergamot mitters, mint. The coconut chai syrup and bergamot bitters make for a rich, spicy mixture. The Becherovka adds a viscosity to the drink, and it also adds another layer of flavor to the drink. 

East Bay Spice Company

East Bay Spice Company

East Bay Spice Company has a nice feel, at least during the summer months. I'm not sure what it'll look like when the kids come back, but I doubt the party-oriented college students are going to shell out 10 bucks a cocktail. There's an upstairs space if you want to sit and relax with relative privacy:

East Bay Spice Company

East Bay Spice Company

2134 Oxford St
Berkeley, CA

Monday-Saturday 5pm-2am.
Happy hour: 5pm-7pm. Two bucks off Trumer and BridgePort IPA. Free appetizer or naan with cocktail.