Category Archives: WINE + SPIRITS


Exploring Champagne–the Place and the Product

Which would you choose as your dream vacation: luxury escape, historical tour or nature retreat? It’s such a common conundrum that you find it on personality tests.

But what if you could combine all three? Even as a seasoned traveler, I wouldn’t have thought it possible — not in equal proportion, surely — until I spent time in a storied destination worthy of rediscovery: France’s Champagne-Ardenne.

The home of the world’s best bubbly also happens to be a place of pivotal European history (from the ancient Romans to World War II) and — who knew? — even surrounds a forest offering camping, bike trails and geological wonders. All of this is accessible within a two-hour drive radius.

Champagne has, in effect, two capitals, and which city you chose as your embarkation point (less than an hour from Paris via the high-speed TGV rail) can have some influence on the balance of your experience. Reims and Epernay are both quintessential regional French towns with proud local traditions. Reims is larger and has more history and diversity; Epernay, a bit quieter and simple, is considered the true heart of Champagne country — not to mention home of the mother-ship Moet & Chandon plant and majestic Maison Perrier-Jouët. Depending on your outlook, you might prefer Reims’ five-star Château Les Crayères, nestled within its own park; the simpler but modern Le Clos Margot, a bed-and-breakfast connected to Champagne Doyard in tiny Vertus; or, if you’re inclined to roughing it à la française, one of nine camping and caravan sites in the area. Bring your own beer or wine if you decide to camp….

READ THE ENTIRE STORY BY CLICKING BELOW FOR THE PDF FROM MARIN MAGAZINE… and scroll down for additional photos from my trip!


Too Much Is Never Enough: Indulge LA

Most food festivals tend to emphasize the savory over the sweet, but Indulge Los Angeles flipped the script, focusing on chocolates, pastries and beverage pairings. With two world-class pattissiers demonstrating, as well as the winner of Food Network’s Cupcake Wars, the event benefitting St. Jude Children’s Hospital (tix only $35!), it was pretty impossible to pass up.

The event, held this past Saturday (9.24.11)  was appealingly sized, with about 50 participating companies, and the tone was well set at one of the first tables with Armand de Brignac Ace of Spaces champagne. One glass of this haute, hip cuvee would justify the price of admission alone! From there, in every direction, were bon bons, parfaits, mini cupcakes, macarons…you name it. As I tweeted during the show, a diabetic probably shouldn’t even breathe the air!

Both Stephane Treand and Jean-Marie Auboine demonstrated their wow-factor work–and each informed me they’re in the final stages of opening pattissier schools, Treand’s in San Clemente, Auboine’s in Las Vegas, NV. That’s like Tiger Woods offering to help you improve your game (and you can take that any way you want).

Marcel Vigneron was a no-show (it would appear he double-booked) but Annette Starbuck of the Goodie Girls fulfilled the Food Network quotient, while probably the most impressive creations belong to the Montage Resort’s Exec Pastry Chef Lee Smith  (yuzu chili macarons? I’m a believer). Several local handcraft chocolatiers (many of whom barely have any retail presence) offered impressive goods, like Ococoa’s Diana Malouf, and the all organic chocolate covered gummi bears (made from black carrott puree?) from OM snacks also got my attention. Ditto Ecuador’s fair trade/organic Pacari and Sacha chocolate bars. Not only “nice” but NICE.

Other beverages worth mentioning included Patron tequila and Patron XO coffee liqueur, Veev açai liquor, Hypnotiq, Moreno Beverly Hills sparkling wine, Little Vineyards pinot, Cortage champagne. There were also some vitamin drinks and flavored coconut waters offered… though by the end, I would’ve killed for just some plain water. And a couch.

Thanks to Cutie Pies LA‘s Mollie Brown, who shared camera duties with me on this one…

Didn’t Get The Memo: Arty Party Dim Sum Fun


It’s been a while since I’ve attended an art gallery opening where you can’t buy the art. Not because it’s obscenely expensive, but because it’s actually not for sale.

Also, it was all behind thick glass. Which makes me think either someone feels this gold-lame flecked Technics 1200 is the new Mona Lisa, or they weren’t kidding when they called this event Party Animals.

Gold Soundz

Gold Soundz

Royal T in Culver City, for those who haven’t been here before (which includes me, shocking since it’s apparently been here since ’08) is part gallery, part kooky retail, and part cafe staffed by cute girls (mostly Asian) in French Maid costumes. Which is not at all kinky at all. Certainly not. Perfectly innocent.

Lauren doesn't like living in Venice anymore. I should've told her my servant's quarters was vacant.

Lauren doesn't like living in Venice anymore. I should've told her my servant's quarters was vacant.

It’s very much the kind of place you would’ve found in New York maybe 15 years ago, except that, well, it’s 10x bigger than it could ever be in Manhattan. [Turns out it was the locale of one of the early LudoBites. Which shows you how out of the loop I've been in covering LA food for the previous few years. Catching up quickly ;)]

Anyway, they had this gallery opening, and as much as I’m a fan of cool art (and it was mostly cool) my main motivation–at least as far as this blog is concerned–was chowing on the noms from Dim Sum Truck, which catered the event.

"I'm not a creep, I'm a blogger," I told them. Small difference, I know.

"I'm not a creep, I'm a blogger," I told them. Small difference, I know.

The Frasian Maids got the hint and were beelining to me with their trays before long. I suppose I should’ve taken more foodporn pics, but to be honest, most of the dumplings didn’t look that exciting. That is no reflection of their quality, however: these are excellent bites, all of them–mostly traditional preparations, vegetable, pork, chicken and ground shrimp-based. The latter were my favorite, flavor-wise, the pork bao probably least successful. But I wouldn’t have complained even if I paid for them!

some 'sum

some 'sum

Everyone at the event (or nearly) was dressed in some kind of kooky Rennaissance Festival Fanfic Plushy Geekout. There were bizarro balloon animals and face paintings and a dress-up photo booth, and of course a DJ who thought his music was much better than it really was. I wore a white shirt and jeans, because I’m a loser (or incredibly contrary, take your pick).


Royal T’s big bearded and tiny spectacled mixologist (didn’t get the name, but there’s probably a Dr. in it) made me a very nice fresh watermelon, basil and soju cocktail as well.

sup sup

sup sup

At some point I had to leave, or become the creepy guy who was taking voyeuristic pics of the guests and the maids. Luckily this one came up to me offering one of these professionally-childish sugar cookies. Which we all know is code for GET THE F**K OUT.


Just kidding. ;)


Find Royal T at 8910 Washington Blvd, Culver City, 310 559 6300

“Party Animals” exhibition runs until Labor Day-ish

Oh, P.S. Mental note for next Mother’s Day present…


Get Yr Ducats In A Row: Aureole Wine Weekend 2011 is coming

Will Sherer and I pose with one of the more esteemed dead soldiers.

Will Sherer and I pose with one of the more esteemed dead soldiers.

I’ve attended Aureole’s Wine Weekend for the past two years, and I remain convinced that this small, rather under-publicized affair, is among the best annual food and wine events in the country. The first year, 2009, I documented on this website, here. The second, 2010, on, here.

But I wanted to wait until this year’s schedule was announced to publish my full album of photographs from last year, so that everyone could see just what an impressive event this is. You can now see the full album here, on flickr. The number of pics was too many to post here!

This year's schedule: Click to enlarge

This year's schedule: Click to enlarge

I can’t recommend this event highly enough, especially since this year will not only feature three days of events hosted by William Sherer, MS, Chef Vincent Pouessel and Patissier Megan Romano, but also CEC Charlie Palmer himself, and a member of the Mondavi wine family. Yes, this price tag is not small, but when you break down what you get for the cost (including the hotel room) it’s a steal.

Aging Gracefully: Vintage Hollywood

photo-124This just in: Rich people drink wine, too. As I was reminded at the Vintage Hollywood Foundation’s annual fundraising wine & food fest (cum live auction), at a private home in the Pacific Palisades. This year’s beneficiary was the Ocean Park Community Center, a multi-program organization to help the less fortunate in Santa Monica.

La Fenetre's winemaker Josh Klapper

La Fenetre's winemaker Josh Klapper

Locals providing nice bites included Bouchon, Bar Toscana, Jar, Literati, Mozza, Simplethings pies, Tavern, and Waterloo & City. But perhaps more notable was the uncommon selection of California wineries pouring, including Clos Pepe, Hitching Post, La Fenetre, Terra Valentine, Malibu Family/Saddlerock and Ampelos, who introduced me to the surpisingly impressive wine of actor Kurt Russell, called Gogi.


Just after MC Jim Thornton (from KNX-AM) announced that “The Wolf Blitzers” had made a significant donation, my friend Kasey (from Pourtal) kept looking at one of the Waterloo & City chefs trying to figure out how she knew him (I couldn’t help think it was a flirt—the guy was blond, six foot something, with piercing green eyes). But it turned out I was the one who knew him…sort of. It was actor Kip Pardue (Remember the Titans) who I’d interviewed ten years prior in my former Hollywood life, and remembered as a surprisingly grounded actor. Turns out he invested in Waterloo specifically so he could spend some time in the kitchen (and no, not as some vanity ‘celeb’ chef, he doesn’t work the tables). Guess that’s what actors call therapy…

Kip cooks.

Kip cooks.

I saw another former interviewee of mine, David Arquette at one point (he’s one of the charities’ chairs), but unfortunately Kasey wasn’t able to flirt with him for me to get a pic ;)


Later, I was sucking down the chocs at Valerie confections when I pointed to something on the table for Kasey to try, and auctioneer Kevin Pollak (helping out Greg Proops) asked me if I was putting in a bid, for whatever they were auctioning at that moment, at 22,000.


“No! Nooooo!” I shot back, slapping my arm like Dr. Strangelove. I was tempted to say I’d double the bid if he’d do his Shatner impersonation, then realized that was a pretty dated request. Oh, and that was more money than I had in the bank.


It was the kind of event you see in a movie, where there’s a spy sneaking into the house to steal a piece of microfilm? Unfortunately, nobody uses microfilm anymore. Maybe the spy would settle for some gelato?

Taste of the Nation LA, You Got The Flava

Hungry Hungry Hipsters

Hungry Hungry Hipsters

For anyone who still questions Los Angeles’ legitimacy as a food town: It’s a good thing you didn’t make it to Taste of the Nation LA yesterday in Culver City’s Media Park. Because it would have blown apart every preconception you have, like Gallagher on a watermelon (dated reference?).

Kerry Simon and company

Kerry Simon and company

LA is an incredibly complex food town, and its strengths are so far flung, geographically and philosophically, that it’s easier to find the weaknesses. You just follow the hype. But what may sum it up best, if not quality of ingredients and blending of cultures, is the flexibility between haute and street. It’s a booming trend now, but I do think LA–perhaps the fancy food truck capital of the country (even if Portland was there first)– may “get it” it much better than other cities. How else to explain that high-end spots like Hatfield’s and Patina could go cheek-by-jowl with Jitlada’s family-style Thai and Starry Kitchen’s clubkid Crazian at TOTN, and everyone was in on the joke.

What it's all about

What it's all about

Considering the entire event is a fundraiser for child hunger (via Share Our Strength), I felt terrible not finishing half of the bites I tried. But really there were so many impressive, creative, pretty, delicious things to eat, I had to try and pace myself. And still, I teeter on the edge of a cataclysmic food coma as I write.

The Spare Room sips with style

The Spare Room sips with style

I could blather forever, but let me just hit up some personal highlights before they fade:

Gorgeous lamb chops (each differently done) from LA Market and Culina…Fig’s beef tongue bahn mi, an amazing tamale from Rivera…perfect paella by Joe’s…a complex short rib dish by La Seine’s Alex Resnik…that hellagood fried chicken from Lex Social…awesome tacos by both Loteria and Ray’s and Stark…killer spicy chicken skewers from Mo-Chica…a complex short rib dish from La Seine’s Alex Reznik (of Top Chef repute)… a toast with I think a foie gras custard dip at Street… and other great nibbles from Chaya, Church & State, City Tavern, Craft, Lukshon, and Hatfield’s. Hey, even amazing food starts to blur at a certain point. But that quinoa and kale by M Cafe was still my favorite.

Alex Resnik: Killin' It, Kosher at La Seine

Alex Resnik: Killin' It, Kosher at La Seine

Several upcoming places also offered previews, including Michael Voltaggio’s hotly awaited spot Ink (though his booth was only available to VIPs…boo!), Mo-Chica sister Picca Cantina, Nancy Silverton’s Short Order, fonuts, and Pour Vous, a new bar filling the old 40 Deuce space.

Speaking of blurring, I blame the many fine beverage options, including La Descargas sexy daquiris and other killer cocktails from The Spare Room and Pasadena’s hot 1886 … The Bruery’s Belgian Trippel ale with Thai spice, nice brews from Eagle Rock and Firestone Walker, and a deadly Golden State float at the beer block… and of the several impressive small-volume wineries pouring, I particularly enjoyed a nicely balanced Sauv Blanc and structured Cab from Santa Barbara’s Grassini, an uncommon 100% Cinsault from Sonoma’s Frick, and Pinots from Baker Lane and La Fenetre.

La Descarga's sexy shaker girls

La Descarga's sexy shaker girls

Did I mention the star chefs? Besides Kerry Simon, Top Chefs Voltaggio and Resnik and Hells Kitchen’s Sively, the revived Mary Sue Milliken and perennial partner Susan Fenniger were in full effect, as was Mark Peel, Sang Yoon, Joe Miller, Eric “Elvis” Greenspan … Alas, Mario Batali and Rick Bayless did not represent.

If you attend any number of these kinds of tasting events, you start to be able to recognize when they work well, and when they don’t. TOTNLA hit a lot of high marks: the selection of participating restaurants was very strong and varied, there was a nice sampling of California wines, local beers, and some very serious cocktails by some of our best mixology bars, some fun desserts; the charity and auction aspects were well represented if you were interested, but easily avoidable if you felt you “gave at the gate.” It was also a good size, and though it was sold out, it still wasn’t overcrowded, and the location had incredibly convenient parking (free 2 hours covered lot across the street). And despite a certain unavoidable amount of corporate sponsorship, obnoxious branding was kept to an impressive minimum. Egos were, in almost every case, clearly left at the door.

Spicy Peruvian chicken skewers from Mo Chica. Mo, mo, mo.

Spicy Peruvian chicken skewers from Mo Chica. Mo, mo, mo.

In fact my only criticisms were that water was a bit hard to find at first (turns out nearly every booth had a jug, but they didn’t always make them available) and there weren’t enough garbage cans. Oh, also, the VIPs were given reusable plates, but for the rest of us, each bite was given out on a disposable paper plate which, biodegradable, recycled, whatever it was, it was still wasteful. Those are very small complaints, though.


Starry Kitchen's Nguyen Tran needs to take himself way less seriously.

It was also nice to put faces to names of media colleagues including Laurel House, Joshua Lurie and even Jonathan Gold–though the event was far from press-saturated, owing to the fact that we all had to have our tickets “sponsored” (no freebies, and who can whine when it’s for a good cause). On that note, an extra thanks from me to Kerry Simon, whose SimonLA and LA Market both held their own in a sea of serious talent.

I almost wish every other foodfest planner had seen this, because kids, this is how it’s done.

Bite This: Vegas Uncork’d Year Five, 2011

Denise Trucello's photo of the Uncorking... I wasn't there (though glad they took my suggestion from last year)

Denise Truscello's photo of the Uncorking... I wasn't there (though glad they took my suggestion from last year)

Food is everything right now. It’s the new rock’n’roll. It’s the new sex. It’s the new black. It seems ridiculous to point out that it hasn’t always been such a big deal—after all, humans have always eaten, haven’t we?—but for you newbies, food has not always been such a constant hot topic (which means, it also won’t be this way forever). By the same token, food festivals are everywhere, loaded down with whatever star chef talent is available (pity their traveling schedules these days), at least in the overweight-but-obsessed-with-dieting US.

Boy am I digressing. Focus, dude.

Here’s the thing: though coastal city snobs can continue to sneer, few if any cities can come near to rivaling the chef star power that is available in Las Vegas, where over the past 15 years, a fine food scene of remarkable breadth, depth and sheer volume has been gathered  at the major resorts—and increasingly off-Strip, too. And the best representation of that scene, the best assemblage and celebration, remains Vegas Uncork’d by bon appetit.

Julian Serrano Gets Sudsy...check out the faces ;) credit: Denise Trucello

I want to hold my thoughts for a minute just to list the array of world-renowned and locally respected culinary talent who participated this year (Nationally recognized talents in ALL CAPS): TONY ABOU-GANIM, Zack Allen (B&B), Akira Back (Yellowtail), PAUL BARTOLOTTA, Steve Benjamin (L’Atelier du Joel Robuchon), James Benson, ERIC & BRUCE BROMBERG, Kim Canteenwalla  (Society), Stephane Chevet (Shibuya), TOM COLLICCHIO, SCOTT CONANT, ALAIN DUCASSE, SUSAN FENIGER, Jennifer Fournier, OSAMU FUJITA, PIERRE GAGNAIRE, Carlos Guia (Country Club at Wynn), Martin Heierling (Sensi), Scott Irestone (Wolfgang Puck B&G), Masa Ishizawa (Okada), JEAN JOHO, Michael Jordan (Rosemary’s), HUBERT KELLER, Eric Klein (Spago), Gary LaMorte (Andre’s) Claude Le-Tohic (Joel Robuchon), Rene Lenger (Switch), Joesph Liebowitz (Stratta), SCOTT LINQUIST, Phillip Lo (Jasmine), MARK LoRUSSO, STEVE MARTORANO, NOBU MATSUHISA, JEAN-PHILIPPE MAURY, SHAWN McCLAIN, Sven Mede (American Fish), MARY SUE MILLIKEN, MICHAEL MINA, RICK MOONEN, Robert Moore (Jean-Georges), DAVID MYERS, BRADLEY OGDEN, STEVE OLSON, CHARLIE PALMER, FRANÇOIS PAYARD, LUCIANO PELLEGRINI, Eddie Perales (Caesars mixologist), MICHEL RICHARD, PATRICIA RICHARDS, JOEL ROBUCHON, TAL RONNEN, Megan Romano (Aureole), RICHARD SANDOVAL, GUY SAVOY, Ralph Scamardella (TAO Group), Matt Seeber (Craftsteak), JULIAN SERRANO, Theo Schonegger (Sinatra), JASON SMITH MS, David Spero, ALEX STRATTA, MASA TAKAYAMA, Drew Terp, Jet Tila (Wazuzu), JACQUES TORRES, David Walzog (SW Steak/Lakeside Grill), and Edmund Wong (Bellagio Executive Chef). GORDON RAMSAY, currently negotiating a new restaurant with Caesars, also made an appearance, I’m told.

I mean, wow. Between them, enough James Beard Foundation awards, Michelin stars, Mobil/Forbes stars and AAA diamonds to fill a nebuchadnezzar. Really.

What did Guy Savoy just tell Hubert Keller? His first quarter profits? His deal with Caesars? lol pic: Denise Trucello

What did Guy Savoy just tell Hubert Keller? His first quarter profits? His deal with Caesars? lol (with Payard, Richard and Gagnaire) pic: Denise Truscello

Now in its fifth year, Uncork’d seems to remain an underregarded festival on the national scene. Politics may play some part in that (A lot of media tend to sneer at giving attention to an event so heavily sponsored by another media brand) but this year, it must be said, the festival hardly defended itself.

Why? What was so different about 2011? Well, on one hand, not much—and that’s the problem. Masters series dinners pretty much followed the same pattern they have every year (I won’t single out names, you can see the schedule on the official website), with the notable exception of Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, that has always been the most popular of these dinners… I guess Chef Flay wasn’t available for the event this year.

Other events included luncheons with Joel Robuchon, Julian Serrano and Michael Mina, and brunches with Guy Savoy and Susan Feniger/Mary Sue Milliken, all of which I’m sure were wonderful. A Mandalay Beach “BBQ” with Charlie Palmer and Alain Ducasse, that was a clever twist last year, was repeated with the addition of Rick Moonen, and I’m confident that was also fun. A multi-chef $395.00/plate tribute dinner to Paul Bocuse was regrettably cancelled a few days prior.

Ilona, perennial Maitre'd of Restaurant Guy Savoy, who's somehow eluded John Curtas' hot hostess watch, despite being...well, see for yourself.

Ilona, perennial Maitre'd of Restaurant Guy Savoy, who's somehow eluded John Curtas' hot hostess watch, despite being...well, see for yourself.

But, not to sound overly jaded, these are just fancy meals with very well known and established chefs. What has made Vegas Uncork’d so essential in the past has been its very unique presentations: Jean-Phillippe Maury creating a multi-course dessert before our eyes; Rick Moonen, Susan Feniger and Hubert Keller demonstrating together; Wolfgang Puck having a frank and uncensorsed conversation with Barbara Fairchild; all the chefs of Wynn cooking a multi-course menu with you [Yes, I made squab with Daniel Boulud two years ago—and he ate mine!], just to offer four strong memories. This kind of stuff does not happen every day, to say the least. No other festival that I know of has done these as creatively or as plentifully as Uncork’d has.

Chef Carlos Guia of Wynn Country Club. Eat anything he offers you, even if it's a cracker.

Chef Carlos Guia of Wynn Country Club. Eat anything he offers you, even if it's a cracker (that's not a cracker, btw).

Those were notably pared down this year. There was a “Chef Showdown” between Akira Back and Martin Heierling, and I was happy to see three wine-related events on the schedule…though why every one featured Bellagio Wine Director Jason Smith is a head scratcher (he is an eminently qualified MS, and head of the biggest wine program anywhere…but there also happen to be a dozen other Master Sommeliers in town, and many more qualified professionals available). The only significant new event along these lines was Viva Las Vegan, a demonstrational buffet lunch at Wynn where Steve Wynn himself, Tal Ronnen, and the property’s estimable restaurant chefs explained their very groundbreaking vegetarian/vegan food program. I’m writing on for site.

Susan and Mary Sue, forever the Two Hot Tamales, IMHO. So great to see them still working together and smiling.

Susan and Mary Sue, forever the Two Hot Tamales, IMHO. So great to see them still working together and smiling.

There was a wine dinner at Theo Schonegger’s Sinatra in Wynn with Tina Sinatra pouring her family’s wines–that I imagine was also special…but I haven’t heard a word about nor seen a single photo from. Seems like more journalists attended the Chef Black Jack tournament, for some reason (Note to self: remember to cover the big BBQ during the World Series of Poker coming up…).

Caesars Mixologist Eddie Perales, overdoing it, as is his style ;) These were lemon meringue coolers, I believe.

Speaking of journalists, instead of Wolfgang Puck or Pierre Gagnaire, this year we had a culinary conversation with local food critic/reviewers John Curtas, Max Jacobson and Al Mancini [hyperlinks to their summaries of the event]. Now, with apologies to my colleagues and friends (I’m sure they’ll agree), while I know they have valuable insights–and thanks for mentioning me, Al—we had Nobu Matsuhisa himself here… rising TV star Scott Conant… the uber-hot Bromberg brothers…and instead we get a dialogue with three local critics?

Chefs Charlie Palmer and Michael Mina, actually hanging out and talking NOT for the cameras.

Chefs Charlie Palmer and Michael Mina, actually hanging out and talking NOT for the cameras.

Other than the veggie luncheon, I was not able to attend any of the above, owing to my own schedule and the rather steep a la carte costs of each*. In case you’ve ever wondered, this is not a cheap ticket, friends, which is why I feel justified arguing that it should be as unique and unforgettable an experience as possible. The Grand Tasting alone was $200 a person—five dollars more than a similar and certainly as lavish event at Pebble Beach the week prior.

Comme Ca Vegas' obsessive new Exec Chef, Brian Howard (his "tasting" had three parts--see what I mean?)

Comme Ca Vegas' obsessive new Exec Chef, Brian Howard (his "tasting" had three parts--see what I mean?)

And yet, the Grand Tasting was, of course, as always, a remarkable feast of fantasy. Of the dozens upon dozens of bites offered, my favorites included Masa’s carpaccio, Guy Savoy’s soup, and others from Comme Ça, Sage, Wazuzu, the Country Club, Social House, and notably generous portions from Society and Mesa Grill. Wine selections were also notably improved this year with names like Chateau Montelena, Duckhorn, Ferrari Carano, Frei Brothers, J. Lohr, Paul Hobbs, Silver Oak, Ste. Michelle—to have these labels poured freely is definitely something.

She's got some balls, eh?

She's got some balls, eh?

Unfortunately, the Caesars “Garden of the Gods” pool area, while quite pretty in normal circumstances, continues to be a very imperfect venue for this event, making the flow confusing, and meaning many booths are given unfortunate positions. Navigation is not easy, and signage year after year remains bizarrely lacking (how they think anyone is going to study a pamphlet map with food in one hand and a glass in the other is beyond me). One of the most special aspects this year was a fantastic mixology lounge hosted by Tony Abou-Ganim and Steve Olson, and featuring the talents of Patricia Richards and Eddie Perales, that should’ve been mobbed. But judging by the numbers there, and reactions from many people I talked with afterward, very few people even knew it was there.

Chef Masa... it's like he knows his carpaccio is the best bite of the whole event

Chef Masa... it's like he knows his carpaccio is the best bite of the whole event

Now, look again at the list of participants above and ask yourself, what did most of this talent actually do during the event? Well, as far as I can tell… they took a lot of pictures together. And they stood at their booths while their chef de cuisines handed out amuses. Is that really the best way for these truly great chefs to represent themselves and what they bring to Las Vegas?

Just three world famous Frenchmen hanging out, chatting about... who knows, showgirls? ramps? why Americans eat so much cow?

Just three world famous Frenchmen hanging out, chatting about... who knows, showgirls? ramps? why Americans eat so much cow?

When it comes to the planning and orchestration of this festival, there are so many “cooks in the kitchen” it’s hard to say where the fault or credit lies for its strengths and weaknesses, though that in itself might be a big part of the problem. A food festival needs to be run by people who truly love food, who understand the strengths of the available participants, and who want patrons to have a fantastic food experience, period. Other considerations that come with it, while valuable to the festival’s economic health, need to be treated secondarily. I personally feel it’s a huge misstep to have such an important event in town, and yet have virtually no publicly viewable elements to it, for a number of reasons.

If you don't know who the giant in this pic is... his name is Jet Tila.

If you don't know who the giant in this pic is... his name is Jet Tila.

There’s nothing wrong with Uncork’d (as the saying goes) that what’s right with Uncork’d can’t fix. This could and should be the greatest food festival in the world, an annual event in Las Vegas important enough that perhaps it even rivals the porn star convention!

After all, food is the new sex, right?

Some other coverage of Uncork’d 2011:

Huffington Post


New York Post

Vegas Deluxe by Robin Leach

The Feast

*Uncork’d’s public relations team was gracious enough to credential me to a few things, but only the Grand Tasting was of genuine interest. Wynn PR invited me to the Vegan event as well. My thanks to them both.

Drinking Pink at the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association

A colleague asked me what I thought the “headline” of WSWA 2011 was. “One word,” I said. “Pink.”


Why pink? Pink is the color of at least two new tequilas (Pasion, Mejor), designed to attract women to the liquor (no, they don’t taste different, they’re just pink). It’s also the color of Chambord’s new-ish liqueur and bottle color of new Rouge vodka, and… I could go on. I’m wondering just how the fairer sex found alcohol before it was color-coded for them. Insert emoticon.


Smooth Ambler's White Whiskey, herbaceous Vodka and Gin

Pink bottles were certainly not the only innovation in the vodka category, the most popular spirit in the world (and thus, flame, to the eager moths looking to enter the liquor biz). At the Orlando trade show and convention were DeLos, from Texas, promoting itself as the first American vacuum-distilled vodka; from Israel, came L’Chaim kosher vodka for the observant (not the first kosher vodka, of course… that seems to be a growing category all its own); from Britain, the reserved Mayfair English Vodka; and from Holland, Sonnema VodkaHerb…which does not actually taste nearly as herbaceous as Smooth Ambler vodka from—of all places–West Virginia (save the moonshine jokes).


Packaging is just as often the primary hook. For example, U’luvka Polish vodka’s gorgeous bottles and accompanying bubble-handled shots, SX’s bottles that are so curvaceous, you want some alone time with them… But why beat around the bush when WTF and Jersey Shore-labeled vodkas go for the marketing jugular.


“Stop the Madness,” declares the ads of Polish vodka Sobieski (Number One Premium vodka in Mother Poland, they say). “Distilled 5x, 8x, 39x … How about distilled enough.” Amen. On the other hand, we might need some clarity between “Ultra Premium” vodkas and “Super Premium” vodkas, like Holland-made Trump vodka (can we see the birth certificate?),  the “world’s finest,” according to… itself. One brand with legitimately different flavorings I tasted was French-made DragonBleu, now with Rose Blossom, White Ginger and Penja Pepper. They deserve the medals they’ve won.


On the other hand, you might wonder what a “Dude” tastes like. Apparently Three Olives vodka has the answer—or at least a flavored spirit by that name. Ivanabitch vodka has been successful enough to now offer gin and brandy to their female-empowering fans. With a slogan like “Feel The Burn,” Mad Dragon seems proud of going after the fortified and flavored market with eight varieties—none of which is called “dude,” nor “rose blossom.”

Koi Tequilas

Kai Tequilas

By the number of new entries, tequila would seem the second most popular category. It isn’t—it’s rum, actually (worldwide, anyway), which seems to be slow inbeing exploited, though the range offered here, from the premade Sandy Bottom cocktail–in a bottle labeled like an ‘80s soft-porn—to DonQ’s new flavors, Cockspur (that name sells itself!), best-in-show honey-ginger flavored Cayrum to the extremely elegant and refined Agricole rhum of Martinique’s Clement, suggests things are picking up. Tequilas, by comparison, are everywhere, from the exotic dia-de-los-muertos inspired skull bottles of Kai, which had a pleasantly surprising smoothness and caramel notes, up to to a $600+ retail Gran Patron Burdeos Bordeaux cask racked extra-anejo (sorry, didn’t get to sample that).


Of course there was a great deal of wine on offer as well—some of it even pink, like Moscato sparkling rose, Dinastia Vivanco rosado, and two excellent re-emerging French Rosé wines (Sables d’Azur) I tried. Piper-Heidsieck celebrated the release of a new limited Prestige Cuvee,  Rare 1999. But more intriguing to this palate were some Eastern European offerings: Greece’s Tselepos, Strofilia and Katogi Averoff (bottling indigenous Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko varietals), Romania’s Trei Hectare and Zestrea Murfatlar (the Feteasca Negra grape holds massive potential) and Montenegro’s Plantaze and Stara Soklova brandies. Of course there were  new Italian, Spanish and Argentinian bottlings of note too, as well…particularly those of Opici importers (94 point-rated ’07 Poggio Bestiale) and Luigi Bosca.


Wine of Japan poured me some excellent sakes while showing me on a map which area’s breweries were destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami—and which area’s more popular breweries have had their transportation routes disrupted. Expect shortages.


Although the show was notably smaller than the previous year in Las Vegas, at least some vendors had their share of wacky promotions—Hairy Cow, for example, who brought a mother and calf to sit in a pen outside the opening night reception. There were the expected leagues of models touting free shots at the show, but my heart belonged to the Slavianskaya ladies, who managed to look cute in Spring 1832’s latest fashions. And there were gimmicks for sale (the prophylactic-esque Wine Shield), hangover cures, and mixers—a buzzed-about standout being McClure’s pickle-juice based Bloody Mary Mix. Tart, peppery and juicy…a genuinely worthy twist on the classic.


In the middle of it all, I got to take a break and help judge the inaugural Iron Mixologist contest on behalf of The Tasting Panel magazine. Consisting of three “heats”–aperitif, long drink and dessert, all with surprise ingredients–I would say it was a tight race, but clearly certain competitors were more prepared than others. Fort Worth’s Cat Miltenberger, with the focus that only a military background can bring, won two out of three categories handily, and took home the brass ring (a cocktail shaker, actually).

Click to download full article PDF

Click to download full article PDF

Leafing through my pile of collected print matter on the way to the airport, one ad gave me pause, by Palm Bay importers.“Give the Gift of Authenticity,” it read. I couldn’t agree more. Mix some of their Aperol with water,  if you need to think pink.

Pebble Beach: The Ripple Effect


In the realm of prominent Food & Wine festivals, few have the cache of Pebble Beach—and it isn’t hard to see why. Take the muscle of American Express Publishing—Food&Wine magazine, Departures, Executive Travel ($$$) and combine it with the captive audience of one of the richest private developments in the country ($$$$) and, well, you do the math (and after you do, add a few more zeros). Lexus, the event’s major sponsor, certainly did.


PBFW has such a remarkable list of participating chefs that the event program feels like a yearbook. No wonder everyone’s getting them autographed as I entered the Grand Tasting tent(s) on April 30. I had originally wanted to attend more of the four-day event, but considering how overwhelming this turned out to be, it’s probably best that my introduction to the festival focused on the one afternoon.

There are famous chefs, and working chefs (sometimes both) in every direction you turn, doling out small elegant bites of every savory and sweet description. For a foodie, this is something like nirvana.


Relative proximity to Napa and Sonoma wine countries also amps up the winery participation. While wine tends to be an also-ran at most “Food and Wine” fests—usually corporate-heavy,  typically poured without context—here there are big brands (Trefethen) next to cherished favorites (Perrin et Fils) next to semicults (Paul Hobbs, Paradigm) emerging regions (Ribera del Duero) next to intriguing upstarts (Sonoma’s Scribe, Willamette’s Antica Terra). Driscoll’s berries—based nearby—are one of the largest food brands represented  (Kerrygold butter, AndyBoy produce are two others) with a huge display of their gorgeous fruit, also being handed out cocktail-style by some appetizing servers.


Serving chefs included Akira Back, Andre Bienvenu, Clark Frasier & Mark Gaier, Stephen Pyles, Michael Schwartz,  Michael Symon, Sherry Yard and literally dozens more. Others like Michel Richard and David Myers, who helmed larger events, were checking out colleagues.


Still, many stands had irksome lines, some ran out of food, and so like many attendees I expect, I found myself editing by whim. The proliferation of similar events around the country, and world, has probably resulted in ennui for more than a few of these chefs, thus some bites were more impressive than others.


What I will remember most: Tim Love’s rabbit and rattlesnake tamales; Michael Ginor’s lovely plating of two foie gras (from his renowned Hudson Valley company) and charcuterie; Kent Torrey’s endlessly remarkable table of uncommon cheeses from his shop in Carmel; and Shawn McClain’s just-because Absinthe Taffy.


Also, Highland Park’s Martin Daraz has to be the world’s greatest ambassador of Scotch Whisky. He makes you want to just bathe in the stuff.


Afterward, I was able to sneak in a few more events: Got to see Jacques Pepin and his daughter Claudine perform their comedy routine—I mean, prepare some lovely egg dishes. Considering the lack of true personalities on Food TV these days, I found myself wishing they would have a show together. They are truly hilarious to watch.


I also snuck over to the Inn to take in the Marcassin wine tasting. But as Helen Marcassin herself was a no-show (pretty sure that was the drawing card for the event), instead I joined the blind tasting of cabs led by Rajat Parr (Mina Group restaurants) with fellow somms Damon Ornowski, Dustin Wilson, Emily Wines and SF Chronicle’s Jon Bonne (and Laura Maniec MS chiming in from the audience). The seven selections offered a wide variety of expression—2006 Silver Oak and ’05 Chateau Palmer Alter Ego were among them—but to me the most interesting turned out to be a citrusy, fresh Greg Norman. Go figure! Almost none of the wines were accurately identified by the way, indicating what a variety of expression in terroir and winemaking exists today.


Then I realized the real scene was the Inn’s patio bar, where F&B rainmaker Lee Schrager and TV Chef Guy “Badboy” Fieri were holding court amid a wonderland of chef whites. Fieri apparently didn’t get the dress code memo, but I suppose it was nice of him to make sure that nobody, but nobody, would ever mistake him for, say, Charlie Trotter or Thomas Keller. Which I guess makes sense, since I can’t imagine anyone ever mistook his former restaurant Johnny Garlic’s for the French Laundry.


Look for other blogs on the festival from:

Al Mancini

Rona Lewis

Table Hopper SF


Kamran, the 18-year-old “Sophisticated Gourmet”

Blessed by a HaLo

Trefethen 2005 HaLo Cab, 2007 Estate Late Harvest Riesling

Trefethen 2005 HaLo Cab, 2007 Estate Late Harvest Riesling

I’m not one to be starstruck–often–but there’s always something cool about meeting the namesake of a wine, and Hailey Trefethen can claim that twice. Not only is she a daughter of the well-known Trefethen wine family (the scions of the Oak Knoll A.V.A.) but their single vineyard reserve HaLo was named after Hailey and brother Loren.

I was going to say I've never hugged a wine before...but then I realized...

I was going to say I've never hugged a wine before...but then I realized...

So sharing a tasting of Trefethen’s new releases with Hailey last week was even more fun than it would’ve been already: it also happened to be at Julian Serrano, one of my favorite restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip (in Aria, City Center), and with two of my favorite sommeliers, Desmond Ecchavarrie, A.S. (currently at Julian Serrano) and his mentor, Robert Smith, M.S. (of Serrano’s fine dining establishment, Picasso in Bellagio).

Trefethen 2009 Dry Riesling, 2008 Estate Chard

Trefethen 2009 Dry Riesling, 2008 Estate Chard

Proudly but without arrogance, Hailey reminded us that Trefethen has always used only the grapes they grown themselves, from vineyards that are all Certified Napa Green, and using 100% sustainable farming practices, such as a host of cover crops, and owl and bat boxes for natural pest control.

Jamon Serrano... what else? ;)

The wines were pared–loosely–with a selection of Serrano’s signature modern tapas (only some of which I photographed–it was a feast). Here are some quick tasting notes:

09 Oak Knoll Estate Dry Riesling: green apple, guava, peach, ripe grapefruit, lime and a little slate. Moderate acid. Bright but not blaring.

08 Estate Chard celebrates the 35th bottling of the wine which triumphed in the ’79 World Wine Olympics. Eight months in French oak (18% new), no malo. Harvest and tropical fruits, great mouth feel.

Isn't this exactly the perfect woman to be serving your paella? The Estate Merlot paired well with this...

Isn't this exactly the perfect woman to be serving your paella? The Estate Merlot paired well with this...

07 Estate Merlot: Notes of plum, grape tomato, black cherry, with a little toasted anise and chocolate in the finale. 95% merlot, 2% cab, 2% malbec, 1% petit verdot. Smooth and balanced.

07 Estate Cab: Plum, blackberry and pepper. Not complex, but pleasing. 94% cab, 2% Cab franc, 2% malbec, 1% merlot, 1% petit verdot

2005 HaLo: Blackberry dominates, with chocolate, black cherry and ripe plum, a little bay leaf and pepper spice, finishing with dying embers, earth and a wisp of tobacco. Balanced, complex, and rewarding. Firm but not overbearing. The winery’s 508-case premier bottling, 94% Cab with 4% petit verdot and 2% malbec, all grown in the Trefethen’s Hillspring vineyard, rocky volcanic foothills where Hailey and Loren played as kids. Aged 29 months in French Oak, then bottled for two years prior to release.

We finished with the 07 Estate Late Harvest Riesling, which was a nice, light, pleasantly sweet wine but not cloying.

Rob Smith, Desi Ecchavarie. These guys are the real giants.

Rob Smith, Desi Ecchavarie. These guys are the real giants.

Thanks, Kazia.

Whisky, Women and Song…

Well, maybe not so much song. But the Universal Whisky Experience, which gathered together dozens of distilled malt beverages from around the world at the Wynn resort in Las Vegas March 19-20 2010, was both educational and entertaining. Covering for The Tasting Panel, I took some candid snaps. Here’s the album:

And here’s my Tasting Panel Magazine story:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

The Napa of Mexico: Monte Xanic and El Valle de Guadalupe

One of the best kept secrets of the wine world is the fact that there is a steadily growing high-quality wine industry right across the US border in Baja, Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe, just outside Ensenada. Owing to Mexican government export tariffs favoring tequilas, and a general disbelief in Mexican dedication to quality, most of these wines never make it out of their country. But things are changing, aided by growing attention to the Valle de Guadalupe’s annual Fiestas de la Vendimia every August. I got the opportunity to visit one of the top producers, Monte Xanic, and taste many of its competitors during a crush season visit a few months ago for a story in The Tasting Panel. Here are some  candid photos (many taken by Kelly Duckhorn) from the visit. Xanic owner Hans Backhoff Sr, Jr, Viticulturalist Kelly Maher and consulting winemaker Scott McLeod are depicted most prominently :

Click above to read

Click above to read

A Creative Club Chef and Chateau St. Michelle

With Indian Ridge Country Club Chef Ralph Fernandez

With Indian Ridge Country Club Chef Ralph Fernandez

Would you believe me if I told you one of the most creative, satisfying and entertaining dinners I’ve had so far this year was at a country club? In Palm Desert, no less? I’ll avoid repeating what I wrote in the article for The Tasting Panel (see below) and just post some pics… Chef Ralph Fernandez, I like your style.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge



A Mass of Paso! Grand Tasting in Downtown LA

Vibiana provided a gorgeous backdrop for this grand tasting

Vibiana provided a gorgeous backdrop for this grand tasting

Had a chance to attend the Paso Robles Grand Tasting on March 2 in downtown LA’s unique former cathedral Vibiana—and I have to admit, I was a bit unprepared for the sheer number of wineries represented. Though Saxum (on the cover of the current Wine Spectator) was missing, there were dozens of others, some well established (J. Lohr), others total mom-n-pop operations with case numbers in the three digits. PR has been slowly but steadily gaining ground as a respected wine region, with widely varying potential, and what I tasted reflected that diversity of product and approach.

It would’ve been impossible for me to taste everything and not lose my palate—even if there was enough time—but I did manage to sample a fairly random selection (with some guidance from fellow winemakers).

In general, at tastings, I tend to look more for strong identities, personalities and expressions of terroir over quintessential expressions of style. I find the latter to be far too subjective, especially in a “tasting” environment. But that’s just me.

Here are a few highlights.

Adelaida ’08 Grenache: bright berry flavors with strong acid and a dry finish.

Also enjoyed their ’08 Version Red blend (Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise)

Alta Colina ’08 Toasted Slope (92% Syrah with Viognier, Mourvedre, Grenache) –aptly named deep red with ashy, cigar, mineral notes. Would make an interesting BBQ pairing.

Also enjoyed their ’08 GSM, chewy with strong tannins, dried herbals and fresh tobacco’ and their ’08 Claudia Cuvee, a smooth foody white

Calcerous ’07 Meritage (CS, Petit Verdot, Cab Franc, Merlot, Malbec): a big, earthy fruit nose leads to a more delicate, very nicely balanced harvest fruit/chocolate palate with quite a dry finish

Caliza ’07 Syrah: a very balanced, direct expression of the grape

Also enjoyed their ’07 Companion (50/50 CS, Syrah), dangerously drinkable

Kukkula ’07 Sisu (GSM): savory-juicy blackberry, anise and a little floral

L’Aventure ’08 Cote a Cote (GSM): all I wrote was “smooth as a baby’s bottom” – particularly impressive as it’s high alcohol at 15.9%.

Lone Madrone ’08 Points West White (85% Roussanne withViognier and Picpoul Blanc): A rich deep white, balanced but finishing dry. Probably fantastic for vegetarian Indian food.

Also enjoyed their ’07 Bailey Ranch Zin (cherry, peppers), ’07 Points West Red (juicy with strong tannins) and ’07 The Will (Grenache, Petite Syrah, Zin) [I confess I spent more time at this table than others, only partially because their pourer Amanda was so adorable]

Minassian-Young ’07 Mourvedre-Syrah: drinkably lush, big plum and harvest fruit notes with a little leather

Also enjoyed their ’09 Estate Zin (sweet but dry, good for BBQ)… Impressive young mom-n-pop shop.

Silver Horse ’08 Estate Malbec: tart plum/green tomato and cherry, a lively expression of the grape

Tablas Creek ’10 Rose: strawberries and tropicals with a dry finish. Brunch me! for more info

SCOOP: Paolo Barbieri MS joins Scarpetta

Paolo Barbieri

It’s not often I get to announce big food world news, but a right place-right time conversation with Scott Conant this morning about his wine program brought this bombshell. Master Sommelier Paolo Barbieri, late of the recently shuttered Restaurant Alex in the Wynn resort, has joined Conant’s team as Wine Director of both Scarpetta and D.O.C.G. in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

This is not just a coup for Conant and the Cosmo (Barbieri is one of the most respected Somms in the entire US) and Las Vegas (ibid) but in a way for Barbieri as well, since it means he doesn’t have to move, and gets to shift focus from selling big French and California labels to Italian wines, of which the native Roman is undoubtedly well versed.

Well, I expect it’s a coup for him… I’ll look to get a quote from Paolo as soon as the p.r. people get over being upset with me for breaking the news (apparently) early.

UPDATE: Look for my interview with Paolo in the May 2010 issue of THE TASTING PANEL.

BTW, Barbieri is also a winemaker, so no doubt we can expect his California Syrahs to be among the few domestics on Scarpetta’s list.

Conant informs me that Scarpetta and D.O.C.G.’s wine programs, already quite serious, will be expanding even further.

Las Vegas Weekly clips

From cover stories, to small breaking news items, I’ve done a wide variety of work for the Las Vegas Weekly–one of the stronger Weekly newspapers in the country, with an award-winning website. Some links are below…



COVER STORY: How A Downtown Hotel Helped Turn Las Vegas Into The Ninth Island

Local Grindz: Best Hawaiian Food In Las Vegas

COVER STORY: At Home With Burlesque Queen Dita Von Teese

I Tappa Keg: The Freakin’ Frog’s New Cask Society

Delmonico Steakhouse’s Secret Whisk(e)y Stash

It’s In the  Shake: How To Analyze Your Bartender

Au Revoir, Restaurant Alex

10 Things You Need To Know About Hakkasan

Inside Vegas’ Most Influential Bar

Forte lands a special delivery for Rainier Cherry Day

The Candy Man Can: Jean-Marie Auboine Opens New Chocolate Institute

Funk Legend Jimmy Castor Dies At Henderson Hospital

Vegas Feels Fuku Envy as favorite food truck sets down LA roots

Pat DiNizio’s Rock Star Confessions

Drinking like Jay-Z with the Ace Of Spades

Drink Locally, Act Globally

Reviving Viva Elvis

Gary LaMorte Leaves Andre’s

Oscar Goodman Takes The Dome

Why Las Vegas is the Real Burger Capital of the Country

Caesars’ Poolside Punch Man

How Safe Is Our Sushi?

COVER STORY: Step Into a Vegas Cab And You Might Be Taken For a Ride

Atomic 7′s Revolutionary Ice Cream

SnoBar Booze-pops Head For The Strip

City Center’s Cell-Phone Techno-Fail

WET Design’s Aquatic Marvels

Inside The First US Bodypainting Championships

Crime (Kinda) Pays: Vegas Mob Lieutenant Frank Cullotta

Pursuing The Perfect Vegas Buffet

Playmate Vs. Food: Laura Croft Meets Vegas’ Biggest Burrito

Inside the Palms’ New Barbie Fantasy Suite

Sam Butera, R.I.P.

A Vegas To-Do List for President Obama

Three Questions with Ernie Isley

Previewing the Hardbat Table Tennis Tournament

All E.C. Gladstone stories on