Columbus and Wine: Exploring Brave “Old Worlds”

8 Oct

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was a navigator and explorer who made four voyages to the ‘New World’. He died in poverty in Valladolid, Spain and is buried in Seville Cathedral. See more from his life and adventures in this gallery.
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

        It’s October 8th and, aptly, I feel a bit like Columbus on his 2nd voyage.  While wine is not, to me, undiscovered territory, I’m constantly exploring, learning and renewing my passion.  My 70 classroom hour ISG course last year was my first educational expedition and I was so disappointed when the 180 hour diploma course was not offered in Houston this fall.  The first course allowed me to discover my wine equivalent of the Bahamas, but I have yet to reach the mainland.

            I sent out a plea for help to industry friends and found an alternative that excites me.  I registered for the French Wine Scholar Certification Program offered through the Texas Wine School, which begins on Thursday.  The Program, designed for “advanced” students of wine, was developed by the French Wine Society and covers, in depth, the history, climate, geology, soils, viticulture, viniculture and wine law of 8 French wine producing regions.  Upon passing, what is reported by friends, to be a challenging final exam, students are awarded the French Wine Scholar (FWS) credential.

            Our vineyards are in Italy and my main interest and focus are on Italian wine. So pursuing a FSW may seem a little counter-intuitive   But I’m excited about an opportunity to increase my general knowledge, especially about the “Mecca” of the wine world, France.  And after all, while Columbus failed to discover a sea route to Asia, we celebrate the fruit of his disappointment, the discovery of the Americas, 500+ years later.  I’m willing to set my sextant on a star and see where the wine winds take me.

photo from


To Wine or Not to Wine……That’s My Question. Comments Welcome!

24 Sep


          It’s late September.  Even in sultry Houston, hints of coolness tease the senses – wispy fingers that graze the skin, then disappear.  The first day of Fall has come and gone.  Time passes, seasons change.  The world is constantly changing, but is the same true of us?  This morning, I realize that in many cases, the choice is mine.  I can embrace opportunity and chose to grow or I can run the treadmill of life, pouring my energy and very being into the illusion that I am in control of my destiny.  But ultimately, change is the one true constant.   And while it can be comforting to resist, when I listen to that timeless voice in my soul, I know I thrive when I allow old dead layers to be discarded so that fresh life can be revealed.  So I ask myself : is it time for me to shed  some leaves?  Or am I still in summer, nurturing a harvest yet to come?

            The last year has been exciting as I’ve nurtured new hopes and challenges.  As Jay and I phase into life in our almost empty nest, I’ve enjoyed assuming a more active role in our winery in Italy.  We’ve always used a “divide and conquer” strategy.  Jay has focused on business and management, while I’ve worked on my Italian and general wine knowledge.  I started my blog and became active on Twitter.  I’ve met so many fabulous “tweeps”, which has prompted conversations about methodology, industry practices, imports and exports and Italian culture.  I’ve developed a nexus of contacts and even, surprisingly, friends from across the globe.  Writing is part of my core, and food and wine are true passions.  My blog has helped me to reconnect with old friends and has facilitated connection with kindred minds.  At the end of my first year, it has been a rich and rewarding experience, one that draws me to deeper commitment.

            Another part of my most basic self is my love of learning.  I’m in my 7th year of Italian and have studied both in Italy and Houston.  For the past two years, I have joined four other ladies with a private tutor for a couple of hours each week.  I’m not yet fluent, but I can understand most of what is said to me, if the speaker doesn’t speak too quickly.  I can communicate my points effectively, though less eloquently than in English.  And with a little help from a dictionary, I can read most texts.  While my goal is true fluency, I’m content with my progress to date and hope, as I become able to spend more time in Italy, that my goal is within reach.

            My second learning goal of these last years has been to become “fluent” in wine.  Last October, I enrolled in the International Sommelier Guild’s Fundamentals of Wine I and II classes.  As I chronicled in my blog, the classes were amazing, and far more challenging than I had expected.  We spent seven hours each week in class, tasted, on average twelve wines, and studied most of the world’s wine producing regions in detail.  Since completing the introductory courses in January, I’ve spent an hour each morning reading  wine related blogs and news, starting  a tasting group, and using a more disciplined, analytic approach when opening a bottle to share with Jay most evenings.  This spring and summer, I also toured the Napa Valley (twice), the Okanagan Valley and the Chianti area, and spent time with our winemaker in Italy.

            All this time I’ve been eagerly awaiting the ISG Sommelier Diploma Program, which is scheduled to begin on October 1st.  The Diploma Program is an intense, 188 hour course, which dives deeper into the unique attributes and practices of the world’s wine producing regions and hones its students’ skills in blind tasting, cellar management and service technique.  I know it will be an exciting class – both a huge challenge and a tool to facilitate my wine mastery goals.

            I communicated with my ISG instructor late last week and received disappointing news.  There appears to be inadequate interest in Houston for ISG to offer the Diploma Program here this fall.  The situation could still change, but time is short.  For me, disappointment always triggers introspection.  I view roadblocks as opportunities to evaluate my path, to discern my purpose and either recommit, despite the hurdle, or affirmatively open myself to new possibilities.  I pray, seek guidance and choose to either fertilize the growing crop, shed my leaves in tune with a passing season, or sometimes, just to wait for direction yet unrevealed.

            Today, I’m in the midst of this process.  I’ve yet to sense any truth about my situation.  But I’m asking the questions, and prayerfully waiting.  Is further wine education a mere passion or a calling?  If it is a calling, is this class my next step?  Should I consider flying to Dallas every week for six months?  Or is God calling me to patience?  Are there other programs to consider, alternate routes to my education destination?

            In the big scheme of things, I’m aware these concerns are petty.  But I do believe that God is present, in the details,  in each and every one of our lives.  My job is to look for Him and follow His lead, in both the big and the small.  I also believe that He loves me and that my disappointment and uncertainty stir His divine heart.

            So, to any Wine Folks out there:  Any suggestions or alternatives to share?  I’d love to throw your ideas into my prayerful mix.

photo from


Kris Bistro & Wine Lounge at LeNotre Culinary Institute in Houston

20 Aug

            My sweet husband, Jay, has been a big part of what helped me to finally emerge from my post-surgery funk.  Despite my listlessness and bouts of foul temper, he has systematically tried to plant seeds of joy in my life: opportunities for travel, culinary adventure, great wine and most of all, tenderness.  He is worth his weight in gold (and on his 6’4” frame, that’s a lot of gold), even when he drives me crazy.  Last week, he invited me out for a “surprise” lunch at Kris, the restaurant at Culinary Institute LeNotre in Houston.

            I loved the experience on so many levels.  As part of the Culinary Institute, part of Kris’ mission is to offer upcoming chefs a practicum in a real restaurant in addition to their culinary classroom training.  The décor is lovely, the menu and wine list interesting.  Our food was delicious, well prepared and the service attentive.  We found the pricing very attractive, as well.  Our three course meal, with wine, was $62.00.  Best of all, I enjoyed the chance to support enthusiastic students while enjoying a great meal.  So much so, that I asked Jay to take me back to Kris in a few weeks to enjoy their prix fixe menu for my birthday.  I love it that a portion of the prix fixe price goes to the Houston Food Bank.  I enjoyed our meal so much that my blogger hat “fell off” and I forgot to photograph dessert – opera cake (Layers of Almond Sponge Cake, Coffee Syrup, Ganache, Buttercream) and Caribbean Cremeux (Passion Fruit Cream,Raspberry Filling,Semi-Sweet Chocolate Mousse and Almond Biscuit).  What a treat!

2010 Simonnet-Febvre Millesime Chablis – fresh and crisp, with characteristic minerality. It paired beautifully with the food.

Butter Lettuce and Frisee Salad with what I believe was a Pernod Vinaigrette – Delicious

Pan Caramelized Diver Scallop, Spicy Summer Pepper Relish, Hummus Spread

Pan Roasted Local Gulf Snapper, Corn Encrusted Crab Cake, Black Bean Puree, Watercress Fume Blanc

Rain For My Soul

16 Aug

            July 2012 was the warmest month in U.S. history.  Drought haunts the American bread basket states of Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, their fertile farmlands parched and barren.  And while I in no way equate my relatively insignificant private struggles to these global events, the mental image of dry cracked earth resonates in my soul.  2012 has been a year juxtaposed between crisis and grace.  After four surgeries, a month in the hospital and eight weeks without solid food I’ve felt depleted and dry, caught in the tension between gratitude, impatience and a temptation to despair.  At the risk of being melodramatic, it’s been difficult for me to wait for full recovery and to fight the urge to lose perspective.  I’m a writer in my core.  But at my keyboard, my fingers freeze.  I just haven’t been able to compose the arid silence of my heart.

            But my sky has darkened.  The air grows heavy and a primal smell of earth foreshadows the rain that will dampen my soul.  I can feel the drops beginning to fall.  The worst is over.  I can feel life awakening.  The relief and the gratitude are overwhelming.

Photo by Tobias Helbig:

Aura Restaurant, Houston. Chef Perrier’s Halo is Shining Brightly.

28 May


          On Thursday, Jay and I celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary.  For two weeks beforehand, he and our elder son, Jack, were at our ranch in Kansas, working fifteen plus hour days to plant soybeans, cut and bale alfalfa and work cattle.  My husband must really love me.  To make our anniversary special, he rushed through this work, then made the eleven hour drive home.  Once home, as he cut and arranged a splendid bouquet of Hydrangea and Protea (reminiscent of our Hawaiian honeymoon), Jay offered me a choice of dinner at Mark’s, a pricey Houston paragon, or Aura, an unknown strip center restaurant specializing in French inspired American cuisine in Missouri City, an ubiquitous suburb of Houston.

            I’m a foodie.  What’s more, I’m a hopeless romantic.  Mark’s is often voted the most romantic restaurant in Houston.  The restaurant makes its home in a 1920’s church.  With stunning art deco architectural detail, the arch of the former apse frames the main dining room while the vaulted ceilings are cobalt blue and dusted with hand painted golden stars. At first blush, when you combine the atmosphere with an innovative menu and talented chef, the choice seemed a no brainer.  But as I started thinking about the coming week – this Thursday’s trip to Napa for Auction Napa Valley, and the exhausting two weeks that Jay had just spent in Kansas, I was surprised when I felt my heart stirring in a different direction.  It’s unusual for me, but I began to realize that while I was excited about a great meal, that I wanted something easy, casual and relaxed.  I didn’t want crowds.  Rather I wanted some peace and a quiet evening with the man who won my heart those many years ago.  I decided to go to my computer and check out Aura.

            The Aura website describes Lyonniase Chef Frédéric Perrier’s vision as “innovative American, within an ‘inch’ of French”.  Perrier, I learned, is the former chef and co-owner of one of my former Houston favorites, Grille 5115 and Aura’s reviews from Zagat and Open Table were generally very high, with only a few complaints about value and/or service (If you poll enough people you will invariably find someone that is less than fully satisfied.  I find it difficult to worry about isolated negative comments).  However, when I looked at the menu online, I was a bit discouraged.  The menu was full of some of my Bistro style favorites, but no single choice really resonated with me.  I wasn’t sure that Aura was a restaurant where I wanted to celebrate a special occasion with a special meal.  And then I saw a string of words at the bottom of the page that almost literally made my heart sing: “Five Course Tasting Menu –  $50 per person – Allow Chef to ‘Do His Thing’ or guide him along ‘your’ lines! – Wine Pairings are Optional/Additional.”  Instantaneously, I was sold.

            I love tasting menus.  As a budding sommelier and vineyard owner, I especially love tasting menus with wine pairings.  Yet I find that from a cost perspective, tasting menus are often intimidating.  It makes sense.  A lot of labor and ingredients go into the preparation and service of five or more courses.  An example was the absolutely stunning meal that Jay and I shared last year for our 25th anniversary at one of America’s most acclaimed restaurants, The French Laundry.  While that meal was, perhaps, the most amazing that I have ever experienced, at $295/person, without any special selection supplements or wine (service is included), my personal value system views that level of expense, for a single meal, as an almost once in a lifetime splurge.  With that as my point of comparison, I was giddy to try a $50/person five course tasting menu from a well-reviewed chef.

           Aura, as it turned out, deserved every ounce of my giddy anticipation.  In all my years of dining, in almost forty countries around the world, I have rarely been so delightfully surprised; rarely walked away feeling that I have received so much value for my dollar.  The meal was so exciting that I forgot to wear my blogger’s hat for the first two courses, so there are no pictures of those courses, and my descriptions lack a bit of my normal precision.  We drove nearly 45 minutes to arrive at the restaurant from our home not far from downtown Houston.  Despite the prejudices that came to my mind regarding the strip center location, once inside, I found it comfortable and inviting:  two intimately sized dining rooms accented with attractive art glass collage and cork mosaic artwork.  The restaurant was pleasantly full on a Thursday night and we were offered our choice of the remaining tables.  John, our server, was friendly and so accommodating in his effort to make sure that our meal was very special.  We spent only a few minutes with the menu and specials before confirming our choice for the tasting menu.  We were also excited to add the $25/person wine pairings.  After we told John that we’d like the tasting menu, he asked about not only food allergies, but also general dining styles (Adventurous? Tentative?) and specific food preferences (Beef? Game? Seafood?).  I’ve never experienced another tasting menu that was customized to my tastes.  Indeed, John confirmed that, generally, each table that requests the tasting menu receives at least some variety in what is served.

            The first two courses were wonderful.  First, Heirloom Tomatoes, Prosciutto, Burrata and Basil in a very tasty balsamic vinaigrette served with a lovely fresh and bubbly Prosecco.  I was amazed, but we were actually offered refills of the Prosecco.  The second was a personal favorite: Foie Gras and sautéed Texas peaches with a balsamic reduction and toasted brioche.  As to the second wine, all I can say for sure is that it paired beautifully with the Foie Gras.  It was white, and a touch off dry, from an Alsatian flute shaped bottle.  When I asked John what it was, he read from the back label that it was, unless I heard incorrectly, Monastrell.  I learned enough from my sommelier class to know that Monastrell is Spanish.  Research this morning reminds me that Monastrell is the Catalonian name for the black skinned French Mourvedre grape.  The Aura wine list changes frequently, as Chef Perrier wants to provide his clientele with the opportunity to try new wines (the wine list, is also, in my opinion, attractively priced).  I was in no way concerned that John was lacking familiarity with the wine.  But I find it unusual that Spanish wine would be bottled in an Alsatian flute and also that Monastrell would be vinified off dry and white.  I did not ask to see the label and wonder if I misunderstood.  But regardless of the wine’s identity, the second course was simply outstanding.


     The third course was a beautiful flaky white fish (please forgive that I was celebrating and some details are vague) and a grilled shrimp on a bed of mushroom and truffle risotto, accented, on the side with a bell pepper sauce.  The dish was nicely seasoned and served with a ripe, fruit forward Pinot Noir from Monterrey Bay.  The risotto was some of the best I’ve tasted and it paired beautifully with the bold styled Pinot.

            Course number four was stuffed quail and perfectly cooked beef tenderloin with asparagus and haricots verts, paired with a deeply colored and full bodied Spanish Tempranillo.

            For dessert, we were offered our choice from the menu.  As we had already had a full meal, we opted to share a trio of desserts: vanilla bean crème brulee, white chocolate bread pudding and a profiterole.  Each was mouth wateringly yummy.  We then took our second dessert home for our sons to enjoy.  As John knew we were celebrating an anniversary, dessert was served with a martini glass filed with cotton candy and a sparkler.  As we sampled each dessert, we sipped the delicious fifth wine – a Lungarotti Vin Santo.

            It was an absolutely beautiful meal – creative, delicious and well prepared.  The wines were very good, well valued and thoughtfully paired.  The service was excellent.  The atmosphere was casually elegant – we weren’t crowded and could really enjoy each other’s conversation.  On the way home, I remarked to Jay, without casting any undeserved aspersions on Mark’s, that rarely did I derive twice the pleasure for half the cost.  Aura is a find, and I intend to return soon.

Reflections on a February Lost

15 Mar

            It’s March.  And as I completely missed February due to surgical complications, I’m just not ready for either the plants in bloom or the 80 degree temperatures.  It feels as though I should still be snuggled in my sweaters, with a log on the fire, planning an amazing meal for Valentine’s Day, not hanging out with my boys as they enjoy their Spring Break.  It’s strange to actually experience the fact that time passes, and the world continues, with or without you.

            I went in for endoscopic repair of a Zenker’s diverticulum, a pocket which forms off the esophagus, making it difficult to swallow.  During the repair procedure, an error occurred and my esophagus was punctured.  Long story short, both two separate pockets of dangerous infection and, later, a second esophageal tear developed which, together, required three additional surgeries and a total of twenty-one days in the hospital.  After I was discharged, I came home with a feeding tube and 2 drain tubes from my neck to external collection bulbs.  Five weeks after the original surgery, the tubes were removed and I was able to resume a strict liquid diet.

            As a foodie, five weeks without food, plus additional weeks on a liquid diet have been tough.  I joked in the hospital that I worried that I was like Bruce Willis’ character in the movie “The Sixth Sense” – that I was dead and didn’t know it. After all, a five week fast must be Foodie Hell.  Joking aside, I’m grateful:  grateful that despite the complications, I received medical care that helped me to recover and grateful for a wonderfully caring husband, family and friends who advocated for me, visited me daily, held my hand, prayed and pitched in to make sure all ran smoothly at home while I was away.

            I’m no stranger to medical crisis.  It’s scary to realize that this is the third time that I’ve been hospitalized when my doctors feared that I might not survive.  I value the multitude of prayers more than I can say.  This time, the effect was almost palpable.  I was past the point of serious danger before I had a chance to reflect on it.  But throughout the ordeal, my mind and heart were largely at peace – enough so that the doctors and nurses commented repeatedly that I was handling the situation better than almost anyone they had ever seen.

            My first reaction was to puff with pride – wow, I must be a special person.  Then the truth of what I was experiencing came to me, with a force and clarity that are hard to explain.  The reason that I felt that peace is that hundreds of people were praying for me and God was with me, providing spiritual food that nourished my very soul.

            I’m still a foodie and I’m so enjoying  my new repertoire of creamy soups, purees and over cooked starches.  But I’m also intrigued by my experience of grace, which has diminished as I’ve returned to a more normal life.  While I don’t think we’re meant to “live on the mountaintop” all the time, I do think living in God’s peace, a fruit of the spirit, is a sign of a healthy spiritual life.  Am I feeling less at peace because what I experienced was an extra portion of grace, for a time in need?  Is it a sign that I have strayed from the true path and need to realign my life?  Or is it a sign of spiritual immaturity?  And what wonderful things to reflect upon in this Lenten season, which is here, whether I’m ready or not.

A Closed Chapter, But Only the First of Many. My Quest to Become a Wine Expert Continues.

13 Feb

            Seventy-four hours of classroom instruction, more than 150 tastings, more than 100 hours of reading and studying outside of class.  The journey’s over.  I passed my test with flying colors.  I’m a certified sommelier and I’m simply giddy about the next class, three times as intense as the first, which will start in October.

            The final was 100 multiple choice questions, 6 essays and 4 blind tastings.  I’ve always been an excellent student, graduating near the top of my law school class.  But I found ISG’s Fundamentals of Wine I and II to be very challenging.  It’s not that the material is difficult to understand, but we covered, and were held responsible for, a vast array of information, much of it in minute degrees of detail.  It would have been easy to feel frustrated that we were required to really remember the minutia except for the fact that I learned enough to understand that in the world of wine, subtle variations in soil, climate and technique have broad impact on the final product.  In the world of wine, the answers truly are in the details.  I studied hard and pulled an “A” on the multiple choice portion of the test.  But even after all the study, this portion of the test was harder than I expected it to be.  I was fair, we had covered the content in each and every question and Karla, our teacher, led us through a fantastic review session.  But the test was thorough and tested our knowledge well below the surface.  As I handed it in, there were thirteen questions that I was not completely sure about.  While I graduated from law school in 1988, and would be naïve to think that no cognitive changes have occurred in the intervening years, I rarely finished tests in the past uncertain of more than ten percent of the material, especially when I entered the test room feeling well prepared.

            The essay portion was, ironically, both harder and easier than the multiple choice.  We took two of the six essays as we finished our study of the wines of France and the wines of Europe.  I liked that approach.  First, it gave us an opportunity to receive feedback and adjust our work product, as necessary.  Second, it relieved some of the pressure to commit huge volumes of information to memory.  At least to my way of doing things, writing a good essay requires a stronger grasp of both concepts and salient details than performing well on a multiple choice test.  The amount of information that we covered with respect to France, in particular, was immense.  It took some pressure off to be able to relax, just a little bit, with respect to France and Europe when preparing for the final exam.  We were given broad topic areas ahead of time:  New World wines, fortified wines, sparkling wines and beer and spirits.  I anticipated the exact questions in advance and felt very well prepared. I’m a little intense academically, and was disappointed that I scored an 85.  The grading is very fair, but it’s hard to get an A.  ISG allocates fifteen minutes per essay and to earn a 100, you have to include each of ten specific points correctly in your essay.  There’s no real way to know which specific ten points are most important and with only fifteen minutes, it’s a struggle to write down everything you know about the topic.  Only whole points are awarded, i.e; 9/10 so a “95%” on a single question isn’t possible.  I don’t think it’s hard to pass, if you pay your studying dues, but I think it’s hard to get an A.

            The blind tasting portion was a huge thrill for me.  Anyone that has followed my journey through this course knows that I’ve been insecure about the blind tastings.  Throughout the class, my growing insecurity really surprised me.  Going into the course, I perceived my ability to discern taste nuance and identify familiar varietals as one of my strengths.  What I found, however, is that communicating taste and aroma characteristics is different than recognizing familiar tastes.  Additionally, I learned that while my exposure to different wines was fairly broad, that there were too many isolated bottles of international varietals mixed amongst an overwhelming field of Italian Sangiovese, California Cab and Chardonnay, Oregon Pinot  and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.  I was quite facile in recognizing old friends, but it was a real struggle for me to meaningfully describe new ones.

            Almost miraculously, my skill set came into its own in the last weeks of class.  I found my vocabulary and was able, though the repetitive practice that the class provided, link that vocabulary to smell and taste memories.  I correctly identified all four grapes, although I missed three of the regions, earning an 87 on the blind taste test.  It’s the first “B” in my life that I’ve ever been proud of.

            So now, this phase of my wine adventure is closed.  I’m a certified (though low level) sommelier.  The next class doesn’t start until October.  My goals for the next six months are to retain what I’ve learned, to go ahead and read and outline the materials for the next class so that it will be less overwhelming and join several classmates from my Fundamentals class and form a tasting group.  For retention, I know much of what I learned went into short term memory.  If I review my outlines twice a month, it will facilitate the shift to long term memory.  As to the tasting group, I want to both continue to connect the dots between vocabulary and smell and taste memories and increase my taste experiential repertoire in a regular, consistent way with people who know as much or more about wine that I do.  I have absolutely loved the last four months and am excited about these next steps in the plan.

            Many thanks to all of you who have shared this experience with me.  Until October, I’ll shift my focus a bit and blog about Italy, our vineyard, new wine revelations, food and travel.  I hope you’ll enjoy those themes, as well.

An Unforgettable Italian New Year’s Eve – the Love Affair Continues

23 Jan

            It was 2001.  We celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary in May with two and a half glorious weeks in Italy: a week in a delightful villa outside Radda in Chianti, a week in an apartment in a restored 15th century convent in Chiusi, on the Tuscany/Umbria border and three days in Bellagio, on Lake Como.  After the nigh perfect trip that we spent in Italy for our tenth anniversary, it would have been easy to be a bit disappointed.  Far from it- if anything the second trip surpassed the first and before the trip drew to an end, we were head over heels in love with the place.

            I couldn’t believe it, in the fall of that year, when an Italian business associate of Jay’s invited us to spend New Year’s with him in his castle between Florence and Sienna – two trips to Italy in a single year, and the second in a castle!  I felt as though my own private pumpkin coach had arrived and that I was truly living a fairy tale.  We gleefully accepted.

            As the days passed, I realized, through my excitement, that I had agreed to spend three days as a guest in the home of strangers.  I’m an introvert and strangers scare me.  One of the things that I value the most about my family is that we come from strong but humble roots.  My grandfather grew up in a house with dirt floors -not dirt ON the floors, but literally, no slab, and certainly no indoor plumbing.  So on top of my general fear of strangers, I was scared to death that despite all my education and world exposure, that I just wouldn’t measure up with the “castle set”.  I was afraid, in that secret place within my soul, that I wouldn’t be accepted and that I would feel ashamed and inadequate.

            Worry or not, the departure date arrived and my love of travel helped ease my fears.  I love to travel and often wonder if my truest calling isn’t, simply, gypsy.  I’ve never once been ready to come home.  While I’ve visited all 7 continents and 47 countries, Italy is my favorite.  I love the rhythm of the place and its zealous embrace of life.  Jay and I can both be passionate and intense and we’ve found ourselves fed there in a way we have yet to duplicate.  It’s as if, when we’re there, we resonate in perfect harmony.  It nurtures our souls.

            We had three blissful days in Florence, strolling along the holiday light trimmed medieval streets; gazing into shop windows, filled with wares of vibrant hue; pondering the passion and thirst for expression that fueled men like Michelangelo and Titian to create works of such intense beauty; immersing ourselves in the language, history and culture of a fabulous city.  We reveled in food paired perfectly with the experience of almost melting into someone new, someone almost Italian: enjoying linguine with truffle sauce while watching the lights reflect off the Arno, sipping morning cappuccino in tiny sidewalk cafes; munching cones of gelato as the lights dimmed and the city prepared itself to rest until dawn and sharing the yearnings of our hearts over a glass or two of Chianti with almost every meal.  How can you help not falling in love all over again, each and every day?  Romance leaks from every pore and every breath of its perfume is simply intoxicating.

            We awoke late the morning of the fourth day, as is our habit with jet-lag and after a leisurely late Florentine lunch, we packed our bags and began our drive south for the New Year’s party at the Castello.  It was winter and the days were short and the roads icy.  As anyone that has driven rural Tuscany knows, the roads are unlit and full of hairpin turns.  We arrived later than we had anticipated and being late set my already sensitive nerves on edge.

            Tommaso and Eliane’s home is impressive.  It rules from atop the highest point between Siena and Florence with a quiet and stately grace.  We entered the gate of the estate and began our ascent along the forested drive.  Just before we reached the castle, we passed a beautiful 11th century chapel, which spoke to me in comforting tones.  Cars lined the exterior of an ancient stone and stucco towered fortress.  This really was a castle!  My only disappointment was there were no turrets.

            Tommasso and Eliane greeted us together, and from that first moment, welcomed us into their lives, which were casual, welcoming and warm.  From the start, Tommaso inspired me with his level of energy and his zeal for life.  He struggled, laughing, as he heaved my heavy bag from the trunk.  Mortified, lest this gentleman in his 60’s develop a hernia carrying my vast assortment of nightgowns, I took the bag from him and he embraced me in a mighty hug as we shared the first of many merry laughs together.

            Eliane, on the other hand, seemed to radiate gentleness and grace.  Though she greeted us in sweats, she possessed a quiet beauty which extended beyond her graying hair and softly lined face.  Somehow, it seemed to be, as strange as this sounds, the beauty of a life well lived and strength of character.  She welcomed us warmly and showed us to our rooms – a two bedroom suite with a bath.  We were asked to make ourselves at home – we were welcome anywhere in the castle and  the party would begin at 9:00.

            Tommaso had indicated to Jay that the attire for the evening was dressy, but not formal.  I had struggled with this, worrying that Houston ideas of dressy and formal might be different from what those terms might mean in a castle in Europe.  I ultimately decided to play it safe, and to build a safety zone on both sides with a “perfect” LBD (little black dress) and great pair of shoes.  The evening wasn’t at all what I expected.  The castle was filled with 25-30 very close friends and family, and it felt much the same way that holiday festivities feel when my own family gathers together.  The surroundings were ancient and elegant, but the focus was on the joy of togetherness:  the chance to cherish those who were loved and make a new friend or two.  We enjoyed a delicious but simply served meal.  No wine bottles here!  They simply took pottery jugs to the cellar and filled them with estate grown wine, straight from the barrel.  I think that may have been the single element of castle life that seemed, to me, the most romantic.

            Tommaso and Eliane were so gracious.  Jay and I were the only guests who spoke English as a first language.  Yet, they had gone to the trouble, well before-hand, to gather a group of eight that could converse in English to join us at the hosts’ table.  The entire meal, English was the only language spoken at our table, even though it was a bit of a struggle for some.  Elaine’s mother, in particular, spoke only French, and was excluded from the entire conversation, but smiled broadly at us throughout.  I can’t recall another time in my life when anyone has extended that much effort to make me feel welcome.  I began to feel a touch ashamed that I had doubted my comfort with my new friends and ashamed that I allowed my own insecurities to stain my heart.

            At 11:45, the meal reached its conclusion and we adjourned to another room the watch the Italian equivalent of the ball drop on television.  Champagne was passed around and in true Italian tradition, everybody had to kiss, and kiss again, everybody else.  It was a magic moment.  I feel so grateful to have been given the opportunity to glimpse, just for a moment, the manner in which people who are a part of a culture, a little different from my own, privately celebrate the passage of time and the gift of another year.

            The part of the celebration that I found the most intriguing, however, was the way that the different generations interacted.  About half of those present were young adults, in their twenties or early thirties.  Not long after the kissing ended, the rock-n-roll began.  I was so surprised when the lights dimmed, the music began and everyone, including the little French grandma, started line dancing!  It was fun, even if it caused my feet in those 5” stiletto heels to ache.  The revelry continued, the music got louder, and one by one, us “old folks” gradually drifted to chairs at the room’s periphery, watching, toes a tappin’, the fun of the dance to those who remained.  At 2:00, jet-lag got us and Jay and I politely excused ourselves, the party still raging, the younger generation still dancing, the music still blaring.  It had been an absolutely wonderful evening.

            The thing that seemed so remarkable to me about the latter part of the evening was that I couldn’t imagine it happening, at the time, at either my mother’s house or my own.  This party was truly multi-generational.  I wasn’t surprised by that.  Italians have a reputation for tight extended family.  The part I found surprising was how much they all enjoyed being together, and the very fact that “young” music was not only tolerated, but welcomed.  It occurred to me, as I reflected back about the evening, that perhaps the reason that Italians families remain so connected is that generations each make more effort to bridge the gaps that separate them, embracing things that change, remaining willing to live and fully participate, at least for a while, in one another’s world.

            It was a lesson learned, one that I hope has helped me to both parent better and to entertain more graciously.  And what an amazing way to gain meaningful insights into my own life.

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East meets West in a Pub Worthy of a Michelin Star – The Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen, Houston, TX

19 Jan

            It’s been a week of change – good change.  My sphere of personal freedom has grown and I’m basking in the newness of it all.  First, I took the final for my ISG sommelier class on Monday night.  I’m confident that I passed and while I’ll continue tasting, reading and learning, I’ll have 15+ additional hours in my week from now until my diploma level class begins in the fall.

            Second, William, the youngest of our three children drove himself to school for the very first time on Tuesday.  As I sipped my coffee and reflected that morning, I realized that, with the exception of a few days here and there, I’ve driven children to school five days a week for just shy of twenty years.  Sadly for me, the pension plan for retired carpool drivers is in direct proportion to my paycheck – zero.  So my sole reward for transcending the hurdle of the carpool line is my newfound freedom to blog in my pajamas, a luxury I’ve already begun to cherish…..

            While he may not have anted for a full-time mom retirement plan, Jay, my husband, is a gem and took me out to celebrate the milestones in my life.  We went to a restaurant that was new to us both – the Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen in central Houston.  We’ve spent a good amount of time traveling in rural England, Ireland and Wales, which means we’ve enjoyed many a pub, many of which boasted a menu of only three items: fish & chips, shrimp & chips and bangers & mash: not what a foodie’s looking for when she’s in a mood to celebrate.  The place was crowded and does not accept reservations.  At first blush, I thought it might be a long evening.

            But as soon as we found a pair of stools at the bar, the stars aligned and a nigh perfect evening began.  I ordered a pint of 512 IPA.  And while I’m in no way a beer aficionado (although I was on the beer chugging team in college, another story for another day), it was lovely and my trepidations began to melt away.  (512) Brewing Company is located in the heart of Austin, TX and describes its India Pale Ale as:

A big, aggressively dry-hopped American IPA with smooth bitterness (~65 IBU) balanced by medium maltiness. Organic 2-row malted barley, loads of hops, and great Austin water create an ale with apricot and vanilla aromatics that lure you in for more. (Approx. 7% ABV)

            When our table was ready, we were seated and perused the menu.  To my delight, there were numerous options, many with an Indian twist.  I chose the Prawn and Fish Tomatillo Masala and it was simply out of this world delicious.  The menu describes the dish as “Jumbo prawns and fish tikka stewed in a fresh tomatillo masala with roasted cherry tomatoes, sweet corn, butternut squash and avocado”.  The seasoning was absolutely perfect, spicy but not enough to induce a sweat, and the coolness and creamy texture of the avocado balanced the spiciness beautifully.  I paired it with a bottle of 2008 Sebach-Oster Reisling from the Mosel Valley.  It’s a Kabinett wine, off-dry, with a touch of spritz and aromas and flavors of nectarine, green herbs and lemon peel and it was a lovely contrast to the spiciness of the Masala.

          The atmosphere was casual and relaxed, and though it was a bit loud, it seemed to encourage our conversation and a desire to linger, long after the meal.  We a grand time and I am eager to go back.

            I did a bit of reading on the Queen Vic and discovered that it’s owned by the same group that owns Oporto, a wine bar that we enjoy very much.  The Queen Vic is a “gastro-pub”, a term coined in the 1990’s in England for establishments that combine a pub atmosphere and fine food.  The owners and executive chefs, Richard Di Virgilio (Rick) and his wife Shiva, aim to provide Houston with their interpretation of “modern post-colonial British cuisine focusing on Indian flavors, emphasizing quality chef- driven food, artisanal cocktails, and local and imported beer”.   Based on this foodie’s experience, they’re doing exactly that, and doing it very, very well.  So here’s to East meets West in a pub worthy of a Michelin star – Oxymoron?  Perhaps.  But to me, the Queen Vic is one of the most interesting dining experiences that Houston has yet to offer.

Home Stretch Reflections on My ISG Sommelier Class

10 Jan

          It’s week eleven of my ISG Fundamentals of Wine class – the home stretch.  And I’m experiencing the entire gamut of feelings that may imply: palate and brain fatigue, satisfaction that I dared to pursue a dream, excitement about the future and if I’m honest, a bit of anxiety about next week’s final exam.  It’s been a crazy whirlwind, but a whirlwind that’s been wonderful in a way that I haven’t experienced for a very long time.  I’m reminded that I’m a learner at my core and that I’m happiest when I’m fully immersed in something that I find personally engaging.

          This week was the first time that the work required was a burden rather than a pleasure.  I think part of it was that I’m battling a sinus infection and somehow, cold drugs and studying just don’t mix to produce a very appealing cocktail.  But I think the other part of the answer is that I wasn’t personally interested in this week’s new content.  We learned about beer and spirits, and while I love an occasional margarita as much as the next girl, I’m just not passionate about beer or spirits in the way that I am about wine.  I didn’t even want to smell the whisky, much less taste it, especially with a cough drop chaser….. It’s part of the repertoire –  I understand that and am willing to pay my dues.  I just didn’t actively enjoy it.

          The good news is that my level of anxiety about the exam has decreased dramatically.  Karla, our teacher, is great and she both explained the grading rubric in detail and led us through a timed blind tasting practice test. For me, the practice test was illuminating.  It showed me, in a very concrete way, just how much I’ve learned the last three months.  Did I correctly identify the grape, country and region of origin of every wine?  Absolutely not.  But I nailed one perfectly, missed the grapes on two, and the country and region on the last.  My nose and palate descriptions were where they needed to be and I “passed” with room to spare.  It’s a “Fundamentals” class, the tip of an ENORMOUS iceberg, and I’m learning that development of the correct evaluative process, at this point, is more important that a perfect palate.  So I’ll do some work reviewing wine profiles and other than that, I feel pretty good to go.

          I’ve outlined all the lectures and written material and will spend this last week, hanky in hand, memorizing for the four remaining essays and the multiple choice test.  It’s an absolutely overwhelming amount of material, hence the anxiety.  But now I realize that I’m only fighting my personal achievement demons because the class has prepared me well to pass.  I’m at the head of the stretch…..and it’s time to finish strong.  I’m not in it to win, place or show.  But, I want to be well prepared for the “race” ahead.

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