Archive | December, 2011

Pirate or Sommelier…..What’s the Difference?

31 Dec

          For a bit of levity as we approach the new year and reflect on the old……what went well, what did we learn and what do we resolve to change, I think back on one of my 2011 New Year’s resolutions: to go to sommelier school.  When I shared my vision with my three teenagers, one wanted to know why I would want to go to school to learn how to be a (Somalian) pirate.  When I thought about it, I realized he had a point…after all, isn’t the pirate mantra “Yo ho ho and  a bottle of rum?”

          I hope 2012 brings the joy of dreams fulfilled.

Photo from


A Personal Story: A Christmas Miracle

28 Dec

          For the world’s 2.1 billion Christians, Christmas is a holy time of year.  It is a season when we celebrate miracles and nestle in the love and goodness of God, who sent His Son to live among us.  I’d like to share a deeply personal story – an account written by my obstetrician, Dr. Sam Law, shortly after the birth of my third child.  I hope it reminds fellow Christians that God loves us deeply and that He is alive and actively at work in both our world and our individual lives.  For non-Christians, I hope it inspires hope and an openness to question.

          This experience has been one of the most poignant of my life.  The physical impact is obvious.  It was two full years before I felt fully myself.  But to me, the effects on my system of beliefs, my understanding of who I am, and my relationship with God far surpass what I experienced physically.  I believe I’ve been blessed with a concrete expression of grace and I’ll never be the same.

A Christmas Miracle

Christmas Eve 1994

Dr. Sam Law

          I started medical school twenty-two years ago this past summer. Over the years I have witnessed many occurrences that defied scientific explanation.  I have seen women who conceived after stopping medical treatment when they had been unable to conceive with any of the myriad of infertility treatments.  I have seen babies who thrived in the nursery when they were initially given little hope of survival.  I have seen women who are living today when they had been given only a short time to live because of some usually fatal disease.  In all of these events I have seen the hand of God rather than luck or fate.  Over the last two weeks I have witnessed the most amazing occurrence of my career.  It has been so amazing that I have felt compelled to share it with many people whom I have encountered.  One of these was our pastor, who after hearing the story, felt as I do that God had worked a miracle in the life of this young woman.  Dr. Turner asked me to share her story with you tonight.

          The first week of December, a young woman having her third child suffered a cardiac arrest during labor.  She was sitting up in bed conversing with those around her when she described a feeling of light-headedness and her blood pressure gradually fell over a one to two minute period.  When her blood pressure fell to a very low level, her heart stopped beating.  Fortunately, one of the anesthesiologists was at her bedside and he immediately began resuscitation and called for emergency assistance.  External heart massage and assisted ventilation were instituted within a very short time.  For ten minutes there was no electrical activity in her heart.  As the mother’s condition worsened the baby’s heart rate fell to about sixty beats per minute, one-half of normal.  When the mother’s heart began beating again, she was taken to the operating room for an emergency cesarean section.  Because there was still no measurable blood pressure, the heart massage was continued.  The mother’s condition was so critical that no anesthesia could be given.  She did not flinch as her abdomen was opened.  The blood flow was so limited that there was very little bleeding from the operation.  The baby was delivered eighteen minutes after his heart rate fell.  The baby was born alive, but very depressed and was immediately placed on a respirator.  He was transferred to the newborn intensive care unit in critical but stable condition. The mother’s blood pressure began to be detected about thirty minutes after her arrest.  As her condition improved, she began to hemorrhage from the site of the operation.  It was believed that the only disease that could cause this dramatic picture was an amniotic fluid embolus.  This disease is very rare occurring in an estimated one in 100,000 deliveries or fewer. The disease is about 80% fatal, and if a patient recovers, the diagnosis is always questioned.  A feature of this condition is a severe blood clotting abnormality.  Because of the large blood loss, blood transfusions were started in the operating room during the surgery.  After two hours of surgery, the bleeding was controlled adequately to transfer the young woman to the surgical intensive care unit.  She was comatose.  She was still requiring the respirator.  She was receiving medication to stimulate her heart and her blood pressure.  She was continuing to receive blood to control the blood loss from her surgery which was continuing.

          In obstetrics, the patient, her family, and the medical team all expect a joyous outcome.  When a different outcome is experienced, the feeling of sadness quickly develops into a gripping despair.  Concern was voiced about her young husband, her two young children at home, and her newborn in the ICU.  The greatest fear, however, was that this young, healthy body had been resuscitated to a mindless existence.  During the first night, the respirator requirements, and the medication needs remained unchanged.  She received over 40 units of blood products.  In the morning, she began to move her arms and legs, and when her name was called she would slowly turn her head in the direction of the person calling but she would not look directly at the person.  The neurologist who consulted said that her movements were more reflexes than evidence of any significant brain function.  He cautioned everyone that her prognosis was very grave.  The baby showed early signs of improvement, and was rapidly weaned off the respirator showing no sign of brain injury; He was discharged from the lCU in a few days.  The mother’s bleeding problem resolved within the first 24 hours.  The second night in the ICU, she tried to sit up in bed. and seemed to be trying to get out of bed.  She was sedated to prevent her from injurying herself since she was still connected to the respirator and many IV lines and monitors.  Even with the sedative, she seemed to be looking appropriately at the person talking to her as if she understood.  The neurologist still cautioned that there was no evidence of normal brain function.  The third night in the ICU, just 48 hours after her arrest, she wrote a note to her nurse. The note said, “What happened to me?”

          Since that time her recovery has been rapid.  She left the ICU on the sixth day and was discharged from the hospital to her home on the ninth day.  Her baby seems completely normal.  She is receiving some physical therapy for a weakness in her left arm, and also some speech therapy.  This patient’s story spread through the hospital staff like no other in recent memory.  The reactions have varied.  Some skeptics have said that she must not have really been as sick as she seemed to be.  But those who cared for her know that that is not true.  Other individuals have said that she was lucky.  Luck may be responsible for winning the lottery or a football game, but it seems to be unrelated to these events.  Most people have praised the doctors or modern medical science.  While I do not want to discount the quality or importance of the care that she received, none of the medical team involved in her care can relate what he did to achieve this amazing result.  I believe that the medical team were instruments in the hand of God providing a framework for Him to perform a miraculous healing in the lives of this young woman and her newborn child.

          To me these events are as miraculous as many of the stories that we read in the Bible.  I still have many questions about miraculous healings. There are two things of which I am absolutely certain. One is that God is present with us in this place at this time just as He has been in other places and earlier times. The second thing of which I am certain is that God cares about us and that He will for reasons that we cannot understand occasionally perform a miracle that we can see if we have the faith to see it.  “To God be the glory, great things He has done.”

My ISG Sommelier Class: Global Wine Production Volumes and the Test on Europe

21 Dec

 18 – All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)

          It’s week nine of our ISG Fundamentals of Wine class and it’s a whirlwind.  We took our test on Europe – an essay on the wines of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria and Hungary and we studied the entire “New World” of wines: The United States, Canada, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, all in a single class.  Our classes are seven hours in duration, but it still felt like I had been bulldozed by information.

            I found it interesting that the wines of Europe merited twenty eight hours of class time and that the entire rest of the world, by comparison, only merited seven.  Living in Texas, I drink more California wine than anything else.  We travel to Napa annually and through the years have developed relationships with many vineyard owners and winemakers, whose wines often stack up very well in both the ratings and international competition.

            But I’ve learned some interesting facts these past weeks:  France and Italy are perennially the top two producers of wine by volume, though in recent years, they have oscillated between those first and second slots.  Spain has more land under vine than any other country, but is the third largest producer of wine by volume, both because of  lower yields per vine due to their low annual rainfall as well as  allocation of grapes to their significant brandy industry.  The United States is the world’s fourth largest producer, and interestingly, while wine is now produced in each of the fifty states, California, on its own, is also the fourth largest producer globally.  And though when I think of California wine, the Napa Valley is what immediately springs to my mind, only 4% of California’s wine is produced in the Napa Valley.

            In 2009, France, Italy, and Spain produced a combined 13.15 million liters of wine. By comparison, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and South Africa produced a combined 7.17 million liters.[i]  So when I put all the numbers in perspective, I understand the allotment of class time.  I’m also very excited that the class has provided a global perspective and I’m thrilled to be actively engaged in the exploration of European wines beyond Bordeaux and Italy where I’ve concentrated my interest and experience to date.

            As to the test, it went very well.  We reviewed the material last week and the Spanish and Portuguese regions, and their wine and food, which we were asked to compare were covered in our review session.  Again, I over prepared.  For this test, I made a twenty-one page outline of the covered material and spent about twelve hours preparing.  I was very comfortable with my level of mastery.  Unlike the 8/10 that I earned on the test on France, I expect at least nine points on the test on Europe.

            At this point, I’m very confident that I can do very well on the academic portions of the test, but my stress level about those four blind tastings, which I am required to pass independently from the academic exam, is rising rapidly.  How I’d love a “decision tree” to help prepare for the tastings.  By “decision tree”, I mean a chart that starts with color and eliminates certain possibilities.  Then, from the remaining options, uses the acid, tannin, alcohol profile to eliminate additional possibilities.  Then, from those remaining options, uses aroma and palate markers to indicate the identity of the wine.  So now for the song….”All I want for Christmas is a decision tree, a decision tree, a decision tree……”  Merry Christmas, and Santa, I’ve been a really good girl this year.

Song “All I want for Christmas (is my two front teeth)”, from Nat King Cole’s Album, The Christmas Song, from Rhapsody music:

Ossobuco and Tignanello are a Foodie’s Winter Wonderland

13 Dec

            Last night, as a salute to my study of Italian wines, I headed to my kitchen to play Italian chef.  The weather was nippy for Houston, in the low thirties, so I opted for one of my favorite cold weather dishes: ossobuco, or Milanese style braised veal shanks.  I did a little research on ossobuco, which literally translates as “bone with a hole” and learned that I prefer a modern style of ossobuco that has tomatoes.  Traditional ossobuco is braised with cinnamon, bay leaf and gremolata or a chopped mixture of lemon zest, garlic and parsley.  I’ve tried several recipes through the years, but my favorite is Marcella Hazan’s which seems to be perfect every time. 

            Ossobuco is traditionally served with Risotto Milanese, a brilliantly yellow risotto simmered with saffron.  I was about to start my Risotto Milanese when I recalled the beautiful Chanterelle mushrooms that were in my refrigerator.  I had found them at Costco, of all places and had used half in a wonderful Chanterelle Gruyere bread pudding the week before.  So I decided to create my own risotto dish on the fly. 

            I sautéed six or seven garlic cloves in olive oil from our property in Sinalunga (we LOVE garlic and there is nothing more fun than cooking with your very own olive oil).  Then I coarsely chopped the Chanterelles and sautéed them until wilted.  Then I added a cup or two of Arborio rice and stirred to let it absorb the remaining oil.  I added a few cups of chicken stock, Maldon salt and about a cup of lightly chopped haricots verts (more bounty from the fridge), brought it to a boil, then reduced the heat to allow it to simmer, stirring constantly. 

            Then I took a sip of wine (I had opened a bottle of sauvignon blanc to flavor the ossobuco and everyone knows that meals are best when the cook enjoys a glass or two in the kitchen) and pondered my new creation.  It was sounding delicious, but I thought it could use a touch of texture.  So I took some pignoli out of the freezer and set them in a ramekin to roast in the oven next to the ossobucco.  After about twenty-five minutes, the risotto had absorbed the stock and was tender.  I added about a cup of milk, a couple of cups of baby spinach leaves, the pinenuts and kept sipping my wine and stirring.  When the milk was absorbed and the spinach wilted, I stirred in about half a cup of parmesan reggiano and Voila!  My “Pam style”, refrigerator emptying, and DELICIOUS risotto was ready.

            When I set the ossobucco in the oven, I had decided to serve it with a bottle of 2005 Tignanello from Tuscany that I took from our cellar and decanted.  Our wine maker was formerly part of the team that made Tignanello and it had been a while since we had a bottle.  Tignanello is a “Super Tuscan”: a blend of 85% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc – very similar in style to what we plan to make in the coming year.  The acid in Sangiovese generally pairs wonderfully with tomato based sauces and I hoped that the duo of Cabernets  in the blend would add an extra layer of interest, in complement to the veal.  The wine was lovely, with a developing bouquet of cherry, chocolate and leather and a supple feel in the mouth.  It continued to improve as we sipped it through the evening, so I think it could have benefited from more than the two hours that it spent in the decanter.  

            The ossobucco was as scrumptious as always and it worked so well with both my improvised risotto and the Tignanello that the meal was a wonderful success – a celebration of the season and a tribute to all I had learned about Italian wines in the previous week.  Sleigh Bells Ring….Are you Listening???? 

Marcella Hazan’s Osso Bucco:’s%20Ossobuco.htm

Sommelier School – The Test on France

9 Dec

          It’s week 7 of my ISG Sommelier Class.  We completed our study of Europe and studied and tasted the wines of Spain, Germany, Austria and Hungary.   We also took the first part of our final exam – an essay on the wines of France.  We are in Part II of our Fundamentals of Wine class and our final has three parts: 100 multiple choice questions, six essays and four blind tastings.  Two of the essays are taken mid-course: one on the wines of France and a second on the wines of Europe.  The remaining four will be part of the overall test on the last day of class.

            I find the amount of information on French wines, even in our introductory level class, staggering.  I made detailed spreadsheets, comparing regions and sub-regions which totaled more than twenty pages.  All in all, I spent fifteen to twenty hours preparing and felt as though I had reached a high level of mastery, if I add the caveat that I’m only talking about the material we actually covered in our textbook and class .  It turned out that the essay question was easy and that my zealous preparation actually hurt me.  I was so focused on the minutia that I made a careless error regarding material I knew well which cost me 1-2 points out of ten.  I’m a bit of an over-achiever by personality and I was so frustrated with myself!!!!  I had worked so hard and with the time limit, just didn’t catch my error in time.  Still, I don’t regret all the studying.  If I’m serious about my quest to become a “wine-expert” it was work that had to be done.

            I like the two-phase approach to the exam.  After experiencing the multiple choice test for Fundamentals of Wine I, and the essay on the most complex region, I feel very confident about the academic portion.  The only uncertainty that remains is those blind tastings….  We had a blind tasting for Fundamentals I, but it was a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that has strong, distinctive flavors and aromas.  On top of that, I enjoy Sauvignon Blanc and in our hot Texas summers drink it often and  and know it well.  I’m very concerned about my ability to identify many of the other varieties we have tasted.  Most of the time, my tasting notes seem to be largely on point when we discuss the wines in class.  I’d tend to put myself somewhere in the middle of the group in terms of what I am generally able to distinguish in a particular wine.  My brother-in-law, Matt, who’s one of my buddies in the class, and I enviously joke about one of our classmates, Stephen.  We call him “the Savant” because he nails the tastings, with humble eloquence, each and every time.  Stephen’s a great guy.  We just wish we had his educated and perceptive nose.  Our teacher has mentioned that the blind tastings are graded on a point by point basis and that if we correctly note appearance, aroma and palate descriptors, that we can still pass, even if we’re clueless in identifying the grape, country or region, at least for this class.

            So while I’m not yet a savant like Stephen, I’m confident in my ability to do well and qualify to advance.  Better yet, I love what I’m learning and that’s the real point now, isn’t it?

A Stinky Cheese Feast as a Backdrop for French Wine

6 Dec

            My sister Kim’s husband, Matt, and I are taking our ISG sommelier class together.  As we’ve been studying French wine, we opted for a French wine tasting with our annual Stinky Cheese Feast over the Thanksgiving holiday.  We agreed to each choose a red and white to contribute to the occasion.  But first some history on the Stinky Cheese Feast.  When I was growing up, a friend of my mother’s was living in Switzerland and gave my mother a Raclette grill as a Christmas gift.  Raclette is a Swiss cheese that is melted, either in front of a fire of on a grill like the one we were given, then scraped onto plates.  It is traditionally served with boiled red potatoes, gherkins and dried meats.

            It was the 1970’s in suburban America.  To us, “gourmet” cheese was just about anything that was wasn’t pre-sliced and individually wrapped. To Kim and me, Raclette was exotic, foreign and sophisticated.  In other words – we loved it.  Besides, what’s not to love about gooey melted cheese on crusty bread?  Kim and I each have Raclette grills now and it is a great way to enjoy an evening with family and friends.  There’s something just very homey about sitting at the table and “cooking” as you eat – it promotes conversation and it’s pleasant to linger at the table.  Matt is a very witty man and no time with him is ever boring.  Not long after he and Kim were married, he dubbed Raclette “Stinky Cheese”.  The moniker stuck and the Stinky Cheese Feast was born.  Our respective groups of friends look forward to our winter Stinky Cheese Parties.  They are, without exception, a big hit.

            For the wines, I have been interested in learning more about Burgundy, so I chose a Chanson Pere et Fils Puligny-Montrachet, a  Domaine Anne et Herve Sigaut Chambolle-Musigny and a Domaine des Beaumont Cherbaudes Gevrey-Chambertin.  Matt loves the southern Rhone and chose a Domaine Giraud Chateauneuf-Du-Pape and Chateau de Fouilloux Chateauneuf-Du-Pape Blanc.

            We started with the Puligny-Montrachet as it was chilled and the white Chateauneuf was  a bit warm.  We found this Chardonnay delicate and wonderful, with floral and lemon aromas and a hint of vanilla.   ButI think we should have shown some patience and waited for the white Chateauneuf to chill.  It just didn’t show well following the Puligny-Montrachet.  We learned in our class that white Chateauneufs are fairly rare and are not inexpensive.[i]  After the freshness of the Chardonnay, the white Chateauneuf tasted heavy, almost a bit syrupy.  We rejected the bottle, Matt even poured his into the sink, and decided to move on.  Out of curiosity the next afternoon, I pulled the bottle out of the refrigerator and re-tasted.  It had not been sealed well, so its condition wasn’t optimal.  But with my fresh palate, it was much improved over the day before with scents and flavors of honey, marmalade and spices.  It wasn’t my personal favorite, but we truly did the wine a disservice the evening before and I would be willing to try one again.

          The next bottle that we opened was the Giraud.  Unlike the Chateauneuf Blanc, it was very nice:  warm and juicy with aromas of stewed figs, raspberries and dark earthy spice.  I loved the wine, but to me, it didn’t go that well with the cheese.  In my mind, I think it would have been wonderful with roasted meat or a savory stew.  I thought it overpowered the Raclette.

            The Burgundies were also a bit of a disappointment, but for very different reasons.  Matt opened the Gevrey-Chambertin and the top edges of the cork were edged in “wine tar”.  We discussed the issue.  Neither of us had ever seen “wine tar” before, but we knew it wasn’t normal and guessed that it wasn’t good.  We decided not to open it and ask Karla, our sommelier school teacher, if we should return it.  I showed her the photo of the cork and she said that the wine had probably been exposed to heat in transit and that we were wise not to open it.  So while it was a disappointment not to taste it, we have $100 to try again another day.  The Chambolle-Musigny, on the other hand was very nice.  Our textbook uses words like “feminine”, “floral” and “elegant” to describe these wines.  I haven’t tasted many Burgundies, but we drink a lot of Oregon, California and New Zealand Pinot Noir.  It was certainly softer, and more subtle than its new World counterparts.  It smelled of red fruits with a soft minerality, and think it was even lighter in color than I generally expect.  Other than those basic observations, we didn’t really slow down to analyze it.  It was the fourth bottle, and we had abandoned our student critic personas and had slipped into that realm of relaxed candlelit conversation amongst friends.

            Did we increase our knowledge of French wine exponentially?  No.  But it was a grand evening- as always, a Stinky Cheese Feast to remember.

[i] See also an interesting Wall Street Journal article on white Chateauneuf-Du-Pape:

Photos From:,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.,cf.osb&biw=1024&bih=583&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=shop&cid=4474008666281255415&sa=X&ei=V1beTqaOJ9TViAKPnMXkCA&ved=0CKEBEPICMAE

Learning About French Wine Feels Like Falling into a Bottomless, but Sublime, Pit

2 Dec

           Weeks 5 and 6 of my ISG sommelier class have been both exciting and a bit intimidating.  We’ve shifted our focus from grapes to wine regions and started off with what I perceive to be the most complex: France.  I’ve been looking forward to these lessons because French wines are viewed by many (as prices confirm) to be the pinnacle of the wine market pyramid. I’ve always found navigating the myriad of French wine choices a bit like the card game “Concentration” where you turn over a random pair of cards, blithely hoping for a match.  I haven’t understood the labeling, especially in Burgundy, and have relied on a combination of wine reviews and a process of trial and error to find wines I like.  Too many times, I’ve paid too much for wines I enjoyed too little.  I’m ready to become an educated French wine consumer.

            Tasting the wines has been great.  For our class, our teacher selects an array of wines that reflect regional, style and quality differences.  Tasting the wines and discussing them together has been helpful.  There have been several that I’ve really enjoyed, and all are at moderate price points.  I’m starting to develop a sense, although more slowly than I would like, about what I can expect based on the wine’s label: the constituent grapes, the potential of the vineyard to produce excellent wine, and the winemaking style.  I’m learning that I tend to prefer right bank Bordeaux over left, which surprises me because I generally prefer California Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot.  And I’m learning to appreciate the subtlety and elegance of one of my favorite grapes, Pinot Noir, as I gain a touch of confidence with Burgundy.

            But I’m also discovering just how many facts a taster needs to have memorized to identify wine.  I’ve always been a pretty good student and even though it has been a while since I was last in school, I had anticipated that this first course would be relatively easy.  Conceptually, it’s not difficult – just rote memorization, but GOSH, there is so much to remember! Not only the names of the AOCs, but their location, the location’s attributes, the climate, the typical grape varieties and viticultural and vinification practices.  I haven’t had to memorize like this since I studied for the bar exam……

            As I struggle with the memorization, I’m reminded how the lessons and experiences of life ebb and flow; how the things that I focus on change and various disciplines fade into the background for a time, only to reemerge with a relevancy that I never anticipated.  I studied French in both high school and college and spent a summer as a student at a language branch of the University of Poitiers in Royan.  But that was more than twenty-five years ago and since that time, I’ve viewed those years and that effort as a largely closed chapter.  Except for the relative ease that I’ve experienced in learning my second Romance language, Italian, French simply hasn’t seemed relevant in my day to day world.   However, as I discover that French wine is a lot like commercial real estate and that it’s all about “location, location, location”, my knowledge of French, as rusty and intermingled with Italian as it has become, has suddenly become a hidden treasure.  Place names, and terms of art relating to wine law and winemaking spring to life and I find that my interest in the French language has resurged and that I want to become truly trilingual.

            Similarly, I recall so easily the disdain that I felt in school when I was required to memorize country names and capitals on faraway continents.  In the 1970’s, air travel was true luxury and while my childhood family always had a gypsy bent, we almost always toured by car.  By best count, I visited more than half of the fifty states before my 18th birthday, all in the back of our family’s station wagon.  Since that time, Jay and I have developed a real fervor for travel.  Together, we’ve visited all 7 continents and 47 countries.  Many times in our sommelier class, Karla, our teacher, asks “Has anyone been here?”  “What was it like?”  “What did they eat?”  “What did the landscapes look like?”  I’ve visited almost all of the world’s major wine producing areas and it’s so helpful to have an experiential anchor – a mental image to make the endless array of countries, regions, districts and villages, which provides important context for wine, real and logical. I’m enjoying this season of life when so many elements of past experience come together to facilitate a long-term passion.

map of France from:

Map of Burgundy from:

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