Saturday, September 6, 2014

Dinner at Ciao Bello - Wining and Dining in Houston

My husband and I had dinner last weekend at Ciao Bello. Jeremy Parzen turned us on to this restaurant back in 2012 and it quickly became a favorite of ours. We had started to get into a rut over the past year always ordering the same things. We did this last month during restaurant week when our favorites like the pastiera di mare, a creamy marscapone souffle with shrimp and crabmeat made the lineup.

On this evening, we did things a bit different than usual. Instead of bubbles and the crisp green tomatoes with crabmeat and/or the above mentioned souffle, we ordered a bottle of the 2012 La Magia Rosso di Montalcino and decided to start with the polpette, a baseball-sized meatball that arrived to the table looking better than as pictured, my husband was swiping bread through it as it hit the table before I could retrieve my camera. He was genuinely that excited to see it arrive.

For our next course, we split the primavera salad. This baby arugula salad has roasted grapes, Tomino cheese and Texas pecans. This was the first time I've ordered this and I liked it, it is a nice combination of peppery, creamy and sweet flavors with a little light crunchy texture. The grilled Texas peach salad is my usual choice if I am having it alone (pictured at right) and if we are splitting we always get the burrata caprese salad but it was good to know I've got even more options there.

For my main course, I had the tagliarini al pomodoro since we had started with the meatball appetizer. This is a fresh, light pasta dish with San Marzano tomatoes, basil and olive oil. My husband got a different pasta dish, the tortellini modenese. The perfect size meal to allow room for dessert, usually the carrot cake or lemon pie, which is never missed at our dinners here.

We enjoyed everything that we had and the wine was perfect with all of it as well. Every experience that we have had at Ciao Bello has been exceptional and our pasta night was no exception, if you haven't been yet, it is not to be missed.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Lakeway Resort and Spa

I stayed at Lakeway Resort and Spa during my last trip to the Austin area. The hotel is located on Lake Travis just 20-30 minutes from downtown Austin. The resort has beautiful grounds with panoramic views of the lake. Amenities include both a multi-level adult pool with a swim up bar and a family pool with a water slide. While boating and other lake activities were the main attraction for many guests, my husband and I were there to enjoy the proximity to one of the Hill Country's award winning wineries, Spicewood Vineyards, and enjoy some relaxation time.


We arrived shortly after the 4:00 check-in time; we left our car with the valet and we walked into a quiet lobby for a quick and easy check-in. We were shown to our 5th floor lake view room with a king size bed. We found a cheese tray and water bottles waiting for us upon entry. We ate our snack, freshened up and headed down to the complimentary happy hour. We each got a drink and took a seat out on the patio. It was a beautiful evening with blue skies, sunshine and a light breeze blowing. We stayed out there until it was time to get ready for dinner.

We had 7:00 dinner reservations at Masterson's, the hotel's restaurant. It has an attractive dining room with comfortable seating, a full bar and scenic views of the lake. We opted to start our Hill Country wine weekend with a bottle of Texas Viognier by McPherson's. I started with the baby spinach salad and then had a pan seared shrimp with grapefruit cruda appetizer for my dinner. I felt that the salad had a bit too much dressing while the shrimp dish was fresh and light. My husband had the lobster bisque and the jumbo lump blue crabcakes (not pictured), he said that he would have liked more seafood in each but that is his usual complaint on those menu items everywhere. 

In the morning we slept in a bit and then we went back to the restaurant for the breakfast buffet. We each enjoyed an omelet made to order with a side of breakfast potatoes and fresh fruit. All the usual morning favorites were in the array- french toast, smoked salmon and bagels, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, breads with spreads, cereal, juice, etc. It would be easy to eat breakfast there multiple times without having to do the same thing twice unless you chose otherwise.

The hotel provided us with a driver to Spicewood Vineyards at noon. He was an older gentleman named Richard who was born and raised in the area. He shared many stories about his boyhood and discussed how Austin and all the surrounding communities were growing. After getting caught up in one of his tales, we found out that he also does stand-up comedy at night. He dropped us off at the winery, you can read about that here, we planned a time for him to return and he was there promptly as planned.

We spent the rest of our afternoon out by the pool at the resort. We shifted from wine to piña coladas which my husband proclaimed as one of the best he has ever had after his second one.This led to a poolside nap for him. I sunbathed, people watched and took in the lake views. After hydrating with some water, we headed up to the room to clean up. Originally, we had planned on heading into town for a nice dinner but at the last minute decided to stay close, keep it super casual and try Richard's chicken fried steak recommendation, Angel's Ice House. 

We arrived back at the hotel and poured a glass of wine to have out on our balcony when a fireworks display started. We don't know what it was for but we had a nice view of the show off to the side of our patio for our nightcap which was a fun surprise.

The next morning we woke up early and went to Café Lago, a breakfast recommendation from Richard. We were there when they opened the door which was fortunate as the restaurant filled up within thirty minutes of our arrival. We really enjoyed our breakfast there but it was crowded and a bit noisy. We liked the good service, fresh food and that we were in and out within forty-five minutes. We headed back to the hotel for our morning massages at the San Saba Spa located within Lakeway Resort overlooking the pool area.

Due to our late decision to make spa appointments, we were not able to get a couple's treatment or even appointments at the same time- so be aware and book at the same time that you make your hotel reservations. We were able to get back-to-back massage appointments with a later checkout time to accommodate our schedule. My husband worked out in the gym while I had my massage and I was able to go back to the room and leisurely get ready and pack while he had his massage. We both thoroughly enjoyed our treatments. He showered in the locker room and was ready to go as soon as he got up to the room.  We had a late lunch planned with our daughter in her nearby college town so, although they had given us until 2:00, we left by 1:00.

We enjoyed our stay at Lakeway Resort and we would recommend it as a great place to call home while touring the nearby wineries, enjoying the lake and taking in the Austin nightlife. Check out the Lakeway "Get a room" package that includes transportation to Spicewood Vineyards.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Spicewood Vineyards

I had the pleasure of tasting the wines of Spicewood Vineyards last weekend with the winery’s visionary and president, Ron Yates. Ron grew up in nearby Marble Falls and graduated from the University of Texas. In his attempt to get the most out of his academic quest, he did a study abroad in Spain in 1999 to fulfill his college Spanish requirement; this led him to his love of Tempranillo wines.

Despite his not enjoying his early participation in Texas grape harvests as a kid, he decided to parlay what he called his highly embellished vineyard skills for the opportunity to stay on in Spain for the Ribera del Duero harvest after his Spanish courses ended. While he was in the midst of his adventure, he did think about how the terroir of Ribera del Duero reminded him of some areas back home in the Texas Hill Country. The idea of making the Spanish style wines that he loved back in Texas began forming.

The longer that I talked with Ron, the more I was repeatedly struck by two things:
1)      Ron is a bit of a Renaissance man. His stories tossed into casual conversation between tastings and touring around the winery included not only working harvest but law school, playing guitar, his record label, the Austin music scene, the Austin real estate market, more tales of Spain (of course, he went back) and what I will call “Tex-ifying” some European wine making equipment -you just need to call a guy that welds together barbeque pits. And,
2)      Ron is going to have fun doing whatever it is that he is doing. His stories include many references to friends and family with a good dose of humor aimed primarily at himself but also at several buddies from high school who work with him.

Ron and his family purchased Spicewood Vineyards in 2007. The original seventeen acres were planted with Bordeaux varieties by the previous owners back in 1992. As these vines were producing grapes, they were able to start some experimental wine making immediately. Ron is committed to an estate program and he has increased the vineyard size to thirty-two acres with an additional eight acres planted to the west. He is focusing on planting Tempranillo along with other heat tolerant Spanish varieties like Graciano and Touriga Nacional.

While Ron says he prefers to use his own grapes whenever he can, he will not turn down any good fruit offered up by a trusted friend. He likes to experiment with different varieties and see what they can do. He jokes about some of these experiments having to go straight down the drain. He says the goal at Spicewood is to make wines that don’t need corrections and he feels this starts with carefully selected rootstock and varieties that suit the climate.

I had entered the tasting room at the winery from the 100 degree Farenheit temperatures so I was pleased to see an array of cool whites in the line-up along with a Tempranillo from the Hill Country Estate as well as one from the High Texas Plains. There was also a somewhat questionably labeled wine called Cabernet Claret, a kitchen sink blend of Texas grapes with 2% residual sugar.

My favorites from the tasting:
  • 2012 Spicewood Texas Hill Country Estate Semillion – dry, crisp, fresh pear, citrus and a light mineral finish, $19 a bottle.
  • 2012 Spicewood Texas Hill Country Estate Sauvignon Blanc – dry, zingy grapefruit, lime zest and a light mineral finish, $17 a bottle.
  • 2012 Spicewood Texas High Plains Viognier – dry, fresh melon and apricot with a light citrus blossom floral note and a citrus finish, $18 a bottle.
  • 2013 Spicewood Texas High Plains Rousanne –  fuller body, dry with chamomile, sweet citrus and ripe pineapple with a clean citrus finish, $14 a bottle.
  • 2012 Spicewood Texas High Plains Tempranillo - a good summer red; dry, medium body, fruit forward with mixed berries and baking spice; aged 12 months in 70% neutral oak and 30% new French oak barrels, $24 a bottle.
  • 2012 Spicewood Texas Hill Country Estate Tempranillo – dry, fuller body with dried cherries, black pepper and cocoa with a light toasty note; aged 12 months in 60% neutral oak and 40% new French oak barrels, $46 a bottle.

Ron also pulled some Albariño from the tank that I am looking forward to trying again as soon as it is bottled and ready. I also tried the 2012 Cabernet Claret. I say “questionably named” as varietals outside of the traditional Bordeaux grapes are included. Ron said that 2012 was not the best year for the estate Cabernet so Tempranillo and Syrah were also part of the blend for this vintage. Ron had considered changing the name but it is the featured wine at the annual Pair it with the Claret party which the vineyard hosts each February. Ron says that the 2% residual sugar and jammy red berry flavors makes it a fun wine to drink with spicy chili, barbeque and Mexican dishes, $17 a bottle.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Happy Hour at Uchi - Wining and Dining in Houston

While my daughter was in town briefly between her study abroad and school starting, we took the opportunity to wine and dine our way around Houston. She is always a favorite dining companion of mine because she will taste anything and loves to split items, we can always create our own multi-course menu.

Uchi was one of her not-to-miss spots while she was here. Happy hour runs from 5-6:30 daily and there is always a crowd. We arrived at 5:00 pm on Wednesday to find the line already forming but we were able to walk right in and get a table as soon as the doors opened. The restaurant quickly filled up.


This time of day at Uchi provides a great opportunity to try smaller portions of some of the regular menu items. The entire menu is also available as well as a menu of daily specials. We ordered some sparkling Loire Valley rosé, the Bouvet Brut NV off the regular wine list. They serve it for $11 a glass or $43 a bottle. Happy hour or "Sake Social" drink selections include sake for $3, a sake cocktail for $6 and a red and white wine by the glass for $7.

We started with the spicy crunchy tuna roll with big-eye tuna, avocado, jalapeno and cucumber and the shag tempura roll with salmon, sun-dried tomatoes and avocado, both for $6. We followed that course with one Thai oyster with galangai, lemongrass and tomato each for $4 a piece. 

Next up, we opted for the Uchiviche with salmon, striped bass, bell pepper, tomato, garlic and cilantro for $6. There is always more fish than you expect in this little tasting. I think I have had this menu item every time that I have been to Uchi. We also enjoyed the Machi Cure which is not pictured; it is smoked baby yellowtail with yucca crisps, marcona almonds, Asian pear and yuzu for $6. I love this combination of flavors, we attacked it and I did not take a picture. 

For our final savory dish, my daughter picked the yaki niku with wagyu beef, ginger, fish sauce, local greens and ogo nori for
$8. This is a filling little plate and a good way to convince non-raw eaters to come check out Uchi with you.

We did not stop thereSince they do provide a small dessert taste on the Sake Social menu, we ended our meal with it- the okashi, made with pluot, chocolate and beet for $4, this is a very interesting dessert combination and the perfect size.

While it is always a treat to go to Uchi, I think that happy hour is my favorite time to be there. The crowd is lively and the menu variety allows for individual portions or table sharing sizes for groups. You can count on everything on the menu being available as nothing has been 86'd this early. The food is always so fresh and good; if you haven't tried Ushi yet, it may be time.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Wines of Saget La Perrière with Arnaud Saget

A lunch time tasting with Arnaud Saget from Saget La Perrière Wines was definitely a highlight of this summer. Arnaud shared his vision for growing his family's company and his push for greater awareness among consumers about the wines of France's Loire Valley. 

Arnaud discussed both the value that can be found in the Loire Valley and the pairing potential of his food-friendly wines with our local cuisine. 

We tasted his selections at the Oceanaire with the Alaska Seafood Institute Prefix Menu. This multi-course menu included red king crab salad, pan-broiled weathervane scallops, seared wild halibut, grilled coho salmon and blueberry cobbler for dessert. All of the wines are recommended.

The Tasting:
Muscadet de Sèvre & Maine sur Lie Les Cilssages d’Or (approximately $14)
Marie de Beauregard AOC Vouvray (approximately $18)
Guy Saget La Petite Perrière Sauvignon Blanc (approximately $12)
Guy Saget La Petite Perrière Sancerre (approximately $22)
Le Domaine Saget Pouilly-Fumé (approximately $29)
Guy Saget La Petite Perrière Pinot Noir (approximately $13.50)
Marie de Beauregard Chinon (approximately$17.99)

I loved both the Sancerre and the Pouilly Fume, crisp and refreshing, so nice for this time of year; they also paired perfectly with the menu. The Pinot Noir is an unbelievable value. The Chinon is smooth and spicy; a fantastic summer red that was excellent with the salmon. 

Look for these wines and wines under their other label-Pierre Archambault. The 2012 Pierre Archambault Sancerre, was featured in the June 2014 issue of Galveston Monthly.

related article:
James Brock- Mise en Place: Beauties from the Loire 


Friday, July 18, 2014

Tasting some wines of Hanna Winery & Vineyards with Chris Hanna

I had a great time meeting Chris Hanna of Hanna Winery & Vineyards last week. We met at Brennan's for dinner, some conversation and a tasting of a few of her wines. 

Chris told me that she had not expected to join the family business originally. She was an English major with her sights set on academia when her father requested that she sit in on some interviews for a new position in marketing and public relations that he was needing to fill.

She listened to the interviewees with a mix of concern and skepticism, she couldn't imagine most of these people representing her family's brand. The final interview had the opposite effect, it was so positive that she was inspired to do the job herself. When all the applicants had left, she told her father that she felt that someone with the last name of Hanna should represent the family business. He told her that he was hoping she would say that; shortly thereafter, her immersion into the family business began.


We started our meal with the 2012 Hanna Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc. This wine makes up about half of the 50,000 cases they produce each year. When she made the decision to focus on Sauvignon Blanc, she also started the transition from purchased grapes to an estate grown program. I really enjoyed this wine with everything from my amuse bouche to my salad to my redfish on the half shell. It had a light body with ripe peach, grapefruit citrus and herbal/lemongrass aromas and flavors; it had crisp acidity and a mineral-laced finish. This is a great summer wine that you can enjoy sipping out on the patio or with any light dinner. It is the house white at Chris' home. In addition to finding it on the wine list at Brennan's, you can find this wine at Spec's for approximately $20.

Next, we tasted the 2012 Hanna Russian River Valley Chardonnay. I loved this with both my salad and entree. It had rich aromas and flavors of baked apples, orange citrus and baking spices; a medium+ body, fresh acidity with a long creamy finish. Highly recommended, priced at approximately $25, this is a wine that will work with just about any type of food. 

Chris is a cookbook author as well as a winemaker so finding that synergy between the food and wine is always her goal. She wanted to create a Chardonnay that was a bit different than the heavy, buttery style that seemed more available; she wanted to maintain the natural acidity but she also wanted a creamier, rounder white wine than her crisp, angular Sauvignon Blanc. She achieves that with this Chardonnay through night harvests, the use of wild yeasts and light use of new oak.

Conversation flowed with the wine, in addition to our mutual love of all things wine and food, we found that we also shared: 
  • the joys of living with a sports fanatic husband
  • mothering 2 kids, one boy and one girl for each of us/ both of our college daughters are considered wine experts in their peer group 
  • we each learned a lot about cooking from the Food Network
  • we are both regular practitioners of yoga
  • and so much more.
We tasted some red wine as well. Most notably, the 2007 Hanna Bismark Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. I wasn't familiar with that vineyard designation. Chris explained that it is located on the western facing side of the Mayacamas Mountains and will be labeled with its new named appellation, Moon Mountain, on future bottles. This wine tasted surprisingly young for 2007. It was fresh and fruity with blackberry and plum with cocoa and a bit of black olive. It was full bodied with smooth, ripe tannins and a long mineral-laced finish. Highly recommended, approximately $55.

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Chris and tasting her wines. She has me completely motivated to come up to Sonoma and learn more. In the meantime, we can find her wines at Spec's or enjoy them in restaurants all around town.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Cantina Terlano Wines of the Alto-Adige Tasting and Seminar

Klaus Gasser from Cantina Terlano was in Houston last month conducting a tasting up at Camerata for the Houston Sommelier Association. The wines he brought come from Alto-Adige in the northern part of Italy near the Dolomite Mountains in the foothills of the Alps. There is a heavy German, French and Austrian influence in the region. 
Alto-Adige is a high mountainous region which Klaus compared to Colorado. He recommends the skiing if you are traveling there in the winter. He also compares the area to Burgundy because of its diverse micro-climates imparting unique characteristics to the wine. The region is known for its aromatic whites but it can also produce rich, full body reds. The area around Terlano is warmer than other parts of the region but it still has a good diurnal range to protect the grapes' acidity.

The vineyard area ranges from about 800-3000 ft above sea level and has red quartz porphyric rocky soil with a high mineral content which is believed to give the wines their freshness. The porous soil also allows for good drainage. Warm days and cool nights complete the perfect growing conditions. 


The area has a 2,000 year history of producing wine. Terlano is the name of the winery, the village, a historic wine blend and the name of the DOC in the area. It is a very traditional wine producing area. Cantina Terlano, the winery, was founded in 1893 with a goal to produce high quality white wines for long aging. 

The white wine making style has remained the same while the approach to red wine making has become more modern. They make white wines at higher fermentation temperatures than most modern winemakers use to get more flavor. Their wine making philosophy is to use large oak casks in the German fuder style for the important whites. They typically have long yeast contact with battonage to increase creaminess, often a minimum of 10 years of yeast contact for some wines. They have some wines on the lees in stainless steel going back to 1979.

The tasting:
2012 Chardonnay- Originally, Chardonnay was known as "the yellow Pinot Bianco" and the two were fermented together. Since 1984, it has been bottled separately. Clean, fresh, citrus, mineral, medium body, long finish.
2013 Pinot Grigio- Klaus describes it as "soft, creamy and persistent". Fresh, subtle, medium body, pear with a saline minerality. Perfect with any Mediterranean cuisine.
2011 Muller-Thurgau- This is a very small production wine. Medium body, higher acidity, elegant, peach.
2012 Terlaner Classico- This historic blend takes its name from the village; it has been produced for over 120 years. It consists of 60% Pinot Bianco, 30% Chardonnay and 10% Sauvignon Blanc. Light floral aroma, pear, minerality.
2011 Terlano "Vorberg" Pinot Bianco- Medium body, saline minerality, clean, dry finish.
2008 Andriano "Movado" Gewurztraminer- This is grown on calcerous-dolomite stone soil in a cooler area, the wine was aged in stainless steel. Full body, rich, dry, medium acidity, complex, lychee, cold cream, long finish.
2013 Lagrein Rosé- Traditionally made, pressed with a white wine fermentation. Fresh peach with strawberries. This goes with everything.
2012 Andriano "Bocado" Schiava- "This is a popular, everyday red. It is fresh, easy-drinking, not complex, a fantastic food wine," per Klaus. It is more aromatic and less pigmented. Round, moderate tannins, red cherry, light lingering finish. A good summer red.
2011 "St Magdelena" Red Blend- 95% Schiava and 5% Lagrein which gives a deeper color. Black cherry. More tannic from terroir. 


The style of the wine has changed in the last 20-30 years. "It used to be produced in a more rustic style due to a lack of phenolic ripeness." Klaus considers this to be the most important red wine from the region.
2008 "Gries" Lagrein- Spicy, black plum, bitter chocolate, long finish.
Sourced from 3 different vineyards with 40-100 year old vines. It spends 18 months in French Oak.
2010 "Porphyr" Lagrein- Amarone-like, rich, ripe with a long chewy finish.


Another great educational experience and tasting from the