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Friday, November 9, 2012

The Wine & Food Affair day 2: A few bumps in the road

On day one of the Wine Road's 14th annual Wine & Food Affair I visited nine wineries and enjoyed nine outstanding experiences.

On the second day a few situations left me feeling a bit let down. I hate to be negative but my policy here on the blog is to either be honest or say nothing at all and I truly believe the criticisms I'm sharing today are constructive in nature regarding customer service, staffing, and quality control.

ETA: I just realized I should point out the small wine samples in my glass were at my request. I asked for just a smidge, like a teaspoon, to taste. Had I not done so the portions would have been much more generous.

My favorite wine of the day: Balletto's 2009 Estate Pinot Gris

To be clear, each winery contributed a recipe to the Wine Road for the cookbook and the event tasting. Some were family recipes while others were created specifically to pair with a special wine. Some of the food was prepared by winery staff in their onsite commercial kitchen and others were prepared and/or brought in by restaurants and professional catering companies.

The food servers were sometimes winery personnel, volunteers, and possibly restaurant and catering company staff. So in giving my thoughts on my experience I'm not trying to vilify any particular company. I don't know for sure if someone worked for a winery or particular catering company or if they were just volunteers doing their best and I, unluckily, went to three in a row that didn't offer the same level of service as the wineries I visited the day before.

Here was the route I took on Day 2. I began near Geyserville then headed back towards Santa Rosa before heading home.

Zazu Restaurant's Honey Harvest Tomato Bisque - vegi

Located down in the Dry Creek Valley Dutcher Crossing has both a picture perfect location and a great logo with the real deal inside their tasting room! I was told the old fashioned bicycle really works. Combined with the old is new, as I noticed solar panels lining the roof over the tasting room. I love the concept of solar power and want to dabble in it when I build my teardrop trailer.

I arrived 30 minutes early, said hello to their greeter, then wandered around the property a bit to take pictures. Which is when I discovered a Mexican sage plant, laden with purple flowers, was a point of contention amongst the winery's very territorial hummingbirds. I watched as one in particular would drive away all comers who attempted to feed from it.

One image I captured was quite unique. It's of a hummingbird heading directly towards the camera and for some reason its entire head photographed as red even though they only have a small patch of red on their throats.

I didn't sample any wines but the Tomato Bisque Soup was one of the two best things I ate that day. I will definitely be making it at home. It had that home grown, from the garden kind of tomato'iness where both the flavor and texture screamed FRESH! The funny thing is my favorite dish the day before was also a soup from Zazu. I didn't even realize that until I sat down to write this post.

Peloton Catering's Caramelized Onions & Herb Aioli

Unfortunately at Geyser Peak Winery, an impressive property and popular brand, I ran into my first of three disappointments.

As I approached I noticed this was the first winery I'd been to in two days that didn't have anyone greeting guests as they arrived. There was no one at or near the door and, because they were busy, not even a friendly nod of the head from a bartender as you entered the tasting room.

Before looking for the food offering I perused their gift shop. I noticed a cookbook, flipped through the pages and thought to myself I'd purchase it on my way out. When I approached to ask a bartender where the food samples were being served (there were no signs), a friendly woman directed me upstairs.

I'd read the food description on the Wine Road website as "Caramelized Onions & Herb Aioli." Ah, a vegetarian dish I thought. Turns out there was an error in that the words "bacon and cheese" had been left off the beginning of the description. Samples of grilled cheese sandwiches were set out allowing guests to walk up and take one at their leisure.

I waited until there was literally no one in line and, because there were two sandwich presses right there, asked the chef if it would be possible for me to sample a piece without bacon. Apologetically he said he wouldn't be able to do that as all of the food had been carefully allotted and to leave the bacon out of one sandwich could complicate things. I told him I understood and left it at that. The truth is I understood he could have easily accommodated my request but chose not to. Certainly his prerogative.

I left after that, not buying the cookbook because I can't say I wanted a memento from that particular visit. I wasn't angry or bitter, just disappointed. If they'll have me, I'd love to return on a non-event day to learn more about the winery and the wines they produce.

I'll admit it was a busy day and whether or not I was greeted, offered a sample of wine, or got to sample a sandwich, these were all small things. But here's the thing, when you're in business, busy day or not, the way you (or the people you've hired to represent you) treat your customers matters because their impressions will last far beyond that moment. And that goes for any business, not just wineries.

I think sometimes companies underestimate how much of a difference caring about a customer's experience can create a dynamic where appreciation evolves into loyalty from those who could become future fans of their brand.

Next I headed down HWY 101 to Trentadue WInery. This time there were signs telling you where to go but again, no greeter. They were serving a port wine and many people had told me that since I enjoy sweet wines I might like port. I tried a sip but it was much too strong for me. Oh well, I wasn't disappointed that I didn't like it, I'm always willing to try something new. The focaccia bread was good and I may make it at home to accompany a pasta dish.

But again, I felt the warmth and friendliness we'd experienced the day before, at every stop, was lacking. The employee serving the bread felt just like that, an employee hired to serve bread and wasn't particularly happy to be there. I never saw them smile while I was waiting to take a plate from their table or as I sat photographing and enjoying my sample. Not once. It may just be their personality is more reserved. Nothing wrong with that. The problem is if someone is very reserved they may not the right person to put at a serving table greeting guests.

Chocolate Cupcakes with Salted Caramel Frosting & Red Wine Drizzle

I recently dedicated an entire blog post to Medlock Ames. You can read about how much I love this winery by CLICKING HERE. When I arrived I immediately noticed there was a friendly greeter smiling at all of the guests as we neared the tasting room.

I thought a chocolate cupcake was a sure thing to lift my spirits after my previous stops. Sadly, the cupcake was very dry and the red wine drizzle too strong, obliterating what little chocolate flavor there was to the cake. I wasn't able to enjoy it at all which is sad because it had the potential for greatness. The thing about cupcakes is it's important to sample one, especially when you're baking minis. The smaller they are the faster they dry out. I learned that myself the hard way. My guess is whoever baked them used the baking time for standard sized cupcakes not realizing they should have reduced the time for minis.

Chris Hanna’s Autumn Corn Chowder

At Hanna a very friendly woman was greeting guests and serving small cups of Autumn Corn Chowder soup. I really love that the recipe book has some fantastic soups in it because fall is definitely here. We've turned on our heater which is always a sign that it's soup season.

The clear shot of the bar in the tasting room was by chance. When I arrived it was so packed you could barely see the bar. As I left there was a lull and I waited until the last guest walked away to take the picture.

I enjoyed my chowder out on the balcony overlooking the vineyards before heading onward. It was great and I'll be making this recipe for sure this fall and winter.

I was way ahead of schedule since I'd spent so little time at several stops that morning. At this point I felt like I needed to either go home early or hit a reset button. I decided to stay and headed back to Downtown Healdsburg to visit a place I'd been to before but hadn't had the opportunity to explore.

Allow me to introduce you to Mill Street Antiques where my friend Tracy Logan from the Wine Road had taken me back in June.

Earlier this year I'd read a hilarious blog post about a metal chicken sculpture titled "And that’s why you should learn to pick your battles." on the Bloggess' blog that had me laughing out loud for so long and so hard that hubby actually came in the room to see if I was ok. LOL. If you don't like profanity (and the occasional taxidermied animal story) you shouldn't read the Bloggess. But if F bombs and a stuffed weasel, mouse, baby pegasus or alligator paw purse doesn't offend you, you can enter the often twisted and hysterically funny world of Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) and her (poor, not financially though he could be, I don't know the state of his finances) husband Victor, a man of few words, whose exasperation with his eccentric wife plays a large role in what makes her blog so dang funny.

Anyways there was this post about a giant metal chicken. And I was telling Tracy about it in the car. So she drove me two blocks to this antique shop and showed me a giant metal chicken sculpture. Ha ha ha. We took this picture of me hugging it and I emailed it to Hubby who was out of town.

The subject line read: "Look what I Bought!" (It was implied to display in our front yard.)

To which he replied: "No! Bring it back!"

Last weekend the giant rooster had been replaced with a giant crow. So cool! I spent an hour perusing every aisle of the antique market. I didn't find anything to buy but I had fun just looking. Like the flea market I went to on Treasure Island a few weeks ago, I felt like I was walking around inside of Etsy if Etsy were a real live place.

When my reset break was over I hopped in my car in search of more wine and food. . .

At Inspiration Vineyards things got back on track. Not only was there a four legged greeter at the door, there was also a warm and tasty lemon risotto ready and waiting inside. The serving containers were small, white and purple dixie cups. They wouldn't have been very photogenic and it would have been too hard for you to see the risotto so I scooped some out and placed it on a napkin just to show you how delicious it was.

I will definitely try to make this risotto but I'll add fresh asparagus or some haricot verts (thin, French, green beans) partly for their flavors and textures but also for the color which I think would brighten the dish up a lot. I did try a wine but it was, not surprisingly, too dry for me.

LOL The day before I tried a sweet wine at one of the wineries and when Elley asked me what I thought of it I replied: "I can drink it, but it's not enjoyable." To which she replied: "That's a terrible endorsement, you shouldn't write that on your blog." LOL. You know that saying "It's me, not you?" That about sums up my ability to review dry wines. It truly isn't that the wines were bad in any way, it's simply that my weird taste buds can't enjoy them.

La Gare Restaurant's Rouge et Noir Brie Quiche

And then came Balletto Vineyards and Winery.

I'm not kidding, everything that had gone wrong that morning and afternoon was erased by my visit to Balletto.

Immediately I was warmly greeted by none other than Terri Balletto herself along with Helen Sharrocks who were both greeting and pouring at a table set up in front of the entrance to the tasting room.

They were so friendly and asked how my day had been. I was honest and told them it hadn't been as good as the day before. As we talked I told them how much I love Sonoma's Wine Country and that this was my fourth visit since May. They asked if I'd been to visit a famous peach farm or some of the cheeseries in the area. When I said I hadn't they gave me lots of recommendations. I wrote them all down so you'll be reading about them in 2013. I also told them how I can only drink dessert wines and so far today the few wineries I'd mentioned this to hadn't had any. Some I didn't even ask because if they weren't going to greet me or offer a wine to taste I wasn't going to approach them and ask for a different kind than what they were serving.

I stepped into the tasting room where the food pairing was "Rouge et Noir Brie Quiche." Now, in my opinion you can NEVER go wrong with brie. Unless you sandwich a slice between two slabs of mushroom. That's the only way I would say brie can be ruined. LOL. Fortunately at Balletto it was layered into a quiche with puff pastry and was delicious!

I'd just finished chatting with Chef Roger Praplan of La Gare Restaurant about the quiche and was about to head outside to photograph it on the patio when Terri offered me a sample of a wine not on their pouring menu that day. It was a "Vin de Paille" Pinot Gris dessert wine. The color was much more golden and rich than a typical white wine.

Their 2009 Estate Pinot Gris is described as a Special Release on their website this way:

"Vin de Paille (French for 'Straw Wine') is a sweet wine traditionally made by drying whole clusters on straw mats. The Pinot Gris for the wine was harvested at 23% sugar and left to dry on racks for 18 days. When the sugar reached 38%, the dehydrated clusters were pressed and fermented in 100% new French oak. Straw spun into pure liquid gold. Unique & Delicious.

(375 ml) Residual Sugar = 22.4% Alcohol = 10.8%
Only 29 cases made! "

After photographing both the wine and my brie quiche I sampled both. I loved the quiche. And the wine? It was superb. It was more dry than Malm's Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, but still very smooth and sweet. For me, it's probably the equivalent of what a dry table wine tastes like to everyone else. I could imagine myself enjoying it as a dinner wine. Which I know sounds odd to those of you with normal taste buds but for me it makes sense :)

I was so glad I didn't go home at 1:00 PM and hung in there or I wouldn't have had the pleasure of meeting Terri and Helen while visiting Balletto and trying their wine, a new favorite of mine. Though it was expensive I purchased a bottle both because I enjoyed it that much and because I so appreciated the warmth and hospitality that had been extended to me.

Balletto Vineyards

So I guess the lesson here is don't let a few dud experiences get you down. Just as I knew it was bound to happen at some point that a visit could be less than stellar, I also knew that things would improve if I didn't give up. At least I hoped they would. And they did!

WIll I attend the Wine and Food Affair next year? Absolutely! I hope I see you there!

Follow the Wine Road on Facebook to find out when the 2013 Wine & Food Affair will be.

Want the cookbook? They're available until they sell out. Contact the Wine Road at 707-433-4335 for details.

A note about disclosure: I attended this event as a guest of the host the Wine Road after their PR company sent me an invitation. When I receive invitations I realize the company is hoping I'll attend and write a positive review. That they want me to write a review is implied, not an actual agreement. Whether or not I do is at my sole discretion. I do feel the need to share that the WIne Road knew my experience this day was less than good and encouraged me to blog my honest feelings. I think that says a lot about the integrity of the company.

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