There are a few conversations I have had on repeat for the last four plus years in our Ventura County tasting room; I can’t imagine it’s different anywhere else. One of which is “What food would you pair with this wine, steak, barbecue?” And I usually laugh and say, “I’ll take your word for it, I’m vegetarian.” It’s funny how people assume that when we pair wine, we should be pairing it with a protein. I’m not going to get into the major annoyance of people asking me where I get my protein, instead I want to share with you the beauty of wine pairing, regardless of your food restrictions, preferences or diets. Even though this conversation sometimes leads to, “Well what would you pair it with?” and I laugh off the question by saying, “I like to drink my calories!” The honest answer is that the same rules apply when pairing wine and food. You’re going to want to pay attention to sweetness levels, acidity levels, fullness of flavor, spiciness, and the weight and texture of the food. So heavy goes with heavy and light goes with light. You don’t want to pair a light wine with a heavy food, because the wine will disappear. In contrast, you would not want to pair a heavy wine with a light dish because it will kill the flavor of the meal. Regardless of your meal being vegetarian, vegan, or meat based, you’ll want to be mindful. Proper pairing can change your attitude towards a wine you may normally not prefer, once you experience the magic that happens mid bite… or vice versa.
Remember that the Mediterranean, which is popular for its wine, was historically more vegetarian. Meat was not readily available to most people. Poverty was rampant, and this meant you ate what you grew. Wine was not an addition to a meal, as it is today, wine was just as much of a staple as anything else on the table. Wine and food were not separate. According to the amazing and informative podcast, “Wine for Normal People”, What grows together goes together. Test this theory. If you are eating, say a tomato based meal, like pasta, or pizza, you can’t go wrong with an Italian red. That being said, you can absolutely sub in our California wines, in fact, I highly recommend it! Our Cabernet Sauvignons, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo and Merlot are each lovely when eating an Italian meal. Our fruity but dry Mourvedre Rose turns a simple salad into a delicacy. (Leave out the vinegar based dressing though!!! Vinegar can ruin the wine, and destroy the meal.) Both of our Cabernet Sauvignons complement a meal like a mushroom garlic dish, particularly if it’s sautéed. This has just as much to do with the flavor as the weight of the dish.
There are other important factors when pairing wine and food, and sticking with the origin is not fool proof. For instance, if you like spicy food, it’s not recommended to pair your meal with high alcohol wines. This will heat up the food! Depending on the type of spice, say a stir fry with soy sauce, you’ll want a fruity Merlot. Curry can use a little cooling down, so a more fruity wine like an Albarino is a lovely option. (Lucky for us, we have Albarino grapes coming in this year!) If your food is more heavy or creamy, you might lean towards a more acidic wine like a Chenin Blanc (acidity refers to the tart or sour attributes and balances the sweetness or bitterness of the wine). Eating a root vegetable dish would pair well with a more earthy wine, like Malbec. I may not be a foodie, but I know what tastes good, because I know what smells good. My husband and two out of my three kiddos are omnivores, so I cook carnivorous cuisine pretty regularly. I have learned to use my nose to season food, even when I won’t be eating it. I was trained from a young age to trust my nose. This has served me incredibly well with pairing wine and food. People always give asparagus and wine a bad rep, but I think a Sauvignon Blanc pairs really nicely if it has greener notes. The same goes for bell pepper.
Pairing food and wine brings something special to the table. Tasting wine can spark that light-bulb in your head that reminds you of certain flavors or experiences. Certain scents can bring us back to childhood, for me, every time I smell eucalyptus it takes me right back to being a three year old, running through the trees with my favorite dog, Coop. Cinnamon brings me back to Disneyland, when I met “the real” Snow White. Hay is my grandmother’s ranch in Oregon with the mean chickens, and the nose on Gewurztraminer is the first hotel room my husband and I ever stayed in together, when we accidentally overfilled the bubble bath. If scents can capture moments and freeze them in time, why don’t we spend more time making these memories? In this day and age we are always on the move, too often eating on the go, or in front of the television. We give very little energy into how to nourishing ourselves. Part of nourishing is taking a bite, and actually chewing. Stopping and smelling the aromas in front of you, and the aromas in your glass. Nourishing is in the relationships to those sitting around the table with you, the conversation, the connection. I challenge you to find a day this week to pick a wine and prepare a special meal, taking note of these simple rules. You don’t have to be a gourmet chef to whip up a hearty lasagna, toss a salad, or throw together a spicy chili. Just be mindful of your flavors, scents, and spices. And share it with someone you love.
Author’s note: My name is Justine and I have been working in the tasting room at Strey Cellars for over four years. We are a small family owned local boutique winery. If this is your first visit to my blog, you’ll notice that I write as if we are old friends, because this is the energy of our winery. Come visit sometime, and see for yourself. If you enjoyed this blog, please share it with a friend. Cheers!
There is a lot of magic in the wine community, (no, not my kind of magic *wink*), there is this camaraderie that is developed between wine makers. I have had the pleasure of wine tasting alongside Scott at several local wineries, here in Ventura County, and one thing I love is the way the winemaker’s eyes light up when they see Scott walk through the door. Winemakers have a repertoire that is familiar to them, and only truly understandable to other winemakers. There is an ease in the way they communicate, their body language, and this association that goes beyond the initial “nice to meet you’s” and transcends the unease of the unknown, opening a world of conversation that most wine drinkers would have trouble following! (Not me though, I totally get everything, obviously….) It’s like seeing them in their element… Winemakers in the wild! (Sorry I’ve been watching Shark Week) We could even call it a bromance. They don’t ACTUALLY slap each other’s asses, but there is totally an “atta boy” vibe. How many times have I seen a customers eyes glaze over when I explain why there is a difference between sandy soil and rocky soil? Or specific types of oak? Or residual sugars? Countless! When winemakers connect, it’s fascinating. They have this ability to remember specifics of each vintage. Like a mother who can recount which pregnancy caused her to crave pickles, or hate the scent of a certain cologne (always her husband’s unfortunately.)
Even with this niche market, I would not say that competition is at it’s core. What I see is people who have found their calling, their great love, their passion. Not listening when that little voice is reaching out would close a door to the person you are meant to become. Not all of us have that “ah-ha!” moment, not everyone is gifted this endowment. A select few have been gifted not only an impeccable palate, and a love for drinking wine, but also the drive to pursue their dream of crafting delicious wine. Wine making is a huge commitment. Choosing to make wine, even on a small scale is expensive and requires a lot of research and knowledge. Even if you woke up one morning and decided that you wanted to make wine, you’d need some assistance. This is a far cry from home brew kombucha (I would know). For like 5 minutes I thought I wanted to make wine… and then I experienced harvest and it changed my mind pretty quickly. Seriously, appreciate your winemakers! The commitment level between classes, research, finances, equipment, and real estate can be exponential. But the biggest thing is the time commitment. Between being at the mercy of the grapes, and then temperatures, and oxygen in general… it’s not a job for the faint of heart! As I have said before, it’s a labor of love.
Our winemaker, Scott is a rockstar, and I mean that! He even keeps rockstar hours! Not only does Scott work a full time job in the film industry, with call times as early as 4am, but after work he rushes to Strey to “sow the seeds” of his investment (by this I mean, an endless possibility of tasks ranging from racking, topping up, hand bottling, labeling, setting up or breaking down the barrel room/event space, hosting private tastings, or building a cold storage room). Scott feels a huge loyalty (not just because he’s a Leo) to Robert Wagner, the winemaker at Magnavino Cellars, because Robert opened his space up to Scott, giving him the tools necessary to create, apprentice, and eventually forge his own brand. Scott has chosen to “pay it forward” by assisting in facilitating, collaborating, and mentoring newer winemakers. Knowing how much is involved in winemaking, and the fact that you really can’t just dip your toe in, it brings Scott a lot of joy to share his gift with others. He has an ability to share knowledge, teach, and communicate in ways that build people up, encouraging them and supporting them.
Recently one of our “little birdies”, Luigi and Kimberly Lucas, flew our nest and opened their own local tasting room in Moorpark. While their style is unique to them and their tastes, as it should be, I feel that I can speak for Strey Cellars by saying how proud we are. It is always a delight to witness another’s success. From our end, knowing all of the blood, sweat and tears that brought them to this pivotal point, we salut Lucas Sellers. You did it, guys! Opening a tasting room doesn’t always come to fruition. Others have graced our production rooms and tried their hand at winemaking, only to decide that it’s not their cup of tea. Some have chosen to make wine, but just for personal consumption through our custom crush program. It is few and far between when a fledgling winemaker spreads his or her wings and takes the risk to follow their dreams.
They say, the only constant is change, Strey Cellars is changing it up for you! Every harvest Strey has brought in tons of red grapes, and occasional white (green) grapes, but our focus has always been single red varietals. We have been known to surprise you all with blends here and there. (I’m sure your mouth just started watering at the reminder of Slanted and Cynder… mine is!) We have also graced you with a few Rosé and whites throughout the years, but our favorites are red wines. Because we have leaned so heavily towards reds, we have… a lot. We do not fear running low on red wines any time soon, so this harvest we will only be bringing in white grapes. This will surely please all the sweet grandmas who come into the tasting room looking for white wine and are low-key horrified that our only white wine is called Verdelho, and they’ve never heard of it. (Granted, they always end up loving it!) While a lot of people say they don’t like white wine, I challenge you to do some wine pairing and see if your perspective shifts. White wines have a big place in the wine world. It’s not just for summer sangria, and it doesn’t only have to be paired with fish. Personally, I love to pair white wine with a pool day (I like to drink my calories), but whites are also delicious with Asian cuisine.
White wines are extremely versatile, and require a little more TLC than reds in some ways. In anticipation for our grapes to arrive we had to prep the winery. Firstly, we needed a place to store our whites. White wine needs to be temperature controlled, and we have a lot more white grapes coming in than ever before, so we needed a bigger space. I’ve mentioned our small cold storage room before, we used that same idea and built a bigger version right against the wall when you walk into the barrel room! It’s hard to miss, being 20 feet by 7 feet. This room stays between 50 and 55 degrees, making the white wines VERY happy.
Temperature control is extremely important for all wine, not just white wine. There are many variables that we are at the mercy of, and must be extremely attentive to. We recently have been installing an AC unit in our barrel room to maintain a consistent temperature. We do not want to party in a refrigerator though, so having a smaller cold storage room is ideal for wine making purposes. The wine aging in barrels will be happy at a constant 64 degrees… coincidentally, so will we! When wine is stored above 70 degrees, it begins to age faster, and depending on how hot, it might overheat and be ruined. (You’ve probably been reminded not to leave your wine in the car while you’re wine tasting, this is because cars heat up really fast, and that heat can effect your wine.) We recommend keeping your wine over 45 degrees but under 65 degrees. Keeping your wine too cold can cause it’s own set of problems. Refrigerators are designed to suck out moisture which can dry out your cork, allowing air to seep into the bottle. Also, if you put wine in the freezer and forget it, like Scott and I did, you might end up with a case of slushys. Unfortunately this does ruin the wine. when it freezes, the wine expands and pushes the cork out. I tasted the Verdelho slushy and honestly, it tasted kind of flat and crunchy. Not awful, but all the lovely pazaze and freshness that we love seemed to have evaporated. Also, the alcohol melted first, so… that was fun… We were both fired for a minute… but you know how it goes, I get “fired” all the time. Katie can’t live without me… and we wouldn’t have Strey without Scott!
Harvest this year will have a different type of energy. In some ways it will be busier because we have to be very sensitive to temperature. It’s a different type of attention than we are used to during harvest. Yeast temperatures and fermentation temperatures are especially important while making white wine. Scott ordered 4 new stainless steel tanks because most of these wines will not be oaked. I’ll bet you’re wondering which varietals we chose…
I am please to announce that we will be making two different Chardonnays, one will be oaked, the other will be stainless. This gives us the options to blend the two for different tastes, depending on our preferences. We will also be bringing in Gewurtztraminer (German varietal) *done sweet, Viognier (Rhone varietal) *done dry, Torrontes (Argentina varietal), Albariño (Spanish varietal) and and and…. Grenache, which isn’t white, but our next Rosé will be of Grenache!
It’s been a week since my life-changing, mind-blowing, life-altering trip to the Middle East. When I sleep, I dream of Israel. Homecoming was bittersweet, I missed the familiarity of home, the regularity of having a schedule, and the ability to read things like menus and street signs. I never imagined how much I would appreciate seat covers in public restrooms, and soft toilet paper for that matter! It took me what felt like weeks, but may have only been 5 days to figure out why I was continuously run over by Israelis, and no, it’s not because I’m short, it turns out that in Israel people are not bothered by the shoulder bump that can cause a fist fight in America. Space is different there. The entire country is the size of New Jersey. Everything is overlapping. Well, not EVERYTHING…
The wine world in Israel stands on its own. While many of us have heard the biblical story of Jesus turning water into wine, have we really considered Israeli wine as an option? Remnants of wine presses have been found from 10,000 years ago in Israel. In fact, in the 7th and 8th centuries Israeli wine was becoming so popular that it was imported to Rome. TO ROME. (The most popular wine in the world comes from Italy, can we just take a moment to revel in this?) The wine industry was halted and Israel’s indigenous varietals were ripped out of the ground because Islamic law forbids drinking. This is interesting considering Jewish tradition includes quite a bit of drinking. I suppose this is the time to mention the elephant in the room… in America we call it “The Conflict”, and it is extremely complicated. I am not writing from a “pro anyone” place, only a pro wine place. That being said, it’s devastating that a religion has, can and, will completely uproot and destroy cultures it doesn’t identify with. But we all know of another place something similar happened, not so long ago, right here in America. Prohibition. Remember, I wrote about how prohibition effected wine in America, and while it’s a shame that we had to essentially start from scratch, we also learned to take some risks. Those risks put California wines on the map. This is what Israel has been doing. Removing wine culture may very well have been devastating in ways, but it did release Israel from the shackles of conformity. Israel, like California has thrown the rule book out the window, giving them carte blanche to evolve, experiment and create wine without limits.
When we think of Israel we often think of deserts and camels, (for good reason, there are plenty of both) so we don’t think of grape vines. It turns out, there are a plethora of grape vines! The trick is elevation. In my first hours in Israel, on my way to Jerusalem we traveled a winding road up and into the mountains, passing vineyards and forests. I could not have been more surprised by the beauty. This is called the Judean Hills. Interestingly, the few places I visited in Jerusalem had a whopping two options for wine: White or red. I was a bit disheartened at that point. Luckily, only about two and a half hours away is the infamous Golan Heights. Israeli wine country sits next to the Syrian border and has vines for miles and miles. I first tasted Golan Heights wines in a small wine bar in Haifa called Nahum. Naturally my first question was, “Do you have bubbly?” And to my surprise and pleasure I was presented with the most unique sparkling wine I have ever tasted. A 2012 Yarden Sparkling Rose was aromatic and acidic, it wasn’t sweet in the least, which was perfect to pair with hot and humid evenings (and I experienced plenty of those). I had a lovely 2014 Syrah from the Judean Hills, it had big fruit and and a smooth mouthfeel. I could not stop swirling and sniffing this glass. I think my absolute favorite was a GSM from the south of Israel with it’s smooth red fruits and black pepper.
When I visited this little city on top of a hill called Tzfat, I was surprised to find tasting room after tasting room! This whole city seemed to be filled with art galleries and wine. I was handed a map and let loose to wander this unique place. Complete with steep and narrow stone staircases, paths that lead nowhere and even underground tunnels. Tzfat is known as the city of Kabbalah, which is ancient Jewish mysticism. It is a city made up of people who have such deep faith, faith I have never seen. These people are waiting for the Messiah. They aren’t wondering, they aren’t curious, they are waiting in complete certainty. With zero concern that He will come to Earth… but specifically to Tzfat on a donkey. It is no surprise that this place is is also home to so much culture and most importantly (to me) incredible wine.
I definitely did not get my fill of Israeli wine, and look forward to tasting more. Even with the language barrier, wine is this great connector. During my travels I was more uncomfortable at times than I care to remember. I felt lost at times… I even was lost one time. But when I think back, I am amazed at how at home I felt each time I walked through the doors of a winery. The wine world is the same, even when the climate is different. These wine maker’s eyes light up just like Scott’s do when he shares stories about wine with you. The feeling is there, the love is there. The talent is there. I truly did not expect for my heart to grow so big that it now fits a whole new country. Not new, ancient, actually. But new to me. I hope I am blessed with the opportunity to not only go back to Israel, but to travel the world meeting winemakers, tasting wine and finding all of my homes away from home.
While we at Strey Cellars may not be farmers, we deeply appreciate the viticulturists who so lovingly nurture the vines that produce the beautiful grapes which we look forward to smashing in a few months. Vineyard life is far removed from our contemporary Ventura County winery and tasting room, but still an important piece to the Strey Cellars puzzle. We look forward to the few and far between trips to wine country. Being mesmerized by rows and rows of grape vines, feeling the warm summer sun, and to our surprise, meeting a few four legged friends along the way.
Many vineyard owners have been shying away from the use of chemicals for weed and pest problems. Some have chosen to use nature’s weed killers and pest control. The most common “natural” weed killer on a vineyard is sheep! Sheep (and llamas) graze the grass and weeds, and are especially helpful after harvest, to clean up excess leaves, vines and any grapes that have fallen. Some vineyards even use sheep to leaf the vines, which is a process of leaf removal. When the bigger leaves form a canopy they cover the the lower parts of the vines, prohibiting sunlight and air from reaching these areas. This can cause yellow, dying leaves, and mildew. It’s extremely expensive and time consuming to hand leaf, so sheep have been called in to do the job. Babydoll sheep from New Zealand are actually used year round to weed the vineyards because they are too small to reach the grapes.
New Zealand probably has had the most interesting animal helpers, while sheep are used regularly, Kunekune pigs have been used to weed, and eat vegetation. I was surprised to learn this, because pigs can be rather destructive, rooting into the ground, bursting pipes, and upending your garden. Kunekune pigs don’t excessively dig, and provide fertilizer. Prior to pigs, one vineyard in New Zealand used giant guinea pigs (capybaras) for weeding, sadly, they were hunted by hawks, so that experiment was short lived.
Speaking of hawks, hawks and falcons are used regularly to hunt birds, rodents and rabbits that would eat the grapes, or ruin the vines. You can even rent hawks (and sheep) to guard your vineyard. Geese and chickens are often seen around the vines, eating worms, weeds and insects. They also provide valuable compost. Insects can be deadly to grape vines, which is a reason many vintners do choose chemical pest control. Luckily, chickens can help take care of that problem, particularly if sustainable farming is important to the vintner. Often, if a winery has chickens, they will also have cats. There is a program that re-homes ferrel cats to vineyards to take care of the rat problem that tends to surface (generally around the chicken’s food). Cats are helpful with most rodents, and won’t disturb the grapes.
There are a few less conventional animals used on vineyards, like armadillos and bobcats. Bobcats take care of jackrabbits and gophers. I’m not entirely sure if bobcats are rentable, or if you just get lucky when one discovers your vineyard and gets to work de-pesting. I can say, though, that the last thing you want to find among the vines, is a bear. Bears really like grapes, and are not peaceful negotiators. One winery in California noticed that the bear that discovered their vineyard loved Merlot grapes, but wasn’t interested in Gewurtztraminer grapes.
Dogs are not uncommon on a vineyard or in a tasting room. Sheep dogs are important for herding sheep, and protecting them from coyotes, and other predators. More than anything, dogs are companions. Case in point, Tawny. You all know her and love her, in fact, many of our wine club members look forward to seeing her so much that they bring chew toys, tug of war ropes and treats. Tawny is our happiest, most loving unofficial Strey Cellars employee. I cannot count how many people have chosen to visit Strey solely because they read about Tawny on our website. She is the happiest greeter, and seems to have springs in her feet. When I walk through the door I have to brace myself for her sixty pounds of love that’s rushing towards me. She has even had sleepovers at our house. My son pulls out his trundle bed and sleeps with his arm around her. (Yes we undo all of Scott and Katie’s rules by letting her snuggle on the couch and beds with us.)
She was 8 weeks old when Malibu Boxer Rescue called, making her birthday St. Patrick’s Day, 6 years ago. She spent less than 6 hours at the shelter before Scott and Katie picked her up. After having been abandoned in a field in Bakersfield she immediately became their constant companion. Her “rescue meal” was a cheeseburger from In-n-Out, and from that day on, she went everywhere they went. Tawny is extremely socialized, and isn’t shy about belly rubs. Scott and Katie have two little girls, now, and they love Tawny as much as she loves them. Tawny is famous for sneaking onto the couch while the family is asleep, and slinks off in the morning before anyone comes down stairs. She once managed to steal a raw steak off of a table while the barbecue was being prepped, and two years ago she stole not one, but two chicken burritos off the counter while Katie and her brother were setting up our famous suspended Christmas tree. She has not stolen food since, even when toddlers wave their drool soaked cheerios in her face. She will, however, happily lick their faces clean. We are so lucky to have such a powerhouse of love in our winery, and it truly would not be the same without her.
*PS: I will out of the country (while you read this, actually), and will resume blogs after my trip. I can’t wait to share with you all about the wine in the Israel. Some of the oldest evidence of wine making was discovered in the Middle East, and I look forward tasting and learning while I am visiting. Cheers!