Brunch with Friends: Sparkling Wines and Healthy Food Choices for All Budgets

2018-09-29 11.30.29For many, brunch is the earliest meal of the day when alcoholic beverages are deemed socially acceptable. It often conjures up images of Mimosas and Bloody Marys and calorie-laden breakfast and lunch foods, because after all, brunch is two meals rolled into one. People who brunch usually have limitless finances to spend on this leisurely and lavish, decadent meal. However, what if brunch were both more, and less, than that? What would happen if we envisioned brunch as a warm, casual meal for everyone, an educational experience, even a healthy approach to eating and drinking? The latter is the approach that friend, chef, and photographer, Gary Monday, decided to pursue when we planned our intimate brunch with friends.

Both Gary and I have been through major lifestyle changes in our lives, which have resulted in great weight losses and improved health and fitness. We both have learned which foods are good for our bodies. We also both discovered a passion for sparkling wines as standalone or food wines. They are lighter in style, lower in alcohol, available for all budgets, and fit with our newfound lifestyles.

With this vision, I invited sparkling wine producers to contribute to our brunch. We received seven wines at all price points from Italy, California, Michigan, and Virginia. Suggested retail prices ranged from $17 per bottle to $55 per bottle and case production ran the gamut from 109 cases to 240,000 cases. The samples included wines made both in the traditional and charmat methods, the difference being secondary fermentation in the bottle or tank. The wines were made from a variety of grapes: chardonnay, chardonel, glera, muscat, and pinots – noir, gris, and meunier.

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Gary created a menu that he called Southern/Pacific Northwest infused food, a nod to both his North Carolina roots and current home in Seattle. His expenses were around $110 to feed six people, a brunch bargain. Food included bacon-wrapped jalapeño peppers; grilled pork loin and salmon; a kale, citrus, and pomegranate salad; a fresh fruit bowl; and biscuits and gravy. Since Gary is dairy free, he made dairy-free sausage gravy and purchased vegan biscuits from Redwing Café in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, along with making traditional milk-based sausage gravy and buttermilk biscuits. While all the food was amazing, the attendees delightfully discovered that the standouts were perhaps the healthiest foods: the grilled salmon; the kale, citrus, and pomegranate salad; the Redwing Café vegan biscuits; and the dairy-free gravy.

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Gary learned the kale recipe in a dairy-free cooking class taught by Danielle Premo. Perfect for brunches and holidays, ingredients included kale from Full Circle – a community supported agriculture (CSA) delivery company – clementine oranges, pomegranate seeds, candied pecans, and Danielle’s dressing made from orange juice, vinegar, mustard, honey, salt, pepper, and olive oil. The kale is massaged with the dressing, left to sit for 15 minutes, then the clementine orange slices and pomegranate seeds added. The finished salad is garnished with the candied pecans. The beauty of this salad is that it can be prepared ahead of time without the kale becoming soggy. In fact, the flavors integrate the longer they are together.

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For the dairy-free sausage biscuit gravy, Gary used the drippings from cooking bacon, sausage, and pork loins. He added all-purpose flour and cooked on medium heat until he had a thick paste in the pan. He introduced unsweetened cashew milk slowly until the desired consistency was achieved. He reduced the stove to low heat for simmering and thickening, stirring continuously, while adding salt and pepper to taste.

Gary bought vegan biscuits from Redwing Café, which specializes in healthy food options. I contacted the owners to ask what makes these biscuits vegan and they explained that they use olive oil and hemp milk in place of butter and buttermilk. After tasting these, I may never have another traditional biscuit again.

2018-09-29 11.03.47One of our brunch guests was Rhonda Hamlin, biscotti maker and owner of The Art of Crunch. As the dessert finale, in honor of National Biscotti Day, she contributed samples of her handcrafted biscotti, including a special test flavor for all of us to try and contribute our input as to the final recipe. It is not often I veer off my strict eating path, but these biscotti were a delicious way to conclude our brunch. To learn more about The Art of Crunch, visit this link to read my interview with Rhonda.

The beverage stars of our brunch were the seven sparkling wine samples we received. As an educational tasting experiment, we gave our guests an index card for each wine and asked that they take notes on the wines they enjoyed the most and with which foods, then we discussed the results. Below are our collective thoughts.

Photo by Adami Vigneto Giardino

2017 Adami Vigneto Giardino Asciutto Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco Superiore Rive di Colbertaldo, SRP $22, 3700 cases produced
Across the board, our brunch attendees chose this wine as one of their top wines of the day, two writing “#1” and “Favorite! <3” on their index cards. In fact, someone said, “I didn’t know Prosecco could taste like this!” This floral, fruity, and spicy sparkling wine made from 100% glera, charmat method, was mesmerizing. It was also one of the most versatile food wines, pairing well with nearly everything, especially the fruit salad, biscuits with raspberry jam, even Rhonda’s biscotti.

Enrico Serafino Rose' 3
Photo by Enrico Serafino

2015 Enrico Serafino Brut Rosé Alta Langa DOCG, SRP $26, 5000 cases produced
This Brut Rosé, made from 100% pinot nero (noir) in the traditional method, was light in color, but big on flavor, exhibiting clean, bright raspberry and redcurrant flavors cradled in yeastiness. A hint of sweetness was beautifully offset by mouthwatering acidity. This wine was a perfect match for our kale salad.

Photo by Frank Family Vineyards

2013 Frank Family Vineyards Blanc de Blancs, Carneros, SRP $55, 500 cases produced
This is wine that our attendees said tasted “the most like Champagne.” Made in the traditional method and hand riddled, the Blanc de Blancs was the elegant, grande dame of our brunch. Fine mousse, brioche, and freshly cut, tart apples dominated the palate of this lovely 100% chardonnay sparkler, which was the preferred pairing with grilled salmon and pork loin.

Photo by Frank Family Vineyards

2014 Frank Family Vineyards Brut Rosé, Carneros, 2014 SRP $55, 1000 cases produced
I admit, I jumped the gun when I tasted this wine, exclaiming that it was my favorite. I am Brut Rosé gal through and through, and this blend of Carneros-grown 88% pinot noir and 12% chardonnay did not disappoint, bursting with red berries and a pleasantly creamy mouthfeel. One of our guests wrote, “Love it! This is great all by itself!” Our favorite food pairings were strawberries, the kale salad, and biscuits with raspberry jam. Click here to read how this wine gives back during the month of October.

Photo by L. Mawby/M. Lawrence

NV L. Mawby/M. Lawrence Sex, Michigan, SRP $17, 246 cases produced
With a name like Sex and a price point of $17, how could you not like this wine? This sparkler, a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and muscat, was dry and crisp, with an interesting juxtaposition of cotton candy and white grapefruit on the palate, making it a fantastic accompaniment to fresh fruit. Exclaiming, “Yes, yes, yes!”, we drank every drop of this wine. Of course, it left us wanting more.

Photo by Mumm Napa Valley

NV Mumm Brut Prestige, Napa Valley, SRP $24, 240,000 cases produced
If you want a sparkling wine that consistently delivers palate-pleasing flavors and is and affordable enough to drink anytime you feel like bubbles, Mumm is the wine for you. A blend of 45% chardonnay, 45% pinot noir, and 10% pinot gris and meunier, Mumm’s signature wine is made in the traditional method. On the palate, think pears with a honeyed quality, coupled with soft effervescence. The Brut Prestige complemented rich foods like bacon-wrapped jalapeño peppers, biscuits and gravy, and grilled salmon. With a quarter of a million cases produced, Mumm is most likely available right around the corner from you.

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Photo by Gary Monday

2016 Rosemont of Virginia Brut, Virginia, SRP $25, 109 cases produced
This wine was the most unique of all the wines we tasted. The only brut nature (no dosage) of the lineup and made from 100% chardonel (a cross between chardonnay and Seyval) using the charmat method, this wine showed zingy, citrus fruit flavors like white grapefruit, lemon, and lime. The bone dryness and racy acidity cut through the fattiest foods, like bacon-wrapped jalapeño peppers, sausage gravy, and grilled salmon. This vintage is sold out, but next year’s vintage will be released in early 2019.

Michael David Winery

Bare Ranch, my home for five days
Bare Ranch, my home for five days

I’m taking a wine marketing class this fall and on the first night of class, my instructor reminded me of something very important: only 20% of the United States population purchases wine and those customers are often drawn to wine brands based on an emotional connection or experience with the wine. Perhaps it was a dinner with friends or family, a visit to a winery made special by the tasting host, or a friend’s recommendation. Generally, most wine consumers don’t want to know what the percentages of blends are, how the wine is fermented and aged, or the vineyard management details. They want what tastes good and brings back memories of a great experience. When we meet someone, we don’t want to know their genetics or their chemical composition, we want a human connection. When I heard this, it hit me that maybe I am doing an injustice to the wines and wineries I review by sharing technical details that only wine geeks want to read. In light of this revelation, I am making a conscious change to the way I write. It should be fairly easy since this is who I am. I crave emotional connections to people, places, and things. I want to feel something inside after winery visit or a wine dinner. I want to feel inspired. Therefore, I’m bringing back storytelling, fun, passion, and emotion.

Three weeks ago, I arrived in Lodi, California, for the Wine Bloggers Conference. Unlike many of my peers, I had just visited Lodi in June and had already fallen in love with the wines and the people. Before that June visit, I harbored no preconceived notions about Lodi. If there’s anything I’ve learned after five years of wine and travel writing, it’s to visit wine regions with open mind, heart, and eyes, without reservation or hesitation.

A beautiful evening at Bare Ranch
A beautiful evening at Bare Ranch

I was especially lucky this fifth conference that my friend, Jeff Kralik (The Drunken Cyclist), had included me as one of the wine writers who would be staying at Michael David Winery’s Bare Ranch as a guest of the Phillips family. The first night I was there, I had the opportunity to share wine and dinner with David Phillips. Like my earlier trip to Lodi, I was taken aback by the kindness of David and his family to share their event property with a few crazy writers. Thank you again, David and Jeff, for including me in the Bare Ranch experience. I spent five nights there and it was at Bare Ranch that I had the lengthiest exposure to Lodi wine during the conference. The ranch was well supplied with Michael David wines and I had the opportunity to taste a few of them.

2012 Bare Ranch Sparkling
2012 Bare Ranch Sparkling

One of my favorites was the 2012 Bare Ranch Sparkling ($35), which is a small-production, traditional method sparkling wine crafted from Bare Ranch estate chardonnay (and a little pinot noir), located just over the fence from where I stayed, in honor of and especially for Bare Ranch guests and events. Its fresh and fruity fizziness with just a touch of yeast was the perfect accompaniment to starry Lodi nights by the pool, unspoken shenanigans, camaraderie, and lots of laughter. I am certain that I am not the only one who loved it, as somehow, over the course of five nights, a case of it mysteriously disappeared.

2013 Inkblot Cabernet Franc
2013 Inkblot Cabernet Franc

The second day in Lodi, Alison Marriott (Bon Vivant DC) and I visited Michael David’s tasting room and café. I knew I wasn’t in the Napa Valley any more when the freshly made burgers we ate were fewer than $10 each with the most AMAZING fries I’ve ever eaten. Since we were stocked up on wines at the ranch (understatement!), we decided to have a glass of the 2013 Inkblot Cabernet Franc ($35). The polar opposite of the delicate sparkling wine, this bold cabernet franc comes from a single, nine-acre vineyard near the winery. If a wine could be described as tall, dark, and handsome, this would be it. Opulent and juicy, spicy and smoky, this cabernet franc is seductive, the wine I wanted to take home with me after frolicking at the pool with the Bare Ranch Sparkling (wink, wink).

2014 Ancient Vine Cinsault
2014 Ancient Vine Cinsault (photo credit: Jon Bjork)

Not to be outdone by the sparkling or the cabernet franc, the 2014 Ancient Vine Cinsault ($25), sourced from the famed, 130-year-old Bechthold Vineyard, found its way into my heart one evening. More of a refined gentleman, this wine was indeed a smooth operator, with delectable red berry fruit flavors and tannins that gently caressed my palate. I had discovered a holy grail of Lodi wine.

2015 Sauvignon Blanc
2015 Sauvignon Blanc

Last, but certainly not least, was the comfortable, uncomplicated wine, the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc ($16). The first wine I shared with David Phillips and Jeff Kralik by the pool, it’s easy to drink, clean, and crisp, with loads of zingy citrus and tropical fruit flavors. Like a good friend, this is the reliable, go-to wine for hot, summer days in Lodi or wherever your travels might take you. It’s possible we may have consumed a case of this wine, too, but I’ll never tell. After all, what happens at Bare Ranch stays at Bare Ranch.

#WIYG: The December 2012 #TGTaste Edition

In a forthcoming, end-of-the-year post, I will be detailing some of what has happened to me in 2012, which has caused me to be somewhat remiss in my reviews. For now, here are some of the wines I’ve tasted in the last two ThirstyGirl #TGTaste events, one in partnership with Whole Foods, and the other in partnership with Domaine Ste. Michelle.

2011 Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc
2011 Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc

2011 Ferrari-Carano Fumé (Sauvignon) Blanc, Sonoma County, $15.00
I love a warmer-climate Sauvignon Blanc like this one, which boasts a combination of citrus, melon, and tropical fruits, like guava, kiwi, and mango. With a cooperage of 65% stainless steel, 35% older French oak barrels, it is crisp, yet has a substantial mouthfeel and a nice finish.

2010 H&G Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley
2010 H&G Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley

2010 H&G Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, $14.00
According to the website, the grapes for this wine are hand-picked from small lots. This wine is surprisingly smooth for an inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignon, with lots of cherry and plum flavors and mild tannins, which makes it very easy to drink, with or without food.

Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut Rosé and Brut
Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut Rosé and Brut

Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut and Brut Rosé, $8-$12
The Brut (88% Chardonnay and 12% Pinot Noir) and Brut Rosé (100% Pinot Noir), both made in the traditional (champenoise) method, are both fantastic price-to-quality sparklers. A friend and I paired them with a variety of foods, such as fresh raspberries, Gouda and crackers, and crusty bread dipped in a choice of three olive oil blends: balsamic vinegar, Italian spices, and Kosher salt. The Brut has zesty citrus and tart crabapple flavors and paired well with the Gouda and crackers and the bread dipped in olive oil-Kosher salt. The Brut Rosé has raspberry and strawberry flavors, and paired perfectly with our fresh raspberries. In fact, we even dropped a few in our glasses.

Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut Rosé and fresh raspberries
Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut Rosé and fresh raspberries

As noted above, all of these wines are well under $20. They would be great additions to your holiday dinner tables and celebrations without breaking the bank, and should be readily available at local wine stores, shops, or grocery stores. All of these wines were graciously provided to me as media samples from Whole Foods and Domaine Ste. Michelle. Cheers and Merry Christmas!