The debut of the Artisan Series at Food Network in Concert

As some of you may know, I embarked on an exciting new journey earlier this year when I co-created the wine-savvy Artisan Series which will debut at the Food Network in Concert event in Highland Park, 20 minutes from Chicago, on September 20th. The show will be held at the legendary Ravinia Festival venue, the oldest outdoor music grounds in the United States. Headliners will include John Maher, Phillip Phillips, Twin Forks, Raul Midon, and many other hot acts.

FNIC 2014

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Food Network Magazine event without some celebrity chefs there, too. For starters, we’re talking about television and magazine stars like Mark Murphy, Anne Burrell, Sunny Anderson, Alex Guarnaschelli, Jose Garces, Jeff Mauro and Geoffrey Zakarian. On top of that add 70 of the top chefs in the Chicago area, and you have a serious day of #eatdrinkrock festivities in the making.

As the exclusive Artisan Series Sommelier at FNIC, my job will be to provide delectable and educational wine experiences for guests visiting the Chefs Lounge and VIP Lounge, as well as at the wine seminars led by Master Sommelier Alpana Singh and myself, and other special activities happening at the event. This will all be done with the stunning Artisan Series wines provided by Freixenet USA, Foley Family Wines and Charles Krug Winery.

Yesterday, the inaugural copy of the exciting Food Network in Concert newsletter was launched. In it you’ll find my notes on the delicious bubbles from the Freixenet portfolio paired with five summer songs by musicians featured at this year’s event: Songs & Bubbles of Summer as well as their special Summertime Sparklers.

Rest assured, I’ll be using the newsletter and other marvelous tools of social media to promote this stunning wine program, tasty bites and recipes, interviews with star chefs, fellow sommeliers, winemakers and musicians on the SawyerSomm site leading up to event.

In the meantime, don’t forget to check out “The Music Issue” inside the July-August copy of Food Network Magazine, which features fun pairings of chefs like Ina Garten, Michael Symon, Mauro and Zackarian, talking food with musicians Taylor Swift, Billy Corgan, Ja Rule and Sammy Hagar. In short, it’s a summer of fun, and a summer to #eatdrinkrock!

For tickets, visit

This Weekend: Exploring the majesties of wines from West Sonoma Coast

Looking to “wow” your friends with your access to world-class Pinot Noirs, elegant cool-climate Syrahs and magnificent Chardonnays made by boutique producers working with premium fruit grown in the West Sonoma Coast? Then head to The Barlow in Sebastopol this weekend for the annual West of West Wine Festival, August 1-3.

The Festival begins with welcome dinners hosted by member wineries on Friday night. These dinners offer a rare opportunity to dine with winemakers in their home or winery.


Saturday offers morning seminars, vintner interviews, vineyard tours and flight tastings, following by the first of two Grand Tastings on Saturday afternoon.

Continue the fun Saturday night with an oyster and white wine reception followed by the Grand Dinner with James Beard finalist chef Steven Satterfield from Miller Union.

Finally we will return to the Grand Tasting tent on Sunday afternoon for a second opportunity to taste through the wines.

Having attended this festival in the years past, I’ll say that it’s one of the best tastings of the summer. For a pre-festival briefing on the festivities and styles of the wines being made in the mountains near the ocean, read the article I wrote for The Tasting Panel Magazine a few years ago.

For a complete list of producers pouring at the event and ticket information, visit the West of West Wines page.

Hope to see you there! Cheers, Christopher

Top Picks from the 2011 vintage at the Rutherford Dust Tasting

Hewitt 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon: Powerful wine with expressive aromas of dark berry, cola, cinnamon and savory spices. Deep, rich flavors of blackberry, cassis, plum, dark cherry, mineral and roasted black fig; gritty tannins smoothed out with silk texture; long finish. Young, dense and mysterious.

Beaulieu Vineyard 2011 George de Latour Estate Cabernet Sauvignon: Stately new release with entrancing aromas of mocha, plum, raspberry, earth, tobacco and black walnut. On the palate, the dimensions of the wine expands with notes of cherry, black raspberry, mineral mint, dark chocolate and well-integrated oak. In my opinion, joel aikenone of the top ageworthy wines from 2011 vintage in the Rutherford AVA.

12C 2011 Beckstoffer Vineyard George III Cabernet Sauvignon: Complex wine with aromas of roasted fig, wild herbs, black fruits, smoke and cedar. Flavors of cassis, blackberry and tart cherry; chewy tannins; and a burst of bright acidity on the finish.

Frank Family 2011 Winston Hill Red Wine: Pretty aromas of red fruit, allspice, mineral, chaparral and roasted meats. Flavors of wild berries, ripe cranberry, capers, black pepper and savory spices; chewy fruit-based tannins; and strong finish with nuances of vanilla and cedar.

Quintessa 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon: Elegant wine with alluring floral aromas and deep flavors of ripe plum, cherry, blueberry, cocoa and a hint of sea salt; vibrant acidity; elegant tannins; and long engaging finish. Drinking nice now but has enough of structure to go the distance as well as any of the other wines poured from the 2011 vintage.

Freemark Abbey 2011 Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon: One of the more intriguing Cabernets of the tasting. Fairly closed aromas at first, but after a few minutes the wine opens up with notes of dried red fruits, tobacco, rosemary, bay laurel and cedar. Flavors of dusty briary blackberry, dark cherry, wild herbs, blood orange and shaved bittersweet chocolate on the finish.

McGah Family Cellars 2011 Scarlett Cabernet Sauvignon: Impressed wine with the fragrant aromas of fresh violet and tobacco and lively flavors of raspberry, plum and cassis. Very sexy and extremely food friendly with daintier styles of cuisine.

Wm. Harrison 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon: Pretty wine with lifted bouquet driven by lofty nuances of roasted chestnuts, cocoa, mint, cloves, cigar box and ripe red fruits. Tranquil, refined and elegant.

Flora Springs 2011 Hillside Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: Elegant and sophisticated style of cabernet Sauvignon made with fruit from the top blocks on the Flora Springs Estate Vineyard in Rutherford. Aromas of ripe berries, spice and seasoned meats. Flavors of raspberry, cherry, plum, wild sage, dark chocolate and vibrant acidity from start to finish.

Aiken 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon: Made exclusively with fruit from the famed Morisoli Vineyard in Rutherford, this food-friendly Cabernet features spicy aromas with hints of vanilla, licorice and dark cherry. The flavors open up with notes of ripe berries, cherry, plum, heirloom tomatoes and black olive. The finish is long, spicy and generous.

Classic Rutherford style in the Chaix 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Classic Rutherford style in the Chaix 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Chaix 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon: In the old days, most of the fruit from the Chaix Vineyard was sold to Beaulieu Vineyard. But today, the family and winemaker Sam Baxter work together to craft its own signature style of Cabernet Sauvignon. From the 2011 vintage, the wine features deep flavors of black raspberry, plum, mocha and earth. Overall, one of the few examples that stood out as having the classic Rutherford Dust flavors of mocha and shaved chocolate.

Riboli Family Vineyard 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon: One of the newest producers in the Rutherford AVA. This fantastic medium to full bodied wine features elegant flavors of ripe berries, violet, cherry, mineral, roasted walnut, black pepper, and lively savory notes on the finish. Definitely a great brand to watch for in 2014 and beyond.


Exploring the virtues of the 2011 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon at “A Day in the Dust”

From a sommelier’s perspective, I think what made this year’s presentation at the annual “A Day in the Dust” Tasting hosted at the legendary Ingelnook Winery by the Rutherford Dust Society last week so special was the spirit of the growers connected to the wineries and the winemakers, particularly in regards to the teamwork required to make it through the 2011 vintage and the horrid eight days of heavy rain in early October.

Winemaker Kirk Venge of Hunnicutt Wines reflects on the unique conditions of working with Rutherford fruit in 2011.
Winemaker Kirk Venge of Hunnicutt Wines reflects on the unique conditions of working with Rutherford fruit in 2011.

With that being said, most of the wines are not typical in terms of Rutherford Dust style. For starters, 2011 was a lighter year than previous vintages. But for what was lost in ripe fruit flavors and the natural mocha or chocolate notes typically associated with the term “Rutherford Dust” was made up for with more emphasis on high levels of acidity and tannin management. But, then again, these types of conditions are common for winemakers in Bordeaux to deal with multiple times in a decade.

At Quintessa Winery, for instance, winemaker Charles Thomas said 95% of the fruit was picked after the second rain and the use of optical sorting tables was critical to making sure he only worked with clean fruit. “There was a lot of talk among friends and other winemakers. To us, every day was a new harvest.”

In the end, the vintage was better than expected. As longtime winemaker Ted Edwards of Freemark Abbey put it in baseball terms, “I think we got thrown a curve ball and we hit it out of the park.”

The magnificent Flora Springs 2011 Rutherford Hillside Reserve
The magnificent Flora Springs 2011 Rutherford Hillside Reserve

Due to these factors, the bright red fruit flavors in the wines have drifted way away from the conventional pairings with beef, lamb and blue cheese; but instead lend themselves more towards working with more creative cuisine. For instance, I would have no problem pairing many of the wines with seared Ahi tuna coated on the outside with ground espresso beans and the plate decorated with drizzles of raspberry coolie. Other options would be to serve a chicken dish with savory spices, roasted pork with spicy plum sauce, or medium bodied cheeses like Laura Chenel’s new Truffle Chevre that can handle the high level of acidity in these young vibrant wines. In essence, they are wines that are drinkable now and even more intriguing when paired with a wider range of cuisine.

I would compare the 2011 vintage to a rare album. It reminds me of The In Sound From Way Out, the Beastie Boys instrumental EP that I originally purchased in Paris in the late 1999. Today, the album still doesn’t sound like Licensed to Ill, Paul’s Boutique or the other hit albums in the band’s portfolio. Instead, it has its own quirky personality much like the wines from the 2011 vintage that are a slight departure from what sommeliers, wine buyers and consumers have come to expect from the Rutherford AVA and the mythical Rutherford Dust from the region.

In my opinion, there is still a great range of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignons or Bordeaux style blends that remain authentic to the admired styles of Rutherford AVA. In terms of power and finesse, some of my favorites at the tasting were the rich and dense flavors of the Hewitt 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; the Beaulieu Vineyard 2011 George de Latour Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; and 12C 2011 Beckstoffer Vineyard George III Cabernet Sauvignon. For youthfulness and complexity, the Quintessa 2011 shined with floral aromas and deep flavors of ripe plum, cherry, blueberry and cocoa. If you like earthy wines, my picks of the vintage were the Freemark Abbey 2011 Sycamore Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and the Frank Family 2011 Winston Hill Red Wine. And on the sexier side of Cabernet Sauvignon, I was very impressed with the fragrant aromas of fresh violet and tobacco and lively flavors of raspberry, plum and cassis in the McGah 2011 Scarlett Cabernet Sauvignon and the slightly lifted bouquet and nuances of red berry, clove and chestnut in the Wm. Harrison 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.

Prices of these wines varied from $45 to $125 per bottle. See below for more details on these wines and other top picks. Also, look for clips of my views on the vintage as well as notes from my friend and fellow sommelier Jorge Tinoco in Randy Caparoso’s upcoming article in The SOMM Journal. For more information about the producers of the Rutherford AVA, visit

Tasty New Releases: Germany, Austria and beyond

The German 1-0 win over Argentina on Sunday marked the first ever championship for a European team when the FIFA World Cup has been played in the New World.

But that’s soccer.

In the world of wine, Germany and the neighboring country of Austria have been making magnificent white wines with the noble grape Riesling for centuries.

This year’s new releases are no exception as proven at the recent German and Austrian Fall 2014 Tasting presented by Terry Theise Estate Selections and WineWise/The Vienna Wine Company at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.

According to the producers I spoke with, the 2013 vintage is magnificent across the board.

“The first priority of the vintage was based on farming,” said Gunter Kunstler, winemaker/proprietor of Weingut Kunstler in the Rheingau region of Germany.

Gunter Kunstler of Weingut Kunstler celebrates a German goal in a World Cup game televised at the tasting in SF.
Gunter Kunstler of Weingut Kunstler celebrates a German goal in a World Cup game televised at the tasting in SF.

“It’s critical to be there at the right time when the fruit is ripe, the acid in balance and the skin is healthy. But when you master this process, it’s much easier to create balanced wines with layers of complexity.

Same was true for Caroline Diel, whose family owns Schlossgut Diel in Nahe. “In my opinion, 2013 was a relatively late year. But with god work in the vineyard and a little patience, the wines are fresh, beautiful and quite enjoyable when young.”

Two tasty interpretations of the 2013 vintage from Weingut Hexamer in the Nahe region.
Two tasty interpretations of the 2013 vintage from Weingut Hexamer in the Nahe region.

Wine scholar, author, philosopher and lovable bon vivant Terry Theise, who hosted the tasting, is fond of the vintage as well. “It’s a special vintage where the clusters had time on the vines to develop deep flavors of fresh fruit, acid, slate and other nuances that have resulted in classy wines that are both food friendly yet still have the ability to cellar for decades.


Here are some of my favorite picks from the event. Prices based on suggested retail.

Donnhoff 2013 Tronschiefer Riesling Trocken, Nahe, Germany ($30): Green apple, white plum, peach, grapefruit rind and mineral. Lively, fresh and stimulating to the senses.

Geil 2013 Geyersberg Riesling Trocken, Rheinhessen, Germany ($33): Very young, very vibrant with pretty floral aromas, flavors of pear, dried apricot and fleshy texture. Great wine to serve as an aperitif or with spicy Asian cuisine.

Kunstler 2013 Hochheimer Kirchenstuck Riesling Kabinett Trocken, Rheingau, Germany ($33): Fragrant aromas of spring flowers, fresh citrus and mineral. Medium body with lively flavors of lychee, mango, grilled pineapple, and a long finish.

Schlossgut Diel 2013 Riesling Kabinett, Nahe, Germany ($31): Young and fresh wine with notes of ripe golden delicious apple, fresh citrus, green tea, sage, mint and racy acidity.

From the Kamptal region of Austria: Peter Schleimer of Schloss Gobelsburg and Vincent Brundlmayer of Brundlmayer.
From the Kamptal region of Austria: Peter Schleimer of Schloss Gobelsburg and Vincent Brundlmayer of Brundlmayer.

Fantastic wine that makes you feel younger with each sip!

Brundlmayer 2013 Riesling ‘Kamptaler Terrassen’, Kamptal, Austria ($27): Impressive example of Riesling from the Kamptal region on the Danube River in Austria. Ripe pear, lime, hazelnut, sea salt and a nice toasty note on the finish.


The “Stars Under The Stars” Film Festival is back at St. Francis Winery!

For the 5th year in a row, St. Francis Winery in Sonoma Valley and yours truly will be hosting the amazing “Stars Under the Stars” Film St Francis 2Festival each Thursday night throughout the month of July.

This year’s sizzling lineup includes BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) on July 10; A FISH CALLED WANDA (1988) on July 17; THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) on July 24; and FARGO (1996) on July 31. I’ll be pairing each film with the magnificent wines from the St. Francis Artisan Collection.

These special boutique production wines will be sold by the glass and tangy delectables from Sonoma Valley’s favorite Taco Truck, Londera Emely, will be available onsite, too. As an extra bonus, the fantastic opening bands will kick the festivities off in style at 7 pm each night.

St Francis 1For more information:

Hope to be seeing you under the stars in July too!

Pairing sparkling wine with the ultimate Ice Cream Flag Cake

Cake 4th July photo 1The minute I first saw it, I knew it was only a matter of time until someone I knew would make it happen over #4thofJuly Weekend. Of course, I’m talking about making the ultimate Ice Cream Flag Cake featured in the July/August issue of Food Network Magazine. Imagine a dazzling red, white and blue cake made with raspberry sorbet, vanilla ice cream, 28 drops of blue gel food coloring, unsweetened cocoa powder, confectioner’s sugar, and plenty of other goodies. It’s a recipe for a holiday cake that makes you want to cut it out and eat it.

So it wasn’t a surprise that my great friend Ilene Rapkin, President of I Openers in NYC, and her family completed the honorable task of making this magnificent culinary gem during their 4th of July Weekend activities in upstate New York.

So when Ilene sent me photos of the cake, she asked me what I would recommend for a wine pairing. My first instinct was to break open a bottle of the Gloria Ferrer NV Va de Vi Sparkling Wine, Sonoma County.

SawyerSomm notes: As a departure from the magnificently dry styles of elegant sparkling wines made at Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards near Sonoma, California since 1982; the Va de Vi is young, perky style of bubbly with a hint of sweetness on the finish. Composed of 89% Pinot Noir, 8% Chardonnay and 3% Muscat, the wine features lively flavors of Bing cherries, fresh berries, Meyer lemon, vanilla and creamy texture. In essence, it’s a melting pot of deliciousness.

July 4th photo 2BIn addition to pairing extremely well with the ingredients used in the Ice Cream Flag Cake and more semi-sweet desserts; this sparkling gem can also easy be served as a fresh aperitif or as a compliment to spicy Indian or Thai cuisine.

Later this month, Va di Vi will be one of the featured sparkling wines paired with flavorful domestic interpretations of Spanish tapas at the 22nd Annual Catalan Festival at Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards, July 19-20. For more information, visit

This fall, the Va de Vi and other sensational sparklers and still wines from Gloria Ferrer will also be featured at the Food Network in Concert at the Ravinia theater in Highland Park near Chicago on September 20th, including at the spicy “Hot, Hot, Hot” luncheon hosted by star chefs and wine seminars hosted by yours truly before the headliner John Maher takes the stage in the evening. In short, the Va de Vi is a fun and stimulating sparkling wine that’s definitely worth getting to know in 2014!

Cheers, Christopher

American Tradition Part 4: Barbeque and wine four ways for the Fourth

SawyerSomm Savory Suggestion: Lamb Sliders with Syrah

As an alternative to hamburgers, one of my favorite options is to make Lamb Sliders topped with melted Vermont white cheddar, spicy aioli, arugula and grilled peppers served on a sweet baguette. But if you don’t have enough time to gather all these ingredients, I love the tasty style that Chef Giada de Laurentiis, star of Food Network’s Giada at Home, made on the episode Backyard Campout.

As a rule, lamb works extremely well with Syrah. Granted, there are plenty of young, vibrant styles of wine out in the marketplace. But for a celebration holiday like July 4th, it’s a good excuse to break open one of the a more limited release, reserve-style bottles of Syrah modeled after the famous wines made in the northern Rhone Valley region of France. A magnificent domestic version is the Chalk Hill 2009 Syrah, Estate Grown, Chalk Hill ($60). Made with fruit grown on the cooler-climate western side of the Estate Vineyard east of Windsor, the wine features inviting aromas of dark fruit, black olives, smoked meats, layers of spice and cedar. The flavors are deep and rich, with notes of ripe blackberry, red currant, roasted fig, black pepper, sea salt, dark chocolate, and a long, rewarding finish. Rich, focused, and oh so rewarding!

American tradition Part 3: Barbeque and wine four ways for the Fourth

SawyerSomm Savory Suggestion: BBQ Pork Spareribs with Zinfandel

Let’s face it, all barbeque sauces are not created equal. Some are sweet and tangy, while others can be much more bold and spicy. To celebrate July 4th, a classic American tradition to follow is Patrick and Gina Neely’s recipe for Pork Ribs, which melds together the sweet and tangy flavors of brown sugar, molasses and apple cider vinegar with spicy notes of cayenne pepper and smoked paprika to create a tasty sensation with a lingering finish. Typically, these ribs are easy to serve with baked beans and coleslaw.

To match up with this wide range of flavors, I tend to lean towards serving a balanced Zinfandel with ripe fruity flavors, layers of spice, balance, and a restrained level of alcohol. Among the flavorful new releases to meet my criteria is the DeLoach Vineyards 2012 Zinfandel, Russian River Valley ($20).

Known as California’s “sweetheart grape,” Zinfandel has been grown in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley since the early 1880s. While many of the older vineyards are “field blends” interplanted with Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mourvedre (Mataro) other red grape varieties, the new DeLoach wine is more focused on purity and the fresh fruit flavors from younger vines planted at the Becnel and Slusser vineyards in northern Russian River Valley and a smaller portion of more concentrated fruit from old vine Zinfandel planted closer to the Deloach Estate Vineyards western of Santa Rosa. As a result, the wine features lively aromas of ripe blue fruits, violets, cinnamon and clove; concentrated flavors of boysenberry, blueberry, black raspberry, dark plum, fresh cracked pepper, layers of savory spice; a sexy rustic texture; and a long, lingering finish without too much heat or alcohol.

As an extra July 4th tip, I would recommend pairing the BBQ Pork Spareribs and DeLoach Zinfandel with the movie Top Gun starring Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Tim Robbins and Val Kilmer. Ironically, several scenes from the movie were filmed at the Kansas City Barbeque, a bar and restaurant located in the harbor district of San Diego, which opened to the public in 1983, the same year Russian River Valley became recognized as an American Viticultural Area. On its own merits, that patriotic fact of American wine history takes my breath away!