Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mix in Las Vegas: What Dining Out is All About

Once in a while, a meal is so complete, so thoroughly enjoyable, so reaffirming in its balance of elegance, creativity, and warmth, that it reminds you exactly what makes dining out such a treat and, in times like these, such an emotional necessity.

I had an experience like that this past February at Mix, the fabulous restaurant at the top of THEhotel, next to the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. For my last night in town (coincidentally my birthday), my wife had flown out to join me for a special dinner. I’d been in Vegas all week hosting the culinary demonstrations at the Catersource and Event Solutions Conference and Trade Show, the largest gathering of its kind in the world, and this meal was to be the capstone on the week.

It also was a chance to reunite with a good friend of ours, Christophe Tassan, who we’d gotten to know in Philadelphia when he worked as the Sommelier and General Manager of the legendary Le Bec-Fin, and who now is the Wine Director at Mix. He’s also one of the single most knowledgeable wine experts I know, blending a deep knowledge and understanding with an infectious enthusiasm that’s impossible not to get swept up in.

So, just to reiterate: I was already in Las Vegas for work, but my wife had flown across the country for a single meal (we found a cheap flight…gotta love Southwest!). If ever there was pressure on a dining experience to be great, this was it: Hours on a cramped airplane, with only a single night out providing the light at the end of that long tunnel, tends to amplify expectations.

Put simply, we were not let down. In fact, quite the opposite happened: This proved to be one of the best dining experiences we’ve ever had.

Upon stepping off the elevator at the top of THEhotel, we were greeted by a shimmering sea of whites and creams; a gargantuan chandelier that, despite its size and its composition of 15,000 Murano glass balls made to look like Champagne bubbles, managed to appear almost impossibly light; and the best views in the city.

As for the food, it more than lived up to the surroundings in which it was enjoyed, blending brilliantly defined flavors, a sense of luxury, and just the slightest touch of whimsy. The dishes on the Grand Tasting Menu, regardless of their individual ingredients, all struck perfectly balanced poses that highlighted both richness and a stunning sense of restraint.

The highlights were too numerous to include in their entirety: Kampachi sashimi was the texture of silk and the perfect in situ argument for allowing top-notch ingredients to speak for themselves; seared Thai snapper with a carrot fondant and a tagine jus embodied everything that's great about dishes that pull from numerous cultures to create something new and deeply satisfying; roasted Maine lobster “au curry” with coconut basmati rice utilized its ambrosial perfume as well as it velvety flavors and textures to create a unified, gently aromatic whole; impossibly tender Colorado lamb loin was paired with miniature samosas whose own sense of spice cast the earthiness of the meat into exquisitely sharp relief. The list goes on.

And all of these dishes were made even better by Mr. Tassan’s wine pairings. From the fantastic Herman Story “Tomboy,” a white Rhone-style stunner from Santa Maria, to one of the most complete wines I’ve ever tasted, the Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Rangen de Thann Clos St.-Urbain 1996, the procession of glasses demonstrated exactly what has always made Mr. Tassan one of the best in the world: His pure love of wine from all over the planet, and his willingness to experiment with flavor and texture combinations, leading to pairings that surprise, delight, and, indeed, make you think.

That theme carried through to dessert, too, when we were shown to our “dessert table” on the outdoor terrace 43 floors above the Strip. From the rich to the refreshing—the “floating island” was a standout—the selection of sweets, the planes taking off and landing in the distance, the spotlight shining up from the Luxor all brought the meal to a perfect close.

This was, without a doubt, an extraordinary meal, one of the best I've ever had. Indeed, it was an experience worth flying across the country for. Great food, spectacular wine, and being reunited with an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time: There’s just nothing better.
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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Two Pichons: My Wines of the Tasting

Choosing a favorite wine from a tasting like this one is like trying too…well, choose a favorite wine from a tasting like this one. Logical statement? Not terribly. But with truly great wine, logic often takes a back seat to emotion.

Which is all to say that it’s impossible to pick a favorite wine. This, after all, was an afternoon of standouts. That having been said, though, the Pichon-Lalande 1989 and the Pichon-Baron 1990 made my heart (and tastebuds) do some pretty amazing dancing. (In a good way, of course.)

The Lalande showed a nose that can only be described as warm, with deep notes of toast, warm vanilla, aromatic brown spices, hints of peppercorns, and a perfume that reminded me of a perfectly roasted beet terrine with walnuts (we can’t always control what we experience with wine!). The palate, on the other hand, had a freshness that I wasn’t expecting. Strawberries and kirsch remained surprisingly light on their feet, and the wine as a whole found a superb balance between sweetness, depth, density, elegance, and power.

The Baron, on the other hand, played it closer to the vest. It smelled of perfume-y fruit, truffles, and a well-defined minerality, as well as undertones of meat and superripe and grilled green bell peppers. The acid, tannins, fruit, and earth elements were all perfectly integrated on the palate—this was unquestionably a wine at its peak—and flavors of kirsch and coffee lingered on for a hauntingly long period of time.

So while picking a single favorite was impossible, these two showed exactly why older Bordeaux remains one of the classic examples of the glories of French wine. And, as a pair, they represent why a tasting like this one is so instructive and downright delicious.
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Monday, April 27, 2009


For the past couple of months, Uncork Life! has been updated several times a week with wine reviews, accounts of great meals, videos, and more. Now you have the chance to get all the news—albeit in shorter form—even more often. Go to Twitter and sign up to follow “WineUpdate” for regular posts from all over the wine world. Then visit for full write-ups, videos, and even more in-depth coverage. We are working to become your one-stop source for the best that the world of wine has to offer.

Right now, I’m on my way up to New York for a tasting of Chateau
Pichon-Baron (the grand vin is officially called Chateau Longueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville) and Chateau Pichon-Lalande (officially Chateau Pichon-Longueville, Comtesse de Lalande). Quite a mouthful, to be sure, but so are the wines—both renowned and highly-sought-after Second Growths.

I’ll be tasting side-by-side examples from both chateaux’s 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, and 2000 vintages, as well as Pichon-Lalande 1989, 1985, and 1975, and Pichon-Baron 1990 and 1985. Check back here later this week for a full accounting and video of the wines, and follow the updates on Twitter today as I post live from the restaurant.
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Friday, April 24, 2009

One of the Greats

The great names of the Napa Valley carry just as much weight to fans of the wines as those from the storied growing regions of Europe. Mondavi, Araujo, Ridge, and the rest cause just as many heart-flutters as Lafite, Latour, and Margaux. On both sides of the Pond, they all set the standard for quality, prestige, and ageability.

Recently, at the monthly meeting of a wine club I’m a member of (more on that in an upcoming post), I had the chance to taste a wine from another of Napa’s legendary producers: Heitz Cellars. In this case, it was the Bella Oaks Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, a wine that not only exceeded my expectations, but that also brought to mind, in any number of ways, everything that made the greats of the Valley such stars in the first place.

Even at nearly 11 years old, it still exhibited a fantastically dark color, with just a touch of age showing at the rim. The nose was a deep, mesmerizing well of eucalyptus and sweet tobacco, and the juice itself still maintained an amazing sense of weight and density. That eucalyptus note followed through from the nose and was joined up on the palate by red currant and a hint of spice. After the dramatic initial wave of the finish it tapered off quietly, leaving nothing but the memory of a structured, elegant, aromatically fascinating wine at its peak right now.
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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Blackstone Sonoma Reserve "Rubric" 2006

Smoky oak and vanilla aromas are exuberant but kept well in check, and grilled graphite, red plums, a touch of chocolate, and even a hint of sesame seeds mingle effortlessly in the glass. All that silkiness of the nose is echoed on the palate, with a hint of caramel and a chocolate-covered-wafer note. The fruit, however, is more restrained than you’d expect, which works in the wine’s favor.

It’s still young—I’d lay it down for 3 – 5 years—but the minerality of the mid-palate and the spiciness on the front-end of the finish promise a fascinating, rewarding evolution ahead. For now, I’d either drink it with food or give the oak and alcohol a bit of time to integrate. The wait, however, will definitely be worth it. Cabernet Sauvignon (59%), Merlot (10%), Petite Verdot (8%), Syrah (8%), Cabernet Franc (7%), Petite Sirah (6%), and Tannat (2%).
Click here for the 2005.
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Monday, April 20, 2009

Raising a Glass to Abruzzo

A major earthquake hit Italy two weeks ago today. It was centered in the Abruzzo region, home to some of the easiest drinking, most readily enjoyable wines in the country. (Wine Spectator published an excellent piece about it on their web site the day after it occurred; click here to read it.) And while the recovery will take a long time, I’m doing what little I can to help out the people of Abruzzo by purchasing wines from there, cooking up some nice meals, and enjoying them as they were meant to be.

This isn’t out of the ordinary for me: I drink a lot of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo for both its wonderful food-friendliness and its absolutely charming character on its own. But now, there’s an extra incentive, a human incentive. And not only am I making it a point to buy wines from the region, but I am also raising my glass in a toast to the people who made the wine possible, and who are facing such hard times right now. Though the local wine industry seems to have escaped major harm, the people of the region have a long road ahead of them. Buying and opening a few bottles of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo seems like an appropriate way to recognize the tragedy, and to do a little bit to help from this side of the ocean.
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Friday, April 17, 2009

Wide-Ranging Zinfandel

The Hendry vineyard is home to some of the truly great fruit of the Napa Valley. From Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon to a remarkable Pinot Gris and more, George Hendry’s attention to detail and passion for his work shine through not only in his estate-bottled wines, but also in those that other producers craft from his fruit. (The Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel “George Hendry Vineyard” 2004, for example, is wonderful.)

Earlier this week, I had the chance to taste a dozen wines from Hendry with Susan Ridley, George Hendry’s partner, and Laura Lamprecht of Specialty Wines and Liquors, their distributor here in the northeast. Of those wines, the Zinfandel lineup was among the most fascinating. Each bottling is sourced from particular blocks and specific clones within the vineyard, which affords Hendry the unique opportunity to express not only the differences in terroir on the vineyard, but also the surprisingly varied characteristics of each clone.

My tasting notes are below, after the video. But before reading them, take a look at Susan describing what exactly it was that I tasted.

The Hendry "Block 7 and 22" 2005 was, as Susan described, exceptionally elegant. She called it a “Pinot Noir-lovers” Zinfandel, and she was right on the money: It was far more restrained than many Zinfandels, and possessed a lovely herbal note that came out especially well after having tasted the other Zins.

The "Block 28" 2005, on the other hand, showed a significantly darker, richer berry note, and a palate that was buttressed by tannins that, despite their excellent integration, possessed a great deal more grip. The flavors ran the gamut from ripe dark berries and kirsch to licorice, and really called out for hearty, meaty food to enjoy alongside it.

The Primitivo "Block 24" 2006 had a creamy, velvety, almost melted texture, and despite all the pronounced fruit of the nose, it tasted far more restrained and minerally than I’d expected, finishing on notes of graphite and baker’s chocolate. As Susan said, it was, simply, "yummy."

More and more producers are making the most out of the range of characteristics that Zinfandel offers. I cannot state strongly enough how important it is to taste a number of wines like these next to each other. It’s one of the best ways to wrap your mind around a specific grape’s—and vineyard’s—possibilities and pleasures.
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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Hendry: A 117-Acre Star in Napa

I’ve always been a big fan of both Hendry’s estate-bottled wines and wines that have been produced from fruit grown on the eponymous vineyard. This afternoon, I had the great pleasure of spending some time with Susan Ridley, George Hendry’s business partner, neighbor, and sales and marketing emissary.

Over the course of an hour and a half, we not only tasted a number of Hendry’s wines, but also spoke about both the wines themselves and the history and evolution of the vineyard and winery.

I’ll post my tasting notes over the course of the next week, but before I do, take a look at this video of Susan discussing Hendry. It’s a fascinating story: The level of care and attention that George Hendry puts into his land and his vines is just amazing, and shines through brilliantly in the wines he produces.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Healthy? Not Really. But You Can't Argue with Deliciousness...

More often than not, my dinner choices are determined by what wines I’ve tasted that day (assuming I’m not visiting a restaurant or teaching a wine class). Last night was no different.

I spent the entire day operating under the (perhaps foolish) assumption that I would be eating healthy for dinner. I had gazpacho in mind, perhaps some homemade guacamole—that sort of light fare.

But then I tasted the Termes 2006, and all of my healthy-living plans went out the window. As I noted on my tasting video yesterday, the wine screamed out for something grilled, something barbecued. So as soon as I finished posting the video, I hopped in the car, drove to my favorite bar, and ordered their baby back rib special.

The pairing was perfect: The charred bits of meat brought out the smokiness in the wine, the sweet – spicy barbecue sauce interacted beautifully with the wine’s rich, chewy fruit, and the tannic structure of the Termes stood up to the hearty meal with no problem at all.

So perhaps, as the cliché goes, my best laid plans were laid to waste. But the reality of the evening was too darn tasty to argue with.

And tonight? Leftovers!
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Monday, April 13, 2009

Bodega Numanthia-Termes Toro Termes 2006

Toro, west of Ribera del Duero and well southwest of Rioja, is one of the most exciting regions in Spain. In the video below, I taste the Bodega Numanthia-Termes Toro Termes 2006, a big, beautifully crafted wine that's not only magnificent now, but also promises several years of evolution...if you have the patience.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Vietti Roero Arneis 2007

Roero Arneis is one of those far-too-unheralded grapes whose time is finally due: Widespread recognition has been too long in coming, especially considering the many pleasures it offers at generally reasonable prices.

Last winter, before sitting down to a Vietti wine lunch at New York’s Grayz restaurant, I enjoyed the producer’s Roero Arneis 2007, which was not only a great aperitif, but also fantastic with the entire range of hors d’oeuvres on offer.

It started off with aromas of melon and a soft flowery perfume held in check by a distinct minerality on the nose. Sip after sip featured addictive orange-pith notes that were carried by a surprisingly lively texture. One of the other attendees described its mouthfeel as “edgy,” and I’d have to agree: It practically danced on the tongue. Too bad more people don’t drink Roero Arneis on a regular basis—they’re missing out on one of the most easily enjoyable pleasures of Italy’s Piedmont region.
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Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Importance of Aroma

In matters of taste, there’s nothing more important than the sense of smell. Wine lovers have known this forever: The lip of a good wine glass that’s narrower than the widest part of the bowl, the swirling, the sniffing—it’s all done in order to enhance a wine’s smell, and, therefore, its flavor.

These days, the same attention is being paid to spirits, too—at least in the right hands. We’re not talking about bathtub-sized, quintuple-distilled vodka martinis here, but cocktails that are crafted in such a way that their multiple layers of character all have the opportunity to shine through. Which, in the arithmetic of all things imbibed—be it wine or spirits or tea or coffee—equals more, and better, flavor.

I recently sat down with Tom Pittakas, the Beverage Director at Alison two, Chef Alison Barshak’s fantastic follow-up restaurant to her successful and wildly popular Alison at Blue Bell in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Tom is one of the most careful, considerate, knowledgeable beverage professionals I know, and during the course of our conversation, he told me about a new technique he’s using at the restaurant’s bar. And though this one is obviously for spirits, the underlying principle is the same as it is for wine: Aroma is key. Rather than try to describe it, though, I’ll let Tom show you himself.

After shooting, I tasted the cocktail, and was blown away by the careful interaction of flavors on my tongue and the persistent aroma that literally clung to the sides of the glass, enhancing the entire experience.

The lesson is simple: In wine and spirits, as in everything we drink, focusing on smell is one of the surest paths to enjoyment and pleasure.
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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Fiddlehead Cellars Pinot Noir

After tasting the Sauvignon Blancs, I also had the opportunity to taste three of their Pinot Noirs. Interestingly enough, Fiddlehead produces a number of bottlings from both their Santa Rita Hills estate vineyard, Fiddlestix, as well as fruit from specific custom-farmed blocks in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

The Fiddlehead Oldsville Reserve 2006, while still the slightest bit hot, possessed an excellent balance between ripe dark cherries, flowers, licorice, and an earthier funkiness that was just intriguing. There was an addictive glycerin texture to the mid-palate, too, that will make it awfully difficult to lay a couple of bottles of this one down and not pillage them immediately. But some time in the cellar will definitely reward patience, and I expect that, once it sheds some of its youthful exuberance, this wine will evolve into one heck of a bottle of Willamette Pinot.

Heading south to California, the two wines produced from Fiddlehead’s estate vineyard were equally delicious yet in totally different ways. The Fiddlestix “Seven Twenty Eight” 2005 was, simply, darn good. It earthy nose led to a palate bursting with rich cherries, ripe berries, minerals, morels, violets and lavender. The combination of youthful power and dangerously easy gulpability was a result of both its beautifully integrated tannins and exquisitely balanced acidity in addition to the deep well of flavors it revealed with every sip. The finish—a long, graceful interplay of blackberries and black raspberries—was yet one more grace note in this stellar wine that should continue to evolve for another 3 – 7 years.

The barrel selection for the Fiddlestix “Lollapalooza” 2005, on the other hand—only 180 cases were produced, as opposed to 2,200 of the “Seven Twenty Eight”—resulted in a wine that was more elegant but just as deeply flavored. Pretty aromas of flowers and lavender wafted up from the glass, and well-concentrated dark berries left their imprint on the palate. This is a young wine that still needs time to absorb its oak and come into its own. Once it gets there, though, I expect it to be a standout—a rich, perfumed, ever-so-subtly spicy testament to the potential of this great vineyard. It’s fantastic now, but a couple of years should really give it a chance to shine even more brightly.
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Monday, April 6, 2009

Fiddlehead Cellars Sauvignon Blanc

I recently had the privilege of tasting a number of wines from Fiddlehead Cellars with Terence Livingston, their national sales manager, and Laura Lamprecht, owner of Specialty Wines and Liquors, Fiddlehead’s distributor.

They were, as always, excellent examples of both the grape varieties themselves (in this case Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir) as well as the vineyards in which the fruit was farmed.

Fiddlehead sources its Sauvignon Blanc from five vineyards in the eastern part of the Santa Ynez Valley: Stolpman, La Pressa, Grassini, Westerly, and Vogelzang. And within each vineyard, specific blocks are farmed according to Fiddlehead’s demands, which allows for an estate-vineyard level of attention to detail without the necessity of owning the vineyards themselves. (It’s a different case with the Pinot Noirs, but more on that tomorrow.)

I had a chance to taste two of the Sauvignon Blancs, and was very impressed with both of them. The Happy Canyon 2006, sourced from the Vogelzang and Westerly vineyards, showed a honeyed aroma on the nose, as well as slightly creamy, nutty notes in the background. An excellent sense of structure really came through almost despite the creamy, round nature of the palate. This was a quietly perfumed Sauvignon Blanc, showing charming flavors of lemon curd and white peach, and should probably be served just a touch warmer than you might be used to in order for all of its character to come through with maximum clarity.

The Hunnysuckle, on the other hand, was a rare treat not just because of its high quality, but because of its age. As a 2003, after all, it had the benefit of several more years of evolution than most California Sauvignon Blanc ever really receives.

That age showed right away in the wine’s deep, rich gold color. But those years, rather than rendering the wine tired and flabby, had worked some kind of magic. Wonderfully soft bell-pepper and apricot aromas led the way to surprisingly long flavors of both marzipan and fresh almonds, all of it carried on a texture that was more than a bit reminiscent of the great waxy whites of the Rhône Valley. The 2003 Hunnysuckle is a great example of the tremendous range and depth of California Sauvignon Blanc when grown properly and vinified with care, understanding, and passion.

Tomorrow, the Pinots…
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Friday, April 3, 2009

Spectacular Austrian Riesling: Part 2

I talk about it all the time in my classes at the Wine School here in Philadelphia, but it bears repeating right here, too: Riesling is one of the most food-friendly wines around, yet too many people still don’t think of it enough when the time comes to select a wine to bring to the table.

Riesling’s magnificent usefulness with food was driven home yet again at the Wine Media Guild’s Austrian Riesling lunch at New York’s Felidia this past Wednesday. The often bracing acidity, the wonderful minerality, the lively citrus character: Everything about the wines screamed out for the kind of deeply flavorful, springtime-bright dishes that were served that afternoon.

Now, the dishes we enjoy at these monthly lunches are not paired with any specific bottlings. Rather, they are conceived in such a way that they will work well with the overall wine theme of the day. Beyond that, it’s up to those of us in attendance to mix and match and discover which wines pair best with which dishes, which is a heck of an education.

This is a fantastic way to explore pairing theory in general, and to really get to know the specific wines from the tasting even better. The Knoll Riesling Federspiel 2007 (above left), for example, was excellent on its own, all minerality and bright citric acidity. But when sipped alongside the house-smoked salmon pastrami with red watercress and chive sauce, its pepperiness came right to the fore, though this was tempered by the spring-like freshness that the greens brought out in the wine. The Riesling's acid, too, was subdued a bit by the oil in the fish, making it impossible to stop eating the salmon or drinking the wine. Dangerously delicious, indeed.

I also loved the spring quinoa “risotto” with spring vegetables and spinach puree (right) with the Hirtzberger Riesling Smaragd Hochrain 2006. Sipped without food, the wine showed beautiful peach and apricot character and a bass-note of something almost woody and mushroomy. With the quinoa, a sense of earthiness came to define the combination, and cast both the wine and the food in a completely different and unexpected light.

That’s one of the main virtues of tasting like this, and of experimenting with combinations that you might not have had or even thought of before: Discoveries abound, and excitement becomes the defining characteristic of the meal.
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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Spectacular Austrian Riesling

I just returned home from the Wine Media Guild of New York's monthly tasting and lunch, this one featuring the Rieslings of Austria. Now, I've written a lot in the past few months about the utter deliciousness of Austria's reds--well-made Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, and St. Laurent are absolutely irresistible--but the Rieslings are certainly deserving of just as much attention.

Austrian ones differ from their German counterparts in a number of ways, but the major one is the overall dryness of the wines (there are exceptions, of course, but in general, the majority of Austrian Rieslings you're likely to taste will be dry). At the tasting and lunch this afternoon, held, as always, at Felidia restaurant, we were treated to 16 bottlings, all of them dry, all of them eye-opening and beautifully crafted.

I'll be posting pairing highlights and more tasting notes over the next couple of days. For now, however, here are the notes for two of my favorites:

The Prager Riesling Federspiel Steinriegl's nose was all subtle white-blossomed flowers with a background flutter of mushrooms and something quietly smoky. Ample lime-like acidity led the way to a finish that reminded me of nothing so much as hazelnuts. Just fantastic. The Prager Riesling Smaragd Wachstum Bodenstein, on the other hand, was a textural tour de force of amazing length and concentration that still managed to maintain a sense of litheness. It was, indeed, a truly complete wine: Fruit, earth, mineral--everything was present and in perfect harmony.

And the best part is that the wines were even more stunning with food. But more on the pairings later...
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