Naughty or nice? That is a question that is fairly common this time of year. But when it comes to fruitcake, maybe the question should be, “nasty or great”. You either love it, or hate it. I happen to like a good fruitcake. The challenge is that most aren’t that good. So what is it with fruitcake?

I can’t shed any new light on the history of fruitcake, but can recap what many other sources have already stated….It may date (pun intended) back to the early Egyptians, who placed fruitcake on the tombs of loved ones, possibly as food for the afterlife. But it really wasn’t that common until the time of the Romans, when “pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and barley mash were mixed together to form a ring-shaped dessert”. In the Middle Ages, preserved fruit, spices and honey were mixed in were popular with the crusaders.

Plum Porridge
It was the English, however, who started the Christmas tradition. It was originally known as “plum porridge”, and it was eaten on Christmas Eve, as a mixture of oats and plums. Soon, dried fruits, honey and spices were added and it was called “Christmas pudding”. Eventually, as the oats were removed, and replaced with cake, the name changed to "Christmas Cake", because the spices reminded people of the story about the Wise Men bringing exotic spices to the Christ child. 

Around this same time, people realized that fruit could be preserved, when soaked in large concentrations of sugar (the result of cheap sugar arriving in Europe from the New World). Not only the local fruits, but imported exotic fruits (citrus, pineapples, dates, pears) could now be used.
While sugar makes for a decent preservative, alcohol might be even better. I remember the strong smell of brandy filling the air, when the fruitcake tin was opened. When I started looking for recipes, many did not include alcohol, but those that did, required being made well in advance of Christmas, then “fed” an amount of whiskey, brandy, or rum every few days. Some recipes required that an alcohol soaked cloth be wrapped around the cake. The alcohol would kill any potential bacteria from forming. Also, the earlier the cake is made, the more opportunity for the cake to develop and deepen its’ flavors. Just like wine, preserved fruit also has tannins that are released into the cake, adding complexity. The alcohol also counteracts the sweetness of the candied fruit.

When it comes to alcohol and fermented spirits, Monks are the experts. The best known “monk-made fruitcakes” comes from the Trappist monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky. Another is produced by monks at the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia. Their brochure describes the fruitcake as follows, "The Brothers add a generous measure of fine sherry wine. After slow and gentle baking, each cake is laced with traditional brandy and topped with a honey glaze."

I’ve made numerous fruitcakes over the years, some better than others. The best one was found in the Bon Appetit magazine back in the 80’s. For the life of me, I cannot find that recipe. I have searched the internet, as well as my recipe shelf. No luck. This year, I have started making the White House Fruitcake Recipe. The large bowl of fruit is soaking in Tennessee Whiskey and Cognac (yes, as with any cooking, always use the best ingredients). 

Since this is a wine blog, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a few wines that might pair well with a fruitcake. The most obvious would be to pair with the type of alcohol that the cake had been soaked in (assuming it was one of those types of cakes). Some other possible pairings would be Moscato (with its’ fruit-forward flavors of grapes, peaches and apricot); Tawny Port (with oxidized flavors of almond, spice and caramel); Sweet Riesling (peach and orange blossom); or maybe even a Rutherglen “stickie” from Australia, or an Italian Bracchetto d’Aqui; and finally, an off-dry sparkling wine.

“Friends are the fruit cake of life - some nutty, some soaked in alcohol, some sweet - but mix them together and they're my friends.” 

Merry Christmas!

Zinfandel Dinner

If you are a regular follower of this wine blog, you know that I am always looking for an excuse to do wine pairing dinners. I really enjoy themed dinners, but occasionally, opportunities present themselves to try something different.

This week, a small group of us got together to taste a four year vertical of Paul Dolan Zinfandel. I must admit, I was not familiar with this winery. They are an organic/biodynamic winery out of Mendocino County, in Northern California. We were able to pick up the 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 Zinfandels. Each wine was opened about an hour before our dinner, and allowed to breath.

Each couple brought one course for the dinner, and there were four couples total. The menu consisted of an opening Caprese "style" salad. I say, "style" because, not only did it have tomatoes, basil, and cheese, but it also had avocado, and the cheese was a homemade cheese, which followed a traditional Croatian recipe. Why Croatian? Because it is thought that the Zinfandel grape originated in Croatia.

The main course was a Beef Bourguignon, following the Julia Child's recipe, and side dish of scalloped potatoes. My responsibility was the dessert. I like to experiment, so I made a blackberry Panna Cotta, topped with fresh blackberries and bittersweet chocolate shavings. I also made figs, poached in Zinfandel. The poaching liquid was later reduced to a syrup, and the figs with syrup were poured over vanilla ice cream.

All four wines were poured, and set in front of each place setting. The first noticeable difference was the color of each vintage. The '06 and '07 vintages were visibly lighter than the '08 and '09.  My process of tasting verticals (particularly with food) is to look at each wine in the glass, smell, then swirl and smell, then taste. After that first taste, I taste again, then take a bite of food, and taste wine again, to see how it changes with the food.

The 2006 Paul Dolan Zinfandel was the only vintage that had grapes from two growing regions. While all the vintages had grapes from Mendocino, the 2006 had grapes also sourced from Amador County. As mentioned, the 2006 vintage was lighter in color. It was fairly light bodied (for a Zinfandel). The alcohol level in all four wines as the same, coming in at 14.5% (again, low for a high sugar grape, like Zinfandel). The '06 vintage still had some fruit to it, but there was also some herbs on the nose. On the palate, the wine had some peppery notes, very light fruit, and moderate acidity. The most interesting thing about this wine, was how it changed in the glass over time. Most of the food overpowered this lighter Zin. But, by itself, I found it a nice drinking wine, particularly at under $20/bottle. I wouldn't run out and purchase this vintage, as it is already showing its' age.

The 2007 Paul Dolan Zinfandel was also light in pigment, and was by far the lightest on the palate. But, I found this vintage to be my favorite overall. It had the most complex nose of all four. There was some blackberry and cherry fruit, mixes with herbs, and bit of tobacco or leather. As with the 2006, this vintage was a bit light for the food (it couldn't hold up to the vinaigrette on the salad, or the richness of the beef). Of the four, this was my favorite...maybe not for pairing with food, but as a nice drinking wine.

The 2008 Paul Dolan was a dark ruby colored wine, and had mixed reviews. One person in our group picked this as his favorite, while most did not care for it at all. I am almost wondering if there might have been something wrong with the wine, as it was the only one in the vertical, that was purchased from a different retailer. There was a strong bacon smell to the wine. It was also the most "jammy" of the four. There also seemed to be a lot of oak on the nose, and a mushroomy character to the wine. This was my least favorite vintage of the four.

Finally, the 2009 Paul Dolan Zinfandel was also very dark in color, and was had the heaviest body of  the four. The weight of the wine made it the best for pairing with the meal...even up against the vinaigrette dressing on the salad. There was lots of black fruit and spices on the nose, making this more of a "jammy" wine. But, the fruit wasn't overpowering, there was a nice balance in all the components. Of the four vintages, this one tasted the most like what you expect from a Zinfandel.

As I said, I made the two desserts. Not knowing what the flavor profile of the wines was going to be, I made one with limited sweetness (blackberry panna cotta) and one with a Zinfandel syrup (poached figs). Remember you always want your wine to be sweeter than the dessert. Neither really worked, so we opened up a bottle of California Port, and called it a nice end to the evening.

 I hope this will inspire you to try your own vertical wine tasting. sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. But at least you get to drink wines, and get together with friends. And, isn't that what it is ultimately all about?

Sack Posset

You can tell the holiday season is upon us, just by the amount of Christmas commercials on television, as well as the re-runs of old Christmas shows. This week, I watched an interesting show on the History Channel about where our holiday traditions came from, and it got me thinking about traditional holiday drinks. Last year, I did a blog about mulled wine, and the previous year, I did one about the origins of eggnog. So this year, I went into the archives, and did some digging. Are you familiar with Sack Posset?

“Sack what?” you say? Sack Posset was a popular, custard-like drink of Elizabethan England. That may be the nice way of putting it. Since many in the population of that time, were of lesser means, Sack Posset was more of a curdled milk and wine/beer concoction. It went out of style about 200 years ago, but a newer recipe I was able to find, may revive this once popular drink.

First, where did the name come from? “Sack” is a common old English term used to refer to a fortified wine. It may have come from the Latin, ‘siccus’ meaning dry or harsh. But, not all fortified wines are dry and harsh. You may be familiar with Dry Sack Sherry (which can be harsh). This is a dry, fortified wine from the Sherry (Jerez) region of Spain. Since “sack” can refer to any fortified wine, we can assume Sherry, Madiera, or even Port could be used as an ingredient. The word, “posset” used to refer to a small pot or saucepan. Today, a posset is a type of small pot. They have large bodies, lids and usually, two handles. There is a spout at the front that was not used for pouring, but for actually sucking out the liquor. The remaining curds were eaten with a spoon.

Sack Posset was made from various recipes. Originally, it appears to have been for medicinal use. But by the 17th Century, it became more popular as an actual beverage. Also, remember that hygiene, pasteurization, etc, were not known at this time, so alcohol was the way to kill germs. Sack Posset typically featured spiced, warm wine mixed with milk, or cream. The milk would curdle and float to the top. So you would drink the wine from the bottom, then eat the sweet curds that floated to the top.
A properly made posset was said to have “three different layers. The uppermost, known as 'the grace' was a snowy foam or aereated crust. In the middle was a smooth spicy custard and at the bottom a pungent alcoholic liquid. The grace and the custard were enthusiastically consumed as 'spoonmeat' and the sack-rich liquid below drunk through the 'pipe' or spout of the posset pot.”

The first published recipe is from Sir Kenelm Digby (London: 1671):

Take a pottle of Cream, and boil in it a little whole Cinnamon, and three or four flakes of Mace. To this proportion of Cream put in eighteen yolks of eggs, and eight of the whites; a pint of Sack; beat your eggs very well, and then mingle them with your Sack. Put in three quarters of a pound of Sugar into the Wine and Eggs, with a Nutmeg grated, and a little beaten Cinnamon; set the Bason on the fire with the Wine and Eggs, and let it be hot. Then put in the Cream boiling from the fire, pour it on high, but stir it not; cover it with a dish, and when it is settlede, strew on the top a little fine Sugar mingled with three grains of Ambergreece, and one grain of Musk, and serve it up.

I was able to find an updated/current recipe for Sack Posset, that was published by Reader’s Digest (Australia), it is written as follows:

6 egg yolks
3 egg whites
1 cup fino sherry
1⁄4 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and mace
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2⁄3 cup caster sugar
4 cup pouring cream
grated nutmeg for sprinkling
Put the egg yolks, egg whites, sherry and spices into a large mixing bowl and whisk until they are well blended. Place the bowl over a saucepan of gently boiling water and stir until warm. Take care not to let the egg mixture overheat or it will scramble.

Reserving 1 teaspoon of the caster sugar, heat the remainder with the cream in a saucepan until it rises to the boil. Pour the cream mixture immediately, in a steady stream from a height, onto the egg mixture, whisking as you pour to make it frothy.

Leave the posset to stand in a warm place for 5 minutes, then sprinkle the reserved sugar and a little nutmeg over the surface and serve in heatproof glasses. This drink goes well with mince pies and, because it is rich, one glass per person should be sufficient.

So, try something different this holiday. Make some mulled wine, or homemade eggnog….or if you are really adventurous, make some Sack Posset, and share the history with your friends.

Wine History Part Three - Temecula

As we have reviewed in my previous two blogs (part one, part two)…the history of winemaking in California began with the founding of Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1769. As the missions advanced northward, vine cuttings were planted at each of the new missions, with some mission sites more successful than others. Among the most successful of the missions was Mission San Gabriel, just east of Los Angeles, whose wines were generally regarded as the finest of all the mission wines. By the early 19th century the California wine industry was concentrated in Southern California, with a number of successful wineries being established in what is today downtown Los Angeles, San Gabriel Valley, and the Cucamonga Valley. During the 1800’s, Southern California provided most of the wine produced in the state.

My sister and me in 1965
In the 60’s and 70’s, my family would drive through the Temecula area, on our way to Warner’s Hot Springs. At that time, Temecula was farmland, and there wasn’t a major highway through the area. As a small child, it seemed like we drove forever, to get to the hot springs resort, and to visit the local Indians in the area. I have fond memories of the area, before it was ever developed into the wine country area we know today. Let’s take a look at the largest wine region in Southern California: Temecula.

Before becoming a wine region, Temecula’s history goes back over 1,000 years, to its first inhabitants: the Luiseños, named after one of the Spanish Missions. The name “Temecula” actually comes from the Luiseño word, "Temecunga", meaning “place of sun”. The most popular interpretation today, however, is “land where the sun breaks through the mist”. 

Early Temecula, Courtesy San Diego History Center
The more modern history of the area starts in the 1800’s, with the Mexican land grants. The first Americans started moving to the area around 1831.  Then, in 1845, the Temecula Rancho was granted to Felix Valdez by the Mexican Government in an attempt to slow down American settlement. The Luiseños, Mexicans, Americans, as well as the Cahuilla Indian tribe had constant conflict in the area, with the Luiseños eventually being relocated to the Pechanga Indian Reservation in 1885, ten years after they signed a treaty relinquishing the remainder of their land. 

In 1857, Temecula became a stop in the stagecoach lines that were becoming the logistical route of choice in California. A post office was set up in town. Only the second one in the new state of California (the first being in San Francisco).  Settlement increased during the late 1860s as displaced Confederates moved to California in the wake of the Civil War.

Walter Vail's Cattle Ranch
In 1904, Walter Vail arrived in Temecula and bought nearly 90,000 acres in the region. His family would do much to shape the town during the first half of the 20th century. Probably their most famous accomplishment was damming the Temecula River and creating Vail Lake in 1948. (The Vail ranch was later sold to the Kaiser Development Company in 1964, to build the Rancho California housing development – later to become Temecula.)

Because of the region’s isolation, during the 1920s and 1930s, the region took full part in the bootlegging and speakeasies that were common in during Prohibition. The area was mainly used for cattle ranching and the granite rock quarry.

While wine making in the region actually dates back over 200 years, to the Spanish Missions. It took a little over a hundred years before the Temecula Valley saw its first vineyards and wineries. The first vineyards and wineries were established to draw potential home-buyers to the Rancho California area. Modern wine making did not begin until the late 1960's to early 1970's. In the late 1960’s Southern California grape growing and winemaking began a revival in the Temecula Valley with the planting, beginning in 1968, of substantial wine grape acreage.   Vincenzo and Audrey Cilurzo established the first modern commercial vineyard in the Temecula Valley in 1968 , but didn’t produce their own wine until 1978, with their Bella Vista Cilurzo Vineyard label. The first wines from area vineyards were actually produced by Brookside Winery at their Guasti winery. Brookside bought 450 acres in the area to produce grapes as well as purchased grapes from the Cilurzos, as urban sprawl was limiting their vineyards in the Cucamonga Valley. In 1974 the founding of Callaway Winery (by Ely Callaway, of golf fame) marked the beginning of large production winemaking in the Temecula Valley. Callaway, sold the winery in 1981 to Hiram Walker and Sons. John Poole opened Mount Palomar Winery in 1975, and in 1978 the Cilurzos opened another Temecula winery at a new site. Their original vineyard, Temecula's oldest, is now owned by Maurice Carrie Winery. Since then numerous additional wineries have been built, some with restaurants and overnight facilities, including luxury resorts. 

It wasn’t until October 23, 1984, that the area was designated as the “Temecula AVA”. The AVA was given, due to the unique Mediterranean climate (often thought to be too hot to grow good grapes). The morning mist helps keep moisture in the soil without too much rain. Coastal air keeps the temperature down and soil from getting too dry. The decomposing granite soils are a light, sandy loam, which keeps it well drained… ideal for grapevines. On June 18, 2004, the AVA name was changed to "Temecula Valley AVA". As a historical note, this is the only American Viticultural Area to change its name following initial approval.

Temecula Valley is a wine region of rolling hills, with high mountains, reaching to nearly 11,000 feet, forming the backdrop. Vineyard plantings range from 1000 to 2500 feet above sea level, with daytime temperatures moderated by cooling ocean breezes, flowing over the coastal range to the west, through Rainbow Gap and Santa Margarita Gap (two low spots in the coastal range). The region has proven to be diverse in the grape varieties that thrive and produce wines here, ranging from cool-climate grapes such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Chardonnay, through the moderate-climate Bordeaux varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc, to the warmer-climate Mediterranean varieties, including Viognier, Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese, and Tempranillo. Whether these are the “right” varieties for the region is still a question that is being asked.

When the I-15 Freeway between Los Angeles County and San Diego County was completed, real estate development accelerated even more. The land boom of the 1980’s and the planting of grapes, helped in the decision of the citizens to become a city in 1989. The desire for affordable housing during the 1990’s also helped fuel its growth as well as its growing reputation as a wine region.
The wine industry has grown considerably since then and increasing numbers of Southern Californians are visiting the area. However, many of the wineries still cater to a large local customer base, with summer concerts, and wine pairing/tasting events.

Most wineries are small, and are family-owned. You will often run into the winemaker and/or owner in the tasting room. All produce wines in their own style, some focusing on a very limited number of wines, while others offer a wide range of wines. The wineries of Temecula are, above all else, friendly, welcoming and personable.

Today, Temecula Valley is the largest wine producing area in Southern California. There is a move underway, to expand the wine growing region within the Temecula Valley.  The “Wine Country Community Plan” is currently being discussed with the Planning Commission.  Temecula also faces the challenges of Pierce’s Disease, which is spread by the Glassy-winged Sharpshooter. It is my opinion that Temecula hasn’t yet figured out what type of region it is. Their Mediterranean climate might be best suited for grapes from Southern Italy, Sicily, or Greece, yet they continue to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay with (again, my opinion) average results. Thankfully, many wineries are now experimenting with different international varieties, which could well lead Temecula into being the next exciting AVA in California. Only time will tell.

For a list of wineries, check out the Temecula Valley Wine Growers Association website:

Rancho de Philo Winery

Mission Grapes at Rancho de Philo

When one of the three remaining wineries in the Cucamonga Valley opens its’ doors only one week out of the year, the only thing to do is rush over, and check it out. In last week’s blog, I shared some of the history of the Cucamonga Valley, and the three remaining wineries. Of those three, the only one I hadn’t visited was Rancho De Philo. They make only one wine: an award winning Triple Cream Sherry. I had the pleasure of visiting their winery, and was pleased with this new “find”.

Rancho de Philo doesn’t have a website, so finding out when they are open to the public can be a bit difficult, unless you get on their mailing list (which I now am). From what I can determine, they open on the second Saturday in November, and remain open for about 7 to 9 days, or until their inventory of wine runs out. They only bottle a little over 300 cases per year, and as the word gets out, the inventory will be depleted even faster.

Rancho de Philo is located in Alta Loma, just northwest of Chaffey College, at 10050 Wilson Avenue. Their hours are from 9:00am to 5:00pm. I drove there on Sunday, and found a sign on the road, indicating “Sherry Sale” which pointed me to the driveway of a 6.5 acre piece of land, surrounded by expensive homes, overlooking the valley below. A vineyard in this area seems out of place, but given the history of the area, it is not so far-fetched.

As I pulled up, I was greeted by a young boy, who encouraged me to sign their guestbook and get on their mailing list. There was a small umbrella set up in front, with almonds, cookies, crackers and small tasting glasses. It was here, that I met the owners, Janine Biane Tibbetts and later, her husband Alan. Janine was pouring three different bottlings of their Triple Cream Sherry: 2013, 2012, and 2011. Their Sherry is created by using the Spanish solera system, a fractional blending system.

Solera systems consist of a pyramid of barrels (in the case of Rancho de Philo it is 15) stacked in a racking system, where the top layer of barrels will contain the youngest wine (the latest vintage), and the bottom level will be a blend of the wines above, and is where the latest bottling is drawn off. As wine is drawn off, the barrels are filled from the level above, blending all the different years, for a consistent product. All the time, the wine continues to oxidize, creating a nutty, raisiny flavor, and turning the wine to a wonderful amber color. Rancho de Philo uses neutral American Oak barrels (used barrels from whiskey distilleries) in their Solera system. But there is a difference between Spanish Sherry and Rancho de Philo Sherry. Traditional Spanish wines are made with Palomino or PX grapes, but Rancho de Philo uses 100% Mission grapes (Southern California’s original grape, brought in by the Spanish Missionaries). Make no mistake, this Sherry is a dessert wine. Since it is a fortified wine, the alcohol level is around 18%, and the residual sugar comes in above 13%.

Philo Biane
I had a brief opportunity to talk with Janine, and learn a little about the history of the property, which was started by her father, Philo Biane. But, the winemaking history of her family goes back much further. She told me that her grandmother’s family, the Vachés, arrived from France and settled in San Juan Bautista in 1832, where they planted grapes and built a winery. They later had a winery in downtown Los Angeles, called Vaché et Cie. In the late 1800s they planted a vineyard and opened a winery near Redlands in the San Timoteo Valley. There was a brook adjacent to the winery so they named it Brookside Winery. The Vaché and Biane families met, and eventually produced a son, Philo Biane (Janine’s father). Rancho de Philo was founded by vintner and wine industry pioneer Philo Biane in 1973, after he retired as the President of Brookside Vineyard, which was sold to Beatrice Foods. He made his first Sherry bottling in 1974, from the grapes on the property. Unfortunately, those grape vines had to be replaced around the time of Philo’s death, in 1999, when they were attacked by Pierce’s Disease. They were able to salvage cuttings from the remaining 30+ vines, and replant. So, the current vines are only about 10 to 14 years old, but do come from the original Mission grape rootstock.

Janine told me they no longer ferment the wine on the property, as too many of the neighbors complained about the fruit flies. So, she ships her wine to Galleano Winery for fermentation, then brings it back up for aging in the solera. Her family has a longtime relationship with the Galleano family, so much so, that the three friends, on the label of the award winning Galleano "Three Friends" Port, are her family members.

Rancho De Philo was recently named the top microwinery in California, for its’ style of wine, and their Triple Cream Sherry continues to reap awards at local, national, and international competitions.

Don’t miss out. Buy it now, and enjoy for the holidays and beyond. And, don’t worry about that open bottle. Since this is and aged, and oxidized wine, it will hold just fine, sitting on your kitchen counter, waiting for you to enjoy.