Category Sparkling Wines

Drinking Prosecco

Selecting Prosecco

The sparkling wine Prosecco rises from the dramatically lifting foothills of the Alps in Northeastern Italy, with its quality center stretching from Valdobbiadene to Conegliano. The method for making Prosecco, Metodo Italiano (also known as the Charmat process), brings a more delicate focus than the Champagne method allows, presenting more distinctive aromatic qualities, as well as preserving fruit and flower characteristics of the grapes used as a result.

Glera and Metodo Italiano

Metodo Italianoclick on image to enlarge

Regulated Prosecco allows use of only the glera grape (previously known as the prosecco grape but renamed to avoid confusion). Glera is preciously fruit focused in its flavor, carved through its edges with a green-salt bitter note that at its best gives its wine shape.

Metodo Italiano does not require the high acid levels demanded from the Champagne method, therefore generating a sparkling wine with less overt linear tension than its counterpart. In lower quality examples the lack of tension means an overly simple fruit-only wine I tend to find cloying. As with any region, however, such examples tend to appear from the bulk, industrial segments of the production process. It is important to remember that many producers play with only the best fruit, earlier picking times, and some technique variations to keep the wine focused and clean in its core.

Though Prosecco is generally finished today in pressurized tanks (in the stainless steel tank portion of Round Two shown above), the introduction of these tanks is quite recent. Prior to the 1970s, the approach to making Prosecco still included movement into a secondary vessel, but culminated finally with fermentation finishing in bottle under crown cap. It is uncommon for Prosecco makers to take this approach today, but a few still do.

Prosecco Favorites

Following are notes on a few special examples of unique Proseccos available within the States.

Ca’ dei Zago

Ca’ dei Zago DOC “Col Fondo”
My favorite of the Proseccos mentioned here utilizes the older method of finishing fermentation under crown cap. The Ca’ dei Zago offers a slightly cloudy body, as a result, but also brings with it an additional biscuit note thanks to the crown cap completion that is pleasing. This wine carries those crisp biscuit notes topped through with lemon zest and the distinct glera edge to carve its shape over the palate. The wine also brings nice focus and good mineral tension through clean fruit and floral aromatics. The Ca’ dei Zago is a nice example of a Prosecco that succeeds at complexity and a core of tension within a wine that is still distinctively Prosecco.


Zardetto “Tre Venti” 2012 DOCG
As a single vineyard Prosecco, Zardetto’s Tre Venti succeeds at showing the unique fruit character possible from this sparkling wine method. The Tre Vigne shows apple and ginger with a touch of narcissus on the nose, tightening through the palate into a wire-y, masculine body of apple with blossom, toasted notes and hints of marmalade through a long finish. I enjoyed the surprise of this Prosecco quite a bit, and would like it with food.

Zardetto “Zeta” Dry 2012 DOCG
Delicate and pretty floral aromatics, alongside ripe apple with light toast and ginger accents breeze into a giving fruit focused palate with refreshing saline-mineral length. Where the Tre Vigne vibrates wire-y, the Zeta is all feminine flow. This is a wine to drink easy with friends, and a smile.

Nino Franco

Nino Franco Grave di Stecca 2010
Nino Franco brings a single vineyard, older vine focus to their Grave di Stecca also choosing to pick earlier to bring juicy focused length to this Prosecco. The Grave di Stecca 2010 gives a crisp spice nose carrying into a uniquely spiced palate of orchard fruit, on a palate that simultaneously offers rich depth and nice focus with lots of mineral length and a long juicy finish. This wine holds up very well alongside a range of foods.

Though the Grave di Stecca follows all of the DOCG requirements, because the family wishes to honor the unique flavoral characteristics of the vineyard, they choose not to submit it to the actual DOCG inspection. This wine, then, is essentially a declassified DOCG. Incidentally, I have also had positive experiences with the aging potential of this particular Prosecco.

Nino Franco Riva di San Floriano 2012 DOCG
Heralding from a beautiful steep sloped vineyard on the edge of Valdobbiadene, the Riva di San Floriano brings a star bright, perfume spice nose through to its ultra crisp apple and spice palate. This is an elegant example of a single vineyard Prosecco with lots of vibrancy and a long juicy finish. This wine does well as an aperitif and alongside white fish, or lighter risottos.

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Value Bubbles from Limoux

Drinking Bubbles from Limoux

An under-celebrated while reliable source of value sparkling wine rests in the Southern France region of Limoux. In the foothills of Languedoc’s Pyrénées, near the historic city of Carcassonne, stands the original Abbey of Dom Perignon, the legendary cultivator of the wine that would later come to be known as Champagne.

As the story goes, the Dom practiced his methods first in Limoux, before carrying them North to Champagne to popularize the drink there. In its elevation, Limoux offers the vibrant acidity needed to give focus and length in the Méthode Traditionelle. One of the pleasures of Limoux rests in its common use of grapes such as Chenin Blanc, and Mauzac alongside the more familiar Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Chenin Blanc gives an earthy-herbal-floral depth and richness with mineral length to its sparkling wines, while Mauzac brings a unique pert-apple with cut grass character.

Crémant de Limoux AOC

Sparkling wine from Limoux shows as two distinctive styles, Crémant de Limoux, and Blanquette de Limoux. Crémant de Limoux celebrates Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc primarily, with no more than 90% together forming the wine. The final portion brings in Pinot Noir and/or Mauzac.

Crémant de Limoux offers a great source for bubbles at a screaming value. With the long standing history of the region it’s easy to find bubbles well below $20 that are also a pleasure to drink.

Domaine Collin

Domain Collinclick on comic to enlarge

Domaine Collin produces two Brut Crémant de Limoux sparkling wines — a Chardonnay, Chenin, and Pinot white blend, as well as a rosé of the same grapes. Both wines offer nicely subtle complexity with depth. The white came in as my favorite of the Limoux wines presented here. It’s a wine for people that want palate tension placed alongside richness, juicy mineral length coupled with depth of flavor. At $13 it’s a screaming deal. The rosé is a beautifully made balance that’s a touch softer, and more approachable than the white with its cherry elements dancing through the citrus and floral notes.

Gérard Bertrand

Gerard Bertrand 2011click on image to enlarge

Gérard Bertrand offers a crisply focused, clean, and elegant Chardonnay, Chenin, Mauzac 2011 white blend coming in around $16. It’s a nice balance of dried flower-herbal notes coupled with delicate fruit creams, biscuit accents, and a long mineral finish. There is a nice balance of complexity to value here.

Blanquette de Limoux

Limoux holds the primary source of Mauzac in the world. The grape is required at minimum 90% of the Blanquette de Limoux — a Méthode Ancestrale style sparkling wine. However, in recent years Mauzac plantings have been replaced by Chardonnay, leading to a decline in the unusual variety.

Blanquette de Limoux is one of the gifts of the region. Though Méthode Ancestrale originates as the first approach to champagne method sparkling wine, it is uncommon today. The style offers a creamy palate with low alcohol as wine is generally not fermented entirely dry. Since the style originates with the monks of Limoux, it has been treated to its own controlled appellation with Mauzac determined as the dominate grape. 10% of the wine may be blended to Chardonnay and/or Chenin Blanc.

Cote Mas

Cote Masclick on image to enlarge

Cote Mas offers great value in their brut Crémant de Limoux, both coming in between $13 and 16, depending on the retailer. The white blend brings all four grapes together for a clean, meyer lemon cream-on-a-biscuit nose followed through to dried jasmine, hints of kumquat, white grapefruit pith, and orange blossom on the pert, juicy palate. Chardonnay, Chenin, and Pinot Noir blend into the pert, refreshing rosé giving floral citrus alongside cherry blossom to round the juicy palate.

Cote Mas also offers their Blanquette de Limoux celebrating their love for Mauzac through a 100% rendition of the wine. The jasmine and mandarin aromatics roll into a giving creaminess on the palate spun through with ginger flower. With its ultra low alcohol, and touch of sweetness this is a wine to enjoy slowly through the evening. At $13, the Méthode Ancestrale makes this a special, ultra-affordable wine.

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Bubbles over at Le Metro this Month

Drawing Bubbles for Le Metro

Le Metro bubbles pack

image from Aaron Epstein

Le Metro Vol VII just came out complete with an illustration of the Methode Traditionelle process for making sparkling wine.

Aaron put together a really fun collection of bubbles for December. I think it’s their best collection yet.

He also asked if I’d be willing to do the food pairings for this round. As a result the set of wines arrived weeks in advance. To celebrate the process a number of us got together with a pile of foods we love to sample and sip alongside. Our favorites became the suggestions for this month’s Le Metro.


POST EDIT: If you’re in the San Diego area, Le Metro is about to throw a fantastic bubbles event to celebrate their project, and the season.

It’ll take place at the Chuck Jones Gallery in the Gaslamp District this Saturday, December 14 from 6 to 8 p.m. They’ll be pouring a wash of great bubbles.

For more information read up on it here:


To check out Le Metro:

To read more on Le Metro:
A conversation with Aaron Epstein, the curator:

The illustration work I’m doing with them:

What to Drink When the Holidays Stress You Out: A Chart

Stress Drinks in the Holidays

Truth? The beautiful, perfect, glow of love and light that is the holidays stresses most of us out. I can barely get through Thanksgiving, hide on Christmas, and then finally want to sparkle up for New Year’s but that is largely because the year we just went through is FINALLY OVER. It’s a NEW one! Yay!

A couple years ago I did a comic called, “The Precise Gift Buying Guide for the Wine Lover: Whites and Reds.” I felt like reprising the idea but instead of thinking about what to buy everyone else, I thought we could all use a reminder to make sure we have the stock we need on hand.

I sent out a tweet and a message on Facebook asking people what stresses them out on the holidays. The most horrifying response alluded to a world in which only Yellow Tail existed to drink. Please! Do not let that happen to you! Use the bubbled scenarios below to determine your optimal beverage.


What To Drink When the Holidays Stress You Out: A Decision Flow Chart

Holiday Stress Drink Chart 1 Holiday Stress Drink Chart 2Holiday Stress Drink Chart 3 Holiday Stress Drink Chart 4click on any of the pages to enlarge


Thanks for the help everyone! It was a lot of fun to come up with solutions for your stressful scenarios.



Thank you to Katherine Yelle, Meredith Miller Elliott, Lenn Thompson, Ashley Copper Quinn, Geoffrey Stauffer, Dale Tanigawa, Laura Anglin, Shawn Swagerty, Fredric Koppel, Michael Alberty, Don Beith, Andrew Hummel-Schluger, Chris Scanlan, Jeannette Montgomery, Marita Dachsel.

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Metodo Italiano, aka the Charmat Process for Making Sparkling Wine (by request)

Making Sparkling Wine via Metodo Italiano

Metodo Italiano for Sparkling wineclick on illustration to enlarge

With my recent visit to Valdobbiadene, and the Prosecco of Nino Franco, I’ve received some messages asking if I could do an illustration explaining the process for making sparkling wine like Prosecco.

The approach differs from how wines like Champagne, Franciacorta, or Cava are made in that, with those examples, the secondary fermentation (which gets the bubbles in the bottle) occurs within the bottle in which the wine is later sold. This approach is called Methode Traditionelle.

With Prosecco, the secondary fermentation instead occurs within a large tank, and the wine is bottled after. This approach is known as Metodo Italiano.

Technically speaking, either method can be taken with any grape that can make sparkling wine. However, the two methods have differing effects on the final wine, and so many consider each to suit different grapes better than the other.

For example, the Methode Traditionelle generally requires higher acid levels in the original grapes, and so suits fruit like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which have naturally higher levels of acidity in cool climates.

On the other hand, Metodo Italiano has less impact on the flavors of the grapes, and so does well at preserving the original aromas and flavors of the fruit. For that reason, this approach does well at showcasing a grape like glera in its resulting Prosecco, which, at its best, has a pure fruit expression and accent of fresh greenery.

I’d already done a drawing of Metodo Italiano, so, here it is!

Cheers, and thanks!

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Touring the Prosecco DOCG, Valdobbiadene, with Nino Franco

Visiting Nino Franco

As some of you know, I just returned from a press trip in Italy. I am still researching and tasting from the various regions. In the meantime, here are photos from the first two days of our visit. We began in Valdobbiadene, in the Treviso province of the Northeast.

Silvia at the top of Rive di San Floriano Vineyard

Silvia Franco at the top of the steep slope vineyard, Rive di San Floriano

The region surrounding Valdobbiadene falls within the highest quality area of Prosecco, which reaches to the town of Conegliano. The steep sloped hillsides rise prior to the Alps out of former-marine soils combining the cooling effects of the mountains, with chalky, crisp, mineral-driven soils.

looking into the town of Valdobbiadene

the town of Valdobbiadene

The region between Valdobbiadene and Conegliano is being considered for a World Heritage site designation. Known history of the region reaches back to the 11th century, and includes scientific work done by one of the first wine schools in the world, and commemoration in Renaissance paintings by artists Conegliano, and Bellini. One of the unique aspects of the area that qualifies it for consideration rests in its long standing relationship with viticulture. The region’s geography, both culturally and physically, so thoroughly intertwines with the vines that the shape of the area, and the persistence of the hillsides cannot be discussed without recognizing the role of Prosecco.

Tasting the Nino Franco Rustico

The Franco family have lived in the region for generations, with four generations now having operated their Nino Franco winery.

Annalisa and Silvia

Annalisa and Silvia Franco hosted us for lunch as a way of introducing us to their wines, and welcoming us to Italy. Then we toured the vineyards of the area.

Tasting the Primo Franco Prosecco

Giovanni Franco founded the winery in 1919 naming it after his son, Antonio (nicknamed Nino). At the time it was not possible to sustain a sparkling only operation, so the family sourced red grapes from neighboring areas to make still wines as well. Having been part of the family business since the 1970s, Primo Franco (Nino’s son) became the head of the company after his father’s death in the early 1980s. He chose to shift the focus away from still wines and begin the project of a sparkling only winery. In 1983 he completed his first example as head of Nino Franco, naming it the Primo Franco.

The Single Vineyard Prosecco, Grave di Stecco

Today, the family also makes single vineyard Proseccos showing the unique expressions of the hillsides through the area. The Grave di Stecca is one such example from the family’s own vineyard located in Valdobbiadene.

Over the hillsides of Valdobbiadene

The area of Cartizze, in the heart of the Valdobbiadene-Conegliano stretch is considered the premier of the region. The concentration of vines, and the intricate vineyard rows are stunning and begin to make sense of quality differences between the best of Prosecco, and the bulk versions of the valley floor. The mountains in the distance here also host vineyards just below the forest tops.

Over the hillsides of Valdobbiadene

Standing in a vineyard in Cartizze

Glera, the Prosecco grape

The glera grape has recently earned its name, having previously just been called prosecco. To distinguish the region from the fruit, the name Prosecco is now protected and isolated to the region in Italy. At its best, glera offers focused fruit flavors with a crisp edge to it.

Harvesting a terraced vineyard

standing in a terraced steep slope vineyard during harvest. Standing a terrace below, I am at least four feet below the harvester. Looking straight ahead I can only see her boots. (Thank you to Cathy for the photo suggestion.)

Cathy and Primo tank sampling first fermentation

Prosecco goes through two tank fermentations, with DOCG quality inspections at each stage. The first tank fermentation occurs immediately after harvest and produces the more austere still wine that will be the basis of the sparkling. Cathy and Primo as we tank sample the 2013 harvest of Rive di San Floriano.

Primo and Silvia tank sampling second fermentation

The still wines are brought with their lees to the secondary tanks where they will undergo secondary fermentation and be left on their lees the better portion of a year for aging. Lees contact and aging are a choice made at Nino Franco, and are not necessarily practiced by other wineries. Silvia and Primo help us tank sample the sparkling 2012 Grave di Stecca.

Aging Prosecco on lees

The single vineyard Grave di Stecca is aged in bottle before release.

Prosecco tasting

Tasting through the Nino Franco lineup, all sparkling. from left: Rustico (their “premium entry level”), the Valdobbiadene blend, the single vineyard 2012 Rive di San Floriano, the single vineyard 2010 Grave di Stecca, the Merlot-Cab Franc sparkling rosé (project they make with a red wine producing friend) 2011 Faive, the 2012 Primo Franco

Primo with his first bottle of Primo Franco

Primo standing with his first bottle of 1983 Primo Franco

The Franco family, Silvia, Primo, Annalisa

Silvia, Primo, and Annalisa Franco standing in Cartizze


To read more about Nino Franco, check out Alfonso Cevola’s post from a visit he made here:


Thank you to Primo, Annalisa, and Silvia Franco.

Thank you to Megan Murphy, and Kanchan Kinkade.

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Food Pairing with Blanc de Blancs over at Serious Eats

Serious Eats: Drinks!

My latest illustration for Serious Eats is up and on their site today. We’ve moved to an every-other-week posting schedule there. This installment looks at matching food with dry blanc de blancs champagne.

Serious Eats BdB

Check it out here:


Bollinger Vin Clairs (and bottle) Tasting

The Bollinger Vin Clairs Experience

How Champagne is Made

click on comics to enlarge: how champagne is made, an overview

Terlato Wines was kind enough to include me in a Bollinger Vin Clairs tasting yesterday. Vin Clairs, for those that are unfamiliar, amounts to the still base wine that then goes through second fermentation in bottle to become the final champagne. Guy de Rivoire, Bollinger’s Commercial Director, facilitated the tasting, coupled with an overview of the House, and the blending process.

Incredibly, Bollinger’s Special Cuvée (their non-vintage champagne) can include up to 60 component parts of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir vinified separately, within some neutral barrels, and some stainless steel vats. Each component is bottled in large format, kept in cellar as a still wine to ensure adequate flavor resources for future vintages. These reserve wines total about 650,000 magnums, or 1.3 million bottles. Still, Bollinger produces only 0.6-0.7% of total champagne made in the region per year.

The experience included six components from multiple vintages, and (separately) from each of the three grapes, leading into the final still Special Cuvée, which included at least some of the components we tasted. The culmination occurred in comparing the still Special Cuvée to its sparkling counterpart. Finally, the tasting extended into several vintage champagnes, and the non-vintage rosé followed by a 2004 vintage rosé.

Bollinger Making the Assemblage: the Vin Clairs blend

Making the Bollinger Special Cuvee

click on comic to enlarge: Blending still wines into Bollinger’s Special Cuvée

Approximately 90% of the vineyard land in the Champagne region is grower owned. According to yesterday’s presentation, there are approximately 5000 growers in Champagne, and 10,000 Champagne brands producing 25 to 30 million cases of champagne per year. Champagne houses generally operate as a negociant, sourcing grapes from some mix of the 5000 growers through the region. Within Champagne, there is also a small portion of wines made on a grower-winemaker model in which the owner of a vineyard vinifies a small production champagne from their own grapes. Among champagne houses in the region, only three remain under independent ownership, Bollinger being one of them.

Bollinger produces their non-vintage “Special Cuvée” from a blend consistently structured by at least 60% Pinot Noir, with some Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. With an eye on aging, their vintage blends maintain the >60% Pinot model, sticking to Chardonnay for the rest. Another feature unique to the Bollinger House includes their ownership of more than 60% of their vineyards. The entirety of their fruit comes from Marne district. A portion of the still wines are fermented in old oak barrel, bringing an additional textural and flavor component to their wine. The rest are fermented in stainless steel.

The Bottled Wines

Bollinger’s Special Cuvée offers a silk taffeta texture with the swish of a floor length dress. It carries a richly flavored, while fine-boned presentation of dried flowers, light (not sweet) honey and beeswax, walnut and clove touches with a light pleasing zip of acidity.

Tasting through the several component still wines, followed by the final vin clairs, then moving into the sparkling Special Cuvée drove home how impressive the work of the Chef de Caves really is–to imagine tracking the various wines, creating blending trials for so many potential components, then tasting the final still assemblage to anticipate its presentation after second fermentation… fantastic. So much to track, so much work, so much clarity of vision.

We were able to taste both the 2004 and 1992 Grande Année, as well as the Special Cuvée rosé and Grande Anneé 2004 rosé. Though it sounds obvious, I was moved by the 1992–it’s vibrant zest acidity (in magnum) was coupled with rich smokey, walnut-driven aromatics followed by an electric cord of mouth stimulation cloaked in rich flavors. The saline-chalky electrical-current on this wine was lovely.


Thank you to Mary Anne Sullivan, and Stephanie Caraway of Terlato.

Thank you to Guy de Rivoire of Bollinger.

Cheers to Jeremy Parzen!

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A Life in Wine: Frederic Panaiotis, Chef de Caves for Ruinart Champagne

Talking with Frédéric Panaiotis

“There is a French saying,” Frédéric Panaiotis tells me. “Help yourself and the sky will help you. I like this. This is my motto.”

Frederic Panaiotis

Frédéric Panaiotis, the Chef de Caves for Ruinart Champagne

I met Frédéric Panaiotis after arriving embarrassingly early to a private Ruinart dinner due to a mix-up with my driver. He and Nicolas Ricroque, the champagne’s brand director, welcomed me warmly and offered bubbles to set me at ease. We began with Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and their dinner’s good view. Later, with food, we’d also step back into older vintages of Dom Ruinart paired with courses made for us by the talented chef Michelle Bernstein.

Ruinart began as the oldest established champagne house in the world, founded in 1729, at a time when bottling the beverage had been illegal. With its forbidden nature, so the story goes, it was desired and enjoyed at the court of Versailles, where the original Ruinart family was friendly. Over drinks one evening with the king, Nicolas Ruinart had an epiphany. His champagne would please. The Ruinart “wine with bubbles” business began September 1, 1729 with the intent of offering unique gifts to Nicolas’s fabric customers–the family owned a cloth company–but within six years of founding the bubbles venture it dominated the family interests and by 1735 they shifted entirely to champagne.

Now, a little less than 300 years later, Ruinart persists, founded on blending strategies with a focus on chardonnay. Today, Frédéric Panaiotis serves as the house’s Chef de Caves, or chief winemaker, in charge of nursing the grapes from vineyard to vin clair (champagne’s first step still blend), to bubbles, all with the intention of maintaining the Ruinart house style.

It is this willingness of the winemaker to give over to something older and longer that gives champagne its persistence and brilliance both. Panaiotis recognizes he is part of this longer tradition. “When you join a champagne house,” he tells me, “it is important to understand my name will not stay.”

Panaiotis emphasizes the importance of this history. “In California, a winemaker can make their mark on a house, and that is understandable. But, in Champagne, it is different.” He continues, “In Champagne, you should never remember who was making the wine 40 years ago. He is just one of the guys making sure the wine style is the same.” The comparison highlights two different models of success–one of persistent innovation, on the one hand, and one of established grace, on the other, both to be valued but for different contexts.

Panaiotis discusses the history of Ruinart w Morimoto's help

Frederic Panaiotis discussing Ruinart champagne at a special demonstration with Chef Morimoto, Pebble Beach Food & Wine 2013

Panaiotis strikes me as a man full of grace, and gravitas both. As much as he regards himself well integrated into a larger team–both historically and currently–he also acts as the facilitator of that team’s larger goals.

It is in listening to Panaiotis, I am struck by how the two models–California and Champagne–showcase not only different ideas of history, but also differing examples of leadership. He appreciates the value of both approaches, having resided in Mendocino for almost three years between 1989 and 1991, assisting in the production of sparkling wine for a California label.

Now as chief winemaker for Ruinart, Panaiotis emphasizes the strength of the house band. “When it comes to winemaking, a well-honed team is so much more efficient and reliable. There can always be someone that is sick, but not all of us. So, the response, the assessment of the wine has to be done by the team, not one person.”

Successful focus on the group together, however, depends on also recognizing each individual’s talents. Creating that well-honed contingent, Panaiotis explains, comes from smartly utilizing each person’s abilities. “I must understand who on the team is more competent, more sensitive on certain areas than others.” In describing his meaning, Panaiotis uses himself as example. If he is feeling off one day, it’s necessary for him to recognize who around him can be more effective. “Everyone has expertise, skill in something.” He says, “I have to recognize that. Then I can trust you. Then the team responds. Whoever from the team for each part of what we’re doing.” Panaiotis emphasizes the advantage of this approach, “it’s very satisfying and more fun when we all work together.”

Nicolas, Michelle, and Frederic

Brand manager, Nicolas Ricroque, Chef Michelle Bernstein, and Frédéric Panaiotis doing final preparations for dinner

Getting Panaiotis to discuss his time in California uncovers an aspect of his character I suspect is foundational–curiosity coupled with systematic study. His education focused on the sciences, taking him through a career that has included chemical wine analysis, years of research on cork taint, and several positions making sparkling wine, in both California and Champagne. Talking about his work in Mendocino, Panaiotis tells me about his studies. “I took Spanish while I was working in California. Wine is great. With wine, you learn something everyday.” He references an idea we both agree upon–the more you know, the less you know. “But with me, it is not enough, so I study languages.” Currently Panaiotis is getting started with Mandarin.

It is not just a thirst for more knowledge that drives Panaiotis, it is also an interest in deeper understanding. We touch on the idea of food and wine pairing, a subject common to the world of wine. But with Panaiotis it blooms into a conversation about culture, recognition of values and ideas. Panaiotis’s thinking is multi-layered throughout. To understand food and wine pairing more effectively, he studies other languages.

He explains his reasoning. “Language is a key aspect of learning how people think,” he offers. “I am always interested in food and wine pairings. Language is key to understanding a culture’s ideas.” By recognizing the ideas of another culture, you gain new insight into flavors and food relationships as well. The various forms of study, then, all circle back, even while revealing something new in themselves. It is both that are true.

In discussing Panaiotis’s wealth of experience he reveals again his blend of grace, and gravitas, coupled with what I recognize as genuine humility, a trait he already revealed through his discussion of team work and leadership–a person of genuine humility, I believe, recognizes what they are genuinely good at, while understanding too there is always more to learn.

Through the Ruinart dinner, and the next day’s Morimoto cooking demonstration, Panaiotis showed his talent for pairing food and wine, an ability clear throughout our discussion as well. But he understands the source of his own strengths. “I am not gifted.” He explains. “People think I am gifted in food and wine pairings. No. No. No. I am not gifted.” As he speaks he is utterly sincere and to the point. “I work very hard all the time to keep learning.”

The hard work Panaiotis puts into his job he also does with clear gratefulness and joy. “I don’t make champagne,” he tells me. “I make something to make people happy. Putting a smile on people’s face, that is my job. How many people can say that?”


Thank you to Frederic Panaiotis for including me, and taking time to talk with me.

Thank you to Nicolas Ricroque.

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Pebble Beach Food & Wine 2013: Sushi and wine with Master Chef Morimoto, and Chef de Caves Panaiotis of Ruinart Champagne

The Iron Chef Morimoto, Ruinart Champagne Cooking Demonstration

This recent weekend, I was lucky enough to attend a cooking demonstration with Master Chef Morimoto including perfect pairings with Ruinart Champagne and the house’s Chef de Caves, Frédéric Panaiotis held at Pebble Beach Food & Wine.

Morimoto preparing

Master Chef Morimoto on stage alone, selecting his perfect tools in preparation for the demonstration

I was grateful to be included, knowing he is held in high regard for his sushi, good nature, and cooking talents. What hadn’t registered, however, was that he is held in high regard partially because he is on television showing these things. He is, in fact, one of the original Iron Chefs, and for many the favorite. The truth is, I haven’t had a television hook-up since 1996 (except for one brief stretch in 2000, when Jr. was only a year old and I watched all 10-years of Beverly Hills, 90210 (the original series), skipping the trashy season 8, in 4 months). Some of the heights of fame, as a result, allude me.

Chef Morimoto and Chef de Caves Panaiotis

Master Chef Morimoto and Ruinart Chef de Caves Panaiotis prior to the demonstration

What hadn’t alluded me is Morimoto’s positive reputation. The fame part hit when at the start of the demonstration the audience curtain was opened, and a beautiful, very small, older woman ran across the room ahead of everyone to ensure she got her seat with the best view.

The scene in the mirror

Morimoto’s cooking area set up in advance of the demonstration, as seen in the demonstration mirror

The event, as they explained, was a marriage of two cultures–Japanese and French. The demonstration, then, brought together an account of Japanese sushi tradition, with insights into French wine culture, and advice on how to enjoy the two together in a meal.

The team preparing

the team works on final preparations prior to inviting in the audience

Ruinart’s Chef de Caves Frédéric Panaiotis opened the event explaining, he is happy to give us the chance to enjoy champagne sitting down, with a meal so that it may be more closely appreciated. Also, by drinking bubbles in a wine glass, rather than a flute, the aromas are more accessible. In describing his own history with sparkling wine, Panaiotis explained he’s been drinking champagne pretty much all his life. In the region it is common to place a finger dipped in the wine on a baby’s lips after birth, the first offering to a new life. He also joked, “Champagne is what my grandmother used to drink when she was not so happy.” He went on, “but it is also a beverage we know is not just for special moments. It is for anytime. Champagne makes the moment special.”

Ruinart and Sushi

Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, and sushi pairing

In thinking about food and wine pairing, Morimoto offered insight in relation to how he also flavors the fish itself. When preparing sushi he has four different levels of tamari, four different densities of sauce. Seafood with no fat–octopus, shrimp, as examples–does well with lighter flavored sauce, lighter tamari. Fish with more fat, mackerel in winter, perhaps, take double the flavor needed as mackerel in summer when there is less fat in the meat. The more fat on the fish the more soy and wasabi you use. Similarly, when thinking about the wine, Panaiotis offers, a clear fish pairs with a really clear wine. The flavors accented on the fish, then, or added to a dish, can echo the flavors of the wine.

Morimoto explains fish quality

Chef Morimoto introduces the first course, explaining the differing cuts on a single fish

The Ruinart blanc de blanc is served to us alongside a Japanese white fish that is unique to the region but resembles an American Amber Jack. The Ruinart rosé, on the other hand, comes in a bit more savory, and is thus paired with preparations that have hardier flavors, such as fried dumpling in tomato, salmon, and uni. The team offers too that it would work with lighter meats, such as duck.

Big screen helps the audience see details

the demonstration included large screen close ups for the audience

Both wines, however, are delicate, all about subtle layers of rich flavor. It is here that Panaiotis gets excited about his wines with Japanese food. Morimoto’s preparations resemble a description of the wine–simple, clean food with rich flavors and freshness.

Panaiotis discusses the history of Ruinart w Morimoto's help

Morimoto and Panaiotis worked together. As Morimoto prepared more intricate cuts, Panaiotis was able to discuss the food and wine. Morimoto also offers insight on the champagne along with Panaiotis.

Chef Morimoto has been studying and developing his cooking techniques for well over 30-years, and offers tips to the audience on how to choose the best fish. First, he explains, his favorite knife is any knife that is sharp. The best cuts of fish have not been sitting directly on the ice–the cold damages the meat over time. When eating sushi, place the wasabi directly onto the fish, not into the soy, and put the fish side of a nigiri role down onto the tongue, with the rice side up. This gives the purest flavor.

the audience

a glimpse of the audience

The team explains that this demonstration is a proud moment. Chef Morimoto is honored to be included in a prestigious food & wine event. Wine is an established, and respected culture. Twenty years ago seeing an Asian chef on the itinerary for such a demonstration would have been unheard of or un-thought. Panaiotis, likewise, is pleased to see Ruinart alongside Japanese food, where he thinks it can pair so well.

Morimoto puts the final touches on Panaiotis's sushi

Morimoto puts final touches on Panaiotis’s sushi

In considering his Iron Chef reputation, Morimoto explains that even there he is not cooking for the judges, or cooking to beat the other competitor, but instead cooking to improve himself. With each ingredient challenge the approach is similar. “I cannot do same, same, same.” He says, “So, I have to create a new thing. Every single time, I’m shaking when I hold the knife, then I have to ask myself, what am I making? Each time, I’m challenged. I’m shaking.”

Chef Morimoto Sings

After the demonstration was complete, the audience was invited to propose questions. An audience member asked if Morimoto would sing. Bashful at first, he offered what he called “a fisherman song from Japan.”

Thank you to Chef Morimoto and Chef de Caves Panaiotis.

Thank you to Mark Stone and Nicolas Ricroque.

Thank you to Sarah Logan, and Vanessa Kanegai.

Thank you to Bettye Saxon.

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