My Religion

20 09 2009

Visiting John Williams at Frog’s Leap is like religion for me.  I am not always the most overtly religious person you may have met despite growing up Catholic, but I have always felt that I am very spiritual.  That said, although I appreciate the ritual that goes on every Sunday, and can stand to attend every now and then, there were numerous times that stick out from my childhood where I was either a) fainting b) bored or c) listening to a sermon about a frog and how its kinder to put douse a frog in boiling water than to put a frog in cold water and bring it to a boil (what!?).  Seriously, that was the Homily one day.  I thought that was for lobsters.

So I have found peace by finding my “religion” or inspiration in other ways.  Sometimes it entails a walk on the beach, sometimes a long drive (amazingly that puts me in the mind frame to thank a greater being every time) sometimes just crying or singing or strumming or feeling.  And, long story shortened, there are certain people who accomplish the task for me effortlessly.

John Williams is religion for me.  While his own spirituality is immensely uplifting, and I am almost afraid to delve into that further, his day to day way of operating his business is an incredible inspiration.  I have visited John almost too many times to mention, but each and every time I go he preaches to me, but not in a way that is condescending or authoritarian.  He acknowledges the universe and its magic while being realistic.  He gives back to the planet and he is here to serve.

We joke when we meet that by now I’ve heard the tour at Frog’s Leap so many times that I could give the tour myself.  Truly I have bought into 100% of the “schtick” and totally believe in it.  I find comfort in knowing the direction he is going, in silently nodding while he lets out the line and reels the crowd in.  He makes arguments without being competitive and always has supporting evidence.  He gives good tour.  And don’t get me wrong, he has an entourage of folks that he has groomed with his philosophy that give equally great tours.  The flock gets it.  Other wineries should take notice.

But as you sit or walk or sip through the experience, something becomes innately clear.  He totally buys into it himself.  He is not a preacher that fails to recognize or abide by his gospel.  He lives it daily.  You know when you talk to him that he is only giving you as much information as he feels you need today, and he will share more with you as your relationship and devotion and readiness increases.  He is imminently patient and never one to call someone out for doing the wrong thing, but he asks questions and allows you to determine for yourself what is right and what is wrong.  He lets you choose your own path.  And isn’t that what we should aspire towards?

What in the world does this have to do with wine?  I think everything.  I am convinced that although it may be hard to prove, human energy is distilled into all that we do.  An incredible work of art is not always just technique, I feel that a piece of that artist and their inspiration rest in that art forever.  For John and other select winemakers, you can taste their craft and their passion in each and every bottle.

John’s 1991 Frog’s Leap Merlot was opened on our last visit as a special treat.  You could taste raw inspiration, hope, fear, and bravery in his second vintage of red wine.  Find that one or go for the 2005 Frog’s Leap Rutherford which is a blend of pride, honor, respect and humility.

15th Annual Music Festival for Mental Health

18 09 2009

Last weekend I headed up to Napa to work a benefit.  Saturday September 12, 2009 Staglin Family Vineyard in Rutherford, CA held their 15th annual Music Festival for Mental Health.  Each year the Staglins hold a symposium to review research funded by past festivals and discuss new research, this year the Staglins announced the formation of IMHRO (International Mental Health Research Organization).  The symposium was followed by a reception with rare wines and food prepared this year by Douglas Keane of Cyrus Restaurant, a concert with Pat Benatar (next year Dwight Yoakam) and finally a gala dinner, this year hosted by Staffan Terje of San Francisco’s Perbacco.  This benefit has raised $95 million in the past 15 years!  I have worked this benefit for nine years as a volunteer sommelier and this year lead the team of sommeliers for the event. 


The Staglins were kind enough to arrange for the sommeliers to visit a series of wineries on Friday prior to the event.  We traipsed around the valley and were graciously hosted by some of the greatest Napa Valley producers.  Pure Luxury Transportation carted us around (yes in a limo, slightly embarrassing, but better not to drive, and they have other vehicles in their fleet; ask for Philip Alonso) definitely better than driving.  We hit Vineyard 29, Kuleto Estate, Revana (amazing!), and had a party complete with margaritas, just what you want after a day of tasting, and a selection of amazing wines from Tuck Beckstoffer, BOND and Harlan.  The evening was capped off by a delicious dinner prepared by Keiko Niccolini with wines hosted by Flowers Vineyard and Winery.  There may have been some dancing as we refreshed our memories with Pat Benetar tunes.

One of the highlights of the weekend is always the reception and walk around tasting in the Staglin caves featuring wines from some of the world’s best producers including multiple “cult” bottlings.  This year I had the opportunity to taste and pour the Screaming Eagle, usually one of the most hectic jobs.  This year I eked out as many pours as possible for the crowd, check out the mayhem on this video kindly taken by Stephanie Bailey at Jones Family.

Apart from the melee at the Screaming Eagle table there were plenty of other amazing wines on hand and because my pouring duties were fulfilled after an hour and ten minutes I had a chance to briefly taste some of the wines.  Favorite producers included Anomaly Vineyards, BOND, Domaine de la Vougeraie, Favia Erickson Winegrowers, Harlan Estate, Jonata, Jones Family Vineyards, Miner Oracle, and Skipstone. 

The tasting was followed by a concert with Pat Benatar and her husband Neil Giraldo.  Although I did not get to see the actual concert, she was amazing and can still really belt out those songs!  Dinner following looked delicious as the food prepared by the team from Perbacco looked and smelled identical to that they serve at the restaurant!  To prepare that for a banquet of 200 people is quite  a feat and this year’s meal was one of the most smooth and efficient I can remember!  Unfortunately the sommeliers were too busy keeping wine glasses full to taste the food, but famed vintner Abe Schoener of Scholium Project was prepping food for the volunteer team while we worked.  After the benefit dinner concluded we were able to enjoy great steaks (Browns Valley Market), romano beans (Lee Hudson’s garden), heirloom tomatoes, cheeses, sausages and tons of great wine that Garen Staglin pulled from his cellar for us, including Kongsgaard Chardonnay and of course some of Abe’s own wines.

Over the course of many years of working on this event I have learned a lot about mental health and am happy to see the advances that have been made in mental health research.  There is still much to do and the proceeds of this event make a tremendous impact due to the Staglin’s generosity and support from the community.  It was great to learn of a new public service announcment that will help to fight the stigma associated with mental illness.  This campaign was spearheaded by actress Glenn Close and a group called Bring Change 2 Mind.  This PSA features about twelve people with mental illness and their families and will be released in October.  I am very proud to say that Brandon Staglin and his parents were included in the filming.  Their openness is amazing and is the first step in helping the general public to understand mental illness better.  You can sign up to be notified when it is released by going to  Another way to help is to attend next years Music Festival and in the meantime you can toast mental health with a bottle of Staglin Salus Estate Chardonnay, the proceeds of this wine support mental health research.

Santé Restaurant Symposium and Restaurant Awards

10 09 2009

It’s rare that I can really comment on restaurants from around the country now that I no longer work in national wine sales!  I try to visit as many as I can when out of my local sphere, but my affiliation with Santé offered me a great opportunity this year to virtually visit these restaurants by judging the Santé Restaurant Awards 2009 in the wine category.  I was very impressed with the calibre of the restaurants that entered, I have judged these awards before, but this year was REALLY tough!  It just goes to show the direction that wine programs are taking in our country and the results show that more than ever offering service to our customers is at our top priority.  I literally salivated over some of these lists and menus while reviewing them, and now I have a long list of restaurants I want to visit around the country.  I hope that you can visit some of these winners!  Thank you for entering, competition was fierce.  I will be attending the Santé Restaurant Symposium this October at The Sagamore, go to for more information.  I went a few years ago and the event is full of great seminars, events, dinners, and some of the most amazing wine, spirit and restaurant professionals in the country.  It is great to have an excuse to visit the east at the height of the autumn foliage and a way to check in with my roots, and is conveniently right after my 20 year high school reunion, WOW.  Hope to see you there to tell you how that goes. 

For more infomation on the symposium go to

 The Santé Awards program is the only peer-judged restaurant and hospitality competition in North America.

Santé’s 2009 Grand Award Winners are:

Culinary Hospitality Restaurant of the Year: Fair Hill Inn, Elkton, Maryland

Wine Hospitality Restaurant of the Year: PRIMA, Walnut Creek, California

Spirits Hospitality Restaurant of the Year: Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks, Boston, Massachusetts

The Santé Restaurant Awards are based on a variety of criteria, and winners represent a broad spectrum of restaurant- and hospitality-industry professionals with a common passion for their work and a commitment to excellence. Representatives from grand-award-winning establishments, those from regional-award-winning restaurants (listed below), and four Santé Professionals of the Year will be honored for their achievements at the 2009 Santé Restaurant Awards Gala Dinner and Presentation Ceremony on October 19, 2009 at The Sagamore in Bolton Landing, New York. The ceremony takes place during the 2009 Santé Restaurant Symposium, a four-day education and networking event for restaurant professionals. Ribera Del Duero is the exclusive wine sponsor for the 2009 Santé Restaurant Awards.


Culinary Hospitality Awards, honoring restaurants and professionals that exhibit outstanding achievement in culinary service and hospitality:

Culinary Hospitality Restaurant of the Year: Fair Hill Inn, Elkton, Maryland

Regional Winners:

Twenty-Two Bowen’s, Newport, Rhode Island
Bricco, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Bastille, Alexandria, Virginia
Kyma, Atlanta, Georgia
Annie Gunn’s, Chesterfield, Missouri
Chez Roux at La Torretta Del Lago, Montgomery, Texas
Epic Roasthouse, San Francisco, California
Azure Restaurant, Honolulu, Hawaii
Il Fornaio, Seattle, Washington

Boston Park Plaza Hotel and Swan’s Café, Boston, Massachusetts
il Buco, New York, New York
Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Elizabeth on 37th, Savannah, Georgia
FireLake Grill House and Cocktail Bar, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Restaurant Kelly Liken, Vail, Colorado
RH Restaurant and Bar, West Hollywood, California
Alan Wong’s Restaurant, Honolulu, Hawaii
Joel Robuchon Restaurant, Las Vegas, Nevada

Michael’s on the Hill, Waterbury Center, Vermont
The Pines Tavern, Gibsonia, Pennsylvania
The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, Lovettsville, Virginia
The Inn at Dos Brisas, Brennon, Texas
Waterbar, San Francisco, California
Washington Athletic Club, Seattle, Washington

Wine Hospitality Awards, honoring restaurants and professionals that exhibit outstanding achievement in wine service and hospitality:

Wine Hospitality Restaurant of the Year: PRIMA, Walnut Creek, California

Regional Winners:

Fine Dining
UpStairs on the Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Barbetta, New York, New York
Charley’s Steak House, Orlando, Florida
Piccolo Sogno, Chicago, Illinois
Spencer’s for Steaks and Chops, Salt Lake City, Utah
A16 Restaurant & Wine Bar, San Francisco, California

Angelo’s Tavola, Scotia, New York
Capsouto Frres, New York, New York
Backstreet Café, Houston, Texas
California Café, Los Gatos, California
bin on the lake restaurant & wine bar, Kirkland, Washington

Hotel/Resort Fine Dining
Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel, Ocean City, Maryland
Flying Fish Café, Lake Buena Vista, Florida
The State Room, East Lansing, Michigan
Addison at the Grand Del Mar, San Diego, California
Sun Mountain Lodge, Winthrop, Washington

Spirits Hospitality Awards, honoring restaurants and professionals that exhibit outstanding achievement in spirits service and hospitality:

Spirits Hospitality Restaurant of the Year: Eastern Standard Kitchen & Bar, Boston, Massachusetts

Regional Awards:

Hotel/Resort Bar
The Grille at Canyon Ranch Miami Beach, Miami Beach, Florida
Petrossian Bar, Las Vegas, Nevada

Restaurant Bar
JoeDoe, New York, New York
Enology, Washington DC
Ocean Prime, Columbus, Ohio
III Forks Steakhouse, Dallas, Texas

Service Professional Awards, honoring individuals who exhibit outstanding professional achievement in food, wine, and spirits service:

Paul Barry, Grafton Street Pub + Grill, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Cheryl Holt, Tosca Restaurant, Hingham, Massachusetts
James Dixon, Artist Point, Lake Buena Vista, Florida
Kenneth Pace, Grove Park Inn, Asheville, North Carolina
Robert Walsch, The Pasta Tree, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Jerald Appling, Suite & Tender, San Diego, California
Lygia Bortolotti, Suite & Tender, San Diego, California

Rye on the Road at Outside Lands

1 09 2009

This weekend I had the amazing opportunity to help the Rye on the Road crew at Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park.  Marco Dionysos, formerly of Clock Bar, is now helping out at Rye during the week and made cocktails for the “talent” at the show on Saturday.  We had a great post up on the hilltop of the Polo Fields Stage Left at the Altec Lansing booth where they sponsored specialty cocktails with Prosecco and beer drawing the performers with samples of their exciting new ipod/iphone boom box.  Jason Mraz even came by!

Rye on the Road offers a great opportunity for those who need bar service around the bay area including ingredients, qualified bar staff and even the actual bar!  We first learned about these bars at Slow Food Nation San Francisco, but they have also been used at the event I helped to run, SF Chefs. Food. Wine. as well as at the recent event in the park.  The benefit is clear the minute you walk up to the bar.  Each is equipped with unique trays for condiments and fruit, area for ice, storage area and all is packaged in a wood finished and very stylish bar on wheels.  This means that no matter where you are you can have a bar (or 10!).   And the cocktails were delicious, including the Pop Princess (otherwise known as the B.A.M.F.).

For more information on Rye on the Road go to…