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Red Wines

The Blood of Hercules

In a new series of blog posts, I’ll be combining my love of music with my passion for wine. In this series, I’ll pair wines of great value with specific artists’ albums.

For part one of my music and wine pairing series, we’ll head to Greece for the Georgos Agiorgitiko (pronounced Ag-ee-oh-Gee-tee-koh) from the white sandy beaches of Mykonos island. The varietal is popularly known as “the blood of Hercules.”  After Hercules slayed the Nemean lion, it was Agiorgitiko, from Nemea, that he guzzled in victory. Greece has been making wine for 6500 years, and, from this vast experience, they know a lot about it. They were the first to age wine and crush grapes before fermentation. Hippocrates prescribed it for medicinal purposes. During the spread of Greek civilization, large cults of people worshiped Dionysus, the god of wine (now that’s a god I can get behind!).

Pair this wine, or any Agiorgitiko for that matter, with music from the Toids’ “Unblocked Ears”, released in 2006. The cats in the band, Ryan Francesconi, Danny Cantrell, Lila Sklar, and Tobias Roberson are my homies, and world class musicians. The music is steeped in the vibe of Eastern European zestiness. Soulful, celebratory, exotic, and sorrowful, with rhythms that are hard to count, even if you’re a musician. The Toids blend their own originality with traditional Balkan folk music, and skillful songwriting to create a music that’s completely unique.

Pay particular attention to track three, “Seek”, with yours truly playing baritone saxophone. It’s as if Hercules himself is embodied in the composition, taking on the lion during the bari solo. The battle commences, each feeling each other out, while the heat of the day simmers off of the turf. The solo builds and the battle ensues, tense, yet sexy, and riveting. It all climaxes when the battle of two giants gets lethal, and Hercules drinks the blood of his fallen enemy. Or was it Agiorgitiko?

Notes of black plum, wild strawberry, blackberry liqueur, clay pot, graham cracker, Ouzo (watch our RF!), and tomato vine pop out of the glass, whilst Francesconi kills it soulfully on various lutes and flutes, in songs, like “Groping and Hoping” (having help from Cantrell with his technically gifted fingers), and “Slinker” (laying it down while Sklar and Cantrell play cat and mouse). I love the vocal interplay of Cantrell and Sklar in “Magnolia”. The chorus is as beautiful as the velvety fruit that Agiorgitiko generously provides. It’s no fruit bomb, though. Very much tempered by the tannic structure, subtle bitterness of the oak, and notes of iron earth, specific to Greece, this wine is sophisticated and balanced.

As I’m taking this all in, I love contemplating the rich history of Greek winemaking, and losing myself in that gorgeous “Magnolia” melody. I feel as if I’m back there somewhere in 1600 B.C.;  getting down with Dionysus, and appreciating these musicians in a time where they were as important as the gods.

Georgos Agiorgitiko 2013, “Farmer”, Mykonos, Greece

paired with

The Toids “Unblocked Ears”



The Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing – An Italian Immersion

screen-shot-2016-11-02-at-12-40-10-pmI think I was Italian in another life!  Since the late 90’s, I have been fascinated with Italian wine and culture.  My dad grew up in an Italian neighborhood, where his mother learned to make amazing spaghetti and meatballs, and his dad learned how to make wine from their Italian friends.  Later, my dad, having been influenced by my passion for wine, delved into the world of Italian wines.  He bought the good stuff;  Barolo, Barbaresco, Amarone, Brunello, and Bolgheri “Super Tuscans”.  They became the centerpiece of our family celebrations.  

A true fantasy of mine has been to utilize my knowledge and passion to teach about Italian wine, and I’m finally making it happen on December 11, noon-3:30, in the Oakland hills.  With twenty years of experience in the restaurant business, and almost a decade as a sommelier, buying wine for restaurants, I’ve finally found the nerve to share my love for Italian wine with you.  So, I surrounded myself with a great team of Italian friends to help immerse this workshop in all things Italy.  We’ll travel from Sicily to Piedmont, tasting food and wine, and be serenaded by the sounds of musician Laura Inserra, playing music from each region.  It all takes place in the comforts of my beautiful home, overlooking the bay.  With the help of chef Marco Antonelli, you’ll try wild boar ragout and Barbera, from Piedmont, Focaccia al Formaggio and Pigato, from Liguria, pasta with porcini mushrooms and Etna Rosso, from Sicily, and that’s just to whet your appetite.  

The workshop is for beginners and aficionados alike.  I’ve had everyone from first time wine drinkers, to winemakers get something useful out of this workshop.  Past attendees not only loved the food and wine, but they felt engaged and included in the conversation.  Beginners will ideally start to understand what they like, and how to ask for it, while wine professionals will benefit from reinforcement of existing knowledge.  Nonetheless, it will be relaxed, informative, delicious, and engaging.  

Listen to what others are saying about the Secrets to Food & Wine Pairing HERE.  

This event will sell out.  Order your tickets and get more information HERE, and don’t miss out.

Vegetarians are welcome.   Be sure to let me know what your dietary restrictions are in advance.

I can’t wait to share the day with you.

Patrick Cress


Grenache, For My Money, is the World’s Most Versatile Red

chateauneuf-du-papePicture yourself in a party of four at one of your favorite restaurants.  You’re getting a variety of dishes (salmon, lamb, mushroom risotto, and pork), and are trying to find the right wine to go with all these different flavors.  For something unique, Grenache is my recommendation for a versatile red.  When made well, it has the elegance of Pinot Noir, and the depth of Syrah.  The medium body, and vibrant acidity places it in the wheelhouse of food versatile wines.  When I’m teaching at one of my restaurants, I’m always educating the staff about these types of wines, as “go to”, when a group needs a wine to go with everything.

Garnacha (Grenache) originated in northeast Spain around the time of the “Crown of Aragon”, which reached the height of its power between the 14th and 15th centuries.  It ripens late into the season, so hot and dry weather are an absolute necessity.  The key to a well made Garnacha, mostly grown as a single varietal in Navarra, is to pick before it gets too ripe and extracted.  It wants to ripen like a Zinfandel, and get high in brix (measurement of sugar in grapes), sacrificing the lovely acidity, and grace that makes it so food friendly.  My favorite Spanish appellation for Garnacha is Montsant, near Barcelona.  These wines are usually blended with Mazuela (Carignane), and have so much grace and style.  Montsant and neighboring Priorat have the perfect conditions for growing old vines.  The dry weather and sandy soils prevent powdery mildew and disease from setting in, a common affliction for vines with age in wetter climates.

Cannonau di Sardegna (a Grenache synonym), grown on the Italian island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean, might be my favorite expression of Grenache on the planet.  In true European fashion, there seems to be a bit of nationalism around this ancient and important varietal.  A recent study puts the origins of Cannonau around 1200 B.C., yet the Spanish claim to have brought Garnacha over when the Aragonese crown ruled.  Any way you slice it, Cannonau has become its own thing.  Yummy black cherry, and blackberry fruit flavors leave you believing you’re about to feast your lips on a fruit bomb of epic proportions, yet the Italian sottobosco (dried, rotting leaves of the forest), herbs, violets, vibrant acid, and palpable tannins give it the yin/yang you need for food.  

I can’t get away with talking about Grenache without mentioning the French Rhone.  Grenache drives the bus in southern Rhone, in places like Lirac, Vacqueyras, Gigondas, and Tavel.  But, most well known in the region is the appellation of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, made famous by the Avignon Papacy starting in the 14th century.  Although its name did not fully come to be until the 19th century, the Papacy promoted its local wine as an alternative to Burgundy.   It’s almost never packaged as a single varietal, but you can bet it’s the dominant grape of the blend of up to thirteen grapes!  The weather is hot, just as Grenache likes it, and the soil is made of quartzite pebbles that retain the heat at night, retain moisture, and hasten ripening.  These wines are made for the international market, with juicy blueberry-like fruit, garriques (dried lavender and herbs), and a lovely combination of power and grace.

California is starting to excel at producing Grenache, too.  Appellations in the Central Coast (Paso Robles, Edna Valley, Santa Ynez) have very similar terrior to that of the south Rhone.  The largest limestone deposits in California are there, imparting an all-important aspect to wine;  minerality.  The weather can also be hot during the day, with the Pacific Ocean cooling things off at night, to help with balance and elegance.  Check out wineries like Verdad, Tablas Creek, and Andrew Murray for great, well balanced Grenache-based wines that will wow you with quality.  

My favorite Grenache and Grenache-based blends:

  • Republic of Quibia Garnacha 2013, “R-OH”, Montsant, Spain
  • Surrau Cannonau di Sardegna 2013, Italy
  • Saint Préfert -Chateauneuf du Pape 2012, Réserve Auguste Favier, France
  • Verdad Garnacha 2014, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley


We can never know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.



Cabernet Franc. Seductive and Sexy.

bettie-pageWine can be such a visceral experience. Sometimes I get a little flush in the cheeks, when I’ve had a wine that’s so delicious, it becomes slightly arousing.  I first encountered this at A Cote restaurant in Oakland, where I was introduced to the seductive Brundlmayer sparkling rosé.  Pink complexion, dancing bubbles, attractive yet introverted fruit, and a finish that lasted for days! Cabernet Franc, more often than not has a similar effect on my psyche.  It smells of sophistication with its black cherry fruit, herbal notes, and intermingled roasted pepper earthiness.  Add in a touch of French oak for a subtle baking spice finish, and it may be hard for you to concentrate on dinner conversation.  

So, what kind of terrior brings out the best in Cabernet Franc?  Limestone and gravel are key, like with the “Right Bank” appellations of Saint Emilion and Pomerol in Bordeaux.  These nutrient poor soils prevent vines from focusing energy on canopy and leaves.  Instead, all of the energy is focused on producing fruit. These “Right Bank” appellations usually blend equal amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, so they tend to be richer, and have a weightier mouthfeel.  Bordeaux is no stranger to hot summers, where daytime temperatures in the nineties bring out fruit and depth in wine.  I love these wines with braised lamb shanks.  The earthiness of the lamb really brings out the fruit of the wine in a beautiful way.  Fat in animal protein really goes well with acidity in wine, and “Right Bank” Bordeaux wines are the perfect pairing.

The Loire, perhaps my favorite style, focuses on Cabernet Franc as its sole varietal to create a nose of violets, roses, cranberry, tart cherry-like fruit, and vibrant acidity on the palate.  The appellations of Chinon, and Bourgueil float my boat.  The tuffeau limestone soil in the vineyard brings out a complex minerality on the nose to balance out the fruit.  Loire is where “Cab Franc” first became popular in the 1600’s, probably because it had the finesse of Chopin’s “Nocturnes”, the seductiveness of Bettie Page, and the silky smooth texture of a red velvet dress.  Who doesn’t want to taste that!?  These wines are perfect for the fall, too.  Think Thanksgiving.  Turkey, stuffing, cranberries, roasted root veggies, and a pan gravy.

Of late, California has taken the ball and run with it.  Using “Right Bank” Bordeaux and the Loire as their reference, California winemakers are producing delicious Cabernet Franc wines.  The key is to not overcrop Cabernet Franc, though.  It is especially susceptible to green bell pepper and vegetal flavors, when the vines are allowed to produce too much fruit.  California is still in the infant stages of figuring out how to balance volume (tons per acre) with quality, and Cabernet Franc will certainly let you know about it!  That roasted pepper on the nose and palate needs to be in balance with the fruit, acid, oak, and texture.  When we find that balance, it is pure magic in a glass.

Check these Cabernet Francs out:

  • La Petite Chopinere Cab Franc 2012,  Bourgueil, France
  • Dom Beausejour Cab Franc 2014, Chinon, France
  • Zepaltas Cabernet Franc 2014, Pickberry vineyard, Sonoma Valley
  • Truchard Cabernet Franc 2013, Carneros, Napa Valley
  • Keenan Cabernet Franc 2012, Spring Mountain, Napa Valley
  • Chateau La Croix Chantecaille Cabernet Franc / Merlot 2012, Saint Émilion, Grand Cru, France
  • Overture By Opus One Cabernet Sauvignon / Cabernet Franc / Merlot NV, Oakville, Napa Valley


We can never know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.


Often Overlooked, Gamay is the Perfect Red for Summer

Morgon VineyardsGamay is often overlooked because it gets lumped in with Beaujolais nouveau – equivalent to that of a bad mullet hair cut.  But don’t make the mistake of ignoring this little gem, because you assume that it’s a sugary, sweet, soda pop-style quaffer.  You can always find something just right in the “Cru” Beaujolais style.

Gamay has roots that go back to the Romans, is related to Pinot Noir, and has the finesse and femininity we all love about Pinot.  Yet unlike Pinot Noir, Gamay is a vigorous and hearty vine that can often overproduce.  Viticulturists have to crop the canopy (leaves, cordon, stems) more than once in a growing season to insure the energy of the plant is used to produce quality fruit.  Even then, fruit will have to be “dropped” (trimmed from the plant and left for Dionysus to consume) to help develop the character of the wine.

So, what’s the difference between Beaujolais nouveau and Cru Beaujolais?  Beaujolais nouveau is traditionally the first wine to emerge in any given vintage.  Before Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are released, Beaujolais nouveau is fermented for just a few short days in stainless steel or cement, then bottled immediately.  Contrasted by Cru Beaujolais, which can see extended fermentation time, go through malolactic fermentation (converting the naturally high acid in Gamay to a softer lactic acid), Sur lie aging (aging the wine on yeast left over from fermentation to add texture), and oak aging.  All of these winemaking techniques give Cru Beaujolais a sophistication on the level of Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, while Beaujolais nouveau has the monotony of Kim Kardashian.

Even though the French get the credit for developing the varietal, my favorite Gamay right now is actually not from France.  It’s from the Division Wine Company in Willamette Valley, Oregon.  You can try it at my “secrets to food & wine pairing” workshop this Sunday June 12th.  It is one of my favorite red varietals for summer;  sophisticated, dry, crisp, and pining for food.  Gamay is one of the lightest of the red varietals, and when made well, has vibrant acidity and enough structure to go perfectly with foods like duck, chicken, salmon & halibut, mushrooms, lamb, and beef stew.  I love how the Division-Villages Gamay is slightly more fruit forward than those of Cru Beaujolais, but the structure, tannins, and food-loving acidity are very similar to its originating region.

Here are my delicious Gamay picks:

As a bonus treat, look for the Chateau Lavernette “Granit” NV Brut Nature, Blancs de Noirs, France made from Gamay.   It’s sparkling so think of it more like a Champagne when pairing food with it.  

Enjoy, and let me know which one of these pairings knocked your socks off.  Do you have a favorite Gamay appellation?  What do you love to pair with Gamay?

It’s impossible to know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.


Zinfandel – California’s Noble Varietal

Old Hill VineyardIn the ‘serious’ wine world, Zinfandel tends to have a bad rap.  It has a reputation for being a one-dimensional fruit bomb, flaunting itself with zero sophistication. But there are ALWAYS exceptions that will delight even the most sophisticated of palates.

I was reminded of this when I recently tried a bottle of Bliss Family Vineyards Zinfandel leftover from a potluck. At first I had very low expectations of its merits.  But when I popped the cork, I was pleasantly surprised by its vibrant acid, depth of character, subtle earthiness, nuanced oak, and food-friendliness. 

My advice to you is be open to the possibility of having a great Zin. If you’re looking for quality and sophistication, choose one that is under 14% alcohol. They tend to have a balance of tart black cherry fruit, bright acidity, and brambly nose that remind me of August in the Oakland hills — absolutely delicious and layered with complexity. Plus you’ll find a gem for under $20.

Like Pinot Noir to Bourgogne and Sangiovese to Tuscany, Zinfandel is California’s noble varietal — meaning it has sophistication, age worthiness, beautiful fruit, and has a long history of greatness here in CA. It was also one of the first varietals to be planted commercially in California.

It arrived during the California gold rush via Europe in the mid-19th century, and quickly became the most widely planted vine because its adaptability to the California climate. It is still known as a hearty, disease resistant varietal, with existing Zinfandel vineyards in California that date back to the 1850’s.

Although a vineyard of that age is quite rare, there are a significant amount of vineyards that are 30-40+ years old. These “old vines” give depth and character that younger vineyards can’t possibly achieve.  As the vines get older, they produce less fruit naturally and spend all of their energy concentrating the juice of the few grape clusters that remain on the plant. It gives a complexity that’s difficult to achieve by any other means.

The ideal conditions needed to make a great Zinfandel are as follows:  1.) The soil needs to be rich in minerals to help the vines flourish and impart minerality in the wine. 2.) The timing of harvest must take place with exact precision to avoid compromising flavors. If picked too early, the wine will taste like bell peppers;  pick too late (like many producers do) and it becomes a sugary juice that masks potential subtlety, earthiness, and complexity.  3.) Vineyard age adds depth and character. 4.) Use of minimal oak to impart notes of baking spice and tannin adds more depth of character.

Zinfandel is the perfect summer wine because it goes great with BBQ.  Pork ribs, steak, lamb, duck, portobello mushrooms, and skewered veggies will all sing with one of my top picks:


We’ll taste an example of one of these well-balanced, vibrant Zinfandels at my upcoming “Discover the Secrets of Food & Wine Pairing” Workshop June 12 in Oakland.   Space is limited.  Go HERE to make a reservation and save yourself a spot.

It’s impossible to know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.



Why Pinot Noir Will Always Have A Soft Spot in My Heart

swirling red wine in glass 02Pinot Noir possess an unforgettable personality and flare that makes her absolutely irresistible. She’s like a woman in charge with her grace, strength, and versatility.  She satisfies the taste buds having substance and virtuosity with a controlled and soulful finish.

What I love best is her poetically understated flavors that keep you coming back for more. She really knows how to grab your attention in the most sophisticated way. That’s what makes her so sexy. She’s regal in poise and is confident in who she is.

One of the things I find most intriguing about this powerhouse varietal, is the fragility at the core of her being. Unlike vigorous varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir needs cool weather and EXTRA TLC to evolve into the seductive beauty that we’ve all come to love. If she doesn’t get her way or get the attention she demands, she becomes extremely finicky and moody — making her one of the most challenging varietals to grow.

Yet despite her temperamental mood swings, she’s a team player too. As the most food versatile of all varietals, Pinot doesn’t discriminate and can hold her own with pretty much any meal. Her acidity and tannins combined with suppleness of fruit is what makes her versatile.  I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for her.

My Favorite Picks

Historically,  Burgundy, France or “Bourgogne” has been the home of high quality Pinot Noirs. One of my favorites for the price is the 2013 Gerard Seguin “La Place” vineyard from the town of Fixin which is adjacent to the world famous Gevry-Chambertin. She gives off the aroma of coffee beans, sizzling bacon, mushroom and thyme. Her palate has lovely acidity, yummy sour cherry fruit, and a toasty finish.  The savory / herbally character of the Gerard Seguin pairs perfectly with the richness of Coq au Vin. She is sophisticated, slightly uptight, and dry with an English sense of humor. Not until you pair her with food does she really open up. I call this one Lady Diana.

Another one of my favorites similar to the Bourgogne style is the 2013 Ayres Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley in Oregon. She’s my Kate Winslet. Her complex earth tones of evergreen, herbs and forest floor balance out the generous cherry fruit and rich tannins. Like that of Bourgogne, she’s grown in a region that happens to be located near the 45th parallel. This makes for having a similar terrior (climate and soil type), of her French cousin. It’s the cool, wet weather that forces the vines to struggle in ripening their grapes creating a delectable tension you can taste from start to finish. What makes her different is that she tends to have more pronounced fruit to go with the amazing balance, because of the slightly warmer temperatures she gets in Oregon.  You’ll love this wine, especially at $26, with grilled salmon with mushrooms and a Pinot Noir sauce.  

Last but not least, my #1 choice comes from Green Valley in Russian River Valley — Paul Mathew’s 2013 Bohemian Vineyard. She is an absolute bombshell beauty; kind of like Scarlett Johansson.  Despite California having the reputation of being too hot for making great Pinot Noir, it’s the consistent fog and the Petaluma Wind Gap in Green Valley that keeps temperatures cooler and regulated. This forces the grapes to ripen slowly and is the secret to crafting artisan quality Pinot Noir.  With notes of mushroom, cherry cola and vibrant acid the Bohemian Vineyard Pinot Noir will blow your mind when paired with curried lamb shanks.  

When it comes to Pinot Noir, earthy complexity, supple fruit, and acidic tension are the key ingredients. Burgundy, Willamette Valley and Green Valley are the ones you have to try, so don’t miss out on getting to know these special ladies.

Check them out and let me know what you think. I’d like to know if there are other producers  from Burgundy, Willamette Valley or Green Valley that you particularly love? I also want to know what you paired these gals with and why?  Leave me a comment or question.  I look forward to hearing from you and continuing the conversation.

We can never know too much about wine.  Let’s keep learning.