Monday, November 30, 2015

An Unpretentious New York Wine Tour

I know so many people who can’t be persuaded to sign up for a wine class, a wine tasting or a wine tour. Is it that they abhor wine? Hardly. What they do dislike is the pretentiousness that’s almost inherent in any wine event. Isn’t it possible to enjoy fine wines in an upscale venue, learn enough to be comfortable when chatting with a sommelier in a restaurant or when selecting wine in a shop, and also garner enough practical knowledge to surprise your family and friends next time you pop a cork at home, all without a snooty air? The answer is yes, yes and yes, thanks to City Wine Tours

I signed up for their West Village tour along with 11 other people -- this intimate number of wine lovers is the max on any of their tours. Some of the participants received the tour as a gift, others saw it as a way to share two enjoyable hours on a Saturday afternoon with their siblings, spouse or friends. Sarah, our gregarious wine ambassador, met us at A.O.C. L’aile ou la Cuisse, a charming French bistro. (She’s worked in the wine industry for 10 years, including in sales as a sommelier, and as a wine writer for Martha Stewart.) Instead of just going around the table with the usual introductions, Sarah asked us to describe how we like our coffee. The responses, ranging from black, no sugar to soy lattes, offered a window into our palate. “We’re talking about tannins, body, and flavor preferences that apply to both coffee and wine,” said Sarah.

And, in case you’ve always been confused how to evaluate a wine, Sarah gave us her “foolproof” 4S method: See, Swirl, Sniff and Sip. “It’s about getting all your senses involved," she said.

We started with a sparkling wine, Ammonite Cremant de Loire, Alexandre Monmousseau, as a palate cleanser to wake up the tongue. If you like Champagne but prefer not to pay premium Champagne prices, this wine, like Cava from Spain, is made using a similar method, making it a good value. (The grape is a Chenin Blanc that grows well in South Africa also.) Then we noticed the size of the bubbles erupting in the glass. Sarah explains that the smaller the size, the higher the quality.

Next up was the Domaine Boyt Geyl Pinot d'Alsace 2012, a white from Alsace with pinot blanc grapes. Sarah directed us to the color and clarity -- it was clear and pale; with age a white wine darkens. We stared at the “legs” streaming down the side of the glass. If it crawls, it tells you about the body of the wine, the thickness and the way it feels in your mouth. This one was medium bodied.

We learned that swirling has a purpose; it brings oxygen into the wine. The oxygen releases compounds that, if you sniff after swirling, boost the aroma profile. “So much of the flavor experience is aroma. Go to the farmer’s market to train your senses,” said Sarah. That way, with time, you can more readily identify and describe the scents inhabiting your wine of choice. Some wines give off a lot of aroma. This one was not very aromatic.

Where many would-be oenophiles stammer is when it comes to describing the wine’s flavor. “Fruit flavors are in almost every wine,” Sarah said. This wine had granny smith and some floral notes. By swishing the wine around your mouth, you get an indication of the texture. With this one, you get a medium heavy feel in your mouth.

Sarah was very open to questions. When one member of our group asked about decanting, Sarah told us that delicate wines can’t handle aggressive decanting. But, more important than decanting is the wine’s temperature. “Most whites are served too cold, and reds served too warm,” said Sarah. You can drink reds at 55°-60° F. “Let a white sit outside the fridge for 15 minutes so it warms up a bit,” she suggested. And if a red is too powerful, chill it. Temperature is all important, so it’s no wonder that the stemmed glass keeps your body heat away from the wine.

Then we strolled a few minutes to Ayza Wine and Chocolate Bar, a contemporary venue with light pouring through multiple windows. Two tempting truffles -- one white and one dark chocolate -- awaited each of us. Since I’m a chocoholic, this was, by far, my favorite stop where we sampled three well-crafted wines. The first was Astica Torrontes 2014, an Argentinian white that was fresh, crisp and aromatic with tropical notes. Sarah explained that people are often confused, thinking a fruity wine is inherently sweet. On the contrary, this wine was bone dry but with bright fruit. We took a bite of the white chocolate truffle and chased it with this wine. Heavenly! (More chocolate, please.) This low alcohol wine -- 12.5% -- works well with spicy food as well as fish. “You don’t drink a high alcohol wine with spicy food; it would overwhelm you,” explained Sarah.

We paired the dark chocolate with a red, Ayza Garnacha 2012, a grenache from Calayuna, Spain. Grenache is chocolate friendly, velvety and fruit driven. “Juicy and ripe, with a little spice at the end, it’s like a chocolate covered cherry when you chase the chocolate truffle with this wine,” said Sarah. Pairing the right food with the right wine enhances both.

Last, was the dessert wine, Alasia Moscato d'Asti 2013 from North Italy. This was a delightful wine -- it worked well with both the white and dark truffles -- that had a refreshing blend of flavors: apricot, rose petals, and lychee. Many members of our group at first looked afraid to try the dessert wine, concerned it would be sickeningly sweet. That was hardly the case. In fact, several of us decided that this could be our go-to dessert wine.

Our last stop was Jones Street Wine, a wee, local and very informal wine shop. The owner, Joel Zighelboim, curates the petite wine selection: reds lining one wall and whites on the other. Above each bottle hang detailed tasting notes on clipboards. Since this was the weekend before Thanksgiving, we sipped a wine from Rioja - Crianza 2011 Fernandez Gomez that works well with turkey. It’s aged for a year in oak and another year in the bottle, a process that reduces the tannins. The tempranillo grape gives the wine its vibrancy, offering a red fruit flavor with a little tartness. vibrant, red fruit. In fact, it’s lively, just like cranberry sauce, said Sarah. But it’s also got almost herbaceous notes -- kind of like a “Thanksgivingy” flavor. Sarah likes versatile wines, like this one, for Thanksgiving, because most menus are laden with myriad different foods with flavors spanning a vast spectrum. 

City Wine Tours is kind enough to offer my readers a discount on their tours that, if you love wine, you should take advantage off. Get15% off your next purchase with coupon code "Travelauthority15". More info at:

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Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Historic New York City Garden

I’m always on the lookout for green spaces and discovered one just 40 minutes by subway from Grand Central Terminal in the Bronx. Built along a rocky hillside in Fort Tryon Park, the Heather Garden is home to some 500 different plant varieties, with flower blossoms that attract a host of creatures, from bees to butterflies.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. gifted the entire park to New York City in 1935. He also bought up the land across the Hudson River in New Jersey, thereby preserving the bucolic views. The Olmsted brothers -- their father, Frederick Law Olmsted, was Central Park’s architect -- designed the garden, relying on an abundance of heather, low foliage that maintained the open views of the Hudson River.

Sadly, in the 1970s, the economic crisis transformed the tidy garden into a jungle. Ten years later, the park tamed the unruly foliage, and then renowned landscape designers Lynden B. Miller and Ronda M. Brands provided a much-needed refurbishment. More than 500 different varieties of plants grow in the garden; 99%  of the flowers are perennials.

It’s especially worth visiting this three-acre garden in the fall when Japanese Anemone, Autumn Crocus, Lion’s Tail, dahlias, and other blossoms provide a welcome sweep of brilliant colors; and also in the winter when heath carpets the landscape with bright pink hues. (Heathers are at their best in the summer.) 

On one of my recent visits, I prowled around, spying a chubby woodchuck -- one of several -- who I’m told keeps the weeds down, gazed up at the tall American elms rimming the garden (they are original plantings, along with the yew), noticed blossoms springing up in the cracks of granite boulders, and admired the spectacular views of the Palisades and the George Washington Bridge. Delicate roses -- the garden boasts 14 different varieties -- were still in bloom, as was Blue Mist Flower, Salvia, Beautyberry, and numerous other blooms that provided a tapestry of color, transforming a gloomy Sunday into a vibrant oasis.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

New York's Fall Extravaganza: Pumpkins + Lights

Unlike most everyone I know, I’m not a fan of the fall. Naked trees, cooling temperatures, darkening days are a bit of a downer.  But then I heard about an event that would put a sparkle (literally) into my weekend. So I jumped on the Metro North train for a one-hour journey to Croton-on-Hudson in the bucolic Hudson Valley, and spent the next couple of hours wandering a wonderland of jack o'lanterns. After experiencing this, you won’t wonder why it’s called “The Blaze.”

For a month each fall -- it’s been going on for 11 years -- the 18th century Van Cortlandt Manor property is transformed into a ghostly and glorious landscape, with more than 7,000 hand-carved jack o’lanterns. But these illuminated pumpkins are not simply grinning and glowering as they sit among among the grassy, rolling hills. Rather, whether they dangle overhead, are positioned near a white picket fence or atop a verandah’s bannister, or are elaborately stacked, the installations -- some with synchronized lighting -- take their inspiration from the history and landscape of the area and, specifically, the stately Van Cortlandt Manor. As I strolled about, I spotted a motley array of creepy and “comical” characters: the iconic Headless Horseman -- this is Sleepy Hollow Country, after all; illuminated elephants and clowns that are all part of the Circus Train; a giant spider web and a sea serpent; flying pumpkin ghosts; even a doomsday grandfather clock.

Not everything is ghostly. A cabinet -- it’s modeled after the house’s 18th cupboard -- of pumpkin art borrows the decorative technique from the lanterns and earthenware found in the mansion. Other pumpkins are carved with Celtic knot designs, pointing to the Irish-American roots of the Jack o’Lantern.
It’s said that the Irish would carve scary faces into root vegetables to scare away Jack, a sinful man who, after being denied entry to heaven, carved a turnip, lit a candle, and wandered the earth in search  of a place of rest. 

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Saturday, November 7, 2015

South India In Pictures

My recent two weeks in South India -- specifically in North Kerala where I stayed at Neeleshwar Hermitage, and in Coorg at Orange County -- was a journey touched by gentle breezes, tranquil beaches, lush coffee plantations, calming Ayurvedic treatments, tantalizing culinary delights, educational naturalist treks, and an overwhelming warm, welcoming people. This YouTube video slideshow provides a window into my idyllic Indian adventures.

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