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Our Cup Runneth Over

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I’ve been drinking wine and loving it for more years than I care to count, but in the unique way wine manages to be both celebratory and sustaining, I’ve always thought of it as more of an art form than a simple entertainment. Wine is one of the few things in life that can be either playful or serious, sometimes, depending on the occasion (or the vintage), both at the same time. But from a restaurant’s perspective, building a cellar can be an ongoing conundrum. Even a lot of money invested towards creating a stellar list doesn’t ensure the final product will have heart, must less integrity.

For a start, you need to remember that no two customers will look upon your list (and judge it) through the same eyes. Some diners come in hiding their preferences, or not knowing them, while others wear their new found expertise like a badge of honor, or use it like a high powered flashlight.

A few years back, hoping to address this diversity of interest, we created narratives for our wine book - with chapters titled Local Heroes, Hands Across the Water, Off the Beaten Path. We even called one 97+, because while we held the opinion Robert Parker’s rating system was deeply flawed, if that’s what customers came in looking for, we wanted them to have it. We were happy, if not relieved, when diners gravitated to Local Heroes, followed closely by the foreign entries on the list, but we had to admit we still hadn’t cracked the code. 

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Though we live in the heart of arguably the best wine growing region in America, our list has always had a healthy percentage of foreign inclusions. It was our hope that the vintners who might become regular customers (they did and thankfully still are) already had plenty of access to local expressions of terroir and style. What they sought when they dined out - what we sought ourselves - was expanding a life-long love of the grape and the almost mystical way it transforms itself - with a little help from the human hand - in the bottle.

Figuring out the secret of what drives an exciting wine list is a conversation we’ve had with every wine director we’ve ever hired. Our litmus test was never how much ego they brought to the job - too little and the list floundered, too much and we soon parted ways - but how creatively they tapped into a hunt for gems, how closely they wore humility next to prowess.   

Which brings us to our new list, and the talented woman now guiding it. 

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I can give you Alexis Iaconis’ impressive achievements  - she was Head Sommelier at the Restaurant at Meadowood, and has reached level three in the four level Court of Master Sommeliers - but a careful reading of her résumé does more than shout accomplishment. To command respect in what remains the still very cliquish, male centric world of wine takes hard work, long hours, and incredible focus. It takes mastering the ability to communicate what you know with elegance instead of verbosity. She worked as a food runner at Cyrus to get her fine dining knowledge, and before that was the brains (if not the heart) behind the still much lamented Green Grocer in Windsor. Once upon a time, after art school and the CIA in New York, she had thought work behind the scenes in the kitchen was the future, but life had other plans. These now include, in addition to being Barndiva's Wine Director, the demanding full time job of Hospitality Director at Copain Winery where she manages the tasting room, direct sales, a huge wine club and all their events, while raising two great kids with new husband Matt Iaconis. Who just happens to be a terrific winemaker.  

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In the course of getting to know Alexis I’ve learned that it’s not the bragging rights of having an exquisite palate that is her favorite part of the life she’s chosen, it’s sharing her excitement for wine and its flavors, passing on the story behind the region, the history and culture that cross-pollinates wine and food. I don’t just love the fact we have a woman now managing our wine program, I love the fact it's this woman. One who cares about how grapes are grown, and every step they take after they leave the vine. Because it’s the same way we feel about food.

 It's early days in knowing what lasting changes Alexis will bring to our cellar, but we’ve already seen an end to the line of rolling suitcases that used to form on tasting days. There is a sharper focus on balancing new winemakers with revered ones, with special care taken to bring back old friends. With Lukka and Cathryn’s help we’ve introduced a single page “snapshot” of wines-by-the-glass, splits and specials treasures for those who don’t want to peruse the book. And for those guests who have longed to taste a glass of a precious vintage without committing to a whole bottle, Alexis has instigated a Coravin program where single glasses can be extracted from bottles without pulling the cork - a thin hollow needle is inserted to withdraw the wine before the cork reseals, with argon gas preventing any oxidation in the bottle.

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Perhaps the art of curating a discerning wine list is allowing that it is an organic document, and so, by its very nature, will always be a work in progress. Therein lies the fun and the challenge. I look forward to growing the list in more ways that fully reflect the diversity of talent possessed by the growers and vintners we are so fortunate to know. And most especially, with Alexis' help, to revitalizing our commitment to creating a cellar with a personality reflective of the multi-faceted Barndiva experience.  

For the look at our complete current wine list,  click here

For a look at how Alexis is pairing our wonderful menu for New Years Eve , click here.


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Finding the Community in Christmas

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One hears the term “Home for the Holidays” so often in the run up to Christmas it starts to feel positively anxiety inducing. Of course Home is the best place to be on Christmas Day (duh), but out of love, not obligation. And it’s not the only place to be. Sometimes it feels like everything is conspiring to turn us into holiday machines, instead of acknowledging and building on the obvious: people just long for a connection to other people of good will this time of year. Not so long ago even war stopped for Xmas. Now we’re encouraged to start rushing towards it before we've even given Thanksgiving its due.  'Tis a season to be joyful, and thankful, folks. In equal measure if we can manage it.

It takes a lot of creative minds - and hands  - to decorate two public spaces for the holidays in ways that will continue to surprise and delight our patrons, whether they come bundled with their extended families, or in ones or twos, seeking the warmth and succor of a bar stool or a banquette, a cocktail or a great meal.  Dawid, ever the track star, hurdles over most creative challenges, but we've both loved working with the HEW team this year. With Daniel in Paris with his family over Thanksgiving,  Alexis drove up from LA to help put the finishing touches in the Studio, even as workmen crashed and bashed through the final stages of the Gallery Bar, which we hope will be fully operational by New Year's. What’s it going to be? Come in and find out!

Consensus around town is that as Healdsburg rushes to embrace its future as a year round tourist destination, those who live and work here need places to unwind and relax, and share news of the day.  The gallery is often busy with private events, but with a new kitchen and now a wonderful new bar, we're going to do whatever it takes in 2015 to open it regularly to the community, and to stay open late. 

But I digress - back to Christmas.  I gathered an assortment of found treasures to hang this year - heavy Indian silver balls, red dogwood, recycled tin angels from Alabama (he’s a king, she's a ballerina).  Geoff and I cut long boughs of conifer and brought them down from the Farm for that fresh green smell of forest that should always be a part of Christmas. The night before Alexis arrived I had a strange dream that we were standing in the gallery filled with poinsettia plants. I know, beloved at Christmas, but with their dull red leaves, definitely not a personal favorite.  I remember shouting “but I hate poinsettias!” then I woke up. We laughed about it on the way to Safeway where I’d heard a local flower wholesaler has been selling roses. It was early in the morning, the Healdsburg time I love best. Inside the flower shop blooms were just arriving, and low and behold there were eight poinsettia plants at my feet, unlike any I'd ever seen before. They were ivory, with just a light sprinkling of crimson across the leaves. We bought them all and Dawid hung them upside down from the highest beams, burlap tightly wrapped to keep the dirt, and the whole plant, from plopping on the heads of customers.

While we were hard at work in the gallery, over in the kitchen Octavio was putting the finishing touches on a giant Croquembouche, which thanks to his considerable talent is fast becoming a Barndiva Christmas tradition. Like culinary paparazzi, Dawid and I circled him with cameras as he carefully made his way through the gardens to the gallery. There was something wonderfully incongruous in seeing this towering sculpture of choux pastry balls and spun sugar, first created by Marie-Antonin Carême for Talleyrand, moving through our gardens in Healdsburg. The mulberry trees have begun to turn from green to brilliant canary yellow, and thanks to the recent rain everything else is green green green. A shaft of sunlight reflected off the medallions of sugar as Octavio maneuvered down a series of steps and through the narrow Tunisian gate. Producing things that delight the eye and excite the appetite is what the holiday season is all about for us. This was one of those moments.

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The croquembouche is gone, but there is a lot to see in the gallery right now, not least some enchanting statues of French Saints that once played their role in traditional market nativity scenes, circa 1950.  Their edges are chipped a bit, colors faded, but they speak to an era when the holidays still revolved around something spiritual, and communal. I rarely find pieces like these anymore but I'm so happy to offer them in the gallery when I do.  Mention to Dawid or Fatima that you read the blog and we’ll see if we can’t find a sparkling libation behind the new bar to help keep your holiday spirits from flagging. Be they ever so humble or ever so small, there is great joy to be found in this holiday season.   Enjoy.

Here’s the New Year's Eve menu hot off the press - with a beautiful wine pairing for each dish from the talented Alexis Laconis. Should you wish to forgo the pairing, we will have exciting Champagnes poured from the Magnum and a by-the-glass selection, as well as special cocktails created for the night. After dining we'll be opening the new gallery bar for an after party with great music. Book your table (or tables) in the next week or two if you’d like to ring in the New Year with us.  We’re also excited to be able to welcome larger parties this year.  Shaking it up this New Year's Eve, for smooth sailing into 2015!  Join us!

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On the Hunt for Zuzu's Petals

Holiday madness is almost upon us so this week's Eat the View is all about keeping one’s gaze focused on spending delicious, meaningful time with loved ones. Though we will be closed for Thanksgiving so our staff can celebrate at home, where they hopefully get to step away from the stove, Black Friday we open our doors (and our arms) wide for a holiday season we’re really looking forward to....with a few well chosen festivities we think are gonna rock it. Here are some unique treats and dates to get on your calendar. 

First up is Healdsburg’s Downtown Holiday Party, this Friday from 4-8.  We love this evening when the whole community is engaged with strolling around, catching up with old friends, sipping, nibbling and checking out all the beautifully decorated shops around the Plaza.  We do our bit: the Studio will be glittering with charming Christmas ornaments, soaring porcelain vases for your holiday table, and unique arts and crafts from down the road and around the world - all one of a kind gifts - all here for your ogling enjoyment.  Until Christmas Barndiva Gift Certificates for over $100 will include a bottle of Preston/Barndiva proprietary red or white. We've never met a person who didn't love getting one of our gift certificates -  good for anything we do in either the barn or the gallery - cocktails, food, wine, art. The perfect gift when you don't know what to give, and most especially when you do.

There will of course (it's Barndiva) be a special spirited libation Friday night and Octavio has promised a towering Croquembouche with plenty of bite sized versions of this classic French Christmas treat to pass around. It will also be the first time the town gets a glimpse of what all the banging has been about in the studio lately - come take a look!  Our lips are sealed what will happen in the space come January, but hints abound...

On Friday we will publish the NYE menu, elegant, three-course, classic Ryan (with a few surprises) for $85, with an extraordinary wine pairing by Alexis if you so choose for $55. There will be a full bar in both the barn and the studio and we’ll be pouring magnums. This year you can reserve from five o'clock on - so even if you choose to dine earlier in the evening and go visit friends, you are invited back at midnight to dance and raise high the roof beams as we ring in 2015.  We will accept large parties this year, but feel free to come a deux and make new friends. 

  

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And don't forget: Barndiva will be participating in Strolling Dine Around on December 3rd, 4th, 10th & 11th,  and we are proud to once again be contributing to Dine Around for Life, which is December 4th.

All in all, it's shaping up to be a great season. We invite you to escape into the barn for a drink after shopping or a quiet dinner with friends before the whole family descends. Whether you join us for a little moment this season or the last blowout of the year, we look forward to seeing you and raising a glass.

Happy Thanksgiving!