The Rise and Fall of a Wine Dinner

Maybe my expectations are to high.

I have been privileged to sit and experience the marriage of wine and food at the highest level.  Yes, moments like this have left me speechless.  Seems funny to say that.  This doesn’t need to happen in the fanciest of restaurants, or at a winery.  This can happen in my kitchen with a baked mac and cheese and some Barbaresco.  I want the pairing to sweep me off my feet, and whisper secrets in my ear.  Every time I sit, stand, or linger to drink and eat, I want the wine fairies to lift me to this high once again.

What happens when the food sucks?

Truly sucks.  When you are the speaker, and have lost control with what comes out of the kitchen, this challenge may smack you in the face.  Thank goodness you have a wine safety net.  Good wine can act as smoke and mirrors.  I never want wine to mask the flavors of the  food, but it may win the race.  Last night I leaned on the stories of Beringer Winery’s legacy; the longest continuously run winery in Napa Valley, half of the soil contents found in the world are found in Napa Valley, micro climates, accolades (Beringer is the only winery to win the coveted #1 Wine of the Year from Wine Spectator with both a red and a white wine), and just good juice.  When we got to the third course, and the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, I convinced the audience we were sitting in a vineyard, and that this goopy soup didn’t really exist. (soup in July?)

And then the audience died. (not actually – creative writing…)

When I turn off the wine drama channel in my brain, the people left standing are those that take me for the slightly introverted person I am.  And then I can’t shut up.  Why, oh why, would you do anything fun with anyone else that you don’t want to talk to – or even look at.  Comfortable silence is beautiful, but lazy silence is stupid.  Lay in bed and watch Netflix if that is your game.  Now I am forced to tell all the wine jokes, and act like a clown to raise a spirit.  That actually turns my belly.  I understand that a wine dinner is entertainment, but I don’t want to have to stir your soul for you.  Come with a desire to explore – even for a moment. I will make the wine stuff painless.  It’s just wine; I’m sure your life involves much more complicated tasks.

And if all of this still makes an evening a horrid mess, stop drinking all together.  Please know responsible consumption is the best consumption.

Now for this fabulous Pinot Noir (Beringer Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir):

Ah Pinot Noir.  So hard for me.  My dinner guest last night loves the stuff.  He can be a harsh critic.  It took him a few sips, but the wine won him over.  Why a few sips?  This is California in every breath of the word.  Red cherry and bruised strawberry flavors.  Spicy oak on the finish, structured, and slightly dense for a Pinot Noir.  I will soon be writing about Burgundy (still Pinot Noir), and I will outline the difference.  And what a difference there can be.  I like lushness, especially when I am entertaining people I am not friendly with.  Puts me and my guests at ease.  This wine comforts the palette; allows you to taste a full expressive fruit without being overdone or obnoxious.

Beringer dinner, blog


Overindulging Just A Bit

Who am I to judge, really.

But, we all do it.  I just heard a piece of gossip that has stayed with me.  It’s not about me, my life, my actions, or even about someone within my immediate circle.  I have even been guilty of the same dirty little secret I am sniffing around right now!  Wow, how the mind works and how a little judgement can make me feel really ugly.

That is how I have been feeling about wine lately; ugly.  Let me be clear – I love the stuff but not in the way you think.  I love the history, the geography, the science, the art.  I love a flash in someone’s eyes when they “get it” and feel a wine sensation rather than layering on someone else’s idea of what good tastes like.  Perception can be misleading, but sometimes its all we have.  I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth with this one.  I don’t want you to think I’m a boozer, but drink what I tell you to drink.  How obnoxious.

In my maturity, I’ve become somewhat of an observer.  If you meet me casually, you might think the opposite.  I can be opinionated, sometimes a little campy, loud, and never really know how to let something go.  In private, and in my professionalism, I like to study the alpha.  Why do they enter the room before they enter the room?  What is the energy around them telling me and why is it overwhelming me?  The lesson I have observed?  They don’t drink.

…and I sell wine.  Yes, but I am in the business of wine.  Two different things.  I’ve also observed the flip side.  I’ve watched really smart individuals become obsolete, sloppy, insignificant.  Work is work, but it needs to have meaning.  Throwing it in the toilet because of a little to much chardonnay is silly.

I havn’t had a drink in two weeks.  I am clear.  I sleep great.  My diet is on track.  Ok, I am a little depressed, but that can’t be blamed on wine.  I am motivated.  I am looking into the future for the first time in a long time.  I am making solid plans.  And I know, I really know, I am going to be ok.

Do I have a problem with alcohol; I don’t think so.  Do I enjoy it?  Yes and yes.  It’s hard to write a blog about wine when you don’t drink wine, but is it?  Let’s see.

Please drink responsibly.

Culinary Adventures With MaryEllen

I love the stories of your mother in the kitchen, cooking great meals, you and your siblings sharing in the chores of dinner, stories passed between all of you, aromas in the air seducing you and pulling you in……

MaryEllen Pajak tried; she tried.

There were a few good meals created by my mother in my youth.  I’ll give her that.  However, my mother is not an adventurous eater.  If it is not familiar and agreeable to her palate, it will not be made.  There have been some changes over the years, this is true.  The biggest change has been her new love for wine, and her acknowledgment that there are just O-K wines, and REALLY GOOD WINES out there.  She won’t stray from her chicken parm, but will snub a crappy version of Cabernet Sauvignon.

During my recent trip to Florida, I decided to cook for my mother, each evening, in her beautiful kitchen.  Every day the two of us would discuss the menu, shop for the ingredients, and pair the wine.  Yes, pair the wine.  I involved MaryEllen in all decisions from the focus of the meal, to the styling of the table.  She excelled at styling the table and I believed enjoyed this part the most.  Who wouldn’t with her array of dishes, placemats, cutlery, wine decanters – the list goes on and on….(she can be a bit of a shopper..)

You know how this turned out.  When first viewed as a chore, meal time became what we both looked forward to each day.  The two of us had a common goal and charged ahead together as a unit.  It brightened us.  Meal time became our conversation, and our converstation with everyone we met.

When I spoke to her today, she told me she was missing me.  I know she is, but it is different this time around.  She is missing the companion that oohed and ahhed over sauces.  She is missing laughing in the pool over taking Instagram photos of TBones.  She is missing eating late, (“which a lady should not do” – by the way, dinner was served at 7pm) and planning the meals moving forward.  Food can change us, but food experiences can alter us.

If I have just become the family cook, then so be it.  To see the face of a woman that thinks spaghetti and meatballs is a culinary masterpiece get turned on to stuffed pork chops is worth the effort.  Bravo MaryEllen, and keep on collecting pretty glassware.  We will need it for our next culinary adventure together!

This is a wine blog, right?  Here is your wine review:

Stags Leap Winery Chardonnay – Please don’t think you can’t have chardonnay and meat together.  We paired this wine with stuffed pork chops over yellow rice.  This wine is just gorgeous; the point of this chardonnay is to retain it’s freshness while delivering a purity of fruit and a nice complexity, brought on by the oak.  There is intensity and focus, but balanced with the core of nice citrus flavors.  It is getting hotter, and you are going to want to stray from this varietal; don’t do it – grab a bottle and chill, but not generously.  To much chill will mask this beauty of this wine.

And I can’t forget steak night…

MaryEllen dinner #2

Your Body, Your Mind, and a Whole Lot of Lunches

Eating, drinking, eating, spread sheets, drinking, eating, a little sleep, repeat…

Not going to lie, this has been the battle for me in the wine business.  It is not that there is food and wine around me, it is that there is REALLY GOOD FOOD AND WINE around me.  Beyond that, there is the elevation of the senses when all of this works simultaneously, making a love fest for the mind and belly.  I work within the preparation of great events that focus on making you, the consumer, happy by what you taste and experience.  I take a journey in the discovery of flavors and textures, and how they will work with one another. I also watch myself grow and shrink because of all of this “discovery”.

My co worker recently took a picture of me, by surprise, behind a wine table.  My first reaction was of complete disgust; what is the sense of all of this Crossfit and juggling of paleo and juicing garbage I have been immersed in?  I didn’t get upset; I turned off.  I traveled to a very bad place that is just ugly and unforgivable.  I could not admit that I have been indulging a bit lately.  All of a sudden it was a problem outside of me, and not my fault.  This is totally my fault.  I’ve been drinking beer, eating sweets, and may have had a few to many slices of pizza.  My dresses are tight, my face is chubby, and I have this little tummy peaking out from my T-Shirts.  I feel gross.

I would like to say this this the first time I have gone through this, but it is not and probably won’t be the last.  I love great food, and at 44 years old, I am allowed to cross over to the dark side a bit.  The problem is when it starts making you feel grisly.  The chore of feeling happy isn’t aided by these extra pounds I am carrying around.  Life doesn’t help either; it seems to be kicking me around a bit.  I can feel a  depressive cloud looming.  I won’t give into that.

The good thing about this is that it gets me charged up.  June means a squat cycle mapped out by my Crossfit mentor just last week.  This is something I have wanted to do, and I am committing.  My body and my mind will hopefully sync up; I don’t think there is much of a choice.  I have some time off coming – another necessity.  I have realized that getting away, and far away, from you computer and your life pressures is a must.  Even if I don’t move from my couch this will clear my head a bit.

Haven’t I initiated this all along?  Have I created  creepy and sloppy living patterns?  The answer is yes, but it can’t be the end of me.  Just this morning, I over head squatted 135 pounds – even with this extra padding on me.  That is what I need to remember; I am not a bad person because of this.  I still lift some heavy weight, flirt and laugh way to loud, and live an authentic and loving life.  What will happen when I actually start thinking about what is going in my body?  Drink water, say no to donuts, and lay in the the sun in that two piece.  There, I said it.  Making it happen.


The Best of the Unexpected


A lonely wine girl and a co-op group of Asian Indian  run wine stores walk into a tasting….

Sounds like a joke, but it is the truth.  Now, I know what you are thinking.  What in the world could my skills bring to these stores.  If you believe the hype, you may say to yourself- how is she going to effect this category of wine shops, and who cares because she  will be thrown out on her over-blown wine rear end.  So did everyone I worked with at the time.  I was a wine manager, selling my portfolio, trying to gain acceptance in my community, and well, failing miserably.  I couldn’t speak this quick and smarmy wine smoozyness that I heard the salesmen around me spatting.  They were slick, a little to friendly, and ready with the deal of a lifetime.  I had viticulture facts and tasting notes…

Who schooled me on the business of wine?  Who became a mentor in the wine slight of hand?  Amrish Vakil – this is not even a joke.  Amrish is a wine shop owner, as well as one of the controllers of a co-op buying group (NJ Wine Merchants).  I knew about these groups, but just thought they dealt with commercial stuff.  What I didn’t know was how they responded to one another.  They are a COMMUNITY of entrepreneurs, ready to expand and improve, always interested and educated in the next big brand.  They have buying power, and deal it out with grace.  They wanted to become my PARTNER in business.  What a concept, huh?  Sure, they wanted a deal, but a deal they could bring to their consumer.  They are in it for the long haul; this isn’t a one stop dump and go.  Amrish impressed upon me I that needed to expand my thinking.  Think BIGGER.   He taught me that I could effect my own company with my own ideas.  I started to speak up.  I mapped out pricing goals with time lines and case expectancies, I ran wine classes for all of them, I held countless dinners and brought every winemaker I could to meet them….and this was just the beginning.

Last week I saw this group at a tasting.  With my new professional direction, it had been a while.  My name was sung (SOO-SAN!!!!!) followed by hugs, kisses.  Sure, this was a spectacle, and I loved every moment.  My now boss thought it was a joke.  How in the world do you know these guys, and why are they so excited to see you?

Every day is new, and every day changes me.  Lately, life got a little toss in the air, and I needed to re-group.  When I saw Amrish, it was like I was bolted into a reality I can count on.  He will always challenge me.  I will always want to meet this challenge.  With a few disappointments of late, and a few “oh no” situations, Amrish and his merry men put me almost at ease.  It’s like the comfy chair that has the spring poking you in the ass – you still lounge in it, and refuse to move.

Are you ready New Jersey Wine Merchants – because, I think it is time for another go at it….




Two Wine Dinners In Two Days

Yes, it can happen.  And yes, a wine dinner always should.

What you see are the pretty pictures, wines being poured, food porn, and the all over consumption and absorption of selected winery.  Looks like fun, is a ridiculous amount of fun, but also a lot of work.  Corporate guests in town, slugging wine from here to there, presenting possibilities, marketing, confirming to just confirm again, and so on.  My life could be worse off, however, being the ring leader of such events can be a little taxing.

It is nice when I just focus on one winery.  Everything comes into focus.  I said it is nice, but rarely happens.

Check out the video below – two completely different venues for a Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner.  Not every customer gets the same layout and wine conversation.  I love when I have to change it up at the drop of a hat; pulls in my education, and keeps me on my toes.  Makes me sharp again.  The canned presentation gets old fast if that is all you got.  I’ve been to dinners that DIE because the speaker can’t get out of their own head.  This all needs to be fun for me, or it won’t be fun for you.

Stag’s Leap Winery is one of my FAVS – I know I’m not supposed to say that (I’m supposed to love everything in sales, right?), but it is true.  This is a story about the passion and perseverance of a man (Horace Chase) who knew in his heart creating a winery was the right thing to do.  Ne Cede Malis people- this is a wine he created, as well as when translated, means “Yield Not To Misfortune”.  Words to live by, a cherished and life song in my heart, and hopefully a message to all of you.



Want to see more wine videos? Check out my You Tube channel by clicking on this link!



Can I Get A Winemaker!

What better way to learn than from the person that makes the stuff.

I had the pleasure of working with Jon Priest from Etude Winery and Bill Spence from Matua a few weeks back.  My stomach still gets in knots when I first meet them.  Think about this; every day, I discuss, pull apart, taste, pontificate, and fully absorb myself in what I sell.  The more I learn, the more I fall in love.  Here we have the individuals that foster this love.  My heart stops.

At first, it is all business.  You may not be able to tell from this blog, but I can be pretty buttoned up.  I prepare for these visits for weeks!  I have anxiety dreams, write countless agendas, bother and stalk sales representatives on where we can take them…What I forget is the most important thing; these guys are farmers.  They have had their hands in the dirt for years.  Geez – Jon Priest would rather, most likely, be on a horse than driving around Jersey.  This is why I go nuts.  This makes me happy.

I can go on, and will go on in another blog, about these fabulous men and their wines.  They deserve private time between all of us.  Just wait – such good stuff.

For now, stop by your favorite retailer and pick up the Grace Benoist Ranch Pinot Noir from Etude (or if you can find it, the Cab – holly molly), but first start with the beautiful Rose from Matua.  Then, sit back, relax, and watch this video…


Here is a link to my You Tube Channel – watch this video and more! (oh yeah, subscribe too!)

Inappropriate Story Telling and Lunch with Tony Verdoni

If someone is tagged as “The Wine Professor”, I am having lunch with him – stat.

That is exactly what I managed to do, and by accident.  Tony Verdoni and I are organizing a seminar at the NJ Wine and Food Festival in April  focused around Tuscan wine, charcuterie, olive oil, and all things Italian.  I know, because of google and being alive in this wine world I live in, that Tony and Vic Rallo have a show on the Create Channel called Eat Drink Italy.  What I didn’t know was how long Tony has been “around”.  Terrible way to put it, but, the guy has stories.  Stories about the beginning; when wine and spirits laws in New Jersey “kind of” existed, regulation was “suggested”, and living in the grey area of life was what everyone did.  Tony  has a charisma, a swagger, and total direction on what happens next.  I’m so into him right now.

This got me thinking – how do you find your wine voice?  Your wine persona?  In my opinion, information is key – when it comes to learning about wine, good information is sometimes scarce.  Don’t believe everything you read, but read everything you can.  Unfortunately, and understandably, opinions become fact.  Opinions and emotions have nothing to do with the business of wine, but it is easy to see how they can seep in.  Wine is flowery, mysterious, sexy – can’t that be part of the storytelling?

Yes and no.   Get your facts straight.  Fabrication and suggested thinking in wine gets me all burned up – it’s just not the truth!  Know a few and just a few, informative nuggets; a Tuscan wine comes from Italy, Chianti is not a grape but rather a place, sulfites DO EXSIST IN MOST WINE YOU DRINK and that you likely do not have an allergy to them, and so on.  Then create the picture in your head – find yourself on a hill in Napa sipping chardonnay, or captured in a Spanish Villa drinking Tempranillo.  With a little education, your story will thrive and grow; you may find yourself living it!

And please, oh please, don’t snob around and become weird about this stuff.  It’s just wine – we are not saving lives.  When I speak at wine dinners, I love to tell stories about my nephew, old boyfriends, and personal affirmations that seem to connect.  Everything I have done has led me to this place, and has a string attached to it.   My network has become my reality – and why not feed in the wine knowledge.  My own voice?  It is you, now and the past, and what will be.

Are you joining me at the NJ Food and Wine Festival?

Check out my new buddy Tony Verdoni -love this guy.




Wine List Obstacle Course

If I didn’t know how to dodge and weave my way through a wine list, I would choose a nice gin and tonic as my beverage.

Geez, this is a totally intimidating thing to do.  You don’t want to look stupid, make a wrong choice, pronounce foreign wine names (it is Mer-looooow not Mer-LOT, and yes, this happens), make a cheap choice, spend to much money, and in the end, get a bottle that tastes like garbage.  Confession; I have ordered bottles that taste like garbage and, through fabulous selling skills, have convinced my companions that this was the next “trend setter” in the wine world.  Even I make mistakes; it is very easy to do.

This weekend I was with colleagues in the industry – but from the other side; the spirit side.  Sure, I can order a fabulous bourbon, and tell you distillation processes, but that is probably where it ends with spirits and me.  When you are in this industry, you learn buzz words and know a few nuggets about many things.  Throughout the years, you become an ambassador of your passion.  I like my bourbon as much as the next guy, but I don’t have an interest of looking at the latest brands, or quaffing and analyzing the hell out of them.  Lets take you through what worked first:

  1. Order what you like and know– Adventurous spirits are wonderful, and I would love to explore all the possibilities available to me, but I know what I like to drink!  As in life, your mind will know when something clicks.  If a specific vineyard turns you on, explore that vineyard.  I love me some Cakebread dammit, and I’m proud to share that love with my friends.
  2. Everyone likes Pinot Noir except for me – This grape is a product of the area it is grown in, as well as to the people that drink it.  The wine has fruit, tannins, structure, depth, but not to much depth, body, but not to much body…you get it.  The grape appeals to all, and pairs well with just about any food.  Truth; I’m not a fan, but the entire world seems to disagree with me.  Whatever…
  3. Don’t break the bank – There are times, and I know, where we all want to indulge.  Rightfully, you should if you can afford it.  Please know that a wine list will list prices far higher than retail prices – PLEASE JUST DEAL WITH THIS AND STOP COMPLAINING TO THE RESTAURANT STAFF!  There is a reason for this, and as much as you may stamp your feat, and say it is unfair, it will not change.  You are getting what you pay for – the wine list will most likely inflate the price of a wine 2.5  or 3 times.  So, a bottle you are paying 18.00 dollars for, they paid a wholesale cost of 6.00 dollars or less.  Feeling ripped off yet?

There was one little “oops” that happened this weekend;

  1. Know what you don’t know – You may love Tempranillo from Spain, but not all Tempranillos are alike.  If you want to expand your wine portfolio, find a trusting soul to make some suggestions for you.  A Tempranillo was ordered with a tapas menu this weekend with the expectations of spice, black rambling fruit, and levels of flavor.  However, what the buyer didn’t know, was that there was Garnacha blended in.  The Garnacha grape, used to bring out body and fruitiness in the wine, actually made this wine flat, and dulled all the pretty things Tempranillo was all about.  Whoops.

The Wine Police don’t exist, so feel free to venture out.  I don’t want to damper your spirits at all, but I do want to road map a few pit falls for you.  Remember, this is a blog about a moment in time.  I almost can’t wait for another wine list blunder to happen so I can share it with you!


The Wine That Changed My Life

Ok, that sounds very dramatic (but we all have one)…

However, it is true.  I was lost, like many of us, at one point in my life.  I knew there was something more out there for me.  My life as a dancer was coming to a end.  I was fighting with the fact that I wanted to continue to perform, but I just didn’t have the desire anymore.  My heart was wavering on the only thing I knew; dance.  I felt like a trader.  How could I abandon my art form, my love, what helped me breathe…

I never felt “smart”.  I barley finished high school.  The only reason I went to college was because I was talented and had a really good audition.  The world was changing; internet, cell phones, spread sheets….there was no way I was going to wrap my head around this stuff.

I followed my ex husband around like a zombie.  I thought I could find something, anything, that could stick to my disorientated brain.  I found myself one day at an Italian wine tasting.  My ex told me I wouldn’t understand much of what I was drinking – “This stuff is way to hard for a beginner like yourself”.  More self doubt, more loathing of the un known…

I walked up to a table and saw a bottle of wine with a picture of a door on the label.  Beautiful, alluring, foreign with it’s language – I was intrigued.  The grape; Nebbiolo.  The area; Piedmont.  Conversation about terroir, single vineyards, oak treatments…I turned off.  Maybe my ex was right.  I was out of place.  I contemplated running for my life before this nice man, trying to be polite and explain the wine to me, figured out I was an idiot.

With one sip everything changed.  The wine told me it’s story.  Yes, a single vineyard; grapes isolated from all other vineyards because of their superiority and other elements that just make the grapes sing.  Special already.  Deep color, black berry and currant, spice and mint; how can this be happening.  How can I taste all of these things in one wine?

The picture on the label was of Orme Su La Court (Footsteps in La Court).  It is an art walk, throughout the vineyards, dedicated to earth, air, fire, water – the four elements.  Expression of how everything comes together, and how we cannot have one without the other.  What inspires the senses is not just one direction or one thought; it is our history, our future, our own wanting of the now and what can be, and what makes us who we are.

I did find my brain, and I want to tell you (and this took a long time) that I am a witty and intelligent woman!   I went on, not only to create a career in wine, but to SELL wine in an Italian restaurant in New York City.  Yes, the girl who didn’t have depth dove into the pool.  I would perform inventory, every Tuesday morning, in a very cold cellar, imagining that the wines spoke to me; made me part of their family.  I learned so much down there, in the dark, curled up with a notebook and a load of bottles to count.  Makes me giggle now, but also comforts me.  Thank you Michele Chiarlo for creating Cerequio Barolo, and for the stories you have told me.  I have eaten at your table, walked your vineyards, and sat by your fire at night.  This is where my mind goes now, and there is no end.  Thank goodness for that.