Review – C. G. Di Arie Wine Dinner at ZacJack

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to join about thirty other people for a wine dinner at ZacJack Bistro in Cameron Park. The featured winery was C. G. Di Arie, a superb El Dorado County winery with a tasting room just across the line  in Amador County.

Winemaker and C. G. Di Arie owner, Chaim Gur-Arieh, was graciously there to describe the wonderful wines while Chef John Evans, owner of ZacJack Bistro, explained the dishes and the “hows and whys” of pairing food and wine.

The evening started with shrimp cocktail tacos with wild, white prawns and a silver tequila-chipotle cocktail sauce. The paired wine was 2011 Sauvignon Blanc.

The pairing was excellent, with both the food and the wine enhancing each other. The small tacos were almost too small to eat by hand and too crisp to eat with a knife and fork. However, we managed.

The wine is very floral, but doesn’t have the grassy, herbaceous or vegetal flavor of many foothill sauvignon blancs. Chef John commented that the next time he might grill, rather than poach, the shrimp to get a little different flavor.

The second course was Gorgonzola queso fondido (cheese fondue) with caramelized torpedo onions, Placerville Bartlett pears and Camino Granny Smith apples, accompanied by slices from a fresh baguette. The wine was their 2010 “Break Away” Zinfandel.

At first I wasn’t sure about this pairing, but as I ate small combined bites of the cheese, fruit, onions together on the bread, while sipping this blend of 78% zinfandel, I began to really appreciate it.

The third course was Painted Hills, grass fed Angus coulotte steak with organic arugula, Placerville heirloom tomatoes and crispy Frites. This pairing was with their 2009 Interlude.

A trained expert in aromas and flavors, winemaker Chaim Gur-Arieh can blend wines like no one else and Interlude is a great example of what he can do. An interesting blend of zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah and primitivo, it can work with many dishes and was excellent with this course, from the crispy skin-on French fries, that arrived first, to the last morsel of tender steak left on the plate. Probably the best pairing of the four.

The final course was a dessert of Bombe Cake. I should have asked the meaning of the word “Bombe,” but it appeared to be slices of several different kinds of rounded top cake, all of which were delicious (yes, lots of chocolate). It was paired with 2008 Vintage Port, a wine made from five Portugese, estate grown varieties.

What more can I say about a combination of a sweet dessert that includes chocolate and port. Always outstanding and a great finale to a delicious meal.
The October winemaker dinner at ZacJack Bistro features the wines from David Girard Vineyards in Gold Hill. Their winemaker, Mari Wells Coyle, has been producing world class wines since their first vintage a number of years ago. Her speciality is Rhone varietals.

For reservations for that upcoming winemaker dinner, call ZacJack Bistro at 530-676-2969

Madrona Vineyards – Camino “Riesling for Summer”

Riesling: the Wine for Summer

For the past two years the International Riesling Foundation, created to promote riesling as the world’s most noble and versatile white wine, has sponsored the “Summer of Riesling.”

This year from June 21 until Sept. 22 some 300 wine bars and top restaurants in 32 states, joined by more than 100 fine wine shops, are participating in the three-month celebration. The wine bars and restaurants are featuring at least three rieslings by the glass along with bottle offerings.

Additionally, for the first year the event has gone international, with participation by restaurants in Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Madroña Vineyards, a member of the foundation, is carrying on this event locally, featuring two riesling wines in its tasting room, at local restaurants and at one or possibly more winemaker dinners during the month of August.

These wines are the winery’s off-dry (1 percent residual sugar) 2010 vintage from its Hillside series and its dry 2010 vintage from the Signature series.

At a recent sampling of wines with a variety of different sushi dishes at Amerikan Ichi Sushi on Broadway in Placerville, Paul Bush, owner and winemaker at Madroña Vineyards said, “Riesling is the perfect summer wine. Not only is it full of flavors, it goes well with a large number of foods.”

Aroma and Taste

Riesling wines can be highly aromatic with apple, peach and pear at the forefront mixed with delicate floral undertones and often honey and spice on the nose.

On the palate, rieslings echo the apple, pear and peach along with citrus and tropical nuances. Rieslings also tend to pick up a noticeable “minerality” from their native soils, explaining why hints of slate or limestone can be exhibited.

Bush describes his 2010 Hillside Series Riesling thusly: “Mountain honey characters burst out then meld into tart green apple, finishing with a Riesling minerality that almost makes the wine seem dry.”

The 2010 Signature Series (Reserve) Riesling, he said, “has evolved over the years, emphasizing the unique fruit characters of hillside vineyards while celebrating the variety’s incredible acidity. With each year, we have refined our style, fermenting the wine drier while embracing its tart brightness. To our amazement, the result has been an incredible marriage of intense California fruit with European structure and style.”

Riesling’s Origin

Riesling wines originated in Germany’s Rhine and Mosel river valleys. Now, they are produced in numerous locations around the world and are experiencing a new “birth” as more and more people discover and enjoy them.

The derivation of the word Riesling is still not clear. One theory connects it to the characteristics of the vine’s dark, deep grooved wood, “russ” meaning dark wood and “rissig” being the root word for deep grooves.

However, the most likely connection is a negative characteristic of the riesling, namely, its poor flowering propensity in cool weather which is described by the German words “verrieseln” or “durchrieseln.”

The riesling grape’s origin is also a mystery but it is believed to be indigenous to Germany.

Interest in the varietal probably began in the early 14th century with the gradual shift of plantings from red to white grapes, when it was found that the transparent German red wines could not compete with the deeply colored French wines.

Although there are many other contenders for the honor of the “first planting” of riesling grapes, some claiming it as far back as 1232, the first documented evidence of the varietal was a sale that took place on March 13, 1435.

The cellar log of Count Katzenelnbogen at Ruesselsheim shows that Klaus Kleinfish sold the Count six vines of Riesling for 22 solidi.

As was done earlier this year when both Madroña’s New World Port and zinfandels were each featured for a month, in preparing for this celebration, Madronña Vineyards met with a number of local restaurants and asked them to feature a dish or dishes during the month of August, using one or both of the featured rieslings.

The list is continually growing but presently the following restaurants have decided to pair one or more of their dishes with a selected wine:
Placerville Brewery – 2010 Signature Riesling with fish tacos; Powell’s Steamer Company and Pub – 2010 Hillside Riesling and 2010 Signature Dry Riesling with Powell’s grilled tilapia; Kobe Sushi – 2010 Hillside Riesling and 2010 Signature Dry Riesling with miso marinated black cod; Bricks – 2010 Hillside Riesling with diver scallops and chipotle barbecued shrimp; Cold Springs Golf and Country Club – 2010 Hillside Riesling with fish tacos and spicy chicken wings; Snooty Frog – 2010 Hillside Riesling with Pacific Rim salad and smoked salmon tortellini alfredo; Los Pinos – 2010 Hillside Riesling with lomo de puerco and pollo Cozumel; Smith Flat House – 2010 Hillside Riesling with spicy special pizza and white night pizza; Cozmic Café – 2010 Hillside Riesling with thymely tuna and nut burger; Amerikan Ichi Sushi – 2010 Hillside Riesling and 2010 Signature Riesling with its signature Placerville monro roll; River Shack – 2010 Hillside Riesling and 2010 Signature Riesling with its swimmer sandwich, Artie sandwich and hot mama; Sierra Nevada House – 2010 Signature Riesling with its cheese and olive plate, grilled prawn cocktail and mango chutney pork chop; Zia’s Gelato – 2010 Hillside Riesling with fresh summer gelatos; Chantara Thai Cuisine – 2010 Hillside Riesling with spicy chicken salad and Thai cashew nut chicken; Café Luna – 2010 Hillside Riesling with fresh salmon filet dusted with Caribbean spices and Thai style chicken; Cascada – 2010 Hillside Riesling with carnitas altenas and camarones Santa Fe; and Heyday – 2010 Signature Riesling and 2010 Hillside Riesling with a pastry wrapped brie with cherry apricot rosemary chutney.

The winemaker’s dinner, with winemaker Paul Bush and Chef Dakota Lee Thomas, will be at Amerikan Ichi Sushi, 1234 Broadway in Placerville, on Thursday, Aug. 16 at 8 p.m.

The menu includes: first course — 2008 Signature Zinfandel paired with barbecued shiromaguro (albacore tuna) and hamachi (yellowtail tuna); second course — 2003 Dry Riesling paired with ikura (salmon roe), barbecued unagi (freshwater eel) and tobiko (flying fish roe); third course — 2010 Hillside Riesling paired with grilled wasabi salmon and seared maguro (blue fin tuna); fourth course — 2010 Signature Riesling paired with “Placerville Monroe Roll,” Chef Dakota’s signature roll; and the fifth course — 2007 Select Harvest Riesling paired with petit fours dessert and tiny pastel cake.

The cost is $55 per person and reservations should be made by calling the restaurant at 530-621-2100.

For more information on the celebration of riesling and events in the tasting room, call Madroña Vineyards at 530-644-5948.

Sushi Chef Dakota Lee Thomas

A 21-year-old Placerville resident, Thomas acquired his baking and pastry degree at American River College and then moved to Las Vegas, where he obtained his degree in Culinary Arts at Le Cordon Bleu.

Moving back to Placerville to be near his family, he worked on perfecting his technique at Zachary Jacques for a year and then found his way to Amerikan Ichi where he is restaurant manager and sushi chef. He prefers the atmosphere of a sushi bar over being in a kitchen, because it allows for more artistic creativity and personal contact with his customers.

Madrona Vineyards – Camino “Zin for Grillin’ in May”

Zin for Grillin’

“We picked zinfandel as our featured wine for the month of May,” said Paul Bush, owner and winemaker at Madroña Vineyards, “because May kicks off the barbecue season and what better wine for anything you barbecue than zinfandel.”

Zinfandel is the most heavily planted grape in El Dorado County; most wineries make it and because of the different soils and weather patterns, it varies in style from a light, claret wine to very heavy, “fruit up front — knock your socks off” wine.

Because it comes in so many different styles, there is one that will pair with nearly any food.


For years some believed that zinfandel even originated in California, as, perhaps, a hybrid of other varieties. After all, nowhere else in the world was a wine called zinfandel being produced. Since its popularity had been out shined by big, French varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, for many decades few wineries bottled a pure zinfandel and most of the zinfandel wine was being used to blend with other grapes in what California wineries simply called “Burgundy,” or “Claret.”


About three decades ago Zinfandel became more popular as a varietal and at about the same time, scientists decided it was a good time to go looking for its origin.

Initially a grape in Italy called primitivo drew the scientist’s attention. In 1994 tests by Professor Carole Meredith at University of California, Davis showed that the zinfandel and primitivo grape were genetically the same. However she was not sure that the zinfandel in California came from Italy and old-timers in Italy called primitivo a “foreign grape.”

Other scientists chasing the history and trail of the zinfandel grape found that around 1822 a New York nurseryman acquired cuttings from the gardens of the Imperial Hapsburg Collection in Vienna, which included grapevines and other plants that had been gathered from all over the once huge Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The nursery people didn’t recognize several of the cuttings. It was a thin-skinned, dark red table-grape that some unknown person had named zinfandel, or actually, “zinfendal.”

In 1832 a nurseryman in Boston advertised that he had “Zinfandel for sale” — grapevines that he may or may not have obtained from the New York nursery.

Arrival in Gold Country

Somewhere between 1852 and 1857 zinfandel grapes were introduced into California and were first planted in El Dorado, Amador and Sonoma counties, followed almost immediately by plantings in other counties as they began to import the vines by ship from the east coast.

Within 50 years there were more acres of zinfandel grapevines in California than any other varietal.

Relatives found

Continuing her research, in 1998 professor Meredith began to research the principal red wine grape of Croatia, Plavac Mali. She established that zinfandel was one of its two genetic parents. First only one vine, then eight more vines out of a planting of 6,000 vines in Croatia were found to be identical to zinfandel.

A few years later, on the Dalmatian Coast, researchers found another 15 vines slightly further to the south of the others that are genetically identical to zinfandel but under an even older name, Crljenak Kastelanski.

A wine made from this grape variety was popular throughout the Adriatic region as early as 1300 A.D.

The variety may have originated somewhere else, but for the last 700 to 800, perhaps 1,000 years, it has been growing in Croatia. And now it is a top wine in California.


In preparing for this month long celebration, Madroña Vineyards personnel met with a number of local restaurants and, like they did with the New World Port a few months ago, asked them to feature a dish during the month of May using either a zinfandel from their lighter Hillside Series or their more robust Signature Series. The list is continually growing but presently the following restaurants are participating:

In the Placerville area, Café Luna will pair the Signature zinfandel with its unique pork osso buco; Casa Ramos likes the Hillside with the carne asada y mas, burrito carnitas and zarapes; Cascada will pair the Hillside with puerco con franbuesa, costillas de borrego and Negro y azul; Cold Springs Golf and Country Club likes the Hillside with the bacon wrapped filet; Cozmic Café will pair the Hillside zinfandel with portabella mushrooms; Heyday is pairing Signature zinfandel with the Double R Ranch flat iron steak and coq au vin; Placerville Brewery will serve the Signature zinfandel with prime rib (Saturday and Sunday only) and the speciality elk burger; Powell’s Steamer will pair the Hillside with cioppino “lazyman” style; Zia’s is pairing their hand rolled pizzas and lasagna with the Hillside and Z-Pies is featuring the Hillside with both the rosemary lamb and steak cabernet Z-Pies.

In the Camino area, Shilla Sushi picked the Hillside to go with the barbecued albacore and baked Lion King roll while Sierra Banquet Center believes both of the zinfandels pair well with the filet mignon, rib eye steak and, on Thursday’s only, the speciality pastas.

In Cameron Park, Kobe Sushi has paired both zinfandels with the sexy salmon crunch roll, barbecued albacore tuna and Korean style barbecued beef short ribs; Los Pinos, a sister restaurant of Cascada, will also be serving the Hillside with puerco con franbuesa, costillas de borrego and Negro y azul and grilled flat iron steak salad, while Snooty Frog is pairing the Hillside with tournedos Rossini, made with Snooty Frog paté containing the 2002 Madroña New World Port and topped with bearnaise, along with tilapia sautéed in garlic with a champagne cream sauce.

In El Dorado Hills, the new Chantara Thai Cuisine has selected two of its dishes, salmon curry and lamb on the run to go with the Hillside zinfandel.

In Somerset, the Gold Vine Grill is pairing the Signature zinfandel with two dishes, the Somerset broil and a pork chop.

In Pollock Pines, the famous Fifty Grand will be paring both wines with its rib eye steak, filet mignon and prime rib (available on Thursday, Friday and Saturday).

In Coloma the Sierra Nevada House is pairing three dishes with the Hillside zinfandel, roasted chicken with blueberry apple confiture, pear chutney pork chop and its unique salmon BLT, made with charbroiled salmon, hardwood smoked bacon, lettuce and tomato on a ciabatta roll.

A special Madroña Vineyards Zinfandel Dinner on Sunday, May 6 at Café Luna, 451 Main St. in Placerville, has sold out. However, there is another one scheduled for Sunday, May 20.

The salad course starts the meal with grilled garlic shrimp, black pepper and melon salad with Fontina cheese on greens, paired with 2011 Nebbiolo Rosé then an asparagus and Gruyere tart paired with 2000 Zinfandel. The pasta course is pork and fennel lasagna with house-made ricotta, paired with 2010 Signature Zinfandel and the main course is braised, dry-rubbed beef short rib with Gorgonzola polenta, grilled tomatoes, garlic mushrooms and roasted parsnips, paired with 2008 Reserve Zinfandel.

To finish off the meal is a fabulous dessert called Torta Barozzi, a bittersweet chocolate truffle cake with a dark cherry/zinfandel sauce and paired with 2007 Madroña Late Harvest Zinfandel.

For more information and reservations for this dinner contact Café Luna at 530-642-8669.

Additional zinfandel events for the month of May include a continuing zinfandel celebration in the Madroña tasting room featuring a different older vintage every day (1979-2008) and on weekends a paring of the 2007 Late Harvest Zinfandel with Mimolette cheese. As a great finale, on Thursday, May 31, there will be another wine dinner at Maranello Restaurant in Fair Oaks.

Illuminare Winery – Camino

“Nice people with great wine” – Doug Noble

After the recent “Bring out the Barrel” wine tasting event put on by the El Dorado Winery Association, a number of people commented that the winery that they enjoyed the most was one of El Dorado County’s smallest, Illuminare Winery.

The winery’s tasting room featuring the great wines is in Camino.

It wasn’t just the wine or the food that was prepared to pair with the wine, there were additional comments that the people at the tasting room, especially the owners, Aaron and Cherie Hill, were delightful hosts and, as one person mentioned, “The proprietors are just nice people.”

What would bring a couple from Alaska to El Dorado County? Was it the wine or the weather or maybe it was just time for a change?

In the case of the Hills, it was a bit of each.

“Cherie and I were both born in Alaska,” said Aaron during a recent interview at the tasting room. “My parents moved there around the 1950s and all 10 of us kids were born there.

“My sister moved to Folsom and we would come down to visit her. She liked to go wine tasting, so when we visited she would take us to the wineries in El Dorado County. We liked wine, but there is no real wine presence in Alaska. It is not really wine country,” Aaron said.

After some serious thought Aaron and Cherie felt a change was due.

“In the late 1990s we decided to move to this area. The time was right for a change and although Alaska is beautiful, those long winters can get to you,” Aaron said.

With many options on the horizon the couple set out to explore a new life.

“I went to Sierra College and then transferred to the University of California, Davis, majoring in soil and water. I took some wine classes, but didn’t really get into the program,” Aaron said.

A friendship with a winemaker became the deciding factor in the next career move.

“In 2000, Cherie and I, along with Brian Marston, the winemaker at Argonaut Winery, and his wife, jointly decided to create a new winery, Illuminare. El Dorado County has a lot of good, high quality wine grapes available at good prices and he was a good winemaker. Unfortunately Brian unexpectedly died and we ended up sole owners of the winery,” Aaron continued.

The new circumstances dictated a new avenue to take.

“I started working at a number of wineries to get knowledge and experience and finally was hired by Windwalker Vineyards in Fair Play, where I worked for winemaker Dominick Mantei. You have to use your mouth and hands to make wine, you can’t make it by reading a book alone, and it is even better if you can get experience while getting paid.

“I worked there for seven and a half years, but about a year ago I quit to devote full time to the winery which was getting very busy. I work harder now than I ever did, but I like being able to call my own shots. Fortunately for our family, Cherie has a full time job.

Aaron spends most of his time with the grapes and Cherie finds time on the weekends to help at the tasting room.

“Our first wines were made with grapes from Argonaut, which is located in Amador county, near Ione. Now all but two of our wines are made with El Dorado County grapes. The exceptions are our the pinotage and sangiovese. The pinotage comes from Amador county, the sangiovese from Placer county,” Aaron said.

He has worked many hours to produce a beautiful pinotage.

“We are one of the few local wineries that produce pinotage. It is South Africa’s signature variety and a cross between two grape varieties, pinot noir and cinsault. I like it because it is big, bold and different. More and more people are trying it and really liking it.

“I like big, dry, fruity red wines. That is what the people who come to our tasting room want,” Aaron said.

Besides big he likes a vintage with a distinct personality.

“I also like the wines younger and fresher, so I barrel age them for 16 to 22 months. I also sterile filter them so that I can sleep at night, not worrying about my wine going bad in the bottle. I do the filtering very carefully so that it has a minimum effect on the wine. I have to stand here and pour it, so I can’t afford to bottle anything I don’t like,” he said,” the winemaker said.

Illuminare Winery makes a number of red wines: pinotage, mourvedre, sangiovese, zinfandel, tempranillo, malbec and barbera. The winery also bottles one white — a chardonnay, two red blends — Seeing Red and Momentum, and a dessert wine — called Night Masque.

Of the 2,800 cases of wine made each year, about 160 of them are petite verdot, one of the lesser known Bordeaux varieties.

“We get the grapes from Safari Vineyards in Pilot Hill. It gets a lot riper here than in France,” added Aaron. “It is a real ‘steam roller’ with a unique flavor. It transcends everything I make and sells out almost immediately.”

To meet Aaron and Cherie Hill and enjoy the hospitality stop by the Illuminare Winery tasting room at 2300 Carson Road in Camino. The tasting room hours are Friday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m.

For more information call 530-647-1884 or visit