We headed north on the A7 Autoroute, leaving the ‘galet' filled vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape behind us. Ahead, lay the towns of Orange and Montêlimar. The expansive vineyards of the south gave way to orchards and countryside. As we approached the village of Valence the terrain changed. The steep, terraced, hillside vineyards told us we had reached our destination - and the holy grail of Syrah - the Northern Rhone.
Our destination was the town of Mercurol not far from Tain’Hermitage.
We pulled into the drive of Domaine Michelas Saint Jemms, a smaller family owned and run establishment and everyone, including the winery dog Tina, were there to greet us.
What makes Michelas Saint Jemm unique is that they produce wines from not just one AOC of the Rhone Valley, but several: Cornas, St.Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage. They are also one of the the oldest privately operated wineries in the area and the oldest family owned winery in Crozes-Hermitage.
And this is truly a family affair. The property itself goes back to 1861 but wasn’t really developed until 1961 when Robert and Yvette Michelas took charge. Today, three sisters, Sylvie, Florence, and Corine, work alongside brother Sebastien and other family members, oversee the 50 hectares (just over 123 acres) of vineyards and production of 150,000 bottles (12,500 cases).
Of course, the prize AOC is Hermitage - a region known to every lover and collector of French wines. The parcels (three noncontiquous parcels total 1/2 hectare/ 1.23 acres) were acquired years ago when a family friend, unable to keep the land in his family’s hands, asked Robert Michelas if he would be interested in purchasing the vineyards. Knowing that opportunities to purchase these scarce and highly prized blocks were few and far between, he jumped at the chance and the rest is Michelas Saint Jemms history!
We were soon loading into the vineyard vehicles and heading away from the winery and through the countryside. We climbed higher and higher into the hills of Crozes-Hermitage, past crumbling castle ruins and row upon row of flowering grape vines.
As we soaked in the wonderful vistas, Sylvie explained that, in 1973, Michelas Saint Jemms become an independent winery (rather than being associated with the local co-operative). Sébastien, who is in charge of all the vineyards, set about improving the quality of the fruit and several years ago, they qualified for the new H.V. E. certification. Haute Valeurs Environnmental (High Environmental Vaules) is a newer certification that emphasizes working in harmony with nature. Biodiversity is encouraged “ If there are trees, leave them. If there are grasses, leave them - don’t cut.” said Sylvie. “Birds and animals are welcome!”.
We sampled several wines in this gorgeous setting including the 2012 Crozes-Hermitage Blanc, a blend of 60% Roussanne and 40% Marsanne, half of which is oak aged with the balance in stainless.Soft toast on the nose but it’s all about minerals and fruit on the palate with acacia and a touch of marzipan.
Sorry to say that this wine, as well as the refreshingly fruity and fresh Crozes-Hermiage Fleur de Syrahne that we sampled next, are not available in the U.S., which I personally feel is a shame as they are delicious and both very food compatible and would be appreciated by the North American palate.
Luckily, the 2011 Crozes-Hermitage ‘Signature’ Rouge is! With fruit grown on chalky-clay soils, this is an aromatic Syrah. Fresh black fruit aromas are both fruity and meaty making this a versatile sipper or dinner companion. At at suggested retail of $25 USD it is a wonderful introduction to the signature grape of the Northern Rhone.
It was now lunch time. In France, this a ‘sacred’ part of the day - a time to stop and recharge with food, family, and, naturally, some wine.
We were very fortunate to be invited to share this time with the family (including Tina and Emmi the cat) and soon discovered they had prepared a veritable feast of traditional fare reflecting their Drome and Ardeche regional roots.
It was now time for the next course - a local specialty of the pre-Alps region of Grenobles - Ravioles du Dauphiné. These tiny little pockets of pasta are filled with cheese, herbs and cream. Sylvie served these in wonderful ceramic dishes which, as with the other artisan table wares, were produced ‘just down the road’. Although our ravioles were topped with local Extra Virgin Olive Oil and fresh basil from the garden, we were told they were also delicious baked in a gratin with courgettes (zucchini). I can only imagine!
The next selection of wines, are, I’m sorry to say, not available in the United States but would give any wine lover an excellent excuse to visit the winery!
Under the ‘Terres d’Arce’ label, Michelas Saint Jemms bottles all four AOC - Crozes-Hermitage, Saint Joseph, Cornas and Hermitage and are the only independent producer to do so. These are their ‘prestige’ bottlings - what an New World winery might call their ‘Reserve’ tier, showing the distinctive character of each terroir and its interpretation of the Syrah grape. These wines consistently score highly in such respected publications as the ‘Hachette Wine Guide’ and the ‘Gilbert & Gaillard' wine magazine, not to mention Robert Parker’s ‘Wine Advocate’.
We were thrilled to try all the offerings, including the Hermitage (of which they only produce 600 bottles!) and tried our best to convince everyone, especially Sales Manager Laurent Gomez, that they should make these Rhone treasures available stateside!
No French meal is complete without ‘a little something’. A large dish of exquisite local peaches and apricots appeared (Hermitage is equally famous for the delectable stone fruit, it seems) plus a big platter of ripe red cherries.
Another regional delicacy appeared on the table. A large, round yeast bread, ‘Pogne de Romans’ which, translated from Old French, means ‘by hands’. Similar to a brioche, these are made for special occasions and holidays and are lightly scented with orange blossom water. This particular pogne came from an old and revered bakery, L. Ronjat in the village of Saint Donat sur l’Herbasse, where they have baking since the 18th century.
Too soon, it was time for the family to return to the wines and for us to get back on the Autoroute. It had been an extraordinary day, filled with the wonderful ‘connections’ that only wine can make. We felt so blessed to share in the traditions of the region and now, whenever I think of the Northern Rhone Valley I smile, remembering the day, their gracious hospitality and wines made with true love, respect, passion and joie de vivre.
As I was writing this post, I received a message from Jeanne. She was preparing to go and help out with the Syrah harvest in the Cornas vineyards of Domaine Michelas Saint Jemms.
“Pictures, please!” I requested.
How fitting that we can now see, full circle the literal ‘fruits’ of their efforts and the continuation of Vendage 2014.
All photos below courtesy of Jeanne Peron, Benson Marketing who was kind enough to arrange this visit. Merci!
The recipe seems simple: take 2 award winning chefs and one acclaimed restaurateur. Blend with high quality sustainable ingredients, sprinkle liberally with lots of creativity and serve with class.
The result: Pizzeria Mozza!
A Southern California favorite since they opened the original Los Angeles restaurant in 2006, it seemed only fitting than when owners Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich were seeking a location for their new San Diego incarnation, they selected a slice of local social history – the “Headquarters” at Pacific Coast Highway and Harbor Blvd.
From 1939 to 1987 this was the original home the San Diego Police Department. And a stylish complex it was, with a typically SoCal mix of architectural styles, ranging from Spanish Colonial and Pueblo to Classical. The buildings have been beautifully restored, befitting it’s stature on the National Register of Historic Places, with fountains and shaded courtyards mingled with commercial spaces.
Pizzeria Mozza, with its respect for history and tradition - enhanced by a modern twist- is a perfect fit for the location.
There are four Pizzeria Mozza locations: Los Angeles, Newport Beach, the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore and now San Diego. Each restaurant shares the same philosophy summed up in this quote from Nancy Silverton : “ Simple, all natural ingredients lead to artful nutrition”.
This location is green certified and procures its products from green oriented suppliers. Even the sparkling water is produced ‘in house’.
There’s a spacious outdoor patio (great for people watching on Sunday’s during the Certified Farmer’s Market!) and an inviting interior dining area.
Several months ago I was invited to a Press Lunch for the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association. We had a chance to not only sample some of the classic dishes from Pizzeria Mozza but also to meet many of the people who make it all happen
The menu also features a host of local San Diego draft and bottled beers and a creative wine list focusing on, not surprisingly, Italian vino. Many are from organic, smaller wineries that you won’t see on your average wine list. All have been chosen with the menu in mind and we can thank Sommelier LaMont Schroeder for that!
Each incarnation of Pizzeria Mozza shows a bit of it’s own personality, especially San Diego. With ever changing menu items to suit the season and the chef’s creative streak you could come back time and again and always find something new.
There are, however, some classic staples and we were thrilled to sample them all.
We began with a selection of Bruschetta -White Beans alla Toscana with Saba and Chicken livers, capers, parsley and pancetta. The bread was perfect – toasty but not so crisp as to shatter into a hundred pieces when you bit into it! The texture of the white beans was amazing and the savory liver was brightened by a hint of lemon and fresh parsley.
Chef John Stenbakken explained that the Bruschetta are a menu tradition, but the toppings are rotated on a regular basis. Everything is made in house – an important element in maintaining consistent quality.
John has been with the company for may years and plans on adding more pasta dishes and grilled items to the menu.
Our next course was a huge plate of gorgeous Pane Bianco, dripping with high end olive oil and garlic – the perfect compliment to probably the most beautifully presented Mozza Caprese I have ever seen!
The small ‘on-the-vine’ tomatoes were roasted for about 2 – 21/2 hours to concentrate their sweet flavors and worked really well with the ultra creamy Burrata and fresh pesto.
To cleanse our palates, a colorful Insalata Rosso was served. Crisp radicchio dressed with a simple lemon vinaigrette, delightfully ‘chewy’ Wisconsin applewood bacon, freshly shredded Peccarino Romano and softly cooked egg. I could have made a meal of this with some of that wonderful Pane Bianco!
But we couldn’t stop without trying some pizza! The ‘signature’ pizza, unique to San Diego, is the Kale Pizza. Beautifully balanced toppings of fresh baby kale, savory red onion, ricotta cheese, mozzarella and spicy coppa adorned the light, crispy, crust. Delicious.
We were introduced to pastry chef Juli Sinning, keeper of the secret dough recipe! Julie started with Pizzeria Mozza four years ago in their Singapore location and was brought out to San Diego to open the new restaurant.
Although she could not be bribed to divulge all the secrets of this fantastic pizza crust, she did explain that they make all the dough by hand, twice a day – once in the morning and again in the afternoon. The dough will sit overnight which aids in developing the texture and flavors.
Wood fired ovens at incredibly high temperatures bake the pizzas in a matter of moments and give them that distinctive deep color.
Julie is also in charge of the terrific dessert selection. She makes all the Gelato from scratch using a special machine imported from Italy and they even squeeze their own fresh fruit juices to go into the house prepared sorbets.
We were lucky enough to sample some of these cool, creamy confections: a hazelnut gelato and the pineapple/coconut sorbet. Refreshing, vibrant and true flavors shone through.
These contrasted with the other signature dessert – the Butterscotch Budino – a decadently creamy pudding topped with burnt sugar, softly whipped cream, and Maldon sea salt. Sinful. The accompanying pine nut and rosemary biscuit was a savory addition to the sweet and salt of the pudding. Wow.
Whether you visit Pizzeria Mozza for a quick ‘slice’ and a beer or spend several hours sipping your wine and savoring multiple courses, you are sure to leave this terrific location knowing you celebrated “La Dolce Vita”.
Pizzeria Mozza is located in the “Headquarters at Seaport District”, 789 West Harbor Blvd, San Diego 92101 (609) 376-4353
Parking: There are two lots at Seaport Village, across the street, Valet Parking at the Headquarters and metered parking on surrounding streets.
Wine lover, educator and writer.