Tag Archives: Sean Razee

Mastering Differences Between California Cabernet Blend & Barolo


I live in Vail Valley, Colorado. It’s a very special gastronomic community filled with creative chefs and talented sommeliers. We are blessed to count Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Vail Resorts‘ Mountain Dining Beverage Director, among the oenological dwellers of our valley. That means whenever I am in need of oenological wisdom, Sean is my “go-to” professional. Needless to say, his tireless support of local charities in planning and executing their fundraising dinners is a delight to witness.

While writing a chapter in my book “A Labor of Love: Wine Women of Piemonte,” I got I stuck on a question regarding the differences between California Cabernet Blends and Barolo. My ability to explain the differences leads me, an attorney, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous line, “I know it when I see and taste it.” So who better to turn to than Sean for a more detailed explanation? No one in my universe is better at mastering differences between these two wines.

What I got was a 455 word education. And this is one education I definitely wanted to share. Sean graciously agreed to allow me to guest post his response to my question. I hope you enjoy the primer. I certainly did!


“How would you describe the difference between a California Cabernet Blend and Barolo?”

Sean Razee:

Immense differences exist between California Cabernet Blend and Barolo. These differences are apparent in the color, flavor profile and structure of the wines. Some differences are due to climate differences between California’s Napa Valley and the northwest Italian region of Piemonte (specifically the Langhe). Differences in vinification also make the wines distinct from one another.

California Cabernet Blend

I would describe a California Cabernet Blend (in youth) as a deep ruby color with black fruits (currant, plum, cherry).

There should be a whiff of green herbs (tobacco, mint) with dark chocolate and coffee. The oak on the wine is prominent, displaying new French oak barrels (smoke, toast, vanilla, baking spices). Earthiness is not prominent.

The structure of the wine is medium-plus to high tannin (silky) medium to medium-plus acidity, with medium-plus to high alcohol.

Cabernet is a thick-skinned grape of high color pigmentation. The vinification methods used in production extract large amounts of tannin from the skins. A fruity and a silky, smooth palate dominates the wine. The tannin in a California Cabernet Blend tends to be “fully ripe” which gives the wine’s tannin a silky feeling on the palate.


For Barolo (made from 100% Nebbiolo), the color is more garnet to light ruby with red fruits as opposed to black fruits (cherry, raspberry, pomegranate). The fruits are sometimes both ripe and dried (with some age). There can sometimes be notes of spice, anise, tar, leather, and balsamic. Notes of volatile acidity are common giving the wines a lifted, perfumey aroma. Some producers are using some new French barrels, adding the corresponding flavor profile of those barrels. However, the traditional production methods do not lend oak to the flavor profile.

Unlike a California Cabernet Blend, a Barolo might be bone dry, with high tannin, high acidity and medium-plus to high alcohol.

Nebbiolo is a thin-skinned grape with light color that contradicts the wine’s weight and aggressive tannin. It is highly aromatic and driven by non-fruit characters. Unlike the tannin in a California Cabernet Blend that possesses silkiness virtually upon release, the tannin in Barolo may need years to soften. This is historically why Barolo was required by law to age for many years before release. With today’s viticultural and vinification techniques though, this has changed a bit and Barolo is becoming much more approachable in its youth.

This last part of my Nebbiolo description (underlined) leads to why many people who like new world, California Cabernets do not like Barolo. For a person that wants a “smooth” wine, with high color, high extraction, high fruit content, high alcohol, silky tannins and some sweetness to the wine, Barolo is almost the antithesis of this model. Barolo is light colored, highly aromatic, is non-fruit driven, and has an aggressive tannin and acid profile.

– Sean Razee, Master Sommelier

Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director, Vail Resorts Mountain Dining. Photo credit: Vail Resorts
Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director, Vail Resorts Mountain Dining.
Photo credit: Vail Resorts

For more information on Sean Razee, please visit my profile of him, “Courting Sommelier Excellence.” 

Barolo from famed producer Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli.
Barolo from famed producer Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli. Photo Credit: Alisha Quinn Bosco
Schweiger Vineyards' "Dedication," an example of one of Napa Valley's distinctive California Cabernet Blends.
Schweiger Vineyards’ “Dedication,” an example of one of Napa Valley’s distinctive California Cabernet Blends. Photo credit: Schweiger Vineyards

Courting Sommelier Excellence

Sommeliers are gastronomic matchmakers, helping diners discover the perfect match for a chef’s creation from candidates presented on a restaurant’s wine list.
Digging into their gustatory toolboxes of aromas and tastes accumulated from years of tasting repetition and a vast wine knowledge, sommeliers can create happy marriages between wine and food, transforming an otherwise mundane process of eating into joyful gastronomic adventures. Add to that an intriguing story or two about the wine’s origins or its producer, sommeliers can work magic converting liquid in a glass from a mere drink into to something to savor and remember. The wine comes alive as its tastes and aromas become part of the diner’s own catalogue of dining memories.

The seeds of the profession sprouted in 14th century England. Sommeliers had humble beginnings as wine procurers for royalty and the aristocracy. Although the job description of a sommelier has evolved over time, sommeliers are still humble servants. At least that’s philosophy of one of the world’s most respected wine education organizations, the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. Personally – and I’m stepping out on Captain Hook’s plank here – I find the mystique, pop culture and wealth that’s part of the wine industry increasingly breeds an attitude that isn’t always synergistic with the concept of service. Ok, let’s just say it as it is. Some of the industry’s newer members – sommeliers, bottle shop employees and wine reps included – are wine snobs. I said “some,” not all, so don’t get frazzled. I venture to say that I doubt I’m alone in my observation. I even hear it from winemakers whose wines grace the upper echelons of many top restaurants’ wine lists. It baffles them that some of those on the far end of the chain of commerce don’t share their own humility. Many with lesser knowledge – most notably the ones buying the product – often feel intimidated. Certainly not a way to cultivate wine appreciation.

But through the expanding popularity and reach of the Court of Master Sommeliers’ certification program, the humble, agrarian beginnings of wine increasingly are reflected in the service demeanor of sommeliers responsible for connecting the last link in the chain between producer and consumer. If Mensa had a wine and spirits subgroup, it would count amongst its members Master Sommeliers whose years of grueling studies and training helped them reach the rarefied air of the world’s top wine professionals.

Master Sommelier Fred Dame, founder of the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers
Master Sommelier Fred Dame, founder of the American chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers Photo Credit: Court of Master Sommeliers

If I haven’t gone off the end of the plank yet and you’re still with me, I’d like to introduce you to a wine genius with whom I’ve also had the pleasure of working with on a wonderful epicurean fundraising event for the Roundup River Ranch camp for seriously ill children. Master Sommelier Sean Razee.

Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director, Vail Resorts Mountain Dining. Photo credit: Vail Resorts
Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director, Vail Resorts Mountain Dining.
Photo credit: Vail Resorts

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing this tall, quiet humblest of humble sommeliers who resides in Vail Valley.  I’m working on my certification – Level II – to enhance my ability to tell winemakers’ and wine professionals’ stories, so I decided to write about the experience in the certification program. Sean helped me round the corners and smooth the edges of my article.

I interviewed Sean about his own journey to the pinnacle of the wine industry. The interview unearthed some fascinating insights and raised my level of appreciation of sommeliers’ role in connecting vintners with consumers.

As of November 2014, 220 professionals earned the title Master Sommelier since the first exam in London in 1969. One hundred forty of those Masters earned their title in North America. In case you’re a statistics geek, 119 are men and 21 are women. Colorado is home to 12 Master Sommeliers. Sean Razee is one of those 12.

In his first words of his intriguing article in Aspen Peak Magazine, journalist Douglas Brown states, “Aspen boasts more master sommeliers per capita than any other city in the US.” Not a surprising statistic based on Aspen’s prowess as the Rocky Mountain culinary capital which hosts one of the nation’s best food and wine festivals each June. Another reason is Aspen is home to a temple of epicurean pleasures – The Little Nell – and home to an oracle of wine that professionals from all over the world seek. More about him in a minute. For several decades, Colorado has been a Mecca for aspiring sommeliers and where Sean reached a fork in his career path that lead him to the Court of Master Sommeliers’ program.

Like so many who follow the same path Sean discovered in Colorado, wine culture was not a part of his upbringing in California. In the mid-1990s, Sean finished his studies in food science at Long Beach State University. Many believe – myself included – that wine is bottled poetry, art, literature and spirituality. So it’s no surprise Sean relished studying language, art and religion in university and continues expanding his knowledge today. Soon after receiving his degree, however, serendipity directed Sean’s career steps to the wine world.

Sean’s interest in wine blossomed during wine country adventures with friends. Sean admitted, “I didn’t know what I was drinking, but I loved the experience and wanted to learn more.” His quest for knowledge took Sean to Colorado for the winter of 1996-1997 when he worked at Beano’s Cabin in Beaver Creek. It was there his discovery of the “all-encompassing aspect of wine in the restaurant setting” nudged him closer to the wine industry.

One season turned into another and soon Sean’s expanding experience and responsibilities at Beano’s led him to explore wine career options. Using his background in food science as a springboard, it made sense to apply to UC Davis’ graduate oenology program. Fate, however, had different plans for him.

In 2002, Sean became wine director at Spago’s in the newly opened Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch. The job prompted him to defer his oenology studies a few years. Not surprisingly, Sean never made it to UC Davis. He discovered another wine industry career path existed. Although he already had many years of experience under his belt, Sean wanted formal training and certification. Enter Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher.

Many who now hold the esteemed title “Master Sommelier” and the two levels of certification below it owe their success to Jay Fletcher. Like Sean, Jay didn’t make a beeline to sommelier training. However, in London in 1996, after nearly 15 years of working his way up the restaurant industry ladder in Aspen and arduous studies, Jay received his Master Sommelier Certification, becoming the 30th American to achieve the distinctive title. The Madison, Wisconsin native who once hitchhiked his way to Colorado – as friend Ilan Baril recently wrote in The Juice, “to ski, hang out with a good-looking woman and have a drink or two” – then became a sought-after sage who drew aspiring sommeliers from across the globe to Aspen.

Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher (left) and Master Sommelier Wayne Belding. Photo Credit: Court of Master Sommeliers
Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher (left) and Master Sommelier Wayne Belding.
Photo Credit: Court of Master Sommeliers

The timing was perfect. Sean wanted to pursue certification with the Court and Jay’s work educating candidates was beginning. Sean told me he chose the Court’s program because of its international recognition as the fastest growing wine certification program in America and that a service component comprises one-third of the exam. “You need to be able to talk about the wine and serve it properly,” Sean said.

Wine tools are as precious to sommeliers as sharp knives are to chefs. Photo Credit: Sergio Howland
Wine tools are as precious to sommeliers as sharp knives are to chefs.
Photo Credit: Sergio Howland

Sean began making frequent trips to Aspen to taste wines with Jay and absorb the knowledge he graciously shared. The experience brought him in contact with other masters’ candidates. By 2006, Sean took the grueling, three-part masters’ exam.

Given this is one of the most demanding exams in the wine world with a meager passage rate of 8%, candidates have three years from the first attempt to successfully complete all three sections. For Sean, he passed service in his first attempt. Mind you, this isn’t “open a bottle and pour some wine” sort of service exam. It’s even more difficult than that on the Level II exam. To give you an idea, take the most difficult service scenarios imaginable, make them even worse, and you might have the degree of herculean service difficulty that candidates have to master to be Masters.

Two years later, Sean passed the remaining two sections – theory and blind tasting – in Healdsburg, California. With his wife Jennifer and daughter Noelle present, in 2008 Sean proudly received his well-deserved title, Master Sommelier.

It didn’t take long before Sean, like Jay before him, became immersed in the opportunity to educate certification aspirants. Today, as director of Vail Resorts’ Mountain Dining beverage program, Sean no longer has many opportunities to “work the floor” and be that last link between winemaker and consumer, but he does stay active in his mentoring of certification candidates.

Sommeliers help chefs pair wines and then set up well-polished wine glasses, open and taste bottles of fine wine as prelude to an wine tasting dinner. Fine wines like Chiara Boschis' E. Pira e  Figli 2009 Barolo Via Nuovo deserve attention and tender loving care when serving.
Planning wine dinners takes a great deal of preparation. Sommeliers help chefs meticulously pair wines. They  set up well-polished wine glasses, open and taste bottles of fine wine as prelude to a wine tasting dinner. Fine wines like Chiara Boschis’ E. Pira e Figli 2009 Barolo Via Nuovo deserve attention and tender loving care when serving. Photo Credit – Alisha Quinn Bosco

In conclusion, I asked Sean to share with me some of his insights he conveys to his protégés.

The Court’s mission, in Sean’s opinion, is to (1) educate sommeliers, (2) create standards of service and (3) “impart humility.” There’s that humility component again, something no doubt difficult to maintain in the heady world of wine. But Sean credits his own humble roots to keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground.

The program requires candidates to learn a wide breath of information that often goes far beyond one’s focus and interests. Perhaps amassing knowledge of little known wine regions isn’t as sexy as zeroing in on Bordeaux and Bourgogne, but it’s what makes Masters’ expertise so special. Sean sees this as a way to achieve a high level of broad wine knowledge thereby creating well-rounded wine and spirits professionals.

The cellar at Il Centro in Priocca d'Alba Italy is lovingly tended by father and son sommelier team Enrico and Giampiero Cordero.
The cellar at Il Centro in Priocca d’Alba Italy is lovingly tended by father and son sommelier team Enrico and Giampiero Cordero.

Sean’s own personal mission is to mentor candidates, “impart humility” and help them develop their own skills.

One of the most interesting insights I gleaned from Sean was his perspective on wine as part of everyday life. Yes, there are “icon wines” that are rare treasures, but he respects wine as an agricultural product that in so many cultures is “a grocery that sits on the table during meals and becomes part of daily life.”

Like Sean, I admire the farmer-winemakers who toil in the vineyards, bring the grapes home safely and then perform alchemical magic in their cellars. They bear the greatest risk, but have the lowest margins in the chain of commerce between their vines and consumers’ glasses. In the northern hemisphere, theirs are stories of hailstorms in August, of frost in early May, of rain on the grapes in October. Disproportionately more than anyone else in the chain of vinous commerce, wine producers bear the burden of volatile currency markets, energy cost spikes and economic crashes.

It’s that final link where Sean Razee speaks for the producers, adding a heightened level of appreciation and understanding of the precious liquid he pours. Whether he’s serving a humble bottle of a lower priced wine on his list or a treasure from Vosne-Romanée, Sean cherishes the vintners’ stories he happily shares with clients. He’s a golden link, a humble representative of the producers in that long chain between vineyard and glass as he makes happy marriages between food and wine.

I have no idea how far I’ll get in my quest for Level II certification. There are huge challenges awaiting my 57-year-old nose in the blind tasting and my arthritic hands when confronted with opening and serving a bottle of champagne in the service exam. But I have to admit, the trip down the path to the exam has already brought me a greater understanding of and appreciation for the men and women who insure winemakers do not toil in vain to create vinous magic. Sommeliers, I’ve discovered through knowing Sean and learning from Jay in my Level I class, are great historians. Every time they pour a glass of wine and tell its back story, they honor the winemakers and keep the magic alive. Yes, sommeliers are gastronomic matchmakers and theirs is a labor of love. 

Photo Credit: Sergio Howland
Photo Credit: Sergio Howland

Wine-Friendly Bayou Country Gumbo

DISCLAIMER – This is an essay about my recent experience digging down to my cultural roots deep in south Louisiana to cook smoked goose gumbo. I highly recommend you pour a glass of your favorite vinous drink – and keep the bottle handy – to sip as you come along on my bayou country adventure in my Colorado kitchen.  One more comment, sorry I don’t have more photos to share.  Making gumbo and shooting my own photos was a recipe for disaster.

In the beginning…..

When I set out to write a column on the fine art of creating goose gumbo, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be.  Not that it’s difficult to make gumbo since it’s actually surprisingly simple once you get the hang of it.  It’s because I’m a child of the bayou country, rooted deep in its fertile culinary ground.  With that, I feel a weighty responsibility to get it right.

As I began to free-write, memories of smells, tastes and countless family meals enjoying hearty gumbo possessed my fingers.  I couldn’t stop writing.  That’s a problem since my word budget in the Vail Daily is 1,200 words per column.  Even 2,400 words weren’t enough to share my passion for this centuries-old – if not older – dish Chef John Besh refers to as a “cultural stew.”

Another impediment to staying within my word budget is the wealth of information and stories about gumbo out there in cyberspace and on bookshelves. Louisiana luminary chefs such as John Folse have penned reams about gumbo.  There’s no way I could compete with that and I felt intimidated that my qualifications to weave a tale of gumbo might be lacking.

With all those thoughts swirling through my mind, I decided to restrain my writing voice in favor of a shorter Vail Daily piece, comply (sort of) with my word budget and just tell a shorter gumbo story in my column.  But I also wanted to tell my story and share it with my readers, so you’ll find it here in my own little corner of cyberspace.

What Does Gumbo Have to do with Winefamilies?

“Why here?” you say when this is a blog about wine families.  Hey, you have to eat when you drink beautiful vinous creations from these family-owned wineries, so why not eat gumbo!

Gumbo is a dish with many faces and can dance with an array of varietals, blends and terroir expressions.  Stick with me and I’ll share with you some spirited tips on pairing gumbo, particularly my smoked goose creation, Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director of Vail Resorts Mountain Dining, shared with me.

Stocking up on Flavor

In part one of my two part somewhat restrained Vail Daily column, I walked my readers through making a rich, homemade stock I used to make my goose gumbo for my article.

Yes, I could have bought “manufactured” stock from a grocery story, but that would be cheating.  Needless to say, you won’t find goose stock in your local grocery store and even if you could, store-bought goose stock would pale in comparison with what resulted from hours of extracting flavors from herbs, vegetables and the marrow, fat and residual meat from my goose carcass.  (Visit Schiltz Food’s website to order this delicious smoked goose to make your own gumbo.)

Partially submerged smoke carcass dull ofd
Partially submerged smoke carcass full of delicious residual flavors

The stock was the easy part.  Let’s go to my kitchen get into some hardcore gumbo making!

First You Make a Roux

Roux is the essence of every kind of gumbo, etouffée and many other Louisiana dishes such as shrimp creole.  Since this simple amalgamation of flour and hot fat is the cornerstone of gumbo, a perfectly crafted roux is the Holy Grail chefs and home cooks strive to attain.  Before we make our roux, let’s prepare our mise en place.

Everything in its place

As with everything you cook, preparation is key to minimizing stress and maximizing quality.  It makes no sense to stop in the middle of a process, grab a knife and start chopping away at your ingredients or start rooting for the correct pan.  Stress is an unwanted ingredient in epicurean creations.

With gumbo, it’s extremely important to have your mise en place ready.  Making roux is a relatively slow process, but when it’s ready, things will happen very quickly so make sure you’re prepared to meet the challenge when the time arrives.

Sidebar:  I am a bowl freak.  I have a broad assortment of bowls ranging in size from 1-ounce glass bowls – great for holding small amounts of spices and liquids such as vanilla extract – to 9-quart stainless steel mixing bowls great for holding prepped items.

My stock recipe yielded about six quarts.  I used four quarts and froze the other two.  I always like to have some stock on hand when the urge to make gumbo strikes me!

Although the process of making gumbo is fairly standard, what goes in it is limited by your imagination and, of course, logical choices.  Here’s what I use for my goose gumbo that begins with four quarts of stock.  Keep in mind, unlike making bread and pastries, gumbo ingredients don’t have to be exact.  This is truly art, not science.   Like painting, there are rules to follow in getting the paint on the canvas, but the colors you use and designs you create are purely your own.  So go for it!

Dice two large onions, three stalks of celery and seed and dice two green bell peppers.  If you want to play Picasso, substitute a red bell pepper for one of the green peppers to add a dash of color.  Mince two or three large cloves of garlic.

I love okra in my gumbo, but only fresh will do for me, not something easy to find during long Colorado winters.  I’ve learned to do without it.  But if you can get your hands on the fresh stuff, use two cups of frozen (and defrosted) sliced okra.

Nowadays with mass hydroponic production of tasteless fruit, tomatoes challenge discerning home cook.  Since Colorado in winter isn’t a haven for fresh tomatoes, I use a handful of canned San Marzano tomatoes when the snow’s flying.  In summer, I use the real deal, grown in dirt.  Pity I can’t get the red, sweet and delicious Creole tomatoes I was raised on.  Whichever, my recipe requires one tomato seeded and diced.

Leaves from a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme provide a subtle, woodsy taste.  We’ll also need two bay leaves.  I like California laurel leaves that are large and a bit pungent, so I only use only one.  Grind a couple of tablespoons of black pepper and measure a bit of Kosher salt.  A tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce will provide a je ne sais quoi that would definitely be missing otherwise.

I also use about an eighth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, teaspoon of ground cumin and a quarter of a teaspoon each of ground allspice, sweet paprika and ground coriander.  Some recipes call for Cajun spice mixes that include onion and garlic powders, but this is my answer to that.  It actually becomes a question of taste, but please, whatever you do, don’t kill the flavors with a ton a Tabasco or cayenne pepper.  Use those two sparingly.

For our meat, we need a half-pound of andouille sausage sliced or chopped.  I like to slice it on the bias, place on a sheet pan and bake on 350 degrees for about 10 minutes to render the fat.  Since my goose carcass had been picked clean at Christmas, I ordered more smoked goose breast from Schiltz Foods of South DakotaThree to four cups of rough chopped goose meat is perfect.

A few words about the andouille.  First, this is not andouillette you may have eaten in France (if you had buy accident, you’d know it!).  It’s a course smoked pork sausage typical to south Louisiana.  There are some great purveyors of Jacob’s in “The Andouille Capital of the World,” La Place, Louisiana, is a great source for andouille, if you happen to live within driving distance of the store.  Shipping costs more than the sausage, so I turned to Aidells Cajun Style Andouille as a reasonable substitute.  It’s good quality and I can even pronounce each ingredient on the label, always a plus for me.

Don’t forget to prep ingredients for the roux: fat and oil.  Fat choices include clarified butter, rendered duck or chicken fat and oil.  If you were making etouffee or bisque, I’d say go for the butter, but with gumbo I use oil.  Chef Folse, recommends using vegetable oil.  I use canola.  Perhaps next time I go with the expert’s suggestion.

A quick note about butter-based roux.  Butter burns easy as you’ve probably discovered.  To make a dark roux, you need heat and time.  Both of those don’t agree with butter so much.  Accordingly, butter is glorious for etouffee where a light roux is preferred – at least that’s my opinion – and for a dark (black) roux that’s part and parcel to the deep, rich flavor of goose or duck gumbo, oil is the preferred route.  NEVER OLIVE OIL in any case!

As to flour, Chef Folse advises cooks use “fresh and properly stored flour.”  In Louisiana, the high humidity makes that an issue.  “Mee-mees” in flour is one thing I do not miss about Louisiana!  Cooking at altitude may be challenging, but storing staples like flour is a dream.

My mom used Wondra flour because it’s fine and resists clumping.  I generally use all-purpose, unbleached King Arthur flour for my roux.  Do not – I repeat – do not consider any other thickener for your roux than white flour.  Chef John Besh believes “only a flour-based roux yields that traditional flavor” of gumbo.  Bottom line, if you want the real deal in your bowl, there’s no gluten free alternative.  Make soup, not gumbo.

A one-to-one ratio of flour to oil is ideal.  One cup of oil – vegetable as Chef Folse advises or canola – and one cup of fresh flour works great for four quarts of stock.

Serious Business of Roux Making

Now, as I walk you through making the rest of the process, you’ll discover why prepping is so important.  Before you begin making the roux, take care of all calls, including Mother Nature’s, and walk the dog because there’s no stopping once you’ve started.

SIDEBAR – Roux can be an incredibly contentious issue between Louisiana cooks.  There’s so much written about it and even 40 years since I made my first roux, there is still so much for me to learn.   Chef Folse is one of those who have written reams on the subject and I doubt he’s covered everything he knows about it.

Back to cooking.

Which pot to use?  Certainly not a shallow one, definitely not non-stick and preferably heavy-bottom.  My grandmother had a cast iron Dutch oven that seemed to be the only pot she ever used except the small one for boiling milk for her coffee that I proudly gave her for Christmas one year.  She was a fabulous Sicilian-American cook whose love of family and food fused in her pot to create memorable meals, particularly Sunday lunch.

But I digress.  See why I couldn’t write a short article?  This is family history for me and memory lane leads right to my kitchen.

I prefer to use a large pot, so my 13.25-quart gargantuan Le Creuset Dutch oven Santa Claus gave me last year is my pot of choice for a large batch of gumbo.

My 13.25 quart Le Creuset behemoth Dutch Oven is a workhorse in my kitchen.
My 13.25 quart Le Creuset behemoth Dutch Oven is a workhorse in my kitchen.It’s heavy and can easily overheat, but it heats evenly.

It’s heavy and can easily overheat, but the most important quality is it is heavy and heats evenly. Since moving to a house with a gas stove, I find my Le Creuset pots much easier to use on gas than on halogen.

With my treasured pot on high heat and my whisk and trusty 30 year-old wooden spatula in hand, I’m ready to go.  Oh, I forgot.  My step stool.  At 5’1”, the extra 6” helps me see into the pot and is easier on my arms.

Chef John Besh advises heating the oil before whisking in the flour.  He believes it speeds up the process and produces a deeper dark chocolate color.  I concur.

Once the oil is “dancing” – making ripples – add the flour, whisking until it’s all dissolved.

Bubbling flour is the beginning of the roux
Bubbling flour is the beginning of the roux

Next, lower the heat to medium – continue to stir and watch the heat, lowering as needed to keep it from burning.  If you see little specks of black, that’s not a good sign. Toss it and start over.  Don’t feel inadequate if you do burn your roux.  We’ve all done it and it will actually help improve your skills.

More sage advice from Chef Folse: “Risk is the tariff paid to leave the shores of predictable misery.” I’ve risked burning my roux – which I’ve done several times – to speed up the process.  Confession time.  I did burn the roux last week because I was taking photos; almost dropped the camera in the pot, too.  Not to be deterred, I started again and, with better focus, had a glossy, dark chocolate-colored roux in 20 minutes.

Initially, the flour will bubble and then settle down, releasing a fragrant nutty aroma as it begins to cook.  It’s a smell of my childhood particularly Lenten Fridays when dinner consisted of seafood gumbo and fried catfish or speckled trout.  With duck and goose gumbo, a dark chocolate-colored (black) roux is desirable.  For seafood and chicken, it’s more like milk chocolate.  We’re going for dark.

Once the flour is completely dissolved, I switch to my wooden spatula.  I believe moves the roux around better than a whisk.

This is when being ambidextrous comes in handy.  It’s a process that imperfect cooks like me need to take slowly, which sometimes means 20 minutes or so of constant stirring.  I’m getting better.  It used to take me 45 minutes to make a dark roux because I was so paranoid about burning it; now I can do it in 20.

Sidebar: Time for a health warning (sorry, but it’s the lawyer in me).  Hot flour and oil splashing on tender skin – like fingers and forearms, not to mention foreheads – leaves pretty nasty burns.  The combination of hot oil and flour gave roux its name “Creole napalm” since it’s sticky and contact with skin quickly results in a nasty burn.  I have the scars to prove it!  Take care to keep the roux in the pot, not in the air.  Hot roux “spits” if you’re not careful, so it’s important to continue carefully stirring not just to keep the roux from burning, but to keep the roux from burning you!  It’s not a bad idea to have some Aloe Vera gel nearby.

Getting darker…..
Getting darker…..
And darker….
And darker….

When the roux is glossy and the right color, it’s time to assemble the gumbo.

….and now ready!  Dark and shiny is the goal for smoked goose or duck gumbo.
….and now ready! Dark and shiny is the goal for smoked goose or duck gumbo.

Here’s where another great tip from Chef Besh I use.  After stirring and stirring, you’ll have the urge to dump the onions, bell peppers and celery – the Holy Trinity – into the roux all at one.

Chef John Folse's black roux ready for the addition of the holy trinity.
Chef John Folse’s dark (black) roux ready for the addition of the holy trinity of onions, bell pepper and celery (Photo courtesy of John Folse & Company).

Resist that urge and just add the onions first.  I tried it and it works fairly well.

As the hot roux cocoons the onions, a tantalizing, nutty aroma emerges.  Adding the onions first also allows the onions to caramelize and release its sweet juices without interference from the water in the vegetables.

Louisiana culinary icon Chef John Folse making gumbo.
Louisiana culinary icon Chef John Folse making gumbo. (Photo courtesy of John Folse and Company)

Reduce the heat, add the onions and stir for about 5 to 10 minutes.  Next, add the other vegetables, herbs and spices, stirring well while cooking for another few minutes.

Try adding onions first, then celery and bell pepper to get an optimal caramelization of the onions.
Try adding onions first, then celery and bell pepper to get an optimal caramelization of the onions.

The stock is next and, as you’ll see, is another opportunity for disaster if not done correctly.

After recently breaking my roux – after burning the first batch (wasn’t a good day) – I turned to Chef Folse for some troubleshooting advice.  If, after adding stock, flour separates and floats instead of mixes with the liquid, it’s broken.  To avoid this, add the liquid in one-quart intervals, stirring constantly to allow the roux to absorb the stock before adding more.  I was flustered from my previous roux failure and added the stock too quickly.

My second mistake was not to warm my stock.  Chef Folse cautions that when “Cold liquid is added to hot roux, the fat may coagulate as it rises.”  He advises to bring the liquid to a boil then briskly whisk to blend the mixture back into suspension.   Problem solved.

Once you’ve successfully crossed that bridge, add the andouille, goose meat, Worcestershire sauce, file, and balance salt and pepper.

The careful marriage of the stock and roux then addition of the meat marks the beginning of the easier stages of gumbo-making.
The careful marriage of the stock and roux then addition of the meat marks the beginning of the easier stages of gumbo-making.

A few dashes of Tabasco will add some kick, but only add a little at time.  Don’t forget to remove the bay leaf.  Stir, bring to a boil then simmer for about an hour to let the flavors meld, skimming fat that floats to the surface.  Note that you’ll find many recipes that call for a different ordering of ingredient additions at this stage, but this is what I do.  You’ll discover over time how gumbo can be a very personal dish.

While the gumbo is simmering, it’s a good time to prepare the rice.  Since I grew up on it, I often use extra long grain Mahatma white rice, but I recently discovered Full Circle organic long grain brown rice at Village Market in Edwards that is quite nice.

Place about a half cup of steaming rice into a bowl, spoon the gumbo over it and garnish with sliced green onions, parsley and filé, preferably homemade from dried sassafras leaves.  Salad and crusty garlic bread – baguette or ciabatta – are perfect partners for your gumbo.

A bowl of gumbo is soothing on a cold winter day, but is a pleasure all year round.
A bowl of gumbo is soothing on a cold winter day, but is a pleasure all year round.

What to drink?

Quite honestly, Barq’s root beer was my favorite soda growing up.  It wasn’t the kind made with high fructose corn syrup sold today – yuck!  Until the late 70s, no one had to put “real sugar” on the label.  My other favorite root beer was homemade using Zatarain’s root beer extract.  Oh the memories!  Therefore, I must confess that root beer is hands down my favorite drink with gumbo.

But since this is a wine blog, I thought I’d turn to Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director of Mountain Dining at Vail Resorts, for some advice to share with my readers who stuck with me for the last 2900 words.

Since Sean so perfectly articulated his recommendations, here are his words verbatim:

My first wine inclination (following an amber ale or sweet tea) to pair with a dark roux, goose meat, and likely some spice, is to serve a thin-skinned red grape with a hint of sweetness—something like a Côtes-du-Rhône Grenache-based red.

My thoughts:

  • I envision the goose meat lending a hint of gamey earthiness to the dish that would be complimented by a Grenache/Syrah/Cinsault/Mouvedre blend
  • Any herbal notes in the dish would merge beautifully with the Southern French flavors that are typical in these wines (thyme, rosemary, parsley, bay leaf)
  • Grenache will carry a hint of sweetness to counter the spiciness of the dish
  • Gumbo has French, Spanish, etc. influences and this wine is a French wine based on a Spanish grape (Garnacha/Grenache); so there is a nice cultural connection
  • For small, estate producers, my recommendations would be:

Final Thoughts

I discovered Schiltz Foods’ smoked goose gumbo at a dear friend’s house on Thanksgiving.  Delicious, moist meat that make bird my new go-to star for my holiday feast!  From that point on, I was on a mission to make smoked goose gumbo.  This article emanated from that mission.

Schiltz Smoked Goose
Schiltz Smoked Goose (Photo Courtesy of Schiltz Foods)

Gumbo is such an amorphous dish that can challenge your imagination.  Other proteins that are at home in gumbo include shrimp and crab, turkey, chicken and duck.  Here are some resources that you might find helpful whether you’ve made gumbo before or inspired to broaden your cookery horizons.

John Folse on Roux
Southern Foodways: How to Make a Roux
John Besh on Duck on Oyster Gumbo 
Schiltz Foods

I truly hope my musings provided you with some food for thought and that you’ll experiment with this wonderful dish steeped in centuries of Gulf Coast history.  Since this dish represents all that is good about familial cooking in my home region, it goes perfect with the concept of honoring family-owned wineries, which is what I strive to achieve on this blog.

Let me know how it goes or if you have any questions.  I may not have the answer to all your queries, but I’m blessed to have wonderful Louisiana culinary resources available to me.

Ready for the table where it will get a sprinkling of file (Photo courtesy of Alisha Quinn Bosco).

Bon appetit, y’all!