It still gets me sometimes. I want to leave home and join the circus. This week I settle for the next best thing. We’re going to have a wingding week in Los Angeles with puppet shows, magic, and time by the pool. These are three of my favorite things.
Our First Act will be filled with moments of wonder and astonishment having secured dinner, a tour, and a romp about The Magic Castle in West Hollywood. The Second Act is a little “us” time by the swimming pool, gin and tonic by my side. The real zinger is Act Three where we visit The Bob Baker Marionette Theater somewhere between Downtown and Pasadena. Who doesn’t have a soft spot for puppets? I had seating choices of “A Proper Chair” or “Criss-Cross-Applesauce” with the children in the front row. You know which one I wanted to pick but my husband, being a good sport, had the final say. “A Proper Chair” these seats will be. There is complimentary ice cream after the matinée.
In this issue, I examine a few more of my favorite things: global wine study, the American arts of jazz and musicals, a Napa bakery Empress, and an English muffin that can make grown men weep.
The years-long study, preparation, and examinations may have finally come, if not to a close, at least to a well-deserved pause. Why did I subject myself to the Diploma level of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET)? The answer is Julie Andrews and John Coltrane.
We are all familiar with the movie The Sound of Music. I bet you can hear Julie Andrews in your head right now, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens…”. With The John Coltrane Quartet, Coltrane transformed the cheerful tune into a hypnotic, modal exploration. It became his most requested song.
Aside from the genius of the composition, there is something about the familiarity that draws us in. We already know the melody. It is the variations on the theme rooted in our memory of the musical that also grabs us. They are the things that makes you go hmmm.
I think about New World wine that way. I didn’t just want a Napa palate, if there is such a thing. I started Gentleman Farmer Wines making Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and working with Bordeaux varietals. Bordeaux has a very different climate from Napa. It is moderate-maritime. Napa is Mediterranean with plenty of sunshine and a dry growing season. Right off the bat, we have a difference in potential ripeness with the same varietal.
In some ways, wine regions in the New World, that includes Napa, started as some variation on the theme of the Old World benchmark. We are John Coltrane (very cool!) and Europe is The Sound of Music.
WSET Diploma allowed me to dive deeper and better understand the Old World, the wine regions of the world in general, and their similarities and differences.
Wine is a fascinating rabbit hole and the structure of the study and the exams have become my own Wonderland.
I passed the days of May 10 and 11 in San Francisco at the St. Francis Yacht Club. My friend Gaby and I sat for our exams for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Diploma certification. Of six units, these were my final exams.
This has been many years in the making. Diploma is a step above the Advanced certificate, which they now call Level 3. Diploma is the common precursor to becoming a Candidate Master of Wine.
The same exam, same questions, and pouring the same round of wines happen on the same two days around the world. There is no posting on social media about the exams for 48 hours. They will fail you if you post and they keep watch.
Day One was the theory part of the examination. Between the morning and the afternoon we were given a total of seven questions of which we chose five and wrote roughly a 700-word essay response for each. The time allotted for each was about 40 minutes.
We packed a picnic with a bottle of German Riesling for lunch and enjoyed the midday break outside with gorgeous views of Chrissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Day Two was the blind tasting part. There were four separate flights of three wines.
We wrote tasting notes for each regarding the nose, the palate, and its structural components: dryness, acidity, alcohol, tannins, body, intensity, and length of finish. After that, we wrote comments on the quality level, suitability for aging, and our reasoning. In each, we identified the grape variety, the region or country where appropriate, and again our reasoning.
In on the fence if I passed the theory part of the exam. I am much more confident in my tasting abilities. In either case, pass or fail, I will find out by August 3 this summer.
Sarah Hansen is a force you should know. She is the owner of The Model Bakery with locations in St. Helena, The Oxbow Market in Napa, and Mini Model in Yountville. Her English muffins really have no need of introduction as Oprah has beaten me to the punch, declaring them worthy of her list of favorite things for three years now.
Jeff and I gave six-packs of them as gifts to out-of-town guests at our wedding.
Sarah is more than muffins. She is a successful entrepreneur, taking the helm of The Model Bakery when her mother retired 19 years ago and growing the enterprise to three locations and direct sales. She is the co-author of The Model Bakery Cookbook with stellar reviews. Sarah has a green thumb and uses her love of gardening to teach children about organic farming and cooking, serving on the Board of the educational farm, Connolly Ranch. She is one smart cookie.
Joey Wolosz: How does it feel to be one of Oprah’s Favorite Things?
Sarah Hansen: It’s been an honor to be featured in Oprah’s Favorite Things List now three times! Every time we are featured we see a huge influx of sales. It has really helped put us on the map, especially for our now famous English Muffins!
I hope to meet Oprah in person someday, although in the meantime happy sending her muffins every month! 😊
JW: What brought you to baking?
SH: Honestly, I’m not much of a baker myself, although I do love to cook. My mom grew up in a family of Norwegian bakers in the Portland area. She learned to make pies and tarts at a very young age. Her aunt and uncle owned a famous European-style restaurant in Portland that James Beard frequented.
When my parents moved to Napa Valley in the early 70s my mom worked as a chef for some of the local restaurants and then started her own catering business. When the bakery across the street went up for sale they thought what a great opportunity to create the bread and pastries they enjoyed on their travels in Europe here in the Napa Valley!
I moved back to the Napa area after a career in tech sales to help my mom retire about 19 years ago. We have some very talented bakers that have worked for us over the years. During Covid, they coached me on learning to bake my own sourdough bread at home, so I can now say I can bake if I need to! 😊
JW: Aside from baking, do you have any other creative outlets?
SH: I love gardening. We have a big vegetable garden and I really enjoy using the fresh produce as much as possible. I also love to cook elaborate meals for friends and family.
JW: Was there a moment when you first made a connection with wine and food?
SH: Food has always been a part of my life. My parents had a small farm – veggie garden, chickens, and vineyards, which they used in cooking daily. They took me with them to Europe when I was young and I was exposed to wonderful foods while traveling.
My parents had a small Syrah vineyard where they sold their grapes and eventually made our own wine with my husband’s (who is in the wine business) help.
JW: Friends and family excluded, who are two people you’d like to share a long and lingering meal with?
SH: I met Ina Garden and her husband Jeffrey when they were filming a segment for the Barefoot Contessa show at our bakery. They seemed like the warmest couple. I would love to enjoy a meal with them and learn more about their lives.
JW: What would you serve?
SH: I love cooking Mediterranean food and one of my favorites is moussaka. With a good Greek salad and crusty bread!
JW: What cookbook(s) are you currently diving into?
SH: I really enjoy all the cooking blogs for inspiration just in daily meal ideas. One cookbook I recently purchased was from a blogger Jennifer Segal “Once Upon a Chef”. Mostly simple everyday dishes but with healthy, fresh ingredients.
(JW: Sarah also shared, “Jerusalem, A Cookbook” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi in a later email.)
JW: What is your spirit animal?
SH: Hmm well, I just tried one of those online quizzes and it said I was a turkey!
The turkey is a symbol of thanksgiving because it’s all about abundance. As someone with turkey as a guide, you attract bounty to yourself and are always willing to share your blessing. Known for your generosity, you believe all life is sacred and take care of others’ needs before your own. Thankfully, you usually have enough to go around. You likely feel grateful for what you have and feel no need to accumulate a lot of material possessions. The turkey can also help you translate your experiences into growth.
JW: And from the Proust Questionnaire, #35: What is your motto?
SH: To live and enjoy life to its fullest!
Sarah has thoughtfully agreed to share her recipe for The Model Bakery’s English Muffin. These are tasty with Chardonnay! I’ll turn this over to Sarah.
Sarah Hansen: Thanks, Joey. Even though the bakery’s doors have been open for over eighty years, these muffins put us on the national radar when featured on The Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” We used to make these the old-fashioned way, shaped in ring molds (actually, we made ours from old tuna cans, which you cannot do anymore because the sizes have changed). When we realized we could make them free-form, it changed our lives—literally.
Our English muffins are quite large when compared to the supermarket variety, which makes them wonderful sandwich rolls as well as breakfast treats.
A couple of notes: You will need a heavy skillet or griddle (preferably cast iron) to make these, and be sure to make the biga at least 24 hours before making the dough. Because you will probably be toasting the muffins, they won’t have to be fresh from the griddle, so make them a day or two ahead if you wish.