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J's Essence Tasting and the Ultimate Holiday Cookie
By Sally Belk King
Dec 4, 2007
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Cookies are my weakness.  For some, it's ice cream.  For others, it's crème brulée.  For me, it's the all-American cookie. I've always had to  watch my weight and I'm fairly disciplined, but when I nibbled the Chocolate Fleur de Sel cookies at J Vineyards & Winery several weeks ago, I threw caution (and calories) to the wind.  'More, please!' I begged like a deprived orphan in a Dickens novel.

The fudgy, salty-sweet confections were part of a dessert trio; a fine finish to a seven-course wine-and-food-pairing  lunch created by J's über-talented Executive Chef, Mark Caldwell.

The meal was the finale  of  J's new Essence Tasting program, a four-hour gourmand extravaganza, which begins in the stylish visitor's center (with a glass of  J bubbly), continues to the vineyards (for hors d'oeuvres and Pinot Noir) and onward to the posh Bubble Room for a lunch that celebrates the best of the Russian River Valley paired with J wines.

Launched just last August, the Essence experience is both mouth-watering and educational. "We believe that wine and food should be enjoyed together … our new Essence Tasting allows guests to have an unparalleled experience that takes them from the vineyard to the table,' says J founder and CEO, Judy Jordan.

The Essence experience is offered on Thursdays from 11 AM to 3 PM for $200 per person (which includes transportation from the visitors center to the vineyards and back) . Eight guests maximum; reservations must be made at least 2 weeks in advance by phoning 707-431-5430. 

J VINEYARDS' CHOCOLATE FLEUR DE SEL COOKIES

While these may just be the best Christmas cookies ever, don't waste them on the kids: most little folk will be happier with plain ol' sugar cookies coated with plenty of colored icing. At J, you'll likely be served a glass of  J Pear Liqueur, a rich, floral-spicy  eau de vie made from Bartlett pears, available at JWine.com. At home, pour a glass of vintage Port or late-harvest Zinfandel.  Whichever you choose, it will be a match made in holiday heaven.

15 tablespoons (11 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 ½ teaspoons Fleur de Sel
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 2/3  cups pastry flour
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
10 ounces best quality very finely chopped bittersweet chocolate
Fleur de Sel, to garnish

  • Cream the butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and creamy.  Add the 2 ½ teaspoons Fleur de Sel and the vanilla and mix until combined.
  • Sift in the flour, cocoa, and baking soda and stir until just combined; do not over-mix or cookies will be tough. Fold in the chopped chocolate.
  • Roll the cookie dough into a log about 1-inch in diameter; wrap in plastic wrap and freeze until firm.
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease 2 cookie sheets with butter or non-stick spray.
  • Unwrap the dough log, cut into ½-inch thick slices and place slices 1 inch apart on prepared cookie sheets.  Bake for 7 minutes.  Remove from oven and while still warm, sprinkle each cookie with a small pinch of Fleur de Sel.  Let cookies cool slightly on the baking sheets, then use a spatula to transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.

Photographs by Sarah Belk King: Top, Judy Jordan; middle, J Executive Chef Mark Caldwell.

Visit Sarah on the web at SarahBelkKing.com.