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All About Food: Gathering wines from around the world

It’s always exciting to talk with someone who is passionate about what they do, and that defines Nancy Milby of Laguna Culinary Arts. After establishing the professional cooking school, cooking classes, the cheese shop and café at 845 Laguna Canyon Road, she had the opportunity to expand into the space next door where she has created a wine “cellar." Although she is an accomplished cook, wine is where her heart is and she loves to share her ardor and her knowledge in as many ways as possible.

More than just a wine lover, Milby is a certified sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers, holds an Advanced Certificate from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust of London and is a Certified Wine Specialist of the Society of Wine Educators. Although she sells some California wines, her specialty is ""¦ finding wines from around the world that are less well known and therefore less expensive but are a good representative of what that region’s wine is supposed to be."

She has devised an impressive number of programs for every level of interest and awareness ranging from informal tastings to a professional program. On Friday evenings, there is a happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. that includes five tastes and one glass of wine plus a buffet prepared by one of the graduates of the Laguna Culinary Arts chef program, all for a mere $20. The meal includes: soup, salad, an entrée and vegetable. A second glass of wine is only $6. No reservations are necessary. This is a very popular event with many repeat customers. Laguna local June Briggs and her husband, Ray, have been going for the last two years and she says it reminds her ""¦of ‘Cheers’ because everybody knows your name. You might have to squeeze together, but everybody has a good time." The cuisine often reflects the region of the featured wines.

In the café, from 1 to 4 p.m. the last Saturday of each month, there is a wine and cheese event. For $5, you get eight, 1-ounce tastes of wines from around the world "” four red and four white. Offered with this tasting is a special price on cheese platters accompanied by dried fruit, nuts and bread, designed to go with the afternoon’s wine selections. The price ranges from $12 to $18 depending on the cheeses. Of course, you can always order whatever you would like from the café's regular menu.

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A monthly program features a different flight of white and red wines. You can come in any time and for $15 have two 3-ounce pours of red or white with three 1-ounce portions of cheese that pair well with your wine choice.

For those of you who are more serious about wine education, you can take 2 1/2 hour class for $60, focusing on specific regions (currently a tour of either Italy or Spain) or other classes featuring a particular type of wine (such as sparkling dessert wine) paired with food for $75.

If you want to go still deeper, Chef Laurent Brazier, executive chef instructor for Laguna Culinary Arts, teaches a three-class course every quarter called Wine Basics. You learn about grape varieties and regions, how to unravel the mysteries of reading a label and how to taste wine. Six to eight are tasted in each class. This course costs $160.

One of their most popular courses is Wine and Food Pairing Basics. For $195 there will be three classes in which you will have an opportunity to taste whites, light reds and heavy reds, paired with five or six small plates of food in each class. The focus will be on what works with what and why, and what doesn’t. Another series begins in October with different wines and small plates.

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Now let’s get really serious and introduce you to Peter Neptune, master sommelier. He is one of only 87 people in the United States to hold this prestigious and hard-to-achieve title. He is the instructor of two certification courses in collaboration with the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust of the UK. His courses are suitable for professionals and serious non-professionals wishing to acquire an in-depth knowledge of wines and spirits. The level two intermediate certificate costs a serious $700 for eight classes including: materials, textbooks and tastings with an additional $150 for the certification exam. The level three, advanced certificate class costs $1,100 for 12 sessions. Laguna Culinary Arts has just received final approval for offering the level four, diploma certification. This is a really big deal and everyone is very excited.

Milby’s very newest undertaking is the Wednesday evening wine club that she will preside over personally. This is a members only tasting club. You pay $5 to $25 each week, depending on the wines of the evening. You will taste Milby’s choices and then have the opportunity to order the wines you like. These are not in the shop. Her first club tasting will begin this October and will feature the wines of the famed Weinbach family of Alsace. It will be an in depth tasting of Chablis from village and grand cru. You need to call Milby at (949) 494-0745 to become a member and make a reservation but the membership itself is free.

Milby is a world traveler and wine is always a part of her journey. She spoke of a recent trip to Argentina, where she fell in love with the wines. The mountainous area around Mendoza is the main wine-growing region.

It has a similar climate to Burgundy with warm days and cool nights. She especially likes the Malbecs and recommended one in the shop that she thinks is fabulous. Doña Paula Malbec is a 2007 estate wine that sells for a mere $13. It is described as having ""¦a nose of raspberry, cassis, flora and spicy notes along with mineral and smoke flavors. On the palate it is rich and harmonious with a lingering fleshy finish."

Congratulations to Milby who is celebrating her mid-century birthday and eight years of a successful business.


ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned A La Carte for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at themarkos755@yahoo.com


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