2009 Trader Joe's Reserve Carneros Pinot Noir

Last night I had dinner at my friend Claire's apartment. She is a costume designer and lives in a cozy studio that doubles as her work space. The living room is an eclectic mix of couches, coffee tables, industrial sewing machines, and clothing mannequins. I felt inspired the moment I walked in the door, as the whole space seemed brimming with possibility.

The four of us that came for dinner that night gathered a midst it all. We chatted and ate pasta with smoked Gouda and red peppers, followed by a rich pumpkin bread pudding topped with chai flavored ice cream. Every last bit was incredible.

I took the evening as an opportunity to bring two new items from Trader Joe's that I've been dying to try:  The 2009 TJ's Reserve Blend Carneros Pinot Noir, and Creamy Toscano Cheese Dusted With Cinnamon. We had these as appetizers and they were a match made in heaven. Allow me to explain:

Creamy Toscano Cheese Dusted With Cinnamon (around $4.07 per block; only available for a limited time at Trader Joe's)

Toscano cheese has a flavor similar to Parmesan, except its texture is a bit creamier, so it has enough moisture to be eaten on top of a cracker or a sliced baguette. Trader Joe's carries several variations of Toscano cheese -- one soaked in Syrah; one coated with black peppercorns -- but I had never seen one dusted with cinnamon before, and I thought it sounded intriguing. It turns out that the cinnamon isn't at all sweet. Since there isn't any added sugar, the cinnamon in the cheese takes on a rather earthy note, which pairs fantastically with the Pinot Noir.

2009 Trader Joe's Reserve Carneros Pinot Noir ($9.99 at Trader Joe's. Obviously.)

My favorite grocery store has a special relationship with many of the vineyards in California. When these vineyards -- even the well-known, high quality ones -- have an overstock of certain wines, they agree to sell them to Trader Joe's at a discounted cost, but the caveat is that they have to remain anonymous. That's why TJ's repackages the wine bottles with their own label and sells them at a significantly lower cost. In the end, everybody wins, especially us because we get to buy excellent wine for half the cost -- woohoo!

In addition, this wine is extra special because it's from the Carneros region of Napa Valley. This region is well-regarded within the wine industry for the consistent quality of grapes it produces, and if a wine is labeled "Carneros," it means that 85% of the grapes used to make it must have come from that region.

It was a light and smooth Pinot with lots of flavor complexity. It wasn't just fruity; it wasn't just earthy, but a nice blend of both. Most importantly, the lightness of the wine was perfect with the cinnamon cheese because it complemented the flavor, rather than overpowering it.That, my friends, is the key to a good wine pairing.

Some shots of Claire's apartment