I’ve attended the Chef’s Wine Dinners at Crush Ukiah for Saracina, Barra/Girasole, Bonterra, Coro Mendocino, and last night’s dinner featuring the wines of Yorkville Cellars in the Yorkville Highlands on Highway 128 between Cloverdale and Boonville.

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The evening kicked off at 6:00 pm with a Yorkville Sparkling Brut reception, flutes of bubbly paired with oysters on the half shell and oysters Rockefeller. A Cuvee (fancy word for bubbly blend of varietals) of 51 percent Semillion, 24 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 25 percent Sauvignon Blanc, Deborah Wallo, one owner of Yorkville Cellars, suggested a finishing note of English black currant. I pick up a rounder mouthfeel than is typical for classic Chardonnay/Pinot bubblies, with grapefruit and light berry notes. It paired beautifully with the oysters on the half shell, bright citrus and micro herb notes, and a clean salinity, easy to eat and chase with a sip of the sparkling. The oysters Rockefeller were delicious, but not as easy to eat without utensils.

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Assuming everyone in Mendocino County knows each other, I failed to introduce Bob and Deb Perkowski to Deborah and Ed (the other owner) Wallo, but, Mendo simple, they introduced themselves, and of course it turns out they know each other as the Perkowskis have been putting the Yorkville Cellars’ logo on ball caps in their silkscreen and embroidery studio for the Wallo’s tasting room.

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After the welcoming reception, dinner guests were shepherded into the private dining room where two long tables were set. Folks found a seat, and Doug Guillon (owner of Crush Italian Steakhouse, along with his wife Debbie) greeted everyone and explained that tonight would be like a marriage, a coming together of two groups of people who love what they do and are committed to the very best in what they do, the team at Crush and the team at Yorkville Cellars.

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Next Edward Wallo described how a visit with his wife Deborah to Mendocino County in the early 80′s led to a return the very next day to look for a “wine place”. Ed is Italian so wine was a natural part of the meal table, and Deborah grew up with clarets in England – a claret is how the British refer to Bordeaux red wines – so a wine life seemed approriate. In 1982, Ed and Deborah purchased a Sauvignon Blanc vineyard, and over the years added Semillon, plus all six of the red Bordeaux grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Canernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenère.

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Today, out of the several thousand wineries in America, Yorkville Cellars is the only winery growing all eight Bordeaux varietals and making a varietally specific wine from each. Oh, and as a bonus, they do it all organically with a healthy dose of biodiversety.

Has anyone else noticed that so far we have a Deb, a Deborah, and a Debbie at the dinner? It means nothing, but I thought it interesting.

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Two wines were poured for our first course, a 2013 Sauvignon Blanc and a 2012 Rose of (Cabernet) Franc.

I loved the Yorkville Sauvignon Blanc, a really great example loaded with varietal yumminess; light grass, minerality, citrus, a touch of white peach, terrific mothfeel, decent size owing in part to barrel fermentation and aging in neutral oak.

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The Rose of Franc was darn yummy too, showing a dry fruitiness, not sweet in the sugary sense but loaded with juicy fruit notes; strawberry, watermelon, a touch of light herb and dust, but a core of juice berry.

Chef Jesse Elhardt described the menu’s first course, which was three dishes, and as always at Crush would be served family style.

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First came an asparagus salad, with the stalks sliced into coins and the spears turned into ribbons, with frisee, baby kale, fried prociuttom fried quinoa, Humboldt Fog goat cheese, a warm bacon vinaigrette, and a last minute tableside squeeze of grilled orange to awaken the aromatics of the salad. The asparagus was prepared in a parsley water infusion to prevent the leeching of color and flavor from the vegetable.

Oh, my, was this delicious (a refrain I uttered over and over again throughout the evening’s meal). I would never have thought to turn asparagus into a salad, and certainly would never have imagined this salad, but I am so pleased that Chef Jesse did. I came back for seconds on this, the flavors clean, distinct, and melding beautifully, the cheese creamy and bright. Taking sips of each wine with this dish was a treat, experiencing how the two wines paired differently but equally well.

Grilled desert artichokes with a spectacularly delicious housemade remoulade (with bright little sliced cornichons) and a smoked lemon accompaniment; and roasted bone marrow.

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Okay, the artichokes were delicious, they taste nothing like mine, and I enjoyed them…but roasted bone marrow!

Chef Jesse didn’t just roast bones for their marrow, first he spent four hours creating a bacon jam, a cooked down essence of bacon, to slather upon the bones, and then he baked them, and then he brushed them with a balsamic demi glace and added some micro greens to the end of each long bone.

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Eating at Crush Ukiah during a Chef’s Wine Dinner is like watching Barry Bonds hitting dingers at a Home Run Derby, everything is a long ball, grand slam, game winning hit.

Plates and glasses were cleared, two new wines were poured, the 2011 Hi Rollr red and 2012 Malbec.

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Chef Jesse described the next round of dishes, the 8 hour lamb ragu, with 5 hours going to the base sauce before 3 more for the actual lamb ragu element. He kept going, but I’ll get to each in a paragraph or two.

Deborah described the next two wines. The 2011 Hi Rollr Red is a blend of seven wines, including Zinfandel, Carignane, and Petite Sirah, three decidedly non Bordeaux varietals. If you are from Mendocino County, think of this wine as a Coro-esque wine. The name of the wine refers to the Boontling (a unique language spoken by the inhabitants of Boonville) term for people from Yorkville who rolled their pant legs up for the horse ride into Boonville on a Saturday night, in days past, to keep them out of mud but then forgot to roll their pants back down upon arrival. A charming story told in a lovely voice, a touch of England still evident in Deborah’s words.

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The 2012 Malbec was the bigger of the two wines for me, a product of increased plantings and a blend of three individual clones of the vartietal. The Malbec is weighty with dark blueberry and chocolate notes, exactly as promised by Deborah in her description.

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Here’s the taste sensations from the second course: you know a meal is great when vegetables can be elevated into starring roles. Tomato slices…big deal, right? Well they are when topped with compound butter, house bread crumbs, and grated cheese, then broiled. Sweet creamed corn was transformed when Chef Jesse reinforced the corn’s sweetness by creating a corn pudding and blending that back into the dish with the whole corn kernals, and then taking it over the top with the addition of sweet caramelized roasted baby scallops. More than one person commented that they would have felt satisfied with simply of bowl of the best corn you’ve ever tasted in your entire lifetime.

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The two proteins were an herbed rotisserie chicken with a Panzanella salad, and the lamb ragu. The salad that came with the chicken was flavorful, and the chicken was quite tasty, but the depth of flavor in the lamb ragu was attention grabbing.

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Roughly 30 years ago, my first ex-wife took me to a birthday dinner at Clint Eastwood’s Hog’s Breath Inn in Carmel (we weren’t ex’s yet). I ordered leg of lamb, and the kitchen ruined it by slathering it more than liberally in mint jelly, which was not mentioned on the menu. I recount this story because there was mint in Chef Jesse’s lamb ragu and – for me – it elevated the dish, rather than ruining it.

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The intensely flavored lamb ragu was served with a cavatelli pasta, boccoli rabe, kalamata olives, a rustic mint pesto, and reggiano cheese. This weighty and intense dish paired with the Yorkville Cellars Malbec provided my favorite wine and food pairing of the night.

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I had seconds of the lamb ragu. At meal’s end, i waddled, not walked, to my car.

Once again, plates and glasses were cleared, and one of my favorite parts of this dinner series occurred: people talked. Sitting at long tables, surrounded by people you may not have met, over a family style meal, people introduce each other, ask for plates to be passed, talk about wine and food and the county, and become friends for the evening. I bounced around, during the evening from one table to the other, and talked to many people. A little weird for me, over and over I was asked if I write the wine column in the Ukiah Daily Journal. It turns out people recognize me, and about half the people attending told me that they came only because they read about the dinner in the column that ran the week before. I was a little humbled, but pleased as my intent in writing the column was to act as a cheerleader for Mendocino County’s wines – and the restaurants that do something special with them. One diner kindly shared that she had a favorite piece, and recounted it; I wrote the piece last year, and to have it remembered to me was touching.

Anyway, more wine and dessert, so I moved back to my seat, and Chef Jesse described the candied orange panna cotta he created with real reduced orange zest for flavor, no artificial ingredients, and how he floated a gelée of Yorkville Sweet Malbec  reduction atop the panna cotta to create a dual layered dessert. There was also a mint leaf and a house made candied orange crisp.
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Ed and Deborah’s son Ben described the night’s final wine, the 2011 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend. 23.6 residual sugar off 45 degree brix grapes, late harvest and botrytis, 74% Sauvignon Blanc and 26% Semillon, this is undeniably a sweet wine. Hearing Ben talk about this wine, his parents, his life, was heartwarming.

I have some bottles of this wine at home, and it manages to be incredibly sweet, but not taste so. This is not a cloyingly sweet dessert wine, supported by much acid, but I liked it best by itself. The dessert, fantastic, was sweet, with notes of honeyed fruit, but tasting the wine after the dessert made clear how much sweeter the wine was than the dessert.

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All night long, in what was an over four hour experience, every bite was a rich flavor explosion, and each sip of wine an exploration of palate pleasing playful pairing. There were no real false notes, plenty of highlights, everything a success.

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I feel bad that I didn’t take a picture of each dish, but I was filling my belly. I also feel bad that I didn’t grab a picture of Ben as he described our dessert wine, and a picture of the entire assembled staff both from the kitchen and front of house as they deserve greater recognition than I am giving them here. A fantastic job by all. God willing, I’ll be attending the next Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush in Ukiah again.