On Wednesday, November 12, 2014, Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah hosted their sixth in a series of Chef’s Wine Dinners, this time pairing with Cesar Toxqui Cellars and featuring mushrooms from start to finish, celebrating the county’s bounty during the Mendocino County Mushroom, Wine & Beer Festival.

Cesar Toxqui

Cesar Toxqui

Cesar Toxqui, owner and winemaker at Cesar Toxqui Cellars, described each wine during the evening, and offered insight into some choices that go into winemaking…and selecting the right wines to pair with a multi-course mushroom dinner.

Ruth Toxqui and Lynn Elhardt

Ruth Toxqui and Lynn Elhardt

Cesar’s wife (and co-owner of Cesar Toxqui Cellars) Ruth Toxqui chatted with Lynn Elhardt (mother of the dinner’s Chef, Jesse Elhardt). Lynn kindly shared that Jesse’s path to Chefdom was as direct as computer science to mechanical engineering to the kitchen. While the path was meandering, the journey led to the right place.

Porcini Bruschetta Bites

Porcini Bruschetta Bites

The Porcini Bruschetta Bites during the meet & greet reception were paired with the 2012 Cesar Toxqui Pinot Gris, which provided a terrific pairing. Made from a toasted baguette, a concentrated tomato jam, herbed ricotta, olive oil, balsamic, micro intensity, and porcini mushrooms, one of the best pairings of the night was the single one of these I brought to the table and paired with Cesar’s Pinot Noir.

Crush General Manager Kevin serving up 2012 CTC Pinot Gris and Porcini Bruschetta Bites

Crush General Manager Kevin serving up 2012 CTC Pinot Gris and Porcini Bruschetta Bites

Kevin was a terrific host for the evening’s dinner, every want was met all night.

Dinner Meet & Greet

Dinner Meet & Greet

Typically folks spend fifteen minutes in the comfortable bar area, allowing late stragglers to arrive, before heading into the special event dining room.

Meet & Greet at the bar

Meet & Greet at the bar

Quite comfortable at the bar, I usually find myself enjoying the first food and wine pairings of the night here at these Crush Chef’s Wine Dinners.

Chef Jesse Elhardt describing the night's dishes

Chef Jesse Elhardt describing the night’s dishes

Chef Jesse’s menus look good, but his verbal descriptions, when he paints pictures with words, well, this is a huge part of the night.

Crush Beverage Manager Nick pouring wines

Crush Beverage Manager Nick pouring wines

It is always great to see Nick, and together with the rest of the Crush team, gave guests a perfect service experience.


Polpette al Vino Bianco

Polpette al Vino Bianco

Veal, parmesan reggiano, brown butter parsnip puree, caramelized onion jus, chive stick. Sound good? It was better. These veal meat balls, this sauce, paired with the 2012 Cesar Toxqui Cellars Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, were beyond mere deliciousness. If God is missing his balls, these might be them. They are Heavenly.

Clams Casino

Clams Casino

Shiitake mushrooms, diced, then combined with pancetta, green bell pepper, shallot, house made bread crumbs, asiago, compound butter, and smoked chanterelle mushrooms. Again, paired beautifully with the 2012 CTC RRV Pinot Noir.

A full table of happy dinner guests

A full table of happy dinner guests

Sure, these folks could have eaten food off a pizza truck, outside, in the rain, but why would anyone do that? Chef Jesse Elhardt of Crush and Cesar and Ruth Toxqui of Cesar Toxqui Cellars were the evening’s perfect team, offering up taste sensation after taste sensation to a very appreciative group of dinner patrons.

Broccolini Salad

Broccolini Salad

Broccolini, shaved crimini mushrooms, red onion, fried bread, fresh burrata, pickled mushroom relish, sherry vinaigrette, olive oil, and micro intensity. You know the dinner is great when the vegetable dishes are great. This reminded me of a great broccoli rabe, a perfect vegetable dish to pair against veal, with wine.

 Cesar Toxqui Pinot Noir almost gone, Second course Cesar Toxqui Zinfandel just poured

Cesar Toxqui Pinot Noir almost gone, Second course Cesar Toxqui Zinfandel just poured

Cesar talked about his winemaking, saying, “we’re very small, handmade wines, I’m a hands on winemaker,” and explained that with his wines he, “tries to highlight the year, the varietal, and appelation,” using, “biodynamic, organic, and conventional,” winemaking choices, in that order.

The night's main wines paired perfectly with the rich and flavorful mushroom dishes

The night’s main wines paired perfectly with the rich and flavorful mushroom dishes

2012 Cesar Toxqui Cellars Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and 2012 Cesar Toxqui Cellars Split Rock Zinfandel (certified organic).

Brussels & Cauliflower Gratin

Brussels & Cauliflower Gratin

Brussel sprouts and cauliflower gratin with housemade bread crumbs, toasted pine nut, and gruyere,

Yukon Potato Puree

Yukon Potato Puree

Yukon potatoes and roasted mushrooms.

Drawing to a winning pair

Drawing to a winning pair

2012 CTC Split Rock Zin and Jesse’s Ragu of Mushrooms

Ragu of Mushrooms

Ragu of Mushrooms

I have written before that Jesse’s 8 hour ragu tastes like 48 hours, with rich deep intense flavors. I’ve enjoyed lamb ragu, beef ragu, and bison ragu from Jesse, but this vegetarian dish, this mushroom ragu is at least as good, if not better than any previous offering. Served with one of the best pastas ever made, a handmade orecchiette pasta, ricotta, basil pesto, and parmesan regianno, this was a show off dish. Cesar’s Zin was also rich, deep, and dark, almost more like a Cabernet Sauvignon, and paired beautifully with the mushroom ragu.

Grilled Certified Angus Beef Skirt Steak

Grilled Certified Angus Beef Skirt Steak

My iPad camera makes this meaty look rare red, but it was perfectly medium rare, and served with a red wine and crimini demi glace, and little crumbles of soft gorgonzola. Another dish created to pair perfectly with Cesar Toxqui’s Split Rock Zinfandel.

My Second Course Plate. I exercised portion control, not my strong suit, especially with food this delicious.

My Second Course Plate. I exercised portion control, not my strong suit, especially with food this delicious.

I am on a diet, I’ve lost 35 pounds, with many to go. At past dinners, you would not see my plate for all the food piled on it. The quality, brilliantly defined flavors, of the night’s dishes made portion control acceptable…if not desirable. I did have three veal meatballs and a second small helping of the mushroom ragu.

Crush Wine Dinner Series devotees

Crush Wine Dinner Series devotees

My dinner mates inspected a bottle of Cesar’s Zinfandel, an organic offering full of flavor.

Dulce Paloma

Dulce Paloma

For dessert, Cesar and Ruth brought their Dulce Paloma, a port like, rich wine, fortified with a little extra goodness from Germain-Robin, the world’s best brandy maker.

Candy Cap Mousse

Candy Cap Mousse

Mushroom dessert? Yep. Candy cap mushrooms throw caramel flavors, and if no one told you, then you would never guess you are eating a mushroom dessert. This was a dual layer mousse, with candy cap, vanilla bean, blue berry, marscapone, fried quinoa, and mint.

Chef Jesse introduces his kitchen team, to a rousing ovation.

Chef Jesse introduces his kitchen team, to a rousing ovation.

At evening’s end, Chef Jesse brought his crew out from the kitchen and individually introduced each team member, and a round of applause, well earned, was given by the night’s diners.

I was asked to introduce the next Chef’s wine dinner at Crush, and tickets began selling immediately after this night’s mushroom dinner for the Wednesday, January 21, 2015 Chef’s Wine Dinner featuring Dungeness Crab dishes during the Mendocino County Crab, Wine & Food Fest with the wines coming from McFadden Farm. California’s best sparkling wine, the Wine Enthusiast magazine 90 point rated white wines, a 95 point Wine X/Just Wine Points Old Vine Zinfandel, and a three time Double Gold or better Late Harvest Riesling…with a bunch of Dungeness crab dishes created by Chef Jesse. $75, food, wine, tax, tip included, get your ticket NOW; they will sell out!

John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

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John On Wine – Wine Tasting 101

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, November 6, 2014; written by John Cesano

Wine tasting is daunting for some folks. If you have never gone to a winery tasting room, for a wine tasting, the uncertainty of what to expect, can be a little scary, even intimidating.

Beer is simple, you go to the corner store, grab an ice cold six-pack out of the cooler, pay for it, take it home, open a bottle, and drink it. No one is judging you. It is just beer in a bottle, and then in your belly. Food pairings are not much of a concern with beer; chips, nuts, pretzels will all do just fine.

If you watch Frasier and his brother Niles in reruns, then you might think wine is pretentious and that the little rituals might trip you up and make you look foolish. Put any such concerns out of your mind.

For the most part, wine – to me, and to many Italian Americans in northern California – is food. Wine is just one more ingredient, or dish, among many, in a larger meal, and wine should complement your food and make it taste better.

One of my favorite things about a Chef’s Wine Dinner at a good restaurant, like Crush or Patrona here in Ukiah, is that perhaps six wines will be poured and perhaps ten food dishes will be served, and you are afforded the opportunity to try sips of different wines with different foods to see what pairings work for you, a wonderfully playful experiment of trial and error, or better yet trial and delicious success, over an entire evening…well, that is a great way to be awakened to the wonder of food and wine pairings, surrounded by 70 other people having the same sensory overloading experience, oohs and ahhs, and, as the evening goes on, groans of delighted contentment, everywhere.

The next of these opportunities is next Wednesday, November 12, 2014, when Chef Jesse Elhardt and his team at Crush pair mushroom dishes with the wines of Cesar Toxqui Cellars, at what I consider the premier event of the entire 2014 Mendocino County Mushroom, Wine & Beer Festival. Surprising no one, I have my ticket already. Tickets are $65 in advance, or $75 at the door, and include food, wine, tax & tip.

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Cesar Toxqui will have his Cesar Toxqui Cellars wines featured at the Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush in Ukiah on Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Similarly, the premier event of the 2015 Mendocino County Crab, Wine & Beer Festival will be the McFadden Farm Winemaker Dinner at Crush on Wednesday, January 21, 2015. This dinner will be a crabapalooza, and as crab costs more than mushrooms, tickets are $75 in advance, and also includes food, wine, tax & tip. There will be no tickets at the door, as this event will sell out.

Contact Crush by calling (707) 463-0700 to make reservations for either of these two great opportunities to play with food and wine!

Visits to winery tasting rooms should be as much fun, or certainly more fun than they too often are, I’ll admit. If you are a novice, and want to feel comfortable, come and visit me at the McFadden Farm Stand & Tasting Room in Hopland. I’m in most every Tuesday through Friday from 10-5 each day, and my incredible team handles most of the other days. We’re the top rated tasting room in California by the San Francisco Chronicle, because we want you to enjoy yourself, because we give you an experience, and because we treat you with respect.

First things first, wine tasting should be complimentary. This isn’t liquid gold and rubies, it is fermented grape juice, and I am thrilled to do away with the pretension of Napa County for visitors to our humble tasting room. If you value your juice too greatly to pour a taste of it, or don’t know how to add the cost of samples to your cost of goods when setting prices, then Napa County is one county south, then another east. That said, while wine tasting is complimentary, tossing a bill or two in the jar is never frowned upon.

Next thing, and perhaps the most important thing to know: the dump bucket is your friend. I like to pour through all available wines, usually about a dozen, give or take, and if you try to drink a dozen pours then you will be drunk. I pour an ounce of wine in a nice big glass, and if you swirl the wine then you can break free some of the aroma molecules, and put your nose into the glass, and slowly sniff in all the smells. Then take a little sip, and see what flavors the wine has. The wine flavor will taper away, sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly, and more flavor notes may be found here on the finish. Finally, dump the remaining wine from the glass into the bucket.

I let people experience the wine before I share the notes that the wines present to me. I also tell a little story about each wine, and put our wines in context by describing our farm, our growing choices, the winemaking styles, and much more. A visit with me can often last an hour, and involve a dozen wines, but a mere sip of each wine means less than an ounce consumed and critical judgment is still intact, so wine buying or wine club joining decisions are about the wine and not the result of alcohol making your decisions for you.

Here’s another thing that is important to own: you are the boss of you, you are the ultimate judge of what you like and do not like. I pour Gold medal, Double Gold medal, Best of Class and Best of Show wines. I have wines that professional judges unanimously voted Gold, in competition after competition after competition. I pour great wines, AND YOU ARE FREE TO NOT LIKE THEM. Not everyone likes everything, and with 12 wines to pour, there is a great chance you’ll find one or two, or all 12, to like or not like.

As I pour, I do mention foods that each of the wines I pour pair well with, often sharing recipes, because a wine at first taste that was just good can be the best wine you’ve ever tasted when it accompanies   the right dish.

After running through all of my wines, with the nosing, sipping, and dumping, I always ask visitors if they would like to revisit any wines, because sometimes one sip just isn’t enough. I also like to recommend other wineries to visit based on what my visitors liked most, and perhaps a local place to eat between wine tasting visits.

I write about wine because I do not want anyone to be intimidated by it. I pour wine in much the same way. Nicely enough, there are many other incredibly friendly and fun folks pouring wine throughout Mendocino County, and every one of us would love to pour wine for you. We’re gentle with first-timers; if you haven’t been wine tasting yet, give it a try.

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John On Wine ­ – On food and wine pairings, and the next Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush

Oroginally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, April 17, 2014
 Crush Logo

Wine dinners are one of my favorite things. I’ve written about a handful of Chef’s Wine Dinners at Crush Italian Steakhouse, the Roederer Estate Dinner at Patrona during the Mendocino County Crab and Wine Festival, and about random but delicious wine and food pairings at Uncorked. My recaps of past Passport events, from Dry Creek Valley to Hopland, have focused as much on the food as on the wine, or the interplay between the two.

The most memorable wine I tasted at the big Zinfandel Advocates and Producers tasting in San Francisco was not the amazing offerings from Ridge or Bedrock, but the decidedly unfancy Zinzilla made by Rich Parducci for McNab Ridge. How did an inexpensive Mendo/Lodi Zin blend trump the wines from two producers I revere? Simple, I had the cheese of the day in my mouth when I took a sip of the Zinzilla; the pairing was fantastic, the wine made the cheese better and the cheese made the wine better.

Similarly, while tasting the sparkling wines produced by Mendocino County’s dozen top producers a couple of weeks ago was a treat, the real fun came in the random pairings of different foods and bubblies, some pairings were sublime while others were total failures ­ but the fun is in the experimentation. Just like certain foods go together ­ – pork chops and apple, peanut butter and chocolate, and tomato soup and grilled cheese are great examples, there are a host of classic food and wine pairings. If you are Italian and consider wine a food, something that belongs at the table with a meal, then this makes the concept of wine and food pairing natural.

Spicy Asian food sees flames tamed by Riesling or Gewürztraminer, fatty morsels of duck beg to be paired with a big round Merlot, there should be a law requiring that mushroom risotto be paired with Pinot Noir, and magically every soup ever made is made better when paired with a McFadden Coro. There are classic food and wine pairings that fall apart if you personally do not like them, but the trying is the thing; that is where the fun and excitement lie. I fondly remember perfect food and wine pairings from over 30 years ago, and remembering the food and the wine, the vintage, appellation, varietal, and producer of the wine, brings back place and time clearly, who I was with, where I was.

Food paired with wine allows a sort of time machine of the mind to exist, as memory of the specific senses being played from wine and food pairings of a decade ago bring back the past as clearly as memories of last night’s dinner. I remember every food and wine pairing from each of the previous Chef’s Wine Dinners at Crush as Chef Jesse Elhardt and his team served 10 different dishes, from appetizer to dessert with anywhere from four to over a dozen wines, as Crush played host to Saracina, Barra/Girasole, Bonterra, and Coro Mendocino. So many combinations of food and wine possible, so much fun experimentation, finding what goes with what for you. You’ll get a chance to see what I’m talking about next Wednesday, April 23 when Crush features the wines of Yorkville Cellars in their next Chef’s Wine Dinner. Dinner starts at 6 p.m. and tickets are $75, which includes food, wine, tax, and tip (although you can always throw more money on the table for your servers).

Yorkville Cellars is stand-out unique. Every winery is unique with a story to tell, but the story of Yorkville Cellars is easier to tell than most. Located on Highway 128 between Cloverdale and Boonville, Yorkville Cellars focuses on organically growing Bordeaux varietal wines when most along Highway 128 focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, varietals of Burgundy. Yorkville Cellars grows and produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Carmenere, Semillion, Sauvignon Blanc, a few blends, plus a sparkling wine made from a blend of three of these varietals.

I do not have a working menu, it wasn’t available as I punched the keys for this column but imagine this:

Yorkville Cellars bubbly is poured as dinner guests gather as a welcome reception wine and it is paired with passed appetizers of salmon in puff pastry bites. Moving into the private dining room, dinner patrons select seats at the long tables and glasses are poured; Semillon and Merlot, and four dishes are laid down to pair with these two wines; Nueske bacon wrapped asparagus, Merlot braised pork ribs, Semillon poached pears, and a wedge salad with gorgonzola and chopped duck confit.

Plates are cleared, and new wines are poured for the second course. Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon in the glasses, and dishes of oysters Rockefeller, fork shredded Cabernet sauvignon braised beef over polenta, lasagna with a 40-hour ragu, and an artichoke heart and wild rice salad.

Served family style, diners interact, asking for plates to be passed, talking about favorite dishes, the wines, and best pairings.

Once again, plates are cleared and a deceptively simple dessert of peach pie with peach ice cream is served, only to be deeply rich in layered flavors, and made more delicious when paired with the Yorkville Cellars Late Harvest dessert wine, a blend of botrytis blessed Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. For $75, you’ll experience six wines, ten food dishes, and enough opportunities for food and wine pairing to create memories that will last decades.

For reservations, and the actual working menu [not my completely made up one], contact Crush Ukiah at (707) 463-0700 and I’ll see you there.

 

 

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