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John on Wine – Crush keeps crushing it!

Originally published on October 31, 2013 in the Ukiah Daily Journal by John Cesano

Wine and food. For me wine is food, an ingredient that, when added to a dish, makes a dish taste better. Pair it with the dish and the Heavens open and angels sing.

I have written about the last two Chef’s Wine Dinners at Crush Italian Steakhouse in Ukiah. First I wrote a newspaper column about the amazing dinner featuring winemaker Alex MacGregor’s wines from Saracina, and then I wrote an online piece about the spectacular dinner that showcased Charlie and Martha Barra’s wines of both Barra and Girasole.

I eat at other spots, many with terrific wine lists, and I’ll get to them in future columns, but Crush just keeps on, well, crushing it.

Last week, I took the opportunity to attend the third Chef’s Wine Dinner in the ongoing series. The night featured the wines of Bonterra Organic Vineyards. These dinners have grown to become sold out events. You have to call and grab your tickets early. Two long tables in a private dining room, laid out with place settings heavy on the wine glasses, await the night’s patrons. Folks sit together, and courses are served family style, which encourages communication as platters of food from the kitchen are passed and the food and wine combinations elicit at first squeals of delight and then, later in the evening, deeper moans of over full contentment.The evening’s offerings are deceptively described as First Course, Second Course, and Dessert. I say deceptively, because there are so many more items arriving at the table than a mere three dishes.

Each “course” is actually comprised of four or five dishes. Dessert is often three dessert elements fused into one greater whole. There are often bonus tastes of passed appetizers. All told, these three courses yield ten to a dozen food experiences. I’ve described these nights as Chef Jesse off the leash, nights for him to do one thing and one thing only: impress every diner and leave a lasting impression that brings each guest back again and again. Jesse’s team of chefs do a fantastic job, and assemble at each evening’s close to take a well-earned round of applause. Of course, the front of house has to fire on all cylinders for a night like this to work, and from Manager Dave through his entire team of servers, everything on the service end just purrs.

Last week, Chef Jesse delivered braised pork belly, with a perched and poached quail egg, buerre monte, and chive sticks; a beets salad, with roasted red, golden & striped beets, goat cheese, citrus, and hazelnut champagne vinaigrette; Devils on horseback: Nueske bacon wrapping Point Reyes bleu cheese stuffed Medjool dates; and crab stuffed piquillo poppers, with Dungeness crab, avocado mousse, tomato, esplette, olive oil, and micro greens.

That was just the first course, and it was paired with the 2012 Bonterra Sauvignon Blanc, my favorite wine of the night, with sweet green fresh mown hay, light herb, candied lemon mint sweetness, lime and bright grapefruit notes. A 50/50 Lake/Mendocino County wine, it showed lovely balance, at once both lush and showing crisp acidity. It was a treat tasting pork belly and quail egg ­- don’t you love cutting into a perfectly cooked egg and having the yolk released to form a bonus sauce – yum. Anyway, it was a treat tasting this dish with a Sauvignon Blanc instead of a red wine. Great confidence in pairing on display. The beets salad and crab poppers were also tremendously delicious.

The Second Course featured both a 2011 Bonterra Pinot Noir, just rated 90 points by Wine Enthusaiast, and a 2010 Bonterra Zinfandel. The Pinot Noir was meaty, with strawberry, cherry, and dark rich rhubarb; really drinkable, just lovely, supple yet delicate. The Zinfandel was soft yet bold, spicy with raspberry and strawberry, vinuous anise herb, and a touch of pepper spice.The big treat came pairing these two wines with Chef Jesse’s dishes for the second course: local J-bar-S bison 8 hour (tasted like 48) ragu, with pancetta, tomato, (phenomenal) handmade herbed gnocchi, basil, ricotta, and Reggiano; cracked pepper seared Ahi tuna with chanterelle mushrooms and a Bonterra Pinot Noir reduction; potatoes au gratin, Yukon golds with saffron cream, gruyere, and fresh herbs; and roasted delicate squash with creamed Swiss chard, celery root, and caramelized shallot salt.

Holy foodgasm! The bison gnocchi rigotta ragu dish with Zinfandel was stunningly perfect. The Ahi and chanterelles was gorgeous. The veggie dish with creamed swiss chard was divine.

Dessert was a (local) apple strudel of filo, toasted walnuts, cinnamon, Chantilly crème, and homemade ice cream, paired with the Bonterra Muscat which featured aromatic honeysuckle, floral and sweet-tart pear and mandarin notes, finishing with a zing.

As I have attended each of the Chef’s wine dinners at Crush, I had more than one diner ask if there was always this much food, as numerous a selection of excellent tastes, or whether this was a unique abundance. I am happy to say that for $50-$65 per person, depending on the wines being featured, the Chef’s wine dinners at crush in Ukiah are always the best wine dinner experience and a bargain as well.

Up next: On December 11, 2013, Chef Jesse and the entire Crush Ukiah team will deliver another breathtaking multi dish, multi course, meal and the wines featured will be the 2011 Coro Mendocino wines, Mendocino County’s celebration of grapes and winemaking, heritage Zinfandel blends, from Brutocao, Claudia Springs, Fetzer, Golden, Mendocino Vineyards, McFadden, McNab Ridge, Parducci, Philo Ridge, and Ray’s Station. With so many powerhouse wineries involved, and the other dinner these wines are poured at going for $500 per couple, the $65 per person tickets – to taste the entire line up of Coro Mendocino wines with the consistently breathtaking food creations of Chef Jesse – will sell out faster than any previous Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush. Secure your spot today by calling (707) 463-0700 and I’ll see you there!

Writing a post after 10 pm is not the way to get a ton of readers. Heck, writing an online piece doesn’t carry the same weight that writing a column for the local newspaper does. That said, I should do this more often, write a piece just because, small, for you and, as much as I love you, more importantly, for me.

Tonight I attended the second Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush in Ukiah, and it was fantastic. Again.

Owner Doug and Manager Dave are terrific, but they allow their staff the opportunity to shine and that is their genius.

Chef Jesse banged out some scallops that were, in a word, perfect. Want two words? Way perfect.

Chef Zack served up some little puff pastry and magic bacon things, I don’t know what they were, other than orgasmic, but I could have eaten another hundred, I’m sure.

For the second Chef’s Wine Dinner in a row, oysters were served as an appetizer. Feel free to serve them again at the third Chef’s Wine Dinner. They are great!

The rabbit was so good. If only more people would think of cute bunnies, I could have had more of the very popular and oh so yummy rabbit.

There was veal tartare with tuna in a mini cannelloni and an Insalata Nichoise, but there just wasn’t enough of the Nueske pork wrapped veal sweetbreads with porcini tortellini on our end of the table. Oh, what a dish!

Did I forget to mention the lobster creamed corn, or the lamb with saffron and breadcrumbs? Yeah, I ate those too.

Dessert was a homemade 100 proof lemoncello and vanilla Semifreddo.

I go on about the food, but I love food. I am not on a diet. If there is any good in being fat, then it is not having to be moderate in enjoyment of great food.

No Chef’s Wine Dinner at Crush is possible without wine. This time, the wine came from Charlie and Martha Barra’s Barra of Mendocino and Girasole labels.

The Barra wines spend time in expensive French oak. I had the Chardonnay with scallops and lobster corn. Note: all corn should be lobster corn, let’s pass a law.

I had a Barra Cabernet Sauvignon with the lamb, rabbit, and a ratatouille that didn’t suffer for being a vegetable only dish. This growing boy loves his proteins.

The Girasole line runs to stainless steel and neutral oak. I enjoyed the Pinot Blanc with the oysters and Insalata Nicoise, and the Pinot Noir with the veal tartare and veal sweetbreads.

Charlie and Martha poured their Muscat Canelli with the dessert.

The best food and wine pairing of the night, by a mile, was the Girasole Pinot Noir with the bacon in puff pastry appetizer things. I do not know what they were, but they weren’t regular bacon. Imagine God made a pig pregnant, you can call the pig Mary if you want, but you do not have to if it makes you uncomfortable. Anyway imagine that a chef does magic chef things to God bacon, and sticks it in little bread bites, and that is what I ate, washing it down with gorgeous Pinot Noir.

I sat between Martha and Frank. Martha is Martha Barra. Frank is the father who brought his daughter, granddaughter, wife and friends to the dinner for his daughter’s birthday. She was 60, but she looked much younger. Good on you, young looking birthday girl!

Owen Smith, winemaker for Barra was at the dinner. It is always good to see Owen. Also attending was superstar marketer Gracia Brown. Gracia helped Crush, along with Martha and the Barra team, almost double the seats sold for this Chef’s Wine Dinner. Gracia and I last sat at the kid’s table at the Mendocino County Wine Competition awards dinner, and that is probably where I belong most often. Tonight, I mostly behaved and sat with the adults.

Some patrons told me that they read my words in the restroom, and I was surprised because I did not remember putting my phone number on the stall wall, but it turned out that the Crush crew posted my newspaper column reviewing their first Chef’s Wine Dinner for folks to read. Works for me.

Anyway, another spectacular evening. Happy diners, many new to a Chef’s Wine Dinner, eating, drinking laughing, talking, just plain having a great night. Before I wrap this post, kudos as well to the hostess and servers too. Everyone worked together to make tonight work for all.

I definitely love living where I do, and doing what I do, allowing me to share with you some of the best of it.

John on Wine – Barra of Mendocino and Girasole

By John Cesano
The cypress tree surrounded Barra event center on North State Street, just north of Calpella in Redwood Valley is home to a wine tasting bar that plays host to special private events. On recent visits I have seen the large interior space set up beautifully for a wedding reception and a baby shower.
BARRA

Photograpy by Diane Davis, Diane Davis Photography

Invited to taste through the wines of both Barra and Girasole, I found Barra of Mendocino wines are bigger and feature a mix of specific oak barrels, often Louis Latour barrels to bring specific notes to the wines, while Girosole are largely stainless steel tank driven wines with just a small percentage of French and American oak for flavor.

My tasting hosts were winemaker Jason Welch and marketing specialist Gracia Brown.

A little history: Charlie Barra is a Mendocino County wine industry icon. In 1945, while still a teen in high school, Charlie farmed his first leased ranch and in 1955 bought his 175 acre Redwood Valley vineyard.

In 1997, after years of farming organic wine grapes to sell to other wineries, Charlie dedicated a portion of his grapes to his own wines and Petite Sirah was his first commercial bottling under his own name.

Martha, Charlie’s wife, runs things with a focus and a no-nonsense directness I respect.

Winemaker Jason Welch is filled with infectious enthusiasm for his craft and a palpable fondness for each of the wines he is creating for Charlie and Martha. With turns at Heller and Julien Estates in Carmel Valley, Sonoma County’s Wattle Creek Winery, and Regusci Winery in Napa, Jason picked up knowledge and skills that are in clear evidence in the wines he is making today.

Martha Barra brilliantly brought Gracia on-board, harnessing her work ethic for Barra and Girasole after the demise of the Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission (MWWC) last year.

The first wine we tasted was the 2011 Girasole Pinot Blanc. Nicely perfumed with light vanilla, apple and citrus. Stainless bright fruit and acidity matched by a touch of light creaminess from 10 percent neutral oak, this wine balances a slightly flinty character with nice aromatics. $13. The Pinot Blanc took a Gold medal at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle wine Competition.

“Aromatics” is a word Jason loves and his winemaking style focuses on bringing a complex mix of aroma notes characteristic to each varietal he works with, while allowing both a sense of place and the vintage to speak with each release.

As a treat, we tasted the pretty much sold out 2011 Barra Pinot Noir Rosé. This wine is saignée or bleed style where the lightly colored wine is removed from the skin at an early stage of making a red wine, and made with super cold fermentation and Rhone styled yeasts. It was delicate, with rose petal, strawberry, cherry notes, and it was delicious. The 2012 release will be slightly lower alcohol and higher acid, which should offer even more opportunity for the fruit to be showcased. $18.

The 2010 Barra Chardonnay is rich and would be a treat to taste again 8-9 years from now. Barrel select; 10 barrels were kicked loose from this wine program, with 30 percent French oak, the wine is unsurprisingly oaky, with vanilla, cream, and butter notes as it also went through 100 percent malolactic fermentation. The grapes themselves give up apple and pear fruit notes. $18.

The 2010 Girasole Pinot Noir ($16) was soft, with nice acid providing good balance for strawberry, cherry, herb, spice, and mineral notes, while the 2010 Barra Pinot Noir ($20) was darker, richer, riper with bigger mouthfeel and notes of earthy cherry and cola with a little more tannin.

2010 Barra Sangiovese is plummy fruit and chocolate and licorice on the nose, and cherry, anise, and raspberry in the mouth. A pretty color, this wine reminded me of a Grateful Dead show: plenty of acid. $18

The front end of the 2009 Barra Cabernet Sauvignon is great with nice big blackberry, cassis, herb, and lovely tannin. $20.

We went outside and tasted tank and barrel samples of future releases. My sense is that the future is even more exciting than the already delicious present for Barra and Girasole.

I’ll be visiting the event center over the course of the year as Barra plays host to many can’t miss events throughout the year, from crab feeds to farm to table celebrations of the county’s bounty.

For more information about Barra and Girasole, visit http://www.barraofmendocino.com or call (707) 485-0322.

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John Cesano has a son, Charlie, who turned 16 last month. If you have a dependable older car you would like to gift to a mostly good boy, contact John at JohnCesano@aol.com
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Hi, John here. The online version of my column allows me the space to add some thoughts that didn’t fit my edited piece for the newspaper.

I wanted to add some personal notes. With roughly 750 words allowed in the paper, I need to put my focus on the wines when writing about a winery, but it is the people, just as much as the wines, that define a winery for me. Here is a little more about the folks at Barra/Girasole:

I adore Gracia Brown. I met Gracia when she shouldered an enormous workload as part of the now defunct Mendocino Winegrape & Wine Commission. I had many opportunities to work with Gracia and couldn’t be more impressed with her work ethic and cheerful attitude. Although Gracia has never been employed by McFadden, I think she has poured our wines no fewer than three times for us. When my son turns of legal age, if he still wants a tattoo, I will point him toward Gracia’s husband, a gifted artist.

Winemaker, Jason Welch is both likeable and passionate. I am looking forward to tasting the wines he produces for Barra and Girasole in the coming years.

Charlie Barra is an icon. When I talk about my boss, Guinness McFadden, being a leader in the organic farming movement, I am always mindful that Charlie has ten years of organic growing on Guinness.

Charlie’s wife Martha just knocks me out. We have had the opportunity to work together going back to my time working with the Wine Appreciation Guild a dozen years ago. Martha knows her mind, isn’t shy sharing her thoughts, has plenty of drive and a positive assumptive attitude; she gets things done. I like Martha, and respect the heck out of her.

Katrina Kessen is my counterpart at Barra, managing their tasting room. We never seem to see each other as we work many of the same days and hours, but she likes the music of Grateful Dead so she obviously is a woman of refinement and exquisite taste.

Note: In between being published in the paper and posted here online, I got to meet Katrina. We had a very nice time pouring next to each other at an event focused on wineries with organically grown grapes over this past Earth Day weekend. I look forward to seeing the Barra/Girasole team often in the future.

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