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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
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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.

 

 

I woke up looking forward to doing some wine tasting. My plan was to go to Fetzer’s beautiful tasting room and gardens at their hospitality center in Hopland. Well coated against the cold, the day was beautiful, the mountains misty as ribbons of fog bedecked the mountain folds surrounding the Ukiah Valley.

I hadn’t visited the Fetzer tasting room in seven years, it isn’t really conveniently located, but I wanted to taste their dozen wines and find a jewel or two to recommend as a drinking wine, and perhaps a few more that would pair well with foods. I wanted to write about wines that were available in every store, and at prices that are affordable to anyone that can find their way to my blog.

Fifteen minutes south I turned off the 101 and drove down the empty Tuesday morning road to the Fetzer property. I drove over a bridge spanning the Russian River and came upon what had been the hospitality center for Fetzer.

Signs forbidding entry blocked the roads onto the property, previously maintained gardens gone wild, “for sale” signs. I began to suspect that I would not be tasting Fetzer’s wines.

I continued another few miles up the road to Fetzer’s winemaking facility. It is huge, and quiet in the post harvest, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, way that almost all wineries are quiet. I drove to the Administration building, and the receptionist confirmed my suspicion: I would indeed not be tasting Fetzer wines.

Note to Brown-Forman: How about putting a tasting room on 101 in Hopland, where Brutocao, McFadden, McDowell, Dogwood/Three Families, and Graziano all have tasting facilities? You could have one facility for your Fetzer, Bonterra, and Sanctuary brands. Not as grand as your previous Fetzer Hospitality Center, closed about three years, but accessible and economically sustainable. Just asking’.

I woke up prepared to taste wines, and I was not going to be deterred by a mere tasting room closure. I got back on the 101 and headed south another half hour to Healdsburg, where Mendocino County’s Topel Winery has located their tasting room at 125 Matheson across from the Oakville grocery.

Walking in the tasting room door at Topel, I was welcomed almost immediately by Kevin Roach. Kevin asked what types of wines I prefer as he welcomed me to taste. I let him know I prefer Reds, but enjoy whites as well, and asked him to pour me his four favorite wines out of the fourteen available, the ones most likely to knock my socks off.

Kevin first poured me a glass of the 2007 Pinot Noir, Serendipity, Monterey. While I swirled and sniffed the wine, I looked over the tasting room. Attractive, well laid out, lots of dark wood and copper. Wood cabinets for Topel branded clothing, and for literature display. A smaller (VIP?) private tasting room with table is available as well.

Kevin told me that the grapes for the 100% Pinot came from the Chalone Vineyard, which is located in the Gabilan Mountain range. The Topel website identifies the grapes as coming from Monterey County’s Serendipity Vineyard. Wherever the grapes came from in Monterey County, 2007 was kind to these grapes, and the wine was luscious, with cherry sweet tart and raisoned cranberry aromas and raspberry and cherry flavors. Round, smooth, and balanced. This wine was wonderful. $28/bottle.

Wine #2 was Topel’s 2005 Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. 92% Cab, 4% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot. I was pleased to taste this wine. I am a Sonoma County boy, born and raised. the wines I grew up with, tasted, sold, were Sonoma County wines. I live in Ukiah now, in Mendocino County, and I wanted this wine to taste good, I wanted the grapes from my new home to be good ones.

The 2005 Cab had a really low tannin load, was very approachable, with light herb and dark red cherry and berry fruit on the nose and repeating in the mouth. Velvety, smooth, soft, and balanced, with nice subtle notes. This is not a typical brick bat Cab, but a nicely drinkable Cab. $36/bottle.

Wine # 3 was the one year newer, just released three weeks ago, 2006 Estate Reserve Cabernet. 96% Cab, 2% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot. Same wine, again smooth. A little more tannin evident, but soft. Similar nose and flavor profile to the 2005 Cab; with chocolate and black cherry. Definitely younger, a little edgy. I would let it lay down a while longer. $36/bottle.

The final wine I tasted was the 2006 Topel Estate Blend. 45% Cabernet. 45% Syrah Noir, 5% Merlot, and 5% Petit Verdot. I have never heard of Syrah Noir, Kevin explained that it was a clone of Syrah. The grapes for this unique blend come from Topel’s vineyards on Duncan Peak, west of Hopland in Mendocino County.

Kevin told me that this wine is owner Mark Topel’s favorite wine, I found it unusual. with notes of plum, prune, and fig newton. Again, virtually no tannin load, another incredibly soft wine. I want to retaste this wine the most. The unusual blend led to unusual flavors, and this might be the best, most versatile food pairing wine I tasted at Topel. $36/bottle.

All four wines were soft, supple, balanced, approachable, very drinkable. Tannin providing structure to hand fruit on, but staying out of the way of enjoying the wines. Well oaken, but not oaky. In a word: smooth.

I want the Pinot to drink, the Cabs to have with grilled tri tip, and the Estate blend to get to know better.

I set out to taste affordable wines, under $20, and ended up tasting wines in the $20-$40 range instead. My mission to taste and recommend inexpensive, available, good wines has not been forgotten; but I am really glad I stopped in to taste these four wines from Topel Winery.

Today, I had to drive from my home in Ukiah to Santa Rosa to pack up and be ready for my 3:45 AM wake up and trip to San Francisco to set up and work the North Beach Festival (of really cool handcrafted art topped Corkers for wine bottles and other not as cool things).

As I have applied for my dream job, and the dream job is being offered by Murphy-Goode Winery, I thought I would pop into the tasting room in downtown Healdsburg for a taste of what was being poured today.

Rather than drive directly to the tasting room, getting off the freeway, US 101, at the last possible moment; I chose to leave the freeway in Geyserville, and drive out Hwy 128 through the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County, taking the long way to Healdsburg.

As I left the little town of Geyserville behind me, along with the freeway, I quickly found myself driving through vineyards. The lushly green canopy of leaves on the trellised vines spreading out on both sides of the turning country road, orange California poppies growing wild on the sides of the road, the earth brown, and the grass on the hillsides dried to nearly the same tan brown color of the earthy dirt roads around and through the vineyards themselves, the green vineyards on the hillsides contrasting green against brown, oak trees brown and full leafy green, white feathery bands of clouds against a sky of baby blue; the beauty of the Alexander Valley so powerful, I am happy that I can take the time to drive a slower road.

The road becomes emptier of cars as I reach the turn off to the Indian casino, River Rock, where all cars but mine turn up the hillside drive to give their money away.

I see vineyard workers in cowboy hats and boots. I worked one summer in the vineyards of Healdsburg. I like my view of the vineyard now much better than my view of countless individual vines then.

I pull over and park across from the Murphy Ranch vineyard at the Sonoma Wine Company Alexander Valley Facility. Once upon a time Murphy-Goode used this facility to make wine and pour them for visitors to their co-located tasting room. No more, a large “CLOSED” sign seems perpetually in place to dissuade visits. While I walked about, remembering past visits to the Murphy-Goode tasting room, remembering the friends I visited here with, and the wines we tasted, lost in fond memories, a truck with two men pulled up beside me near the front door and asked me if they were at Murphy-Goode.

I told them that their memory was either very good, or their information very old. I told the two ballooners (their vanity license plate: BALLOON) that the tasting room was gone from here, but directed them to 20 Matheson in downtown Healdsburg. I felt good. Get my dream job or not, 99% of the applicants could not have been able to help these men, fewer than 1 in 100 would have known that this was the former location of Murphy-Goode so would not have stopped to gather memories. I felt more qualified that ever, there is something very special about local knowledge.

Eventually, I got back in my van and continued generally south toward Healdsburg. At the corner of West Sausal Lane and Alexander Valley Road is the closed and dusty Alexander Valley store. I pray the store reopens after remodeling and site improvements, it is both iconic and a perfect landmark, “turn right at the Alexander Valley store.”

I did make my right turn at the Alexander Valley store, saw two women selling cherries by the side of the road, looked down and saw canoes and sunbathers as I crossed the Russian River, and made my way to Healdsburg Avenue.

At the corner was someone selling cherries, strawberries, and oranges; and a taco truck. In northern California taco trucks are ubiquitous, and many a meal is produced at restaurant quality yet at a low price. I smiled at the sign painted boldly on the side of the truck, “Taqueria Guanajuato,” as I made my turn onto Healdsburg Avenue to drive the final leg of my trip to the Murphy-Goode tasting room.

I am pleased to be able to write about more than the tasting room and the wine. The wines I tasted were more delicious for being in the mood my drive through Murphy-Goode’s past, and mine, put me in.

Upon entering the tasting room, I saw a lap top opened to allow people to view video applications for my dream job, so I cued my application (#1015) for the next lap top fiddler to encounter. I noted the upcoming summer jazz performances that Murphy-Goode was sponsoring. I looked at the Murphy-Goode logo clothing that I will want to wear when I am chosen for “A Really Goode Job.”

I bellied up to the tasting bar and asked to taste the first wine being poured, Murphy-Goode’s 2008 North Coast Sauvignon Blanc, “The Fume.” The wine was crisply delicious, showing an abundance of fruit, tropical, citus, and a hint of pear, with a touch of Sauvignon blanc’s straw and cat pee nose. The fruit was so forward, and the straw and especially the cat pee notes so well hidden that I guessed incorrectly that the wine had some Semillon blended in to help boost the fruit. 1 wine tasted, 1 wine loved, 1 bottle purchased.

Next, I tasted a 2007 Chardonnay made with oak barrels sourced in Minnesota. Huh? Okay, The wine maker David Ready is from Minnesota, and likes to link the winery in ways surprising to Minnesota when possible (Viking horns are part of the company uniform). I was told that the Minnesota oak was smaller grain than typical American oak barrel grain. I remember that there was a time when a trained taster could identify American oak held wines by a dill note imparted, a note absent in French oak held wines. I asked about this note, and whether it occurred in these Minnesota oak held wines. The tasting room gal I asked suggested I taste for myself. I would love to tell you about this wine, but I can’t. Served almost ice cold, I couldn’t break much nose or mouth free from the icy clutches of the cold. I liked what I tasted, but I couldn’t taste enough to write more about this wine. Sad, I was really intrigued by the uniqueness of Minnesota oak, I love different, I love unusual, I love quirky.

The other tasting room pourer, I think his name was Will, and I talked of Murphy-Goode past and present. We both had been around wines and wineries for quite a long time and knew many of the same people. It made our conversation easy. We talked about Jess Jackson buying Murphy-Goode; Tim Murphy passed away in 2001, Dale Goode wanted to transition into retirement, and Jess Jackson believes in keeping everything the same in a hands off “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” way, welcoming David Ready Jr. as the winemaker following in his father Dave’s footsteps.

I noted other wineries Jackson had picked up and allowed to continue unchanged, doing what they do best. If you buy a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir artisan winery, you don’t force them to make Sangiovese, or blend Cab into their Pinot, or any other crazy change.

Not sucking up, but Jess Jackson is an icon to me for wine business prowess; up there with Mondavi and the Gallos.

Anyway, next up to tast were a trio of reds.

I started with the 2005 Alexander Valley Snake Eyes (think Reserve) Zinfandel. Oh my God, I think I fell in love with this wine at first nose. I want to marry it, at least get a room and spend the night together. Big, bold, rambly raspberry and black pepper spice for days. Everything promised in the nose, delivered in the mouth. A big mouth feel wine, lots of finish. lots of wine flavor in just a 750 ml bottle. The grapes come from vines of the Ellis ranch which are about 70 years old and you can taste the maturity. This is not your friend’s mom’s white zin; this monster of a Zin, all red, all the time, comes in at a whopping 15.8% alcohol, which is huge; especially as it doesn’t taste hot and thin like some other high alcohol Zinfandels.

Next I tasted the 2004 All In Claret, a Bordeaux style blend, some would call it a Meritage. This wine had a little Petite Verdot, more Merlot, and was mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. Absent in this Claret were Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Supple, delicious, far tamer than the Zinfandel; big, but not scary big. This was a red my friends would love. Filled with Blackberry and currant, with leathery fat cherry. This would be a phenomenal food wine. I would love to drink it with grilled steak. Simple and perfect. Feeling a tiny bit adventurous? Melt a little gorgonzola onto the steak while grilling. The party will be in your mouth.

Finally, I tasted a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon because of a promised eucalyptus note. it seems the vineyard is planted next to a roadside wind block stand of eucalyptus trees, and the flavors sort of leech their way into the first rows of nearby grape vines. I have tasted a wine that had the same notes for the same reason before, and liked it very much. I liked this wine, a little rough around the edges, but chockablock filled with blackberry and eucalyptus notes. The tasting room pourer, Will (?), poured me a second tasting glass through a Vinturi, a wine aeration device. the 2004 Cabernet was instantly improved. The rough edges I had noted before were smoothed out. I liked the wine more, but loved the Vinturi.

I wanted to buy a bottle of red to go with my Fume purchase. The choice came down to the Zinfandel that I would love the most, or the Claret that my friends would love the most.

My friends are going to have to love giant Zinfandels, or they can drink some really perfect Sauvignon Blanc instead; these are the two wines I chose to buy today.

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