The joy of wine dinners

The content for this blog post was provided by a friend, Alex Bernardo, the owner of the Vineyardgate wine shop in Millbrae - who has graciously agreed to let me republish it here from his Vineyardgate blog. Photography by Andrew Chan.

Written by Alex Bernardo

Until 3 to 4 years ago, Vineyardgate Wine Sellers used to host themed wine dinners in various San Francisco and Peninsula restaurants about four to six times a year. The first one was ten years ago in 1999 at then newly renovated 231 Ellsworth Restaurant in San Mateo, CA, where we featured a vertical of Cabernet Sauvignons from 1983 to 1997, including Cain Five, Pride, Dalla Valle, Shafer Hillside Select, Lokoya, and Laurel Glen. The inspired kitchen of 231 came up with a spectacular multi-course pairing involving foie gras, black truffles, beef cheeks, roast duck, and lamb—many of the dishes were unexpected pairings but worked perfectly. Working with restaurants to come up with special menus involving unusual pairings is something I look forward to in wine dinners.

Perhaps the most memorable wine dinner in terms of food/wine pairings that we ever did was with Cantonese cuisine and Bordeaux. Sixteen people attended the dinner at the now-defunct Parc Hong Kong in Geary Boulevard, San Francisco. Drinking good Bordeaux and eating Cantonese food are one thing, but pairing the two together is another; I mean people just never consider drinking their favorite Bordeaux with Chinese food. But this East meets West affair shattered that notion.

We started with crispy deep-fried crab claws washed down with magnums of Krug Grand Cuvée Champagne, and we followed that up with double-boiled soup with white Bordeaux from Laville Haut-Brion. The main courses were an array of seafood clay-pot, duck, braised beef, noodles, and steamed vegetable dishes paired with '82 Montrose, '86 Sociando-Mallet, '89 Haut-Brion, '90 Latour, '90 Leoville-Las-Cases, '90 Sassicaia, and '96 Gaja Darmagi. Against their will, I instructed the kitchen and restaurant staff to serve the dishes one by one, western-style, so the wines can be paired in flights. The pairings were a hit and the dinner an eye-opener for everyone. Some even asked me for a copy of the menu and the list of wines so they can replicate the dinner with their friends.

Wine dinners are very magical when done with care. Casual dinners with friends are always pleasurable, but the more disciplined and formal wine dinner, with its themed and structured flights and carefully matched food pairings, is the ultimate in food and wine enjoyment. When you have a serious collaboration between wine people and restaurants the results are bound to be memorable.

Last night I found myself leading another wine dinner. I've stopped producing wine dinners, as interest seemed to have waned over the past few years. We make no money in wine dinners and oftentimes have to subsidize it to keep the costs down or to pay for someone who canceled last-minute. And the effort it takes to organize one is draining. Yet, I find it irresistible to do. As a foodie, first and foremost, and then a wino, I love sharing my passion with fellow foodies and winos.

2004 Barolo is an extraordinary vintage. I've never had young Barolos that are so enjoyable young as their finesse is remarkable. I decided early on to set aside a bottle each of the 2004 Barolos that we offered on pre-arrival for a tasting or better yet a wine dinner.

We had the dinner at one of my favorite new places to go, the Green Hills Country Club in Millbrae, CA, where the new chef has a knack for finding the right dishes to pair with the wines. Our starter of Bressaula (thinly sliced balsamic marinated, air-dried beef) was a profound pairing with the 2004 Barolos. The beef and wine sang in unison—leather, wood, sour cherries, and sweet red licorice. It has to be one of the most perfect food/wine matches!

The next dish that followed was the classic dish with Barolo: risotto. Only, the chef gave it a fresh twist by mixing in mussels and roasted eggplant and lacing it with a sweet vinaigrette. It was another stunner.

And finally the piece de resistance, which was the fork-tender veal shank osso bucco with bone marrow intact and rosemary polenta. The hint of orange peel and pungent rosemary married so harmoniously with the leathery cherry liqueur and herbal flavors that emanated from the Barolos. What a finish!

But wait, there's more! A cheese cart was wheeled in cradling a mouthwatering selection of Italian cheeses. At this point I started retasting the Barolos, noting how they've evolved over the past three hours—the flavors have remained fresh but have intensified, with the new oak showing more on the Viettis, the lavender and red fruits deepening on the Mascarello, Brovia's Villero getting rounder and more floral, and the Brovia normale maintaining its harmonious balance.

At the end of the dinner, I was absolutely certain that there is no other red wine, not even Burgundy, that is a more perfect foil for food than Barolo. I easily imagined myself as A.J. Liebling, who, when asked by the waiter at the end of an enormous multi-course dinner if there was anything else he wanted, replied: "let's do it all over again."

For reference, here are Alex's tasting notes for the 8 Barolos:

Barolo DOCG, Fratelli Brovia 2004
This is made from mid-aged vines of all four crus (Garblet Sue, Rocche, Ca' Mia, and Villero), plus juice left over from each of those crus. What a blend! A terrific value in this vintage. Complex mineral, fruit scents. Very much evokes the vintage's ripe, powerful character. Lovely richness and firm structure. Very pure. Vinified in cement vats like the crus, but aged in larger 10,000-liter casks. Outstanding quality!

Barolo "Garblet Sue", Fratelli Brovia 2004
This comes from the upper part of the hill in the Garbelletto area of Castiglione Falleto. Over 35-year-old vines. Very fragrant, rose-scented. Very upfront, richness, as it should be in this vintage, coating the fine, long tannins underneath. A very seductive, powerful Barolo!

Barolo "Rocche", Fratelli Brovia 2004
From 42-year-old vines planted in 1966 in the Rocche vineyard of Castiglione Falletto. The southeast exposure that gets the morning sun combined with the sandy, light soils produced this powerful Barolo with finesse and elegance. Still tight and brooding, but already expressive. Very refined palate that offers little resistance; showing ripe cherries, minerals, and spice in generous quantity. As in all the crus, this was vinified in cement and aged in 3,000 liter casks for four years before bottling. Excellent class. The other crus are all about power, but of all the crus this is the most refined.

Barolo "Ca' Mia", Fratelli Brovia 2004
This comes from Brovia's vineyard outside Castiglione Falletto in Serralunga d'Alba. A one-hectare parcel planted with 53-year-old vines. This is definitely the crowd-pleaser among the crus. The spicy, fruity bouquet; its powerful, rich, fresh, sweet, spicy seductive fruit never fails to charm. Plus the finish is very long.

Barolo "Villero", Fratelli Brovia 2004
Here’s the most powerful cru in Brovia's lineup. The vineyard, planted with 47-year-old vines, is situated next to Rocche but with a southwest exposure that gets the warm afternoon sun. Thus, this is powerful and potent, clearly evident in the fragrant exotic, fruity, intense nose. Very ripe, sweet fruit, and mouthcoating on the attack. Lush, very powerful, but graceful and not overpowering. This is like a wild, powerful animal that needs patience to be tamed. The Brovia family regards this as the riserva out of all the crus.

Barolo DOCG, Bartolo Mascarello 2004
Outstanding classic vintage from this most venerable traditional Barolo producer. A solid track record for producing long-lived Barolos that is second to none. At first firm and tannic with a spicy licorice nose and muscular fruit. As it opens up the the nose reveal fragrant lavender blossom and deeper sweet red fruits with velvety tannins. Amazingly lovely with now with airing, and it will age beautifully for decades.

Barolo DOCG Brunate, Cantina Vietti 2004
From very low-yielding vines over 45 years-old. Vinified for about two weeks in stainless steel vats and aged initially in barrique for 12 months and then in Slovenian oak casks for 24 months. A great vintage for this seductive Brunate. Brambly, earthy blackberry scents with noticeable but unobtrusive oak. A sexy Barolo for its fleshy, ripe, concentrated fruit accompanied by fine, velvety tannins. Very lovely finish! No more than 300 cases produced.

Barolo DOCG Rocche, Cantina Vietti 2004
Vinified in stainless steel tanks and aged in Slovenian oak cask for over two years and then transferred to stainless steel tanks for six months to rest before bottling unfiltered. One of the greatest vintages for this famous Barolo from Vietti. Starts out tannic and oaky on the nose, but the wine integrates beautifully with airing. Big, muscular, powerful Barolo done in a brilliant modern style. No more than 600 cases produced.

Vineyardgate carries all of them.


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