Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Anatomy of a Wine Dinner

A big wine dinner looks easy enough. Snag a winemaker looking to show his wares, book a restaurant on a slow night. Come up with a menu that delivers enough panache to entice the buyers. Send out an email, do some publicity and voila. Everybody shows up, enjoys some good wine and some good food and goes home happy. Maybe even some wine is sold. As one might expect, there's a lot of work putting it all together.
Monday night a sold out room enjoyed a magnificent evening of great wines and great food to welcome Jean-Guillaume Prats, managing director of the great Bordeaux estate Cos d'Estournel to Dallas. The amazing food was prepared by Chef Bruno Davaillon and Sous Chef Eric Brandt of The Mansion on Turtle Creek.

One of the perks of my job is that I get to work these dinners. Work? You might ask. Yes, work.

I showed up about 4:30 to find that Randy Mclaughlin, one of the masterminds behind the event was already opening the bottles. It wasn't as complicated as the big Bordeaux dinners we host in the fall, but that just meant we were able to pay more attention to the preparation of the wines.

Randy handed the job of opening the bottles over to me and he began the tedious task of double-decanting 32 bottles of wine. Double decanting involves splash pouring the wine into a decanter and then carefully pouring the wine back into the original bottle. Splash pouring puts bubbles of air into the wine. The double pouring exposes the wine to air twice. The surface area of the bubbles combined with the double pour pulls the aromatic and flavor molecules to the surface and increases perception of the fruit characteristics of the wine. (Here's a link to a scientific study of this process as it relates to champagne.)   We double decanted all the younger wines three hours before they were poured. The 1995 was carefully decanted and served from the decanters.

Of course sediment is the other reason to decant. The 2006 and 2007 wines were pretty clean. The 2001 threw a lot of clunky sediment. So much that we had to rinse all the bottles before they could be refilled. The 1995 appeared to have been stored upside down! The necks contained a sticky sediment which stuck to the corks. Pouring these was tricky indeed. The good news was that each decanter of the '01 had a little wine left in the bottom. Hmm. It didn't take much ingenuity to aggregate the dregs into one decanter. We wound up with enough for two small glasses. A nice reward for a couple of hours of tense and tedious work.

Oops! Not yet. More work to be done. We lay out the menus and wine lists. Then check each place setting, making sure the glasses are clean and no stray glasses have made it onto the tables and that they are arranged correctly so every place setting is identical. 

Now we can sit for a minute and enjoy the wine. The 2001 is magnificent.

Then, back to work. Randy meets with the wait staff and I start opening the white wines. It's the first time I've seen a bottle of white Bordeaux from Cos. The label is the familiar Cos label, but where you expect maroon ink, it's pale green. Interesting. The aromatics are tart and redolent of lime.

By now guests are starting to show, so it's on with the jackets and on with the show!

Dom Ruinart 1998 Blanc de Blanc Champagne is poured as hors d' oeuvres are passed. The pale gold wine is still in the glass, but lively on the palate. The silky mousse delivers citrus oils and honeyed hazelnuts with a touch of lemon right on the finish. Goes beautifully with the Gougeres stuffed with goat cheese and the skewers of lobster tempura with tamarind sauce and a bite of watermelon.

John Rector, who pulls these evenings together, welcomes everyone and introduces our guest, Jean-Guillaume Prats. Jean-Guillaume is just in from a tasting in Shanghai with Angelo Gaja and Opus One and is "happy to be back in civilization." They both lament the absence of the 2009 barrel samples that had been bottled for tonight's tasting. Jean-Guillaume had personally consigned them to the air carrier, but the Iceland volcano intervened and the samples have yet to arrive in Dallas. Nice. It's not everyday that you can legitimately use a volcano as an excuse!

The 2006 Cos d'Estounel Blanc is poured with the Tuna Tartare and Chilled Pea Soup. The wine is produced from grapes grown at the very northern tip of the Medoc where the Gironde meets the Atlantic. 2006 was just the second vintage the wine was produced. The wine is crisp and voluptuous simultaneously with lime and guava notes. It's fantastic with the bright green fresh pea soup and the curry seasoned raw tuna. (Sorry, no photos of the food, it just seemed too rude. But the dish was spectacular in the big white bowl!)

The 2006 Chateau Goulee 2006 is from the same area. It is good solid wine with notes of black fruit and cassis leading to a gently gripping finish of vanilla and spice. It doesn't overwhelm the rich delicacy of the braised veal cheeks, which just melt in the mouth.

A rare slice of Kobe beef with Duck Fat French Fries came with the 2006 and 2007 Cos d'Estournel's. The 2007 was silky smooth with round juicy fruits. The '06 was much more powerful and structured and was a great match for the rich sticks of potato.

A spectacular trio of cheeses chosen from the cheese case at the Sigel's Addison store accompanied the 2001 and 1995 vintages. I've heard the story from both Rector and Monsieur Prats of the discussion of elevating the quality of Cos d'Estournel after the 2000 vintage, so it must be true. It was a fateful breakfast when John gave his blessing to the reduction of yields (and increase of price) to transform Cos from very good wine to great wine. 2001 was the first vintage to reflect this change in vineyard management and the proof is in the bottle. While the wine is ripe, concentrated and built for the long haul, it sure is fun to drink right now with its exuberant dark fruit and seamless integration of powerful flavor and powerful tannin. 

Tonight is the second time I've had the '95 at a Cos dinner and both times I've been surprised by the blend. 50% Merlot. The most ever. The wine is maturing. The color is showing some notes of amber and the aromatics are powerful and complex, dominated by cedar and dried fruits and flowers. It's like opening an old chest full of exotic smells.

Dessert was accompanied by a rich 1996 Chateau Coutet. We were to open  the wines after the entree, but when I was getting up to go, Randy was standing by my the table, looking exhausted. He had already opened the wines. All the corks had crumbled under the pull of the corkscrew and had to extracted piece by piece.  He then carefully decanted the wines. I remembered the dinner I'd worked last fall. Randy was feeling bad that night and went home after opening the wines. It was my first time opening wines solo at a big event and the corks had crumbled. I was crumbling as well, but managed to keep the wine clean, pour it back into the bottle and everything was fine. Moments like these can shake your soul!

Finally, the guests have left. We pack up the unopened bottles and the ever generous staff helped load the cases into Randy's car.

10:30. Time to go home.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Following Dreams: Robert Craig and Tor Kenward

I'm not sure when it was that I realized I was not going to do something else when I grew up. That this is it. The pinnacle. End game. Thirty-five years ago a series of decisions inadvertently landed me in the packaging industry. After being down-sized ten years ago, I answered a want-ad in the newspaper and became a wine consultant. Bingo! And here I am. Not a bad gig really. I taste wines and then sell them.

Robert Craig and Tor Kenward took a slightly different path and wound up with significantly different end games. Theirs would truly be considered pinnacles as they have small family wineries producing extremely high quality wines.

Tor developed a passion for wine and moved to Napa, where he spent 27 years working for Beringer. Most of those years were spent working with Ed Sbragia and Bob Steinhauer developing and marketing the Private Reserve program, wines which have one of the longest track records in Napa for quality, style, and aging.

Together, these men walked vineyards and tasted grapes both in California and Europe in pursuit of quality. And made the wines. For twenty years, Tor's bonus was that he got to make a barrel of wine for himself. That's a lot of wine-making! And when Beringer did their deal with the Australians, Tor sold his stock and retired. And now he makes his own wine, in small lots, a few barrels at a time.

Robert Craig came from the Texas coast. With a degree in accounting, he joined the Coast Guard to serve his then required time in the armed service. Which took him to San Francisco where he discovered wine country and his passion. The only problem was that the only way he could crack into the biz was to have been born into the action or be a field worker. So he became a banker and started putting together land deals in Napa. He sold Donald Hess vineyard land on Mount Veeder and that was his ticket. He built Hess Collection into the Napa winery it is today. And now he makes his own wine.

I knew a guy thirty some odd years ago who dropped out of law school and eventually started selling wine for Sigel's. He had a passion for wine then as he does to this day. John Rector is now Executive Vice President for Sigel's and he's the guy that brought Tor Kenward and Elton Sloan, Robert Craig's Managing Partner to the Greenville Avenue store last week for a portfolio tasting. A huge enthusiastic throng of passionate wine-loving customers showed up to taste and buy the wines produced by these men who had spent their lives following their passion.

Oh yeah, John sold me a few bottles of wine through the years as well. And here I am. Passionately selling wines.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Just a Friday Night: Pizza and Wine (but special!)

We finally made it out to Il Cane Rosso last Friday night for the first night of celebration for significant birthday for my wife Susan. We started with a trip to Love Field to pick up our eldest son Travis (her first surprise of the weekend) and then onto the pizza.

Il Cane Rosso is a guerrilla attack on Dallas' notions of pizza started by Jay Jerrier. Jay had a wood-burning oven made in Italy and then had it mounted on a trailer so he can pull it from location to location. Having a really big party? Give him a call. 

Three nights a week, he sets up in the parking lot front of the Chocolate Angel at Preston and Forest in North Dallas and uses their dining room. Voila! Table Service. And best of all: NO LIQUOR LICENSE!!! They totally encourage BYOB as long as you don't linger at your table while people are waiting. (Just kinda not in the spirit of the place...) Pizzas are one size and are strictly Neopolitan.

Now Travis has spent the last few years in Brooklyn conducting intense investigations into the state of Pizza in New York City and qualifies as an expert. As he perused the list of pies, he noticed many references to New York pizza culture. Notably Paulie Gee (noted fanatic who just opened his own place.) So why was I taking Travis to eat pizza in Dallas, of all places? Because Il Cane Rosso is getting serious notice on NYC pizza blogs. Check out the dialogue between Jay and Paulie here on Slice, a most influential NYC blog.

The place was hopping, but service was friendly and welcoming. We ordered a series of pies, starting with basic tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil and then moving on to artichokes and mushrooms. We finished with the Super Mario, featuring the chef's choice of ingredients, usually involving multiple meats and usually spicy. All the pies were spot-on. Very correct and quite delicious!

The oven is wood fired, and gets to 900 degrees. The thin pies cook in around two minutes which gives some char to the crust and melts the cheese. There's not a lot of bulky, stringy masses of cheesy glop to hold  the heat, so they cool quickly and it's a rush to eat the pie while it's still hot. Tough to do! Everyone wants to talk about how good they are, but there is no time. The pies came quickly, allowing just enough time to have a little wine, savor what you just ate and get ready to move on.

Oh. The wine. Yes we did have a bottle of wine. The 2007 Rosso di Montalcino from one of my favorite producers, Casanova di Neri. I posted a note about the Brunello in February. The Rosso is all Sangiovese and usually comes from younger vines and from vineyards not used in the main estate wines. Required aging is just a year and the wines, while complex, are not as austere and structured as the Brunello's. Still, the wine's savory dark cherries with hints of soy punctuated the cheeses, toppings and the char of the crust and primed the anticipation of the next pie.

Until the middle of the third pie, when we started to slow down. But not much, no. We finished.

Travis had noticed bags of marshmallows under the table of ingredients. Turns out the dessert pizza is a S'mores Calzone. Good not-too-sweet chocolate folded with marshmallows inside a pizza crust and baked until slightly charred and gooey. And yes. It was every big as good as it sounds.

At the end of the evening, our waitress had mentioned to Jay that he had a customer who had been to Paulie Gee's in Brooklyn, so Jay came over and we had a good visit after dinner. Even if there had been doubts, they were erased. This guy is serious about his pizza. Thanks for a great evening.

I'm sorry, the overall rush was so great I forgot to take pictures. What you see was taken from the Il Canne Rosso Facebook page. Check 'em out!

But come by the store. I'll fix you up with some good Italian wine before you go!