Sunday, January 24, 2010

Winery Adventure – Special (Belated) New Year's Edition

Mock Turtle and I have a long-standing New Year’s tradition of visiting a new (or revisiting an old) wine region, tasting and generally having fun bringing in the New Year. This year’s annual New Year’s Wine Tasting Weekend took place in Napa, close to home for us both. We visited four wineries over the course of the weekend: Nicholson Ranch, Plumpjack, Turnbull, and Peju. (We usually hit more, but the wine tasting was interrupted by Bon Vivant’s fantastic New Year’s Day Karaoke and Bubbly Party! No posts on that topic however; all wild behavior will be kept secret.) One of these four wineries stood out – although it stood out in a mixed manner, as you will see. The grounds and the wines were great, but the wine tasting experience was a mixed bag. But first things first.

Peju Winery in Rutherford is an exceptionally beautiful facility, and the sculpture-filled gardens and the art exhibit are tasteful and elegant. I’m linking to the website’s photo gallery, so you can get a taste (no pun intended, although I like it). Peju Gallery.

And we also loved the wines! It was a generous tasting; we sampled nine wines, and there wasn’t a single one I didn’t find to be quite lovely. A few of them I thought were jaw-droppingly good! In particular, I loved the well-balanced 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, with pear and citrus in the nose, and a fuller mouth-feel than many Sauvs, and grapefruit and pineapple notes. I also loved the 2005 Estate Cabernet Franc Rutherford Reserve, balanced and lush, with notes of spice and leather and plums and cocoa. Wonderful! The 2005 Estate Cabernet Rutherford Reserve was superb as well (Bing cherry, milk chocolate), and honorable mention goes to the 2006 Fifty/Fifty Red with notes of cherries and coffee and a very soft mouth-feel.

However, the tasting setup itself is one I take some exception to (as do many of my local friends, I’ve found). In lieu of one large tasting room, Peju has numerous (I don’t know how many, but I saw at least three) small tasting stations set up for a max of about 8 -12 people, and tastings are done in groups. We actually had to wait in line for 10 or 15 minutes before we were escorted to our tasting area. Once there, the tasting was almost like a small – very basic - wine class, in which all 8 of us tasted each wine together after listening to the server’s comments about it, and the approach seemed to be geared toward folks who are wine novices. Which generally isn’t what I want when I go tasting.

Why does Peju do this? I can but speculate, although it does utilize their lovely space well, and it does enable them to move people through a tasting on a set, predictable schedule. However, MT and I like to linger over our tastings, discussing each wine in excruciating detail (along with discussing the latest movies, fashion, gossip, or whatever else flits across our minds). And we both felt rushed by this tasting experience. Don’t get me wrong; our server, Jeff, was engaging and friendly and well informed about the wines. He also quickly figured out that MT and I were very knowledgeable, and he tried his best to let us take our time, and I have no complaints whatsoever about his excellent service. But the scheduled “roll ‘em up, move ‘em out” tasting format just isn’t my cup of tea, to mix metaphors.

Having said that, I will certainly return to Peju to purchase wines. Nor would I discourage anyone from visiting – again, because the wines are worth it. And I might even consider taking friends there who are perhaps newer to wine, and might enjoy the “wine class” tasting approach.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Host, Toast & Post Assist!

While not an official “Poster,” I was given a delightful opportunity by my friend and fellow blogger, Bon Vivant, to co-host a dinner as part of the 2009 Nine Vines Holiday Challenge.  Bon V.’s excellent post on our dinner can be found here, but I shall add a few notes of my own (however I will steal Bon V.’s pictures!).

We began with the 2008 Nine Vines Grenache-Shiraz Rosé, which by itself had pretty notes of not over-ripe strawberry, raspberry and kiwi.  By itself, the wine was very fruit forward, but Bon V.’s inspired Grilled Shrimp Ceviche really brought out the acidity of the wine, softened the fruit, and created more balance in the mouth.  I’d call it a highly successful pairing!

Next came the 2007 Viognier, a light and fragrant wine with notes of baked green apple and lychee.  I will confess here that my first vote for a pairing with the delicious Linguine and Clams Bon V. made would have been something a bit less fruity and more acidic, like a Pinot Gris, so the success of this pairing was a lovely revelation for me!  The pairing accomplished the dual tasks of creating a rounder, creamier mouth-feel in the Viognier, while accentuating the fresh brininess of the clams, and it really worked beautifully!

Last came the 2008 Shiraz-Viognier, which by itself had notes of pie cherries.  We paired the Shiraz with both grilled Ahi tuna steaks served with a wild arugula salad, and lamb shoulder chops served with a fennel relish.  We wanted to experiment with both a conventional (lamb) and unconventional (tuna) pairing for this wine, and it was a fun experiment.  Personally, I preferred the lamb and fennel with the Shiraz – the lamb brought out the fruit, while the fennel brought out notes of raisins and cassis.  Meanwhile, I really loved the Viognier with the tuna, and I really liked the arugula salad with the rose!  Go figure!

What emerges for me are these thoughts:  These three wines formed an excellent grouping for creating a very diverse meal.  They had been very well described by the distributor, making our pairing task easier – all of the pairings worked wonderfully.  In fact, most of the dishes worked well with more than one of the wines, which is an indication of the versatility of these particular wines!  Most important, it was an example of the magical evening that can be created by this kind of intentional pairing!  The wine pairings evoked a great deal of lively conversation among our guests, and everyone participated in offering opinions about the wines and food.  We all tasted slightly different notes, and had different preferences about the pairings, which was simply a lot of FUN!  And this, at the end of the day, is what I truly love about entertaining.  I love the camaraderie, the friendship, the smiles and the laughter created by coming together over a shared meal.  It makes it all worthwhile! 

For recipes of all the dishes, see Bon V.’s post, and my heartfelt gratitude to her for the chance to join in the fun!