One reason I started writing The Pour Fool was because I was tasting about 2,000 wines a year and had nothing constructive to do with that knowledge. So, I started this and…it got out of hand. But I also worked as a chef for thirty years and don’t do anything with that knowledge. I also planned and set pairings for well over 100 wine dinners in that time, so…I know a thing or twenty about what makes a great wine event. Again, I don’t write about that, and for one very basic reason…
I don’t drink wine with food.
The reason is simple: I love food and I love wine but when you eat while drinking wine, you are tasting neither the food or the wine. You’re only tasting the combination of both. People argue that they freakin’ well can get the full effect of both but they’re talking out their hats. The moment the two occupy the same tongue space, you’ve lost both. At very least, when I am roped into wine events, I taste the wine thoroughly before eating anything. And if you love wine dinners, that’s a really good idea for you, too.
But this got me thinking…I’ve gotten LOTS of inquiries, over the ten years that this blog/website has existed, asking about wine pairings and have ignored every damned one of ‘em. But, this past Friday night, I was given – by our daughter, whom I love to death – a night’s stay at a great Seattle resort, including a wine dinner. The winery involved was one that I have loved for years and one of about six in the PNW for whom I would actually turn out to attend an event like this.
So, it occurred to me: what makes a truly great wine dinner? I know this answer very well..so I decided to hit the pause button on my haughty attitude and share this, so that maybe you can avoid wine dinners that don’t deliver what any great – and pricey! – evening like this should give you.
Let me set the scene. Washington state is a breathtakingly beautiful slice of paradise and some parts are, well, slicier than others. The Inn at Port Ludlow Resort is one of the Ultimate Slices. It sits on a forested little cove; a fingerlet of Puget Sound that extends back into the eastern flank of Jefferson County, the first jurisdiction you run into when you leave Seattle and travel due west on the Washington state ferry to the Kingston Ferry Dock and drive 17.6 miles along Washington State Route 104. Suddenly…there you are, in a secluded corner of the verdant vastness that is the Olympic Peninsula, at a beautiful, small, wildly atmospheric inn that sits out on a little shank of land that extends, like a finger crooked in a suggestive come-hither, into the tiny bay that’s also called Port Ludlow.
The Inn features a restaurant and adjacent dining halls all along its first floor and it is, to me, the exact and sublime expression of everything that’s wonderful about the term and idea of “Pacific Northwest”: dark woods, plank floors, huge stone fireplace, tall windows giving out onto the bay, a quirky and appealing coziness that defies the idea of “away from home”, and forest-blanketed surrounding hills that wrap the cove in a green and intimate embrace. At the end of a long outdoor terrace, just off the south end of the Inn, is a real Native American totem pole, weathering gracefully as the decades pass and inhabited, at its peak, by a large nest that’s home to – is this perfect or what? – a bald eagle. The summer sun sets behind the totem pole, over the homes that encircle the bay, and bathes the whole in that soul-drenching orange sunlight that we natives wait out the whole long, grey, post-nasal-drippy winter to see. It…is…Perfect. And, at the Inn, you can plop down in a chair, on the veranda, and relieve your frazzled soul in that sunset, with a glass of wine or a great whiskey or even one of their fabulous dinners. If this hits you as just about Heaven, well, It Is, and I’ve been fortunate enough to experience all this several times, in my 27 years in Washington, and I spend the time between those evenings eagerly anticipating the next visit.
So, you take the ideal habitat for a convocation of fine wines and then add a winery. Here is the aspect of any wine tasting dinner that makes or breaks the whole. I had managed to go 20 years, almost to the day, since my last such event and might even have put up a fuss about this one, had it not been for the winery. Alexandria Nicole Cellars is one of those Northwest juiceries that seems dipped in magic. To paraphrase an old Sara Lee commercial, “Nobody Doesn’t Like Alexandria Nicole”. The wines are alternatively massive and tongue-painting or subtle and delicate, as is appropriate to the grape and the aesthetic. They are graceful and lithe and balanced and a touch feminine, mostly owing to the fact that ANC is a winery very much the product of the combined efforts of the married couple who own and run it, Jarrod and Ali Boyle. Jarrod describes himself as a “dirt farmer” and Ali as the brains and beauty of the operation. Jarrod is far more than only a dirt farmer and Ali, while certainly beautiful and smart, is also the heart of the enterprise. (It’s named for her, after all) They are lovely souls and their wines reflect that. There is almost zero artifice and a ton of care and nurturing involved with taking each wine from the 260+ acres of their estate vineyards in the Columbia Valley’s magical Horse Heaven Hills to the winery facility and finally to your glass. They are always good and a good value and they hit splendid and/or truly great as often as any winery in the Northwest.
**For any beer fans who may have gotten curious and decided to read this, yes, Alexandria Nicole does sound familiar. They are the winery who partnered with Dogfish Head Brewing to make that landmark beer/wine collaboration, Noble Rot. Jarrod’s gorgeous, botrytized Viognier grapes were used in the brewing of that ground-breaking ale.**
Those two aspects – winery and venue – taken into careful account before you book, will guarantee you a sublime wine dinner in about 99% of all cases. In order of priority, always err on the side of winery but even ANC’s wines will be a little less than perfect if sipped in a space that resembles an elementary school multi-purpose room.
SO…as one lady at our table asked, admitting that this was her first-ever wine dinner, what if you don’t know one winery from another? Folks…this is where your wine-savvy friend, google, and individual initiative come into play. Google the wines. Any better winery will have pages upon pages of hits. Call up that wine weenie pal who’s always boring you with vintages and barrel aging and brix and all that crap and just ask. On the off-chance that your life is remarkably weenie-free, just call up a reputable wine shop and get a pro opinion. They’ll give you some general idea of how popular the winery is and, if you get the right steward, even an idea of how the wines work with food.
Using all this as your bedrock, one final factor looms here: Pairings. After almost thirty years of pairing wines as a chef and then, overlapping a bit, another twenty-six as a wine steward and critic, I can tell you that getting great pairings with your wines is just about a 50/50 proposition. In the case of our evening at The Inn at Port Ludlow, there were five featured dishes and four of these worked very nicely. Andrew Weiss, The Inn’s charming Aussie sommelier, made an effort to think Outside The Box and I cannot stress too much how critical that is. If you’re going to do Food & Wine’s Greatest Hits, you can get those out of any lifestyle magazine, stay home, and save some serious bucks. You WANT – whether you know or believe it or not – someone to give you an Experience; open up some doors to your own creativity and give you Big Ideas about new things to try at home. That may really be, in the final analysis, the main benefit to wine dinners as Thing To Do.
With our first wine, the Alexandria Nicole Crawford Viognier, Andrew paired a braised pork belly medallion in a reddish-brown au jus. The pork was done just right and was incredibly aromatic and the wine pairing was, of course, totally out of left field. But the Viognier’s crisp acidity was more than up to the task of cutting the belly’s forthright fat and the contrast made this a startling indicator of surprises to come.
Next dish was a rich, green stinging nettle soup, using foraged nettles found on the Inn’s own property. It had that fat, asparagus-like character and savory aroma that played off the Alexandria Nicole Shepherd’s Mark Southern Rhone White Blend with a vibrant contrast of the earthy and the refined. The wine’s forward fruits, faint suggestion of spruce tips, and clean refreshment was just the foil for this soup and, once again, a pairing that most people would never even consider.
The soup course was followed by a meaty filet of Alaskan halibut, wrapped in paper-thin slices of eggplant and swimming in a pool of stock reduction with fresh herbs and a splendid melange of foraged wild mushrooms. Remembering that, when a sauce is used with any dish you pair the wine with the sauce and not the filet, Andrew matched up the Alexandria Nicole Gravity Vineyard Merlot, a blend of 90%+ Columbia Valley Merlot and dashes of Malbec and Petit Verdot. Much as I am not a fan of Merlot and the thousand indignities this grape usually suffers, this was a beautiful and appropriate wine that worked with the savory sauce like a hand in a glove. Merlot has, for decades, been an over-extracted mess, as many wineries tried to make it more like Cabernet, which it adamantly is not. This Merlot was medium-bodied but rich and fleshed out, with the two supporting Bordeaux grapes lending a fat “grapeyness” and a dark undercurrent that enhanced the featured grape without a complete face-lift.
This was followed by a poussin (a young chicken) with rabe and fingerling potatoes. The suggestion of herbed chicken stock just kept things moist and pliable, which can be a problem with these tiny birds. With this was a crazily counter-intuitive pairing, the Alexandria Nicole Alderdale Cabernet, sourced from vineyards blanketing a long, south-facing hillside just overlooking the Columbia River, a bit south of the desert-like majesty of the Columbia Gorge. This is a big, generous, stunningly aromatic Cab that is not really even going to be in the fat part of its drinking window for another five to seven years. Cabernet with chicken is the original Don’t Do It pairing but this somehow worked. The dark jus and Cabernet hit it off like long-lost cousins and the chicken added a nice nuttiness that made the whole thing work. More on this later…
Finally, a goat cheese soufflé was impossibly wedded up with a titanic red, the Alexandria Nicole “Jet Black” Syrah, an inky, almost viscous marvel that you could use to tie-dye shirts, if it were not just so damnably, deliciously drinkable. This was another sideways pairing that most sommeliers and chefs wouldn’t even consider. My wife’s souffle was perfectly baked – browned prettily on top and all creamy goat cheese in the middle – and the funky intensity of the locally-sourced cheese (from Mystery Bay Farm, just up the road) stood up valiantly to the fruity/chewy assault of the 30-weight Syrah. It turned what could have been a train wreck of a match-up into an oddly and endearingly harmonious Event that ended the meal on a soprano-like high note.
Those last two pairings…the reason I don’t write about food and no longer do pairings is not just because I don’t drink wine with food. It is also because many of these broad assumptions – like never serving red wine with chicken or goat cheese – have become set in stone with wine weenies, when reds, as with whites, can be paired with a huge variety of foods that are usually considered verboten. The sad fact is that many wine fans are no more interested in revelation and inspiration – arguably the two primary virtues of wine dinners – than in getting fitted for braces. They miss the Point of most wine events: Discovery, that aspect that keeps many devout wine folks riveted by bottles of over-aged grape juice for an entire lifetime.
Know this: even with a great winery and a kitchen the exceptional caliber of The Inn at Port Ludlow, your pairings will not always work without fail. Kitchens and sommeliers are the hitter in baseball. The greatest one ever failed 60% of the time. Your wine fails will be considerably less common than that but you will st ill get the occasional clunker that leaves you cold. Note, here, that what leaves you wanting may, in fact, send the person next to you into low earth orbit. Taste is individual and One Man’s Trash…
Finally…the single most important consideration in choosing your big wine dinner: Realistic Expectations.
The main reason I even decided to write this is because wine dinners Ain’t Cheap and a LOT of you have asked. I’ve watch price-creep escalate, over my quarter century in the trade, and it’s not finished yet. In 1996, the average cost of a great wine dinner was about $40. Today, it’s usually over $100. If you sign up for a $40 wine dinner today, expect $40 worth – and no more. $75 to $140 or so will get you a top-line dinner. Pay it. It’s a Special Occasion. You’ve earned it. You deserve it. You don’t do it every flippin’ week, so let the moths out of your wallet and Live A Little.
But find a place you know you like or where you’ve always wanted to dine. Subscribe to their event calendar and watch for wine stuff. Ask questions about any winery you don’t know. DO NOT assume that a winery you’ve never heard of is not worth your money. Raise your hand: ever heard of Portalupi Wines? Donedei? Ledger David? Merry Edwards? Saviah Cellars? Rulo? Gruet? Brian Loring? ALL incredible wineries but all somewhat overlooked. See a name you don’t immediately recognize, google it, call that wine shop, ask your geeky friend. Visit the winery’s website and see if they make any wines that push your buttons. And if it’s in a glorious venue like The Inn at Port Ludlow, book a room and plan to spend a leisurely night enjoying the after-glow of your dinner. Make it An Experience, a mini-vacation, a romance. Wine is NOT a necessity for sustaining life. These dinners are not milk pairings. If wine is not about romance and that feeling of rewarding yourself, why bother? Milk shakes taste better and hot chocolate is as good a treat. Indulge yourself, plan carefully, and leave yourself wide open to new sensations. Eat that thing you have never tried – there were a LOT of folks at this dinner who looked at the menu and said, “Huh? Stinging nettles? How the ____ do you cook those?” (Answer: with gloves) But they tasted it and then ate it like starving wolves – with that grand Rhone white blend.
This website is still not going to cover food on any kind of regular basis and I would not be writing this now, except…well, damnit, against all odds and my cranky presumptions, I had a great time with The Inn at Port Ludlow and Alexandria Nicole Cellars. It was beautiful, serene, unhurried, thoughtful, and as friendly as eating at Grandma’s. THAT, folks, is how to do a wine dinner that makes your hundred bucks a plate seem cheap. And how to make memories that will last a lifetime.