Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Food & Wine Pairing Extraordinaire

Living here in Napa (Yountville) there are certain extreme luxuries that are abound that you realize you will either rarely or never be able to experience. Whether it be the Napa Valley Wine Auction, Mustard Festival private winemaker dinners, Auberge du Soleil, CIA/Greystone, Screaming Eagle wine, etc., or, for purposes of this post, the French Laundry (FL) restaurant.

When we first rolled in to Yountville a year ago, home of several great restaurants including the aforementioned, my wife had always heard how amazing this experience was. Given the nature of fine French dining, I was not overwhelmingly excited about it at many levels. My response to her was always the same, "OK, when we win the lottery, I'll take you there." FYI, dinners there regularly run $500+ per person and a $50 per bottle corkage fee. Little did I know, one of the benefits of living in Yountville was that once a year, they hold a 'lottery' for all residents to be able to dine at the FL at the original opening (1989) prices of $49 per person and waived corkage fees for your own wines. Cut to the chase...we won the drawing and went to our scheduled locals' night this past Monday night.

For any of those that have either had the experience there or know much about it, it is ranked as one of the top-10 restaurants in the world and under the guidance of renowned chef Thomas Keller. It's been known for several innovations in food presentation along with as many as 22 courses or more in a single seating lasting over 4 hours. Although, from its subdued exterior, it is quite the unassuming place tucked in the northern part of town in an old wooden 'house' of sorts. Ours was an abbreviated night with only a dozen courses or so lasting about 3 hours total. I came prepared and was going to "milk" it for all its worth even at the $49 price.

I began, of course, by planning my series of wines for the night. Not knowing the exact items being served or when, I took a bit of logical approach in how French dining of this sort usually plays out. I decided to go with safe bets in this order - Rose Champagne, Dry Riesling, and a vintage Bordeaux. This built in enough flexibility for various dishes while at the same time giving me the range I wanted to have a fulfilling night of wines.

Here's my reasoning: Bubbles always work to begin the night sipping as an appertif to get the taste buds going and with most intro-type leading appetizers. Riesling is most versatile with French foods that are rich, creamy or savory and/or with shellfish. And, Bordeaux would be perfect if they serve some sort of lamb or savory pork dish as the main. If fish was one of the mains, the Riesling would sub very well also.

So here's the brief summary of how it went down:

Overall, the place is quite small and fairly unassuming. The grounds are pleasant and nicely landscaped with a quaint courtyard area that is a good place to start with the Champagne. Nothing fancy to sit on either...older cushioned wooden chairs. There is no bar area inside and they do not serve hard alcohol at all. We had our Rose Champagne as our appertif and waited for our table. Couldn't help but think I should be 'twittering' the moment.

Once inside, I was surprised once again at the simplicity of the decor and the surroundings. One small room of 6-7 tables for the main dining and a couple of smaller rooms upstairs. It quickly became clear that this was going to be about the service experience and the food presentations.

The Rose Champagne took us through the first couple of courses before we opened a dry Alsace Riesling with one of their signature dishes - the truffle custard egg. This is an egg (gutted shell) that is cut open at the top 1/4 and filled with some of the most decadent infused truffle custard drizzled with truffle oil that rivaled (OK, exceeded) any Foie Gras I've ever had.

Then we had their version of a "caesar salad" that was a small lobster tail with a lemon infused butter cream along side a compressed seared romaine lettuce bundle (all of 2 inches big). Luckily, our neighbor table was friends of ours and they shared their own sauvignon blanc with us that made a perfect pair for the dish. On to the main courses...

By this time, we had gotten to red wine territory and the '85 Lynch Bages Bordeaux I brought was finally unveiled. It had been decanting in the back room for over two hours by now and it has been a while since I was that excited about a wine from my cellar. With the upcoming pork and lamb dishes, I knew I had made the right choice.

The most appropriate pairing was the lamb as they had orchestrated it in to 4 'bite-size' styles (loin, shank, chop & braised) within one plate. All worked harmoniously with the Bordeaux which definitely came alive with the food. Not sure if I know of too many better pairings all things considered.

The night ended with a concoction of cheeses and desserts that culminated in to an incredible selection of decadent chocolates and truffles to go with our 20-year tawny ports.

A total of almost four hours from our arrival not only was it "check please", but the proverbial wheel barrel was needed to get us out of there as we closed the place down. Not so much from the amount of food by any means, but just the overall saturation of the night. Needless to say, the next day was a bit rough.

Kudos to the entire Laundry team and their ability to make a normal setting outrageously special. Whatever you've heard, it is truly an experience of a lifetime. Now, at full prices...I'll get back to you on that.

Until the next sip...swirl ya' later.

Chief Wino

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What Are You Drinking Now...?

Now that we have the first quarter of the year behind us, the new president completing his first 100 days, the stock market making a slight comeback, and general consensus easing back in to the hope for the not too distant future, where have your wine dollars gone and where are the headed?

I'd like to present a few concepts and options for both the casual drinker and the dabbling collector that now is the time to spread your wings within the world of wine.

Exploration of alternative domestically produced varietals. This is a great time look at not only more economic types of wines, but to expand beyond the mainstream or comfort zone of what you have always drunk. Instead of typical Chardonnay, Merlot, Zins & Cabs that most are used to, expand your horizons. Look at different wines such as various types of Rose's or whites like Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon and reds such as Carmenere, Mourvedre, Malbec, Barbera, Sangiovese, Syrah, Cab Franc and general red blends that are done quite well here. Not only are they generally cheaper, but provide for delicious alternatives for your buds and are great food or seasonal wines.

Discovery of new wine regions. Spain, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and Australia are doing a fine job of not only the classic varietals, but some of the above mentioned as well. You get a much better "bang for the buck" overall without sacrificing quality. And these days, they are quite readily available at your local wine shop or grocer.

Buying by the case. When you find either a wine you love or one of your favorite wines on sale, buy a case as your everyday go-to wine. Saves on gas to the store and makes those decisions just that much easier day-to-day.

Join a wine club. When you know a producer that makes several styles of wines you like at reasonable prices, join their club and enjoy the benefits of membership. You generally get 20-30% off most wines and often can be presented additional deals that cover most of the extra shipping costs.

Make good friends with a local wine shop owner. Nothing more valuable than personal relationship with someone that can turn you on to the wines you love, but can also secure good deals for you to buy in bulk if needed. Often times you can also have the opportunity to 'try before you buy' with regular local wine tasting events. Plus, they get special promotions or overstock wines on the cheap that they can give you the inside scoop on.

Make your own wine. Believe it or not, this process has been made much more available at reasonable costs to do right out of your garage. And, I have to tell you, if you have some good sources and/or creativity, you can make some decent wine. it may not be the wine you wine a gold medal with, but can be comparable to what you'd spend in $7-$15 range for at the store.

Drink your cellar. Let's face it, if you are a collector of any decent size, you will not drink all of your wines and you probably have several wines that are past their peak. I highly suggest looking at any CA cabs or Merlots past 7 years old and popping the cork. There are a few exceptions, but if you're like me, I have dozens of wines that need to be opened asap.

So, leap out of your comfort zone and get moving. Next time you're tempted to buy that Chardonnay or Cab off the shelf, explore the other regions of the store with some help and you'll be pleasantly surprised about the myriad of options before you.

Until the next sip, swirl ya' later!

Chief Wino