It Was A Good Day To Be A Wine Geek

Posted in Uncategorized by EVWG on the October 17th, 2006

StagsLeap.jpgI’m just a wine geek. I don’t pretend to be an expert on anything other than what I know and even then I am not so sure. I just love experiencing wine and everything that comes with it. Food, company, atmosphere. I run a restaurant here in the East Village and do a lot of the wine buying. Because of this sometimes I am privileged enough to be invited to wine events in the city. The reason I am saying this is because I was invited to one of the most amazing lunches recently that I have ever experienced in my wine geek career. Now I am not blowing my own horn here. I just have to talk about this experience because I believe it is an important moment for wine. How do I begin?
It was a Tuesday and it was my day off. My wife was watching her kindergarteners cover themselves with paint and I was preparing myself for a nice day of relaxing, writing a post for the blog and attending a Argentinean wine tasting later in the day (which I must talk about further in a later post). I was on my first cup of coffee when I got the phone call. Stag’s Leap Cellars was rolling out their new chardonnay at BLT Fish; someone just canceled would I like to attend. Stag’s Leap is one of the most prominent wine producers in California. They have a line of cabernet and chardonnay that truly reflect what the state has to offer. The price range of these wines is pretty high. Even though some of the cab vintages can be thirty bucks they usually go higher. I tend to focus on the under twenty-dollar range but if I were to go above such limits in the California category this producer would on the short list. Actually at the top of my short list.
Just as Stag’s Leap is one of the most prominent of its industry BLT Fish holds the same prestige in the restaurant world of New York City. It is known for high quality seafood dishes and is also one of those restaurants that my budget would only be able to handle on a special occasion. Oh…and their wine list is spectacular. So with all this in mind I recalibrated my day and gave a resounding yes to the invite.
Now, I am not the biggest seafood fan and being into wine this may seem weird. How am I supposed to experience wine in full when the taste of fish doesn’t sit too well with me more often than not? Good question. The answer is even though I don’t normally go to seafood for a wine pairing I have a pretty good sense of what flavors are in different types of dishes and can imagine what would work best to compliment the meal. I mean I have eaten seafood but it’s not my first choice. But on this day everything changed.
I arrived and was directed to the private room. Wow. Never been to private room event before. The room was filled with suits and I immediately felt underdressed for the occasion. I had on a collared Polo type shirt with jeans and a pair of my new adidas kicks. I asked the guy at the door if I was to casual for the event he looked me over and asked who I was with. When I said, Kristy he smiled knowingly and asked me to have a seat as Kristy waved me over to her table. Whatever man, I live and work in the East Village and that is what I am representing. I own one suit and it is the one I wore to my wedding. This lunch was starting to seem a little more involved than I thought it was going to be but with my newfound calmness I started to feel more and more confident as I approached the table.
I sat down at one of the big tables and was introduced to the man sitting next to me. He shook my hand and said his name was Warren. I gave him my name and we began the usual small talk that ensues after formal introductions. As we talked I noticed people at the table really hanging of Warrens every word. They were also asking him some interestingly heavy wine questions about the Stag’s Leap line and vintages. I piped in a bit but mostly listened to the conversations around me trying to soak in all the information coming in. I love hearing groups of wine geeks bantering about the industry. It’s all very enticing. Warren seemed to pause a moment after being asked a question. He seemed to be quite a humble man and that he always wanted to choose his words carefully before answering.
The first course arrived along with the first wine pairing. The course was a raw hamachi with a lemon herb and olive oil sauce. The wine was the Stag’s Leap 2004 Arcadia chardonnay. This was very exciting. I wasn’t very sure what hamachi was and I was a little nervous about tasting it but the wine smelled great and I could just imagine how well it would go with a seafood dish so it was time to just dig in. I took my first bite and was immediately in heaven! Wow. It was absolutely out of this world. It had a definite meaty flavor void of all fishiness. The lemon sauce was perfectly balanced with the substance of the dish and the accompanying greens. I took a sip of the Arcadia and the pairing came together. This chardonnay has a good bit of oak on it but is restrained at the same time. This oak element is needed for this particular dish because it helps cut through the lemon sauce while still being able to enjoy it and compliments the meatiness of the raw hamachi. Speaking of hamachi, I had to find out what it was. I was already underdressed so why not just come out and show my ignorance? Turns out it is a kind of raw tuna. Well count me in as a fan of hamachi form now on. If this item is on a menu (and I can afford it) it’s all mine.
We all cleared our plates and they were swept away with the wait staff’s swift elegance. This was really fun. I looked at the next course on the pre fixe menu and began to prepare myself for another great seafood dish. The wait staff came back around and filled our glasses with the wine being featured for this event, the 2005 Stag’s Leap Karia chardonnay. When the servers disappeared everything changed and this event came into great focus. Before the next course could be served Warren, the man seated next to me asked if I could clang my glass a few times to get everyone’s attention. As I did so he turned to stand and I got a good look at his nametag for the first time: Warren Winiarski Owner/Founder Stag’s Leap Vineyards. Can you say, floored? Turns out this entire time I was sitting next to a legend of sorts in the wine world.
He fumbled with the microphone for a minute with no success then just put it down, asked if everyone could hear him and launched into a poetic speech about wine and life. This man has been making wine in California for decades and to hear him speak so passionately about his craft was just a privilege. To know that after all this time he has not lost a hint of love for wine was just amazing. He pulled out a satellite map of his vineyards and began speaking of soil and geography and climate and wind. He spoke of land mass and its advantages for blocking air currents as well as it being in just the right place to protect the grapes from harm. I was completely entranced and before I knew it I found myself verbalizing my thoughts as he explained his approach to wine. I was nodding my head and giving up a yes, yes here and there. Thankfully I caught my self before I got too loud and made a complete fool out my self. I felt Like I was in an evangelistic charismatic conference and I was shouting praise as the preacher spit into the microphone compromising the diaphragm.
Before he could get too technical he stopped himself and introduced his daughter Julia Winiarski. She is the one in the vineyards watching every step of the process and had a first hand account of the production of this new wine. When Mr. Winiarski sat down I did my best not to gawk (this man humbly won the judgment of Paris for crying out loud). Julia began speaking and I was just as enthralled with what she had to say as with what her father had to say and I apologize for my lengthy post but if you are still with me here is where my point from the first paragraph begins. This is why lunch at BLT Fish was an important day for me in wine. She began to speak of the vineyard process of trimming the grapes before harvest. Inside I gave a loud, “You go sister!” even though this is becoming standard practice all over the state. But what got me was when she stared talking about the from-fermentation-to-barreling segment of production. She was just as humble as her father putting the microphone down and waving her hands around passionately talking about how they approached the process. She said chardonnay naturally has beautiful elements to it and for this wine they didn’t want to take away from that so they cut down the use of oak dramatically. As soon as she said this I went for my first nose of Karia. Sure enough all I smelled was minerally earth. It was very Chablis-like. It even had hints of that earthiness you get in a good champagne. I didn’t sip yet because I felt that would be a bit rude and I would probably miss something. She took some questions about past vintage procedures but I still couldn’t get over the focus of the wine in front of me and found myself staring at the glass ready for the next course, excited about the pairing. When she finished and sat down everyone applauded and I almost stood for a standing ovation but, again, I was underdressed and a little over-excited about being there.
The second course was served. It was a breaded halibut with delicata squash puree (not too sure what a delicata squash is. I should look in to that) with a dash of caper brown butter. It just sounded right. And man was it right. It was right on. The halibut was flakey and full of meaty substance. The breaded top gave it a crunch and a toasty flavor that was perfect. I rolled a piece in the butter and…wow. It was out of this world. I took a sip (my first sip) of the Karia. This is an excellent wine. It is a chardonnay with minimal oak from California with a pre-harvest trim to concentrate the flavor. The palate is clean and minerally with mild fruit beautifully intertwined with the body. It soaked up the halibut and complimented the butter wonderfully as I washed it down. What a great pairing (of course it was. What am I thinking. This was BLT Fish).
As I sipped Karia and ate this wonderful dish I couldn’t help but think of why this day was so important for me as a wine lover. Warren Winiarski is practicing restraint in and area of the world that has generally gone overboard. If this catches on we may be seeing a change in the way the majority makes their chardonnay. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to buy a reasonably priced chard (sorry about the cheesy nickname; Just couldn’t help it) that sees almost no oak if any at all. And if it does, when you sip it you can taste the producer’s use of restraint. Give it oak. Sure just…please, in moderation. Now I am sure there are producers out there that do this but I see this as possibly becoming a trend. Or, I guess what would be cool is to see this becoming a trend. Back in June when the thirtieth anniversary of the “judgment of Paris’ was in full swing in London and in Napa there was a quote from Mr. Winiarski in the Los Angeles Times that really drove the point home. He said, “Raisins from Greece taste the same as raisins from California. If you lose the element of restraint, the distinctiveness of the place where the grapes are grown is lost.” In 1973 this man -without even knowing it at the time. The vineyard was only a year or so old- made a wine that would change the way the world saw California as a wine region and that would inspire great producers to this day. In 1976 this wine took top honors when being compared to the likes of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (Paulliac) and Chateau Haut-Brion (Graves). More than thirty years later here he was speaking of a new approach to wine in the United States that will hopefully have that same influence. By the way, in the most recent thirty-year anniversary of the “judgment of Paris” The same 1973 cabernet vintage won second place.
I slowly finished my glass of Karia and restrained myself from asking for another glass. On that last sip the oak peaked out for just a moment on my palate and was washed away. Excellent. The third course of herb crusted rack of lamb with wild mushrooms and sauce paloise was served along with the very well known 2004 Stag’s Leap Artemis cabernet sauvignon. The lamb was downright succulent and beautifully seared with a rare middle. The protein in the lamb mellowed out the tannin in the Artemis to perfection allowing me to enjoy the fruit and body of the wine as it mingled with the wild mushrooms. Last but certainly not least was a cheese course with the Winiarski family’s other cabernet beauty, Fay. It was a 2003 but a bit rougher around the edges, which is what you need for a diverse cheese course. Cheese has protein as well and that helps the pairing play well on the palate.
Well, it was all over. It was time to mosey and everyone started to look at his or her watch to see that the New York minutes had flown by. Warren stood and thanked everyone for coming and announced that all attendees would be receiving a complimentary bottle of the Karia and a book by the journalist who attended the first…the original “judgment of Paris,” George Taber. Mr. Winiarski was nice enough to sign my copy. I shook his and thanked him for the opportunity to be a part of what happened this day. I know this all sounds very over blown and over charismatic but for me it was an important day. I’m not an expert on wine and I am not an authority. I am just a wine geek who had a chance to witness the wine world at work. Now that is what I call a day off. It was a good day to be a wine geek.

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