When I arrived a few minutes before the reception of last Saturday’s 2010 Late Harvest Winemaker Dinner featuring Stags’ Leap Winery at Albert’s Restaurant, I caught Chef Chris Mirguet standing behind the beautiful, plentiful buffet table waiting to sauté some duck. I asked him how everything was coming together, and he smirked confidently—a response I’m getting used to at this point. Chris launched into a brief history lesson on Albert’s special dinners, noting that they have been hosting winemaker dinners for at least a decade. “Of course we’re working hard to make sure everything’s good to go, but there’s never a feeling of uncertainty, like we can’t execute and provide a great meal.” I would fault Chris for his unabashed confidence if his meals didn’t deliver. As one of many satisfied diners, I can tell you that they do.
With a bounteous spread of California cheese, fresh fruit, artisan breads, tortellini pasta, roasted duck, and all the 2009 Napa Valley Viognier and 2007 Napa Valley Merlot you could drink, the reception alone almost made it worth the cost—especially when the animal ambassadors showed up. After eating and drinking to their hearts’ content, guests got up close and personal with a great horned owl, armadillo, American alligator, hedgehog, serval, and a friendly anteater before heading downstairs into Albert’s for the dinner.
As we were waiting for the first course to arrive, Stags’ Leap’s sommelier, Margot, couldn’t stop raving about the animals. It was the first time she had ever seen some of them, let alone up close. The first course arrived in the form of a Wilted Caesar Salad with herb-crusted crostinis, wilted romaine hearts, shaved parmesan cheese, anchovies, and handmade mustard dressing paired with 2008 Napa Valley Chardonnay. The salty anchovies came on the side and provided a nice counterpoint to the greens, and the sweet, fruity Chardonnay washed it all down perfectly with a smooth initial mouth feel followed by a slow onset of bitter and a slight alcohol spice. The meal was off to a good start.
The second course upped the ante. It was a roasted chestnut soup with black truffle crème fraiche paired with 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Instant praise erupted from the table as diners took their first bites of this delectable concoction. One diner was surprised by how well it captured the spirit of autumn. “It tastes like Thanksgiving—slightly pumpkiny.” Another diner was amazed by how well the Cabernet paired with the soup. “Both the wine and the soup are very rich and smooth—very Christmasy.” Their exultations were warranted. This flavor bomb of a soup overwhelmed my palate with its thick, creamy texture and savory biscuity notes, reminding me of slightly sweet country gravy crossed with a Thanksgiving pudding or custard. The hints of nutmeg and cinnamon sent me over the edge.
After such a spectacular second course I was worried that the main course would be overshadowed, but my fear was allayed when I took my first bite. The petit filet mignon with wild California mushrooms and potato cake with Stags’ Leap demi-glace and micro chives paired with 2005 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon was no slouch. The filet was melt-in-your-mouth tender, the mushrooms were fresh and earthy, and the whole thing on top of a potato pancake and drenched in Stags’ Leap demi-glace was gustatory perfection.
You might have noticed that both the second and third courses were paired with Cabernets, but both are very different wines. The Cabernet paired with the petit filet is “estate grown,” meaning produced with grapes grown at Stags’ Leap’s own vineyard, and it’s also pure Cabernet, as opposed to the mixed blend Cabernet that was paired with the chestnut soup. According to Margot, the estate-grown cabernet represents the unbridled strength and power of the cabernet grape, with an extra potent finish due to being aged for five years in oak barrels. “This one says ‘I’m a firework.’”
With our taste buds practically beaten into sweet submission, out came the dessert—slow-roasted strawberries in a chocolate ganache-filled tart with an almond twill cookie. One word: decadent. The dessert was paired with the very sweet 2007 Napa Valley Petite Syrah, which was very well received by our table and notably more floral than most Petite Syrahs.
When I congratulated Chris for another deftly executed dinner, he humbly credited it to the expertise and hard work of his staff. “These dinners are a team effort,” he said, “My staff deserves credit, too.” Guys like Charles Boukas (Chef De Cuisine), Brian Mitchell (Senior Cook), Frank McAllister (Cook), Armando Morales (Cook), Jose Luna (Prep Cook), Allen Villeneuve (Prep Cook), Michael Mann (Dishwasher), and Armando Martinez (Dishwasher) all came together to make it happen, and on behalf of my very satisfied stomach, I thank them and all the guests who came out to make this Winemaker Dinner a success. We hope to see you at Albert’s for Thanksgiving Dinner. Cheers!
Check out the rest of the food eye-candy on flickr.
Matt Steele is the social media planner for the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Super Easy Trapeezee.
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