Winemaker dinners can’t be considered anything new anymore. Wine distributors love connecting with good chefs to put on a show, especially if winemakers are in town from places like Napa, New Zealand, France and Argentina. And really, you cannot find a better value for the abundance of quality food and drink you enjoy at these events; usually these are about $100 per person, and you’d never be able to sample all the pairings-menu flavors for that price if you ordered a la carte.
But we’ve gotten so spoiled by the proliferation of such evenings that we almost take them for granted – and that’s a mistake. We have in our midst a handful chefs who have become rather genius-esque in crafting these menus to pair with very special wines, and I’m always intrigued by two in particular.
Kent Rathbun, Abacus
In Dallas, Kent Rathbun created a special champagne-themed menu at Abacus, his premier restaurant, to pair with bubbly from Nicolas Feuillatte. With his passed appetizer selection of Cape Cod bay scallops with lemongrass-ginger broth; and butternut squash-chive fritter with vanilla-peach jam, guests enjoyed Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Extrem’. The dinner continued with four courses, including gems like pistachio crusted Corvina sea bass with beluga lentils, curry-coconut butter and lime-cilantro Greek yogurt, paired with Nicolas Feuillatte Brut; and pan-roasted lobster with sweet corn “pot pie,” melted leeks and fennel, accompanied by Nicolas Feuillatte Rose.
Another evening, Rathbun had a light-hearted wine dinner for pairing with wines from Melville and Brewer-Clifton wines of California’s Central Coast. Passed apps shrimp corn dogs with lemon-hatch green chile marmalade and BBQ fried oysters with pickled pearl onions, Maytag cream and applewood smoked bacon, paired with Melville’s Estate Chardonnay Verna’s 2009; while a later course found Rathbun’s grilled rack of lamb with Yukon gold caramelized cipolline “risotto,” asparagus slaw and mustard seed demi, which was accompanied not by a “big” wine that you might find alongside lamb but a dreamy Brewer-Clifton’s Mount Carmel Pinot Noir 2009.
Lanny Lancarte, Lanny’s Alta Cocina
Keeping pace with Rathbun’s pairing smarts, Lanny Lancarte shows nuanced acumen at Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana in Fort Worth. With a Veracruz-inspired soup called chilpachole, filled with mussels and ruby-red shrimp, he paired a Spanish white, a fascinating blend of Grenache blanc, sauvignon blanc and macabeo called Portal White from Celler Pinol from the Terra Alta region.
When working on a heat-focused theme, Lanny showed an especially clever side. There was house-smoked Columbia River steelhead trout with Fire Road Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand; agave-nectar-glazed duck with guajillo chile treatment, paired with Velvet Devil Merlot from Washington’s Columbia Valley winery, Charles Smith; and a fire-roasted poblano rajas and Serrano-wrapped asparagus, served with Mephistopheles Zinfandel from Norman Vineyards in Paso Robles, California.
My favorite of Lanny’s recent works was the menu he created when he hosted friends from Santa Julia vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina. More than just a series of plates paired with wines, this event brought in not just winemaker Julia Zuccardi, a third-generation family winemaker, but also Mendoza chef Ana Rodriguez Armisen, who collaborated with Lanny on the menu. Among jewels, there was the starter of lobster-mango ceviche with butternut crisps, paired with Santa Julia Torrontes 2010; and grilled lamb with smashed potatoes, malbec juice and warm salsa criolla, serve with the Santa Julia Reserva Malbec 2009.
The point of all this tortuous description? To get you to pay attention. When these guys put on special wine-focused dinner, you need to run, not walk, to make a reservation.