Pre-shift meeting Monday afternoon was a little bit like "Wine Hour with Miriam." The stars aligned and we had quite a few to taste; our Vinos de Terrunos Tempranillo is now 2008 instead of '07, we have a new Vacqueyras on the list . . . also, I pulled out some obscure wines from Lula's list to taste with Farm Dinner, which presented an opportunity to reintroduce those wines to the staff and and shake them from their "dog days of summer" ruts, when the only booze they seem to sell is Sangria, the occasional malbec, and Sangria. And did I mention they sell an awful lot of Sangria?
We certainly had a time of it, especially given the intensity of our discussion and the fact that we had some new faces at the table (or, some old faces doing new things). Brent, our trusty foodrunner, will start training as a bartender and actually has to start paying attention at the meetings and adding his own opinions at wine tastings. Jonathan (hipster heartthrob and Lula brunch server) will replace Aaron on Monday evenings, and at his first Farm Dinner shift found himself thrust into a heated argument about whether or not the earthiness of the Woollaston Pinot combated or complemented the delicacy of the quail (but more on that later). Miguel, our new foodrunner trainee, had to sit back and laugh at the impassioned assertions flying around the table (after all, it's only wine. Giavanna.).
Course 1: Heirloom cucumber and smoked sablefish with spicy watermelon, fennel, radish, and basil
Preliminary Pairings: 2008 Palmina Pinot Grigio
I knew I had it made when, in describing this dish, Jason mentioned he added quite a bit of lemon juice. Strange, I know, but I had chosen the Palmina Pinot Grigio which goes best with one thing: citrus. '08 Palmina is middle-of-the-road all the way: soft fruit, slight mineral, food-friendly acid, and crisp, but not tart. We don't sell a lot of it, probably because (like rose) pinot grigio has a little bit of a bad rap. Palmina hails from Santa Barbara, California, and is a very well-made wine, best in summer (in my opinion) on a patio. Easy, easy drinking, not sweet, not oaked, not super-challenging. My staff tends to like their wines (at least the ones that they sell) to be a little on the unusual side (which creates talking points with guests--totally understandable).
I just couldn't shake the notion that we should give Palmina another chance, especially with a dish as light and refreshing as the sablefish. The black cod (one and the same as sablefish) was smoked over applewood and served with Green Acres and Nichols farm peppers, fennel, pickled watermelon rind, and diced watermelon soaked in arbol chile honey. Fennel aioli added fat to the plate. Deeelish. And Palmina was right-on . . . some said it was "boring." (Bartender Dave adamantly felt that Sattler Zweigelt was the best pairing for Course 1, contending that the smokiness of the fish needed a red to stand up to it. My opinion was that white wine would be a more balanced pairing). I thought Palmina was light, refreshing, and delicate. Delightful. The salty minerality brought out the smoky fish notes, while the citrus aspects matched nicely with all the fruit and acid in the dish.
(My) Favorite: Palmina PG (Dave's Favorite: Sattler)
Course 2: Quail with summer corn and bacon stuffing, caramelized broccoli, white grits, and scallion 'sauce soubise'
Preliminary Pairings: 2006 Sattler Zweigelt, 2006 Woollaston Nelson Pinot Noir
So Course 2 is where it got real interesting. First of all, these quails (from Georgia) are no teenie-tiny little birds but their flavor is delicate and subtle. Perfect for pan roasting (as grilling would overwhelm them) they become inbued with the flavors of their partners in any dish and picked up lovely bright notes from Nichols Farm scallions and sweet, earthy aspects from Three Sisters' corn. Local melrose peppers (long Italian frying peppers) added a bit of bite. A fresh salad of Nichols Farm sungold cherry tomatoes, Werp Farm pea shoots, summer herbs, and fennel rested atop creamy Three Sisters' white grits and next to caramelized Sweet Earth Organic's caramelized broccoli. Lots of flavors and textures competing to take center stage, but all totally balanced by the quails' tenderness and mutability.
I knew Sattler Zweigelt would be a no-brainer (pretty much anywhere tomatoes make an appearance, Sattler should also come to the party). Zweigelt is a most curious little grape. Grown in Burgenland, Austria, and distantly related to pinot noir, zweigelt loooooves food, and like the quails on Course 2 takes on the characteristics of whatever it accompanies. I like to call the Sattler a "chameleon wine" due to its ability to change appearance based on what's around. If the flavors of a dish are bold, Sattler tastes bold. If the food is juicy, Sattler is juicy, and if delicacy and subtlety are the orders of the day, Sattler follows suit. (You just have to taste it to believe, and you'll understand. In fact, a couple who had never drank zweigelt before last night took home an extra bottle for themselves--we had to uncork it at Lula to make the whole thing legal). And yes, Sattler loved the tomatoes, sweetened up to the corn stuffing, stood back and let the quail strut its stuff, and cut through the polenta. Plus, Sattler is seductively round and supple, with perfectly ripe cherry fruit and a slight hint of pepper and spice. (Can you tell I adore this wine?)
Woollaston Pinot Noir proved to be the most contraversial pick of the night (and possibly in the history of Farm Dinner tastings). First of all, Woollaston is a difficult wine to begin with. New Zealand pinots are always peculiar, with "band-aid" being the most unanimous description of its flavor profile (huh?). (Brettanomyces (beneficial yeasts) are often added to New Zealand pinots during fermentation to enhance the secondary characteristics of the wines. Often, these yeasts produce earthy scents that take on notes of . . . well . . . band-aids. Smell one, and get back to me). Anyway, Woollaston is a big pinot noir. BIG. It is a fantastic, complex, totally intelligent wine with tarry dark fruit, peppery earth, integrated tannin, and a long, spicy finish. But elegant and refined, with none of the unrestrained New Zealand-y new worldiness at all, except for its defining flavorfulness. A little French oak adds a slight woodiness to the background flavors. I mean, this is layered juice. And what better dish to pair it with than the quail, with its harmonious and mosaic juxtoposition of smokiness, juicy creaminess, and heady richness? Some of my staff (Giavanna) refused, point blank, to accept Woollaston as a worthwhile pairing, claiming it was simply overwhelming. I, on the otherhand, championed how multifaceted both the wine and food became when tasted together. Various aspects of each came in and out of focus, as deeper into glass and dish we all went. I could only vehemently insist that if any guest wanted to be truly engaged in his or her meal, Woollaston was the way to go.
Favorite: Undecided. Sattler, I guess, but undecided.
Course 3: Cream cheese terrine with watermelon and cucumber granita
Preliminary Pairings: NV Innocent Bystander Muscat, Limoncello
Bystander. Pink (adult) soda pop! Like I said before, Bystander is one of those fun, totally summery drinks that can only enhance flavors. The terrine was basically cheesecake, but earthy and flavorful, and completely balanced by the crunchy flav-r-ice-ish watermelon and cucumber granitas. Fresh versions of both added depth to the plate, and lemon balm provided needed acid. Melissa had used a dash of limoncello during cooking, so I thought the staff and I could try it (especially because we so rarely taste liqueurs). Um . . . nobody liked it, except me (of course, because I always see the good in everyone and everything . . . or maybe I'm just a sucker). For those readers out there who like limoncello, I think you'll find it nice with the terrine, for those of you who haven't tried it . . . stick with the Innocent Bystander, mkay?
Favorite: Innocent Bystander