Wine dinners from Bernardus approach ambrosia and PigWizard gets legit.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
The primary difficulty with assembling a dream-team wine dinner is that it brings with it fantasy-scale expectations – and, inversely, an accompanying margin for error the size of a shard of Himalayan sea salt.
Most fortunately for diners at the annual Bernardus Lodge (658-3400) epic with Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni last week, the best gastronomic gamers from our region came to play.
By the time Pisoni was onto his fifth or sixth swirling story of the night, taste buds and brains alike were dizzy with the combinations Bernardus Exec Chef Cal Stamenov came up with to complement the Garys’ celebrated grapes.
“Although it’s an annual dinner with many returning guests,” chef says, “the night is always unexpectedly outrageous. We tend to overdo it; our owner Mr. [Ben] Pon is there, as is the whole Bernardus team, and the Garys, who start opening big wines unexpectedly. It’s a healthy competition on who can be the most over-the-top.”
Pisoni kept up his end of the bargain, with arm-swinging anecdotes that included smuggling grafts (or some such thing) from Italy’s best vineyards in his drawls and telling the curious customs agent, “You wanna check it? I’m Italian!” (She declined.)
The boche lawn-adjacent patio supplied a perfect summertime setting for sips of Bernardus’ 2009 Griva Vineyard Sauv Blanc and Pisoni’s new 2009 Lucia Rosé (and nibbles of some salmon mousse a la Stamenov).
I abandoned the patio for the grounds, though, to check out the ample and handy gardens, guided by friend/Cachagua icon/self-described “poor dirt farmer”/Bernardus Vineyard Manager Matt Shea, who – in addition to tending acres and acres of fabulous fruit that Dean DeKorth builds mighty wines with – masterminds the landscaping for all Bernardus winery properties and cycles a mountain of compost materials from its kitchens to the vineyard.
He mentioned the 100-plus species of roses around us. He pointed out the legion lavender plants, some 1,400 all told. What he didn’t mention might be as beautiful as all the gardens put together: In a world of vast corporate hotel chains, Bernardus is independently owned. At dinner, owner Ben Pon – born Bernardus Marinus Pon before racing cars professionally, competing in the Olympics in clay pigeon shooting and delving into the wine world – shared a table with the Francscionis and Pisonis, smiling as Pisoni told bird hunting stories from his visits to Pon’s European estate.
Emcee for the evening and esteemed conductor of the pairings Mark Jensen mentioned Pon spends half the year here. Stamenov’s team spends lots of time in the kitchen garden just off the restaurant and the other beds further afield, snipping exotic oreganos and edible flowers – and fennel. Thankfully that had just been harvested and starred in the kind of soup that worked as a metaphor for the whole dazzling Bernardus-Marinus operation: The fennel root experience was delivered with smooth precision by a synchronized team, just cool enough so it wouldn’t burn, but sizzling sufficiently (and deliciously) to have no chance at growing cold before it was lapped up; the creamy and lively broth and Dungeness crab-delta crayfish dumpling deliver the latest irrefutable evidence of Stamenov’s gift for executing with the best ingredients; the soup’s success with the 2008 Bernardus Chard and even greater affection for the ‘08 Rosella’s Vineyard Roar demonstrate what wonders can happen when a wine mind like Jensen works with someone like Stamenov for 15 years.
There was no way the flavor could fly higher, but the Pacific king salmon with little chanterelles and a delicate black truffle-potato sauce matched it. The joy here: seeing this atypically creative combination of flavors play nicely – particularly with the 2008 Roar Garys’ Vineyard Pinot boasting big age-friendly fruit.
Next a 2008 Bernardus Pinot with grapes from Pisoni Vineyards – the first ever made – had me more hopeful for the future than before it hit my lips.
Impressively enough, it won as much affection as the ‘08 Pisoni Vineyards Pinot that Jensen delivered alongside it (with the alder-smoked duck on cherry-braised pork belly).
And it’s not a Bernardus party without something inspired from pastry pimp Ben Spungin. This time he summoned lemon verbena (ah yes) housemade ice cream with a baby block of peach “jelly,” little pucks of vanilla cake with pistachio crumble and colorful raspberry purée – not bad at all with a late harvest Bernardus Sauvignon Blanc with Arroyo Seco Griva grapes.
Speaking of party, the dessert did not mean surrender, as anyone familiar with Pisoni could’ve guessed. They poured from 5-liter standouts and conversations spilled into Wickets, rising as more stories fermented from the gregarious Garys.
Earlier, Pisoni had bastardized a Napoleon quote about war.
“When we win, we deserve it,” he said. “When we lose, we need it.”
I’d call this evening a win.
Upcoming events at Bernardus include the artist series, where Stamenov designs menus to match the bohemian inspiration, and the artists discuss their passion and perspective at different intervals during the meal.
The Artist Dinner Series at Marinus: Patricia Qualls is Tuesday, Aug. 24 (6:30pm, $95); the 2nd Annual Garden Party blooms Sunday, Aug. 29 (2pm – 5pm, $25); the Heirloom Tomato Lunch ripens Saturday, Sept. 4 (11am – 2pm, $85); and the Artist Dinner Series continues with Thierry Thompson Tuesday, Sept. 21 (6:30pm, $95); and the 8th Annual Bernardus Wine Dinner is Thursday, Oct. 14 (6:30pm, $165).
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PigWizard ain’t rollin’ dirty no more.
Before last week Palo Colorado’s self-taught Jonathan Reveto could only share his wondrous manchego chicken and Moroccan lamb sausages with friends or at special events.
Thanks to a USDA nod he finally got last week after his share of hula hoops and bureaucratic blah, he can share his tubular triumphs with restaurants, though he’ll need to adjust his label before he can sell links in stores.
First up – Esteban in downtown Monterey (375-0176) and Big Sur Bakery on Highway 1 (667-0520).
He told me as much in the sand at Monastery Beach on Sunday as I caught the dusky dregs of his birthday party. Other folks furnished the beer and he provided the Pork. That’s capital “P” Pork – he stuffed a suckling pig with carrots, fennel root, onions and his own PigWizard sausage. That whole-roast-suckling-pig-stuffed-with-crazy-good-sausage thing is a metaphor for something profound. I’m just not sure what.
I am sure that it was damn good.
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In a past life, as a director for a big-hearted, small-staffed nonprofit, I used to ask one of my students, bug-eyed, weak-kneed Kevonne, “So what was for lunch today?”
He’d blink Bambi eyelashes and say, “Spicy Cheetos and a Coke.”
Hence it gives me more than pedestrian hope that ace healthy-and-sustainable food samurais like Dory Ford and Esteban Jimenez at Aqua Terra Culinary have launched a school lunch program where lunches are reasonably priced at $5.95 for grades K-3 and $6.95 for 4 – 8. Of course, Stevenson School Carmel Campus – the first to sign up – doesn’t have the bussed-in, lunch-ticket, innercity L.A. population Kevonne’s Webster Middle School did. But still.
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As spots to celebrate a 13-mile trek go, this doesn’t suck.
Saturday, Aug. 7, the Salinas Valley Half Marathon starts at 8am – at the historic Soledad Mission – before twisting winds north along the hem of the Santa Lucia mountains and concluding at Pessagno Winery.
Spectators can welcome participants at the finish line and enjoy the free Expo and Awards Ceremony – think vendor and information booths, live music, local artists, great barbecue, wine and beer.
Wine tasting and one glass of beer will be free to registered runners. Others can taste Pessagno’s most current releases and higher-end wines, or a sampling of their award-winning Pinot Noirs for $5 – $15 refunded with wine purchase. Beers come courtesy of Cannery Row Brewing Company. Wineries and top fitness do go hand in hand… I see more chefs – whatcha got in the bag, Christophe Grosjean? Can I study your grocery list, Mike Jones? – at Monterey Farmers Market at MPC (728-5060) than any other local markets. It debuts its first Friday fraternity meeting of freshness this week after 34 years of Thursdays. Celebrate the change with free cake (!) 10am-2pm – new hours… The dependably engaging tastings at Zeph’s continue with an Aug. 17 expedition into sparkling wines. The $25 tag is more than fair for an evening of California and international splashes and nibbles by Portabello’s… The singer is several years into the whole less-hair-more-heart thing – and visiting Carmel’s Sunset Center Aug. 18 – and the new executive chef is just a couple of weeks into his reign at Pacific’s Edge (622-5445). But I’d much sooner pay to see gifted chef Matt Bolton do his thing than Michael Bolton. It doesn’t come cheaply ($300), but one of the best showcases to do so looks to be the first ever wine dinner series at the award-winning cellar of Pacific’s Edge Restaurant he’s doing with new wine director Paul Fried. From August through December, each dinner will be devoted to a wine-growing region with seldom-available vintages from the highest profile indigenous wineries. “An Evening in Burgundy” is Aug. 17… “There was nothing wrong with [my name] until I was about 12 years old,” says Office Space’s Michael Bolton, “until that no-talent ass clown became famous and started winning Grammys.”