Uncorking the Unconventional
Hahn Winery eyes an ambitious culinary center and an equally dynamic approach to food.
Thursday, October 20, 2011
As we look out across the Salinas valley, with the distant Pinnacles pointing the way toward heaven, an almost-giggling Brian Overhauser turns and says, “I’m a big floater.”
We are standing on a hillside above Hahn Winery’s Smith & Hook vineyards, and Overhauser, who serves as the Hahn Estate chef, is describing the layout of a Monterey County first: A culinary center (dubbed “Chef’s Kitchen”) that is to be built on the ground beneath our feet, and which will serve food specifically designed for Hahn wines. The “Kitchen” will seat up to 50 tasters, and feature an east-facing deck and retractable side.
“It’s going to hover over the vineyard,” Overhauser says.
Overhauser is a master at “reverse pairing,” developing sumptuous dishes that bring out the best in the wine.
“He’s unbelievably talented,” says Wrath Wines owner Michael Thomas. “He has an amazing knack for combining tastes, and his presentation is immaculate.”
He also knows his wines. Overhauser was working for Wrath as a consultant before coming to Hahn a year ago, and in his time there began to develop a food program for the wines.
But an offer from Hahn to do the same thing with his own, tailor-made facility was too good to turn down.
Though estate chefs are not uncommon in Napa, Overhauser is the first in the region, and local foodies and growers are rooting for him.
“[The Kitchen] is a big step toward a broader view of food and wine,” says Malin Hudson, one of Overhauser’s sous chefs. “Brian’s always loved wined so much. It’s awesome for him.”
With the permitting for the Kitchen unanimously approved by the county’s planning commission, the year-long construction will begin next spring, and Overhauser gets bubbly as he imagines the possibilities.
“South County is gorgeous, but yet it’s very overlooked. People in Monterey, Carmel, Pebble Beach, Carmel Valley, they kind of just don’t get how awesome it is,” he says. “We’re pioneering a new base that will give people a reason to come.”
The Kitchen will, however, retain some level of exclusivity: Hahn only obtained permits for trade functions, meaning that Overhauser can only serve up his wine-inspired dishes to chefs, waiters and wine buyers (including wine club members). The business model, a norm in Napa, is for Overhauser to entertain them and tell the story of Hahn.
“In that process, we also show the virtues of our wines and how they work with various foods,” he says. “They walk away with, ‘Wow, that place is amazing.’”
Overhauser’s obsession with wine is rare among chefs, and began when he visited France over two decades ago. After gaining his culinary degree at the Ritz Escoffier École de Gastronomie in Paris, the chef hopped over to London, where he studied at The Institute of Masters of Wine. Subsequent travel to New Zealand further burnished his food and wine pairing skills, and led to a progressive wine program that set the course for his culinary career.
Since his arrival at Hahn, that dual expertise has served Overhauser well, inspiring a project that has broken new ground: In collaboration with Hahn winemaker Paul Clifton, Overhauser recently developed a series of wines called “Chef’s Table,” a line that is expressly crafted to be enjoyed while dining.
“The whole point behind Chef’s Table, unlike any other winemaking I know, is that [the wines] start with the food,” says Overhauser. “[They] are the most food-driven wines in the United States.” (For more tasting notes, see story, next page.)
The idea was born out of the direction that many popular wines are headed – robust, full-bodied, dominant.
“Big, jammy wines are not necessarily that approachable in the food spectrum,” says Overhauser. “If there’s low acid, there’s no cleansing of the palate.”
He adds, “You’ll never see a Chardonnay under the Chef’s Table label.”
The fruit for the Chef’s Table wines is picked earlier, the alcohol content is lower and the acid is higher. And while the style strays from mainstream momentum, the label has so far been met with resounding enthusiasm.
“People bought futures for the Pinot before it was even ready,” he says. “It was a first ever. I sold half of what was made prior to release. ”
The Chef’s Table wines, available direct to consumers, are selling out fast, partly because Overhauser and Clifton are rolling them out slowly as they tweak, producing only a couple hundred cases of Rosé, Pinot Noir and Noir Blanc (all made from Pinot Noir grapes); Cabernet Franc (“It’s so good, it might be one of the best in state”); Pinot Gris; and a small quantity of Viognier.
“He has a great palate,” Thomas says, “[and] wine should really be a food-driven entity.”
While the innovative label will help set a new trend in the food and wine world, it still doesn’t seem to excite Overhauser as much as his new office-to-be, a culinary playground with panoramic views of the valley and beyond. He’s a man who’s found heaven floating atop the Santa Lucia Highlands.
Hahn Winery is located at 37700 Foothill Road, Soledad. 678-4555, www.hahnestates.com