Sommeliers and Waiters Wearing Strait Jackets

The cost of wine pairing dinners keeps ahead of the impact and pleasure of these events. The menu below is genuine, and the chef is one of the best known and liked guys in the industry from Coast to Coast. When these gigs work, they’re great. Too often, however, the invention and the pairings seem less to misfire than to drop into the “sane old, same old” routine. What do you think?

By the time this item appears in the honeyed pages of California Homes Magazine, I will have been a guest and patron of several prix fixe wine dinners at some of my Left Coast haunts. The difference between popping open a wine you want to serve at home with a meal you just prepared and the highly themed and fashionable wine dinner seems like the difference occurring when the inmates run the asylum and when they don’t.

Are we governors of the asylum or its charges? I guess it depends on whose straits we must navigate. Though I rarely cook these days I enjoyed inventing a dinner at home. Wine pairings often had a carefree or careless relationship to the courses, a kind of shackling of accidents.

Commercial wine dinners challenge a chef-proprietor to match a multi-varietal flight from one producer. It is a useful culinary exercise and the results for guests can please. But this event also remains ad hoc, so even if the courses follow upon each other with the predictability of the hours on a clock, the likelihood of a truly good pairing will remain evanescent, like time itself.

The moments of inspired cooking and drinking are never replicated exactly. Only a roadmap survives for carrying the event off, and this is a dreary straitjacketed meal.

Regimen dictates offerings off the menu and these are rarely heard of again. After a moment settling round the table, the major domo introduces some charming, smiling wine maker who stands up between courses to tell us what we have just swirled,

The tale is usually told the same way. “It’s an honor to work with Chef so and so to prepare this menu with our latest releases, and make new friends like you—you have your checkbooks, right?”

The following menu is typical—four courses and five wines—pricey–this one with tax and gratuity added will strain to stay below $170 per person, but living above one’s means is what California is all about. This dinner is a successful example; yet I would argue a dreary sameness governs the progress of the dinner because the wine comes out of one house. The best of this kind of meal will use when it’s practical local food as well as local wine. Now you’re having fun.


Alaskan King Crab, Fluke, Clams, Cucumber Green Apple Vinaigrette

A1 Vineyard” Sonoma Coast, Chardonnay, 2009



Roasted Mushroom Salad, Pickled Sunchoke Puree, Porcini Red Wine Jus

A1 Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007



Spiced Lamb Sausage, Lamb Belly, Braised Cardoons, Carrot Puree

A1 “Howell Mountain” Napa Valley, Zinfandel, 2006


Dark Chocolate Ganache, Raspberry Gelato, Cardamom Cream

A1 “Howell Mountain” Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007

Chardonnay from vast Sonoma County with cooling coastal air will have neither the heft of its Napa cousins or the more poised attitude of its French antecedent—a beautiful burgundy still too young to pour were it bottled in 2009. It usually whispers its fruit and minerality. The Sonoma chardonnays from the coastal vines are generally easy to drink and easier to forget, not for any shortcomings; I find these wines possessed of approachable sameness that make them automatic choices for certain seafood presentations. Such a pairing ensures the wine is the more reticent partner in the pairing.

I enjoy the skirt steak preparations at this eatery, and its condiments seem ready made for a 2007 Napa Cab. Like the prized Bordeaux vintages 2000 and 05, the 07 cabernet grapes produced luscious, intense, and costly wines. Here the pairing works because the pickled sunchokes have enough acidity to cut the bigness of the pour, just as the porcini jus will show off that largess in the 07.

Routinely, the BMZ—big mama zinfandel—finds itself out for the evening with lamb, whether as chop or a rack. And the intrinsically earthy, rough stem of cardoons, the Mediterranean cousin to the artichoke on the one hand, and the inherent sweetness’ of the puree. A 2006 Zin with cachet calls to mind a heavily spirited, spicy and intense wine, with deep-lasting fruit, more akin to black currants and cranberries. Like an amiable dog that loves and slobbers you with equal fealty, many Zin makers get carried away. Post modern Zin exists: it wants to be NOT-ZIN. Have Petite Syrah rather than Zin playing against type..

Chocolate dessert? We will most likely end up with Cabernet Sauvignon once more. Cabernet is never the right call for me… Excepting very bitter-sweet chocolate. I cannot abide the combination. It offends at once the capacity to enjoy chocolates buttery sweetness and its oozy seductions of our better angels—dare I take seconds—and the particular balance of a fruit forward long finished Cab that also carries the “Howell Mountain” designation, a terraced vine country 1,800’ on average above sea level, prized for its cabernet. A 100% cabernet produced from these grapes will never underwhelm—too much afternoon sun for that.

Having enjoyed many such dinners—and endured others—the pairings don’t always work. We all goof—a vinaigrette topped salad may satisfy the nutritionists, but it kills the wine palate like Raid kills roaches. When pastries or fruit and cheese end a pairing, the cabernet parts company. Then our wine maker guest star will pull some late harvest chardonnay or Riesling or even Ice Wine. Fans of red head for the bar. Meet you there!