If you love wine, you might consider attending a winemaker dinner or two this year. Done right, a winemaker dinner is a lot of fun and an opportunity to try some different wines than perhaps the winery usually serves, as well as get to know your winemaker.
In the old days, winemaker dinners were quite serious affairs – the winery’s best wines would be hauled out, usually including some secret stash or hidden treasure library selections. Wines were uncorked and decanted at the precise moment, optimal wine temperatures were seriously pondered. These days, it’s more about current wines, casual service, and even introducing new wines at the winemaker’s dinner. But aside from that, we always cross our fingers that the wines have been skillfully paired with the food, and that the wines that are served are among the winery’s finest. That’s always a special treat when done right – the wine enhances the food, the food enhances the wine, and you enjoy a nice full circle experience.
The first winemaker’s dinner was a great one at Wrights Station Vineyard & Winery in Los Gatos. The setting was picture-postcard beautiful – a long, draped dining table in the vineyard, set between 2 rows of beautifully manicured Pinot Noir vines. I loved that it was set under the pure blue sky – no canopy/lights/umbrellas – just the table, the vines and the sky – magical! The winemaker-owner and his wife, Dan and Molly Lokteff were there, and the chef, Diego Felix, had created each dish specifically for each wine. As we arrived, Chef Diego and his team were cooking in the vineyard in a portable tented kitchen, with puffs of smoke and delicious aromas wafting across the field.
We enjoyed great wines, the food was excellent (as well as photogenic), and it was nice to experience the conviviality of sitting down with a group of fellow wine lovers in the middle of a vineyard to enjoy a special evening. Standout wine of the night: The 2017 unoaked Chardonnay – a stellar example of what you can do with Chardonnay, sans oak. This was only Wrights Station’s second Winemaker’s Dinner, and they really did it right!
The dinner started out with a chicken bori bori, paired with my favorite Wrights Station Chardonnay (the 2017 Unoaked) And even though the first wine was my favorite, the food for the second course was my favorite food dish of the night and actually a delicious surprise – Rock Cod, masterfully paired with plantains, herbs, turnip and baby Yukon potatoes. Did I mention that Chef Diego Felix is originally from Argentina and loves incorporating South American ingredients into his stylish cuisine? Personally, I’ve never been a fan of plantains and would certainly never have dreamt of them with fish – but it really was delicious. It was the kind of thing where you’re almost afraid to taste it in the first place (bananas with fish?) but then you try it and it SEEMS pretty good, but you taste it again to be sure and now you are positive it’s good, and not only that – you want more! (a lot more!) But three bites later, it’s all gone and you are left savoring a bit of a yummy mind-blower. After that, we went onto the 3rd course (a Veg option for me, Tri-tip for everyone else) served with the amazing 2016 Far Away Block Pinot Noir from the estate vines – a delicious and skillfully-made, luscious, smooth, sexy Pinot that shows off its Santa Cruz Mountains pedigree in the best way. The kind of wine that makes you proud to be a Santa Cruz Mountains Appellation proponent since way back when. The meal finished with a new Wrights Station Zinfandel and dessert. Then the stars were out and it was time to leave, after a wonderful evening…
The second winemaker’s dinner was for Alfaro Winery, held indoors on a pleasantly cool and foggy July evening in Aptos – at Persephone restaurant. The community table was set down the center of the small and cozy place, and the entire restaurant was reserved exclusively that night for the winemaker’s dinner. Unfortunately, arriving guests were given the option of sitting at the community table, or at the surrounding booths. People surprisingly opted for the private booths, leaving just 3 of us at one end of a very long table, with the winemaker and restaurant owners at the other end, and nothing but empty place settings and lots of empty chairs between us the entire evening. The atmosphere was perhaps a little stunted as a result, but if you know winemaker Richard Alfaro, you know that he is charming, personable, and a good storyteller – so he definitely kept the evening going with his wonderful way of weaving storytelling into the info about each wine, despite everyone being seated at different tables.
Persephone restaurant is a family affair – the GM is Alex Potter, and his sister Cori is the very talented chef. We had excellent food at the Alfaro Winemaker’s Dinner, and discovered a restaurant worth re-visiting. My favorite pairing was the very first one – Alfaro’s 2017 crisp and clean Gruner Veltliner with the grilled apricot and ricotta crespelle (filled crepes) with honey and mint oil. A marriage made in heaven! Favorite wine of the dinner: Alfaro’s Trout Gulch 2016 Pinot Noir. You should buy some (but please wait until we buy ours first, so it doesn’t run out)
Winemaker dinners happen year-round!