To say I was a bit disappointed by the modest turnout at last night's wine dinner is an understatement.
Last night Beaune Imports, The Wine Country and Arte Cafe in Cerritos co-sponsored a wine dinner featuring the wines of Etienne and Alix De Montille, a brother-sister team who are two of Burgundy's most distinguished winemakers. Arte's owner, Chef Richard, prepared a meal perfectly suited to the demands of these delicate, nuanced wines. Arte Cafe usually offers the bold seasonings of its French-Asian fusion cuisine, but for this meal it was French cooking all the way.
All throughout the meal, while everyone in attendance was blown away by the beauty of the white and red Burgundies, and how the beautifully prepared Diver scallops with aioli and spinach, seabass with beurre blanc sauce, poached salmon with Pinot Sauce, Duck Breast with mushroom Diane Sauce and Filet Mignon with Bearnaise Sauce allowed each wine to fully express itself, I was asking myself what we did wrong in promoting this event that it wasn't sold out.
I realize the price, $100 plus tax and gratuity, is just too much for some couples in this wicked economy. But I also know there are plenty of people in our area where a $200+ dinner for two is a weekly ritual. You can easily spend that much buying a couple drinks, a couple ordinary steaks, drinking some routine Napa Cabernet and splitting a dessert. Where were they?
As one major collector wrote me a day earlier, by West LA, Newport Beach, San Francisco, New York standards, "it's a great deal." Given that it was a six-course meal and the retail price of the rare wines started at $35 and went up to $122, I'd say it certainly was a great deal.
Another reason so few attended, perhaps, is that too few people appreciate the wines of Burgundy, admittedly some of the most haunting, and at times consternating, wines on the planet. And fewer still know about Domaine de Montille, a connoisseur's estate which had not built its reputation by making their wine for the critics. For that reason alone, the estate has flown under the radar of Parker-ites while creating some of the most elegant wines known to man.
But all that aside--The Wine Country sponsors very few wine dinners because we are insistent that chefs create dishes that will allow each wine to express itself fully. Why else offer a "wine" dinner at all?
As many of you may have realized, very few chefs really understand wine's role with food, let alone the tastes of the wines themselves. Instead, they'll view a wine dinner as a special opportunity to showcase their most ambitious creations. While these often spicy and sweet dishes are delicious and sometimes even compelling, their aggressiveness usually ruins a wine's beauty, especially the kinds of wines we specialize in--wines with nuance, delicacy and finesse.
If a restaurant isn't interested in tailoring their dishes to our wines, we may still dine there, but we aren't interested in partnering with them for our customers. Sorry, but that's the way it is.
That said, it was gratifying to see familiar faces among the attendees, those who have trusted us to lead them to a special evening in previous events and were at Arte Cafe this night for more thrills.
Still, I thought, where are all the other wine lovers in this town? Why aren't they here experiencing the surprises of the evening? Did they not see our repeated e-mail blasts? Was Thursday night TV just too good to miss? Doesn't anyone like surprises?
And the first surprise caught all of us unawares. Chef Richard decided at the lat minute to offer a bonus: he plated two oysters on the half shell for each of us as a complimentary amuse-bouche. Chuck Morris of Beaune Imports and our French wine buyer Samantha Dugan scrambled to find an appropriate wine for the oysters and dug out a champagne rose from Arte's chiller that complemented the mollusks amazingly well, especially for such an impromtu selection.
Then the scheduled meal began. First served were the perfectly seared scallops, tender and flavorful, with a small dollop of aioli on the side. Sam and Chuck poured the 2009 Chateau de Puligny Montrachet Chassagne Montrachet ($51.99), as beautiful and delicate a Chardonnay you could wish for, the oak way in the background so the fruit could meld with the buttery scallops. Etienne is also winemaker for this estate, and his white wine style is different from his sister's, who makes the white wines for the family domaine. What an amazing start.
Seabass in a butter sauce. Most restaurants would suggest a "buttery" California chardonnay with this dish, whatever "buttery" means these days. Alcoholic? Buttermilky? Fat?
This night we were served a 2009 Domaine de Montille Meursault Les Narvaux-Dessous ($71.99), a wine that had people audibly "wowing" at the aroma, with its oak scents and flavors only slightly more forward than the Chassagne. The slightly fuller body served the seabass well.
The most talked-about wine of the night was next--and it was the least expensive. The salmon poached in Pinot sauce was served with the stunning 2009 Domaine de Montille Bourgogne rouge ($34.99), which, this particular night at this particular junction, was a perfect Pinot Noir. The aroma of what is theoretically a modest wine was ethereal, giving up wafts of black cherry in its purest form. In the mouth the wine perfectly balanced its fruit and acidity. I can still see it in the glass, its ruby brilliance positively shimmering, then savoring its loveliness with the salmon, with just the right amount of weight for the dish.
"How much of this wine is available if we sell out of it tonight?" I asked Chuck.
"None," he said. "There were only about 50 cases imported for the West Coast."
I turned to Sam. "How much of this do we have in the store?" I asked, anxiously worried we wouldn't have enough to fill our orders that night and also secretly hoping there would be some bottles left for me.
One diner ordered six bottles--that took care of the half-case. I haven't spoken to Samantha yet today, so I don't know how much of the remaining twelve bottles we have left for you readers and me, if any.
You see, that's another reason to attend our wine events. We often feature rare wines that diners get first crack at. Tough news for the rest of you.
The fourth course arrived next--the duck breast in a mild Diane sauce. It was accompanied by the 2009 Domaine de Montille Beaune Premier Cru Les Sizies ($58.99). As expected, everything in this lovely wine was amplified and deeper than the Bourgogne...the aroma, the texture and weight, the intensity of flavor. The meal was stepping up in intensity of flavor and the wine was well-matched for the task.
One of my favorite things to eat is a filet with Bearnaise sauce, and it was being served next. The biggest and most prized of the evening's wines was saved for this full-flavored dish.
The 2009 Domaine de Montille Volnay Premier Cru Les Taillepieds ($121.99) displayed its pedigree and the estate's intimate understanding of its parcel of this elite Premier Cru vineyard. Etienne has been drinking wine from this vineyard all his life and he has a particular purpose in mind when crafting it each vintage. It must be Taillepieds--not mere Pinot Noir, not even red Burgundy. It must taste of this vineyard. While we might not know what that taste specifically is, he certainly does. And in a rich vintage like 2009, the early opulence of this wine was apparent to all of us slicing our steaks and dipping the morsels in the rich tarragon-egg-butter sauce. Full flavored and most generous for a De Montille, the Taillepieds' potential can only be guessed at. Will it be at its best in 5 years or 15 or 30? That is the madness and the joy of Burgundy.
Our server brought us coffee next (a break from French tradition which always serves coffee after dessert) and then out came perfectly golden Grand Marnier souflees in individual cups. The subtle flavors and not-too-sweet meringue were just the light touch to cap such a sensational, surprising and satisfying meal.
So that's what you missed. Sorry about that.
And without trying to sound too snarkey...the next time we invite you to a wine dinner--pay attention. It may turn out to be the best night of your culinary year.