Memorable Meals: The Weight of a Magnum

imageOne of our favorite Bay Area events was the Santa Cruz Mountains Wine Weekends, the purchase of one wine glass was the ticket to wineries on the Bay side of the Santa Cruz Mountains the first weekend and the ocean side the second. The bay side was convenient to us and we had relatives to stay with on the ocean side, so the purchase of one glass was a ticket to a lot of wines.

Many of the wineries are in remote and difficult to get to locations, often groups of wineries would set up tasting tables at a single venue. The normal tasting routine was to start with the light wines, move through the whites from light and dry to rich and full, continue with the lighter bodied reds, and finish off with the full-bodied, barn-burner reds. Not a bad plan for a single tasting, or a tasting that is a 20 minute drive from the previous one, but when there are about 4 or 5 wineries all operating from the light to the dark side, the taste buds can go from discriminating to full confusion. It occurs to me now that the best thing would have been to make a complete wine #1 circuit, a wine #2 circuit, and so on in order for my taste buds to compare pleasantly light to pleasantly light and intensely rich to intense rich. For whatever reason–not that all those sips of wine would effect our reason–that did not occur to us at the time. We would go home with lots of bottles that we thought were fabulous at the time; months later they were opened in hopes that our cloudy purchase decisions were good ones. Happily, we were never disappointed nor were we ever plagued with buyer’s regret.

At one of these venues there were crowds gathered around every tasting table. One was a little less crowded than the others and, without the pressure of frantic rounds of pouring and recitations of wine facts, I was able to chat with the winemaker a bit. They were just starting out–which explained the smaller crowd–and had a wine club that promised to have special events and privileges for its first 100 members. I like privileges in this voice-activated, please-listen-as-our-options-have-changed, customer service-avoidance world, but the costs of shipping wine can exceed the costs of the wines so I was hesitant. I thought about it as I went to the other tables and sipped my way through series of light transparent whites to deep opaque reds. I returned after having made my circuit and, before 100 people could beat me to it, signed on the dotted line. My final resistance gave way when they told me they would arrange to have the winery open to the public when the club wines were released. The winery was located about 40 minutes from our home; picnicking in a pretty winery a few times a year sounded lovely. I managed to beat 93 people, becoming lucky member number 7. In the months and years that followed, hundreds more joined and we all were equally loved, but in the beginning we were special being there at the start.

They were as good as their word, having wonderful member events and occasions to celebrate the wineries climb to recognition and accolades. Wine pick-ups were a day’s outing not only for us but also for our resident energetic and friendly border collie. He would sleep in the back seat on our way down, but as soon as we pulled off the freeway and made our way to the country roads, he would pop up, stick his snoot out the window, and breath in the scents of dry California grasses baking on the hillsides. Upon arrival, our routine was to hop out of the car and go straight to the pond for a lap around water and grapevines before going to the winery. On one of our visits there was an event and a drawing for prizes. We had finished our lunch and were doing another pond circuit before our drive home. When we returned to gather our things, someone said, “You won!” We had to be present to win but as they thought we were still on the property had held off drawing another name. Sure enough, we won the grand prize: a magnum of Cabernet Franc.

We learned a bit more about this wine. They were just returning from losing a beloved pet and the phone was ringing as they entered the house. It was a reporter wanting to buy several cases of their Cabernet Franc. This was how–in a low moment–they heard the happy news that they had won their first gold metal. The wine sold out very quickly and this magnum was one of the few remaining bottles. Somehow, my thrill of winning became my weight of responsibility. This wine deserved more than being opened amidst a large party, fated to be poured into plastic tumblers and left forgotten on side tables. It was a weighty challenge to find an occasion worthy of the wine.

After discussing various possibilities, we reached a decision; we would have a dinner that included only people who would appreciate a special wine highlighted by good food and company. The first guests we thought of were the winemakers themselves, and they graciously accepted. Rounding out the party were friends of ours who had taken several cooking classes and enjoyed gourmet cooking along with a couple of family members. Guests to gather round the table determined, the next weighty challenge was what to put on the table to compliment and honor the wine.

Around this time a rather short lived but wonderful dining opportunity came into being. A French chef, a Maîtres Cuisiniers de France and former Culinary Acadmey instructor, started offering a dinner once a week in his friend’s little breakfast and lunch cafe. It was reservations only, set seating times, BYOB, and prix fix menus, but for those of us who were lucky enough to find out about it, and even luckier to get a table, it was a slow-paced, multi-coursed evening of great food. The small cafe was dressed up for evening with Provençal tablecloths, candles, and china place settings. Diners often sipped their wine and chatted amongst themselves while patiently waiting for each course. At the end of one such evening, having finished the cheese course and trying to work our way through a decadent dessert, the chef came out and chatted with the well-sipped and over-fed diners. The conversation turned to wine and I naturally mentioned my magnum and food pairing conundrum. The chef had all sorts of suggestions and–all those sips of wine between courses may have had something to do with this–I invited him to join us.

So now we had a French chef and his family, gold medal winning winemakers, foodie friends, and a few assorted family members, specifically my mother, daughter, and spouse. No pressure, just the usual dinner party.

The day of the dinner, my mother, daughter, and I spent all afternoon chopping onions, grinding spices, and braising lamb shanks. We used a recipe of Jamie Oliver’s, “Spiced Slow-Cooked Lamb Shanks” from The Naked Chef. The irony of using a recipe from a British Chef’s cookbook to serve a French chef was not lost on me, but I knew imagethis recipe. A braise is usually satisfyingly rich and, more importantly, very forgiving. In an unorthodox move, I made a mass of polenta in a fuzzy logic rice cooker, but I needed a way to keep it hot and moist for an undertimined amount of time and fortunately it worked like a charm. We scurried about, sweated cucumber slices, spread them with goat cheese, and topped them with smoked salmon and a sprig of dill, moved furniture into place and laid the table, made last minute salads, and moments before guests arrived sliced up baguettes. We, three generations of women, worked all afternoon without a snip or a snarl.

Our gourmet friends arrived with chocolate pots de creme, our winemakers with more wine and winery stemware to serve it in, and our chef and family with duck legs ready to be finished in the oven. It required emptying the liquor cabinet before finding something suitable for flaming into glazing sauce, adding to the kitchen chaos, but soon duck legs were glazed and golden.

Before the preliminary sips, nibbles, and salad had been consumed, the group was relaxed and chatting like old friends. Our winemaker opened the magnum of Cabernet Franc and while he did the ceremonial pouring, the main course was served to honor the star of the show. British Jamie Oliver’s lamb shanks valiantly stood along side a French chef’s duck and a California gold medal wine. Even the polenta was a success, the chef’s son was a picky eater and he filled his mostly empty plate with several helpings of polenta. Wine enjoyed and consumed, dinner eaten, and plates cleared, we finished with the decadent chocolate. The evening had been enjoyed and had come to a satisfying end.

It was nerve wracking to cook for that particular group, but looking back it was worth every moment of worry and ranks among one of our most memorable meals. Whether anyone thought the food we prepared was worthy of the wine I will never know, they were too polite to say anything other than the usual complimentary remarks. But I truly believe the winemakers recognized our efforts to honor the wine and appreciated being present for the sharing of it. Our friends and our family love us for who we are, not for what we cook, but they all genuinely seemed to enjoy the food, wine, and company. As to the chef? What mattered was not the food served but the invitation given. Perhaps because it is so intimidating, an accomplished chef gets few invitations to eat in ordinary homes. He too recognized our effort and forgave our amateurish kitchen skills in exchange for the opportunity to just be a guest. Besides, this time the taste bud confusion of so many wines worked in our favor. If enough wine is poured, everything tastes great. And in my memory, it did.

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