Monday, May 17, 2010

Part VII: Saturday evening dinner at Mille Fleurs April 17

It's a full month after this dinner, and I'm finally forcing myself to get away from e-mails and other business to finish this blog post that I intended to write weeks ago.

It was a superb dinner well worth memorializing here, and while I do have a copy of the keepsake menu along with wine pairings in my possession, I would like also to have a blog post that reflects how the wines and food made me feel, and my reflections on the dinner in its entirety.

First off, let me set the stage. Earlier in the day, I had driven from my home to the small quaint town of Rancho Santa Fe in north county San Diego, arrived to a sun-dappled courtyard where the Mille Fleurs restaurant sits, a bit late to join a group that had followed chef Martin Woesle to Chino Farm. I later joined the group for a bit at the farm, ate some wild strawberries, then returned back for a brief reception, milling about meeting new people before sitting down to a superb vegetarian meal made from vegetables just purchased at Chino Farm. Though the meal was vegetarian, it was substantial enough to line our stomachs for the Riesling trockenbeerenausleses to come - from approximately 1pm to 5pm, we tasted TBAs from 1921 to 1949, an astounding collection. By 5pm, we were spinning a bit, not from alcohol, because these gems are surprisingly low in alcohol. No, it was possibly the sugar high, mixed in with the mental geekdom of having tasted so many wines older than we were, surely many of us reminiscing about our grandparents who were born in those eras.

By the end of Part I of this tasting, I heard the sweetest word of all: "break." This is a luxury not typically known to us in the wine business - often, a long tasting is followed by another long tasting, which is followed by a dinner, often with more tasting. There is usually no personal time, but this particular Saturday offered us a two-hour break for ourselves, with dinner planned at 8pm. Very civilized. I went to check into my hotel with the delicious thought of slipping in a short run in the town of Encinitas.

And run I did, which felt great, all those sugars getting stuck in various parts of my person came unglued while I explored the area (surprisingly hilly) by foot, feeling the warm air change to cool as dusk set in. I was on a TBA high, and running was the perfect cure.

Shower, then dressing for dinner, a windy drive back to Mille Fleurs, and the courtyard that was previously sun-bathed was now filled with darkness and laughter as I approached. Then I realized why - Champagne reception! Or, rather, methode Champenoise tete de cuvee 2002 Raumland Triumvirat reception, a selection of course made by our host Rudi.... a delicious, complex, crisp, focused, slightly yeasty, and did I mention delicious sparkling wine made from the three classical Champagne varieties Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. I enjoyed my flute very much, chatting with the well-dressed group that filled the pretty, leafy courtyard. And in that moment, I knew that I would never leave the wine business.

But there was more. Dinner was to be served soon, and we found our seats. The group that convened for dinner was much larger than the group that tasted the TBAs in the afternoon - spouses had joined in for the jovial feast and celebration. As mine was not present, I found a seat close to new friends I made who hailed from Minneapolis. We soon found on our plate the Amuse Bouche - smoked eel on a bed of thinly sliced roasted gold and red beets. Delicious. Went well with what was left of my Triumvirat too.

Four courses followed. First, there were the seared Maine scallops sitting on a bed of cauliflower puree, and dotted with deep fried Jerusalem artichokes and garnished with blood orange butter. I always love tender scallops, and cauliflower is just such a delicious vegetable. This course was served with two German Rieslings - 2001 Rebholz Riesling, Kastanienbusch Grosses Gewachs from the double magnum (3 L bottle), and 2007 Karthauserhof Riesling Auslese, Karthauserhofberg trocken "S." Both wines were terrific, but the clear winner for me and many others was the 2001 Rebholz Kastanienbusch. There was just something about this 9 year old wine - such richness in texture and just a core of pretty fruit, that, while the wine was dry, it wasn't austere and held up to the juicy slightly sweet sea scallops. And the wine is delicious by itself without food. Hansjorg Rebholz, the winemaker and owner of this estate, who was present at the dinner, said that this wine is still too young to drink, that if it were out of the regular 750 ml bottle, it would be perfect, but out of this 3L, it still needed some more years to show everything that it had.

Here's the thing about Rebholz wines: they are hard to understand, they are bone dry, they are expensive. This makes them.... difficult to sell. I believe I already covered this in the previous Sidebar Rant post. Anyway, the problem is that very few people get to taste the wine in this context. Let's put it this way - there was nothing else in the world I wanted to drink than this 2001 Kastanienbusch at that time with those scallops, or even without them. The wine was that good. Now, I'm not saying that there aren't other cheaper wines one could drink with this course, I'm just saying nothing else would have been better. Nothing!

Onward. The next course was black olive crusted striped bass, braised fennel, and mussels in a dill-saffron sauce. Delicious! And a generous course - not just a two-bite deal here. The fennel was wonderful and had that farm-fresh, in season quality. The fish - perfectly cooked, crispy on the outside with a uniquely flavored crust, while juicy and tender inside. The wines: 2007 Paul Furst Chardonnay, Karthauser and 2007 Salwey Pinot Gris, Henkenberg Grosses Gewachs. My new friends at the table loved this Chardonnay, proclaiming it as good as any top end white Burgundy. I agreed. I'm not typically a Chardonnay lover, but when a good one comes along, I know it. This was very, very nice. Another pricey wine though, so likely very difficult to sell in California, otherwise known as Chardonnay-land. And the Salwey Pinot Gris is a wine that I have tasted before and even blogged about maybe a year ago - an ethereal take on Pinot Gris - let's just say this is not your typical light, thin, barely there Pinot Gris - this is a Pinot Gris with a velvety, rich texture, not from oak but I believe from the wine being so concentrated and made with such select grapes and care....... an awesome Pinot Gris, maybe my favorite in the world.

Next course: perhaps my favorite: oven-roasted breast of squab, vegetable roulade, wild rice and porcini-jus. This was a very nice dark-meat bird that was flavorful and a bit gamey - I thoroughly enjoyed it though some people at various tables didn't..... so it was a dish that was love or hate. I thought it was like duck that wasn't fatty, so very nice. The wines were two German Pinot Noirs: 2005 Friedrich Becker Pinot Noir, Kammerberg Grosses Gewachs from magnum (1.5 L) and 2004 Paul Furst Pinot Noir, Hunsruck Grosses Gewachs from double magnum (3.0 L). I enjoyed the Furst Pinot Noir more as I found it more delicate and feminine, while the Becker had more wood on it (oak).

The final course was well thought out - for a group tasting TBAs all day, and the next day too, we were probably not the best candidates for a dessert. Which is my preference usually anyway. We had instead a beautiful course of various blue cheeses, with the pairing of a 1970 Graham Vintage Porto out of a 2.25 L bottle (which was decanted). Lovely. I enjoyed the cheese more and would have loved a Gold Cap Auslese, but I actually had my blue cheese with what was left of my Pinot Noirs from the previous course.

This dinner and evening had me up till very late, but I was not complaining. It was an outstanding experience, not only of top notch cuisine, but of German wines not typically enjoyed by people in the United States. And of course, the company. People from all over the world who could geek out on the wines at their leisure over some of the best food available in the world. Again, I thought to myself, would I actually leave a profession like this?

True, most days in the wine business are not like this. But I don't need them to be. Just sometimes, which is often enough for me.

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