Despite the many California wine makers over the past decade who have tried to create beverages that can stand alone, wine is really meant to complement and be complemented by food. When the mix is right, there is no marriage on earth more perfect, transitory as it may be. And there is no simpler way of proving the hypothesis than a wine maker's dinner.
These events involve the interplay of chef and vintner: the latter offers up half a dozen kinds of wine, and the former creates a dish to go with each, from hors d'oeuvres to dessert. Some representative from the vintner introduces each wine, giving a little--but not too much--of the arcana relating to it and sometimes the chef or restaurateur comments on how and why the accompanying dish was created to highlight it.
What's nice about these dinners, apart from getting to sample a lot of wine in an optimal setting, is that they keep things relatively simple: a bit about the grape, its harvest, and its aging without all the voodoo linguistics about aging temperatures, fermentation processes, and flavor that come at formal swish-and-spit tastings. You can ask questions from the audience--or, if you want to know something but don't want to display your ignorance, the vintner makes the rounds and lets you ask privately. Of course, just like at other tastings, you have to put up with the occasional convoluted question designed more to draw attention to the asker's knowledge than to elicit information. Dozens of restaurants are holding wine maker's dinners these days, so it's always worth asking at your favorite. What follows is only a sampling of recent dinners.
Bella Vista, the always interesting contemporary Italian spot in Lakeview (1001 W. Belmont), presented seven selections from the DeLoach vineyards in California, narrated by Christine DeLoach. A spicy 1992 early harvest gewurztraminer worked beautifully against the peppery shrimp hors d'oeuvres served up by chef Geoff Felsenthal, and a very big, well-balanced 1987 cabernet sang a perfect duet with his peppered saddle of venison, one of five subsequent courses. (Two vintages of the cabernet were served with this course, giving you an excellent chance to compare the differences between years.) An excess of herbs slightly marred Felsenthal's oak-braised veal, but the flavor was improved by the 1991 zinfandel that accompanied. Another excellent match: a sprightly 1992 fume blanc with salmon tartare.
Forthcoming dinners at Bella Vista are November 4, Terrabianca wineries of Sienna, Italy, with Roberto and Maya Guldener; January 11, Geyser Peak of Alexander Valley, California, with Dennis Pasquenni; February 7, Steele wineries of Russian River, California, with Jed Steele; and March 14, Dievole of Tuscany with Mario Schwenn. The dinners usually feature five wines and six courses; they're $45-$50 plus tax and tip. Call 404-0111.
Wine maven John Davis, who operates his own wine-by-mail club and plays an active role in the annual Midwest Wine Exposition, does an interesting twist on the wine maker's dinner at his Lincoln Park fondue restaurant, Geja's (340 W. Armitage). Here, since the dinners are always the same--cheese fondue starter, beef, shrimp, and lobster combination fondue for the main course, flaming chocolate fondue for dessert--the trick is to match the wine to the regular meal. This worked out fine at a dinner featuring four selections from Chile's Errazuriz winery, which also owns the Franciscan wineries of California. A fruity 1992 Caliterra chardonnay was enriched by the molten cheese (hard to go wrong with a wine and cheese combination) and was held over for the shrimp and lobster segments of the main course. Equally good was a 1992 merlot with dessert.
Upcoming: October 25, Firestone Vineyard of Santa Barbara with wine maker Patrick Will, and November 29, J. Fritz Cellars of Sonoma County with David Hastings. Both cost $45 including tax and tip. Call 281-9101.
Vivere, tops of the three restaurants inside Italian Village (71 W. Monroe), serves, like Bella Vista, impeccable modern Italian food produced by a non-Italian chef, Peter Schonman. He came up with some fascinating pairings at a six-course, six-wine dinner featuring everything from asti spumante, the sparkling white, to grappa, a distillation of grape pomace, from Michele Chiarlo wineries in Italy's Piedmont region. The most intriguing was a 1985 Rocche di Castiglione Barolo reserve with an herbed breast of guinea fowl. This powerful red could have overwhelmed the dish, but instead it elevated it. The tart white 1990 gavi did the same for the asparagus tart with truffle sauce.
Next at Vivere: December 6, a five-wine, five-course meal featuring Ruffino wines from Tuscany, including three of their famed gold-label Chiantis, introduced by wine maker Adolfo Folinari. The price is expected to be $55-$60. Call 332-4040.
Yoshi's Cafe, the great Franco-Japanese restaurant in Lakeview (3257 N. Halsted) teamed up with a Japanese winery, Mercian, which also owns vineyards in California and Bordeaux and has won prizes in Europe. The pink and white wines made with the koshu grape were nothing to write home about--pale, almost watery, with no balance to their sweetness; however Yoshi's superb assortment of kaiseki appetizers, including scallop mousse, foie gras in puff pastry, and tuna sushi, would be delicious even accompanied by tap water. On the other hand, Mercian's 1988 cabernet, matched with a splendid grilled tuna in zinfandel sauce, could hold its own on any table. So could the impressive 1985 merlot, paired with venison loin in ginger sauce.
Yoshi's is planning two five-course, five-wine dinners involving Mercian wines and Japanese sake for its 11th anniversary celebration, November 23 and 24. Cooking will be done by both Yoshi Katsumura and Seijiro Matsumoto of Daruma restaurant. It'll be $75 per person plus tax and tip. A champagne dinner featuring Moet & Chandon and Dom Perignon vintages is in the works for May. Call 248-6160.
Some of the most thoughtful dinners I've attended are at the Winnetka Grill (64 Green Bay Road, Winnetka). The tastings here tend to be smaller, with guests at one or two large tables, family style. A recent evening, featuring ZD wines of Napa Valley, was highlighted by a vertical tasting (same wine, different year) of their renowned chardonnays from 1988 through 1991. Two successive dishes were served with three of the wines in front of us at once: first slices of chef Paul Larson's chilled lobster with a yellow tomato coulis, then paillard of crisped sturgeon with smoked salmon, salmon caviar, and braised cabbage. The slightly astringent '88 was a perfect foil for the sweetness of the lobster, while the fruitier '89 married best with the fish. In all there were seven courses and seven wines, discussed by wine maker Brett DeLeuze.
The Winnetka Grill has wine dinners scheduled for November 8, 11, and 15 and December 2, but the wine/food agenda had not been set at press time, though the December dinner will probably preview the newest Opus One--the intriguing collaboration between Robert Mondavi and France's Rothschild. Dinners are usually $65 including tax and tip. Call 708-441-6444.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.