My goal here is to share with other wine enthusiasts my discoveries as I judge at wine competitions and visit wine regions, with occasional commentary about issues touching the wine scene, especially in California.
A couple of things I learned this weekend at the 26th annual Lake Tahoe Autumn Food & Wine Festival in the Village at Northstar just outside of Truckee:
Smoked duck with caramelized fig, by Six Peaks Grille
- Pinot noir really is the most congenial wine at the dinner table. I didn't actually just learn that. But that longstanding lesson was reinforced during a festival competition in which 23 restaurants teamed up with 23 wineries to see which could create the best pairing of food and wine. I was one of five judges to spend Sunday morning sipping this wine and tasting that dish and doing it once or twice more for each of the 23 entries before submitting our scores for best wine, best dish and best pairing. We were given a brief description of each dish, but beyond that we weren't told the restaurant, the winery or even the style or varietal of the wine. When our scores were tabulated three hours later, pinot noir played a key role in three of the five top honors. A pinot noir not only was judged the best red wine of the day (the Santa Barbara Collection 2008 Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir), pinot noir also accounted for the best white wine of the day (the Scott Harvey Wines Jana Napa Valley Blanc de Noir Brut). Finally, another pinot noir was the wine in the best pairing of the day, a camembert crostini topped with smoked duck breast and caramelized fig, prepared by cooks of the restaurant Six Peaks Grille at the Resort at Squaw Creek in Squaw Valley. The smokiness of the duck and the sweet earthiness of the fig were matched precisely by the fresh strawberry fruitiness and the leathery tone of the Villa Maria Winery 2008 Marlborough Pinot Noir from New Zealand. Yes, several other varietals were in the competition. Aside from four pinot noirs, the field included cabernet sauvignons, chardonnays, cabernet franc, zinfandel, petite sirah, barbera and merlot. The two awards that didn't involve pinot noir were the best pairing of food with a beverage other than wine - a rich take on the Vietnamese sandwich bahn mi, prepared by Hard Rock Cafe International, coupled with green-tea lemonade made with a spirit by Charbay Winery & Distillery of St. Helena in Napa Valley - and the single best food of the day, a selection of house-cured meats by the restaurant Hawks in Granite Bay, which also was the runnerup in the pairing category by matching its meats with the Jana sparkler made from pinot noir.
Lars Kronmark leads tasting seminar
- There is, after all, a place at the table for high-octane wines, but maybe only when barbecue is on the menu. At a festival seminar appropriately called "Some Like It Hot," Lars Kronmark, an instructor at the Napa Valley branch of the Culinary Institute of America, walked participants through a series of tastings in which the weight and heat of both grilled ribs and the accompanying zinfandels intensified. When the meat had little or no barbecue sauce, the lighter zinfandel hung in there, but as the sauce increased in richness, complexity and spice, the attending wine also had to rise in ripeness and alcohol to stay in the game. By the end, the ribs not only were draped with a sweet and fiery sauce, they were splashed with Tabasco, and only the porty zinfandel with 16.1 percent alcohol still was hanging with the ribs. If you want to put that lesson to your own taste test, the wine was the Rosenblum Cellars 2008 Sonoma Valley Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel.