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If an earthquake had started shaking southern California on a recent Sunday night, we might not have felt it at the Thornton Winery, in the Temecula Valley Wine Country, where guests were doing their own kind of shaking to the spirited, heartfelt beat of jazz saxophonist and singer, Mindi Abair. With her high energy vibe, Mindi was the ideal musician to launch Thornton Winery’s 24th Annual Champagne Jazz Series. Mindi and her talented band had everyone on their feet clapping, dancing and singing along throughout her concert.
An ecstatic crowd of more than 600 rocked with Mindi, who was featured on this season’s “American Idol” as a soloist and has had five highly successful major label solo releases to her credit. Her unique pop-classic approach to jazz and her powerful presence make for a magical performance. She is a small, blonde, beautiful woman whose size belies the huge, gorgeous sounds that emanate from her sax.
Providing strong accompaniments and some outstanding solo numbers were Mindi’s featured artists —singer and guitarist David Pack (best known as the lead singer with Ambrosia in the 60s and 70s), who drew the crowd to its feet with his own unique renditions of “You’re the Biggest Part of Me” and “How Much I Feel” and contemporary jazz guitarist Jeff Golub who, despite an unexpected onset of blindness, captivated the crowd with his soulful, passionate performance with his service dog, Luke, by his side. We were especially entranced with “Sidetracked” from his soon-to-be released album, “Three Kings.
The rest of Mindi’s talented back-up band enhanced the whole experience: guitarist, Jay Gore; drummer, Jamey Tate; keyboardist Rodney Lee; bassist Derrick Frank.
How could this sensational concert get any better.? The weather was perfect and so was the setting at Thornton Winery—a picturesque patio around a Mediterranean-style fountain in the middle of Temecula Valley Wine Country—a lovely area of rolling hills with about 40 wineries, located about an hour from San Diego and only a bit further from Los Angeles.
As if star-studded concerts aren’t enough, Thornton’s Champagne Jazz evenings offer guests a total sensory experience. Besides enjoying Thornton’s award-winning wines and champagnes, guests have the option of ordering from an outdoor grill with casual food or ordering a superb Gourmet Supper Package served at a reserved table under a covered patio.
Our meal during Mindi’s concert is just an example of the outstanding three-course meals prepared on Jazz nights by Thornton’s longtime, highly regarded chef, Steve Pickell. These meals change for each concert and sometimes reflect the music being performed (for instance, Latin food for a Latin artist.)
On the night of Mindi’s concert, our first course was a marinated artichoke and asparagus salad, served on crunchy greens, with tomato confit and shaved parmesan, all lightly drizzled with an Italian parsley vinaigrette. This innovative and delicious dish was perfectly paired with Thornton’s light and fruity 2010 Viognier.
The main course was an oven roasted all natural chicken breast served with creamy, toasted polenta, wild mushrooms, and fresh peas in a savory rosemary thyme au jus. This melt-in-your-mouth dish was a new take on chicken that had everyone cleaning their plates. The accompanying 2010 Mourvedre, with its earthy aroma and taste, enriched the dish, as did Mindi’s ongoing warm and invigorating sounds.
The scrumptious dessert was a fresh strawberry mascarpone tart served with a mellow 2010 Huis Vineyard Zinfandel. It was beautiful to behold but even better to taste.
While all the food was wonderful, this tart may have been the favorite of the evening with the luscious strawberries popping in our mouths as we washed them down with Thornton’s crisp but jammy zin.
Chef Pickell’s dishes are always bursting with palate-pleasing flavors from very fresh ingredients, which usually come from local vendors such as Crow’s Pass. The wine pairings result from a collaboration with Thornton’s talented Winemaker, David Vergari, who works closely with Pickell to provide the best experience for Thornton’s guests who all seemed to enjoy having their wines chosen to go with the dishes served.
Meanwhile, Mindi and her entourage kept outdoing themselves with one great number after another, playing expressive original arrangements of such favorites as “Any Way You Wanna” and “Be Beautiful.” Mindi has a warm, contagious love of life that is reflected in her heartfelt music. It was touching that her parents were there dancing away and she informed the audience that the jeans she was wearing were hand-me-downs from her proud father, who she described as her biggest supporter. At one point Mindi, along with her soaring sax, hopped off the stage and mingled with the thrilled audience as she rocked away. The band ended the evening with a foot-stomping encore of the Who’s “Pinball Wizard.”
As our glorious night at Thornton Winery was drawing to an end, we were comforted by the thought that nearly every weekend through the middle of October there will be top-notch artists performing here and other magnificent meals will be served.
The Owners of Thornton Winery, Steve and Sally Thornton, and their son, Steve, who is the winery’s president, created an event destined for amazing success when they started this unique jazz series 24 years ago. Thornton Winery’s Champagne Jazz series is the perfect way to have it all in one great experience: exceptional national and internationally known jazz artists performing in a heavenly setting with exceptional wines and food. What else could you ask for in a great evening with family and friends?
These concerts take place almost every weekend on either Saturdays or Sundays until October 21. Go to Thornton’s website (www.thorntonwine.com.) for a listing of the outstanding artists (such as George Benson, Dave Koz and BeBe Winans, Boney James, Euge Botti and Spyro Gyra Winans) who will be performing this season. You can also order tickets online, but do it soon. These concerts sell out! I know I’ll be back again and again.
Photos by Todd Montgomery