Wine Lovers Savor Tastings and Food Pairings

When wine connoisseurs Linda Kissam and Tom Plant invited me to a wine tasting and food pairing, I was thrilled to attend and the experience exceeded my already high expectations.  Linda and Tom had some special wines for us to taste and we were all encouraged to bring dishes that would go with our assigned wines.  Our group is called the Occasional Wine Council and meets “on occasion” to taste and critique wines along with food prepared by the participants to match specific wines.


Our goal is to learn about wineries we might want to visit and to experience wines we might want to try again.  We also enjoy learning about how the wines we tasted can enhance certain food combinations. 


Our gathering’s picturesque setting was at a lovely estate in the Temecula Valley Wine Country, which is about an hour from San Diego and not much further from Los Angeles.  Our host was Ginger Giordano who was definitely the “hostess with the mostest.”  The table was attractively set and our food offerings included some creative dishes prepared by the chef and owners of Jazzy’s, a new restaurant opening soon in Temecula. Seven new and old friends sat congenially around the table, tasting, eating, and talking about wine and food.  How could we not have fun?


Most of us had researched our assigned wines ahead of time so we had an understanding of the wines and an idea of what food pairings might work best.  Our leader, Linda Kissam, had also prepared printed material about each wine and winery.  So, while this was a convivial gathering with lots of laughter and stories shared, we were also serious about evaluating the wines and commenting on how well the food paired with each wine.


We started the evening with a delightful Shannon Ridge 2010 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc. The winery is located about 25 miles north of Napa close to Mendicino and produces some outstanding wines. This sauvignon blanc was no exception.  Everyone in our group enjoyed this wine, which was light, slightly crisp, but also fruity and well-balanced. Typically, sauvignon blancs go best with delicate citrus or seafood dishes and so our first dish—an avocado, mango, shrimp salad with a mild lime cilantro dressing—was a very good match. This wine is also a good buy for the quality at $16 to $19 a bottle.


We next tasted a Napa Cellars 2010 Chardonnay, which was oaky with a mellow butterscotch flavor that still had a pleasant acidity.  Along with this chardonnay, we enjoyed sesame rye crackers with a cream cheese, cranberry spread and also some spicy meatballs that went surprisingly well with the chardonnay.  The chardonnay was popular with our group and seemed very versatile as far as possible food pairings. This wine sells for about $20 a bottle.


At this point, the owner of Jazzy’s, Omar Smith, served us delicious balsamic marinated buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes and fresh basil on skewers, prepared by Chef Monet Taylor. We all agreed these tidbits went well with the chardonnay but not as well with the lighter sauvignon blanc.


Another special treat prepared by a member of our group was pancetta venison meatballs made with a port wine reduction.  This innovative, rich dish was enhanced by a Napa Cellars 2009 Zinfandel, which was also rich and jammy with berry flavors of plum and cherry.  Some members of our group ranked this wine the best of the evening.  It sells for about $22 a bottle.  This zin also went well with some delectable bacon brownies that one guest had prepared.


We tasted another nice wine from Napa Cellars—the 2008 Cabernet.  The grapes for this cab come from several vineyards in the Napa area and the resulting blend had a strong hint of cocoa and berries, both in the nose and on the palate.  This wine enhanced a delicious stir fry of sirloin and Chinese eggplant and sells for $26 a bottle.


The last wine we enjoyed was the Vihuela Winery 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon.  Vihuela is located in the Templeton gap in the Paso Robles region.  The wine is 90 percent Vihuela grapes and 10 percent grapes from Vista Creek, another Paso area vineyard.  The area is known for its chalky soils and cooler evenings, which allow fruit to mature while still retaining acidity. This was a nicely spiced, light cab, well balanced with good acid, as predicted. We all agreed that at only $10 a bottle, this cab is a great buy.


During the evening, Jazzy’s chef surprised us with two more tantalizing treats:  a Temecula version of a Philly cheesesteak sandwich, infused with Merlot and smothered in fresh provolone, and savory mushroom crostinis.  Both dishes went very well with the cabs.  


Before the official wine tasting part of the evening came to a close, we each ranked the wines we had tasted on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 being the best.  There was some consensus, but also it was obvious that we each had different palates and preferences.  We all did agree, however, on one wine (not mentioned in this article) that was not good and probably corked.


Our wine and food tasting evening was lots of fun for everyone involved and we also enjoyed learning about wines we had not tasted before.  It was especially interesting to see how many of us tasted different flavors from the same wines. 


Even though the participants in our event are an organized group that will be meeting regularly, you could easily host this kind of event in your own home.  It would be simple to choose a variety of wines in advance, assign a bottle to each guest, and ask guests to bring an appetizer or other dish that would pair well with their assigned wine. Another option would be to ask each guest to bring wine and food to be evaluated by the group.  You could also focus on wines from a certain region, such as all Napa or all Paso Robles wines, or on certain types of wines, such as all cabs or zins.  The key is to assemble a congenial group of people who love wine and enjoy talking about wine and food.  Fortunately, that includes almost all of my friends!


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