For those of you who have no clue what I am talking about, there are a number of wine retailers who have paired up with local restaurants to feature a particular set of wines with a meal. Generally, each course is paired with a specific wine. The idea is to try new wines and see how they can be paired with certain foods. There are also usually representatives from a particular winery and, of course, folks from the local distributors. Incidentally, some of the local distributor representatives are good people to know. They can clue you in on what is what and if there are particularly good values to be had in the local market.
Carnaval, the Brazilian restaurant over in the Foley's-Century Theaters area, along with JJ's hosted a dinner featuring a four course menu, plus appetizers paired with wines by Seghesio- a three-generation winery located in northern Sonoma County. Edd Lopez, the national sales guy for Seghesio, and practically a member of the Seghesio family, was on hand to talk about Seghesio and the wines. Keeping in mind that Edd's job is to sell the wine, he did a great job of describing each wine and telling the Seghesio story. He was very informative and I didn't feel like he had memorized tasting notes. As one more aside, you simply have to encounter someone from wine country, especially a winery employee, and listen to them describe the flavors of what is in the glass. This is where you get all the comments about pears, hint of leather, blah, blah, blah. I seldom agree, but it is always entertaining.
The wines were fantastic. If you see Seghesio around, I highly recommend that you pick up a bottle of their Zinfandel and their Pinot Grigio. Very good stuff.
The paired foods had some highlights and some low lights, but from what I could tell, the crowd was very happy with the effort.
The evening started with a glass of Seghesio Pinot Grigio and a selection of cheeses, crackers, and some Brazilian sort of hush puppy that had the consistency of rubber. The Pinot was really great. Seghesio ferments their Pinot Grigio slowly which results in a much more developed structure. It was rich and creamy, like a Chardonnay, but without the oak and the overwhelming butter sort of feel.
Next course was a salad of spinach greens with shrimp, some croutons, and a nice fruity dressing. All-in-all, a really nice effort on the salad. The greens were fresh and cool and the shrimp was cooked just right. Spot on. I can't recall the name of the wine. It was a white, lighter than the Pinot Grigio. It paired well. Normally, I hate trying to pair wines with salads because the acidity of the dressing can clash with acidity in the wine. This worked well, though.
Now onto main courses. We were presented with two glasses of Zinfandel (one of the Fork's personal favorites). One glass was the Seghesio Old Vine Zin- which is pretty much exactly what that sounds like. This is wine from grapes grown on really old vines. It is everything a good Zin should be- spicy, somewhat tannic and well-developed structure. This was a 2006 and perhaps just a tad on the tight side. Not overly tannic, but a 2005 would have been nice. The other glass was Seghesio's Rockpile Zin. Rockpile is a new AOC- that is a specifically designated appellation- an officially recognized sub-region. This was also good wine and was quite different from the Old Vine. Perhaps a bit more minerally. It was different up front. By the way, these wines were poured in great glasses- big Reidels- exactly the sort of glass a big wine like that should be served in. The paired food was a seared ahi tuna with the obligatory gingery-garlicy sauce; two smoked lamb lollipops (two overcooked lamb chops) with an odd minty lemon butter; and some braised pheasant. The pheasant was good. The tuna was okay (really, if you don't overcook good tuna, it's pretty hard to mess up), the lamb was a loser. Meat as delicate as a lamb chop does NOT benefit from the application of smoke in my humble opinion. Between the smoke and the over-cooking, you had something that really didn't let the flavors of the lamb shine through.
Next course was a smoked pork tenderloin with some kind of sauce. Joining it on the plate were servings of a carrot and parsnip puree. The vegetables were good. The pork was fine, but again, what's with the friggin smoke? It was a little too heavy. The sauce served with it was a Seghesio Omaggio. This was the most expensive wine served that evening. Omaggio retails somewhere around 60 bucks a bottle. It's a blend of Cabernet and Sangiovese- sort of a shot at a super Tuscan blend. It was really rich, smooth, and full of dark fruit flavors.
By this point, I was confronted with a very unique problem: too much wine. I know that is an extremely odd "problem" to have, but really, by this point in the evening, we were on the verge of being over-served. Granted, one is not required to consume every drop of wine set in front of you, but geez, you don't want to waste it. The Fork likes drinking, even on a Wednesday night. The deal is though, the more wine you drink the less you are actually going to taste. As it turns out, alcohol seems to affect one's body and that includes your tongue and other parts of you tasting apparatus. This is why people who are doing serious tasting aspirate (fancy word for spit out) wine after thoroughly tasting it. I could tell the gross differences between these wines at this point, but after you have had five generous pours (not a bad thing), ferreting out the subtleties is not going to happen. The glassware at Carnaval is also a bit odd. The Pinot Grigio was served in those big globular glasses- the one hoisted by Chef Tracy in the Carnaval television commercial. These look cool, but they would be better for keeping a pet goldfish than drinking wine. The white glass for the wine paired with the salad and the glasses for the Zins were perfect. Then it went downhill. The Omaggio was served in one of those silly-ass stemless glasses. The bowl (well, the whole glass, since that's all it is) was too small for a wine that big. The only thing I could smell with that glass (even after five big glasses of wine) was the soap or hand lotion used by the servers who handled the glass before I got it. (One last rant as long as we are on the subject of scent. Carnaval had burning on our table a vanilla scented candle. WTF??!! Candles are nice for setting the mood, and a scented candle is great in a family room or bathroom, but NEVER on a table where people are trying to enjoy food. Major screw up in my book, but easily remedied.) The last wine, a Port actually, was served in a small snifter- not real keen on those.
Okay, last course- a huge fudgy chocolate brownie served with about two tablespoons of vanilla ice cream and three raspberries. As mentioned above, it was served with a Port that is not even offered here in SD. The Port was very rich and had lots of character. It also had lots of punch with a 24% alcohol content. My glass was also full of sediment. The dessert was good, but it was too much. I was worried I would contract gout sitting right there. Count 'em- by then four big glasses of red wine (we got a bonus pour of the Rockpile Zin- THANKS!), preceded by two whites and then very rich chocolate and a rich port. Something a tad lighter may have been in order.
Bottom line: Phenomenal wines and a nice try at the food, but a lack of follow-through on the execution. The meal definitely looked better on paper. But, like I said, a lot of people seemed to enjoy it and the Fork is definitely spoiled when it comes to food, which means I can admittedly get overly critical about details at times. I would be willing to try another wine dinner at Carnaval, but Chef, you've got a strike against you.
By all means, if you like food and you like wines, even if you are a wine beginner trying to increase your own knowledge- especially of how to pair wines with foods- go try a wine dinner. Just ask your favorite wine retailer if they sponsor these sorts of dinners. Chances are they do.