San Antonio chefs paired up with cellar masters Sunday night for an event staged by Culinaria every year near the beginning of the fall season.
This winning combination invites wine collectors to bring out rare and wonderful bottles to share while chefs and their crews do some pretty fancy footwork marrying food to wine.
This event, at $300 per ticket, is one of Culinaria’s most sought-after and usually sells out early. Surprisingly, it doesn’t call for dressing up — business casual is the stated attire. But there’s nothing casual about the expectations of the guests who gathered in the skills kitchen of the Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio.
Our table had high expectations of (as well as confidence in) our cellar master, wine expert and Vintages 2.0 owner Fernando “Woody” de Luna, a longtime wine writer and certified wine educator as well as wine retailer who recently marked 35 years in the wine business in central Texas.
De Luna is respected especially for his great knowledge and appreciation of Old World wines, especially the Rieslings of Germany, Alsace and Austria, the wines of France — especially Burgundy and Champagne — as well as Spanish Rioja and Sherry and Italy’s Tuscany and Piedmont.
Our chef, Jesse Perez, is the chef and owner of Arcade Midtown Kitchen at the Pearl. His menu reflected his love of Southwest and interior Mexican flavors and spices, locally sourced ingredients, such as Bandera quail, Mexican sea scallops, lamb and more. His starter was a Ceviche of Clams and Mexican Bay Scallops, a cool but crisply flavored mélange of tender, marinated scallops with a chamomile and green-apple sauce, brioche crouton and citrus.
While one might expect that the chef and cellar master had put their heads together over many tastings and discussions to come up with the pairings, Perez simply asked for the wine list, brief explanations of what de Luna planned to bring — then did some footwork on his own.
“There are two ways to pair wines with food — you can contrast the flavors or match them,” Perez said at the beginning of the meal. His decision was to match them. Hence, the chamomile and green-apple flavors in the ceviche, which echoed the bright, crisp flavors of the Pierre Gimonnet Brut NV Blanc de Blancs Cuis 1er Cru Magnum.
De Luna’s first offering for the evening and was not one of the big-name brands of the Champagne region. Rather it was a grower Champagne, which means it is a product of the men and women on their own estates, growing their own grapes, as de Luna described. This was a beautiful, balanced sparkler well-suited as an aperitif all by itself, as well as a worthy companion to the bright colors and fresh seafood in the appetizer.
The courses continued with similar success. Bandera Texas Quail with Smoked Chile was served with a spectacular and rare 2010 Schloss Gobelsburg Riesling Tradition Kamtal Magnum, from Austria. The wine was dry, yet the fruit gave an impression of sweetness that was a good foil for the dark chile sauce as well as the spicy bite of a white bean hummus. The food was well thought out — and a delicate little chicken-fried quail leg-quarter was a table favorite. But in this case, the wine was the wonder: Its complexity of flavor, acidity, vinous characteristics and more cascaded over the palate and unfolded “like a waterfall” as de Luna described it. “I love the purity of wines in the Old World,” he said. It was sheer gold in a glass.
In the next course, Perez came back with a lovely Butter Poached Cold Water Lobster and Prawns, an excellent choice for the 2006 Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir Domaine Billaud Simon Chablis, France Magnum.
Chablis is a wine that, for me and most other Old World wine enthusiasts, is one of the best expressions of the Chardonnay grape. (The other being blanc de blancs Champagne.) The elegance of this Grand Cru wine, dry yet so full in character, vibrant minerality and other expressions of the famous terroir, showed that a Chardonnay doesn’t have to sparkle to be a classic accompaniment lobster.
Also, as de Luna pointed out, this wine, which comes from vineyards at the northern limit of the region, is one of only seven vineyards allowed to carry the Grand Cru designation.
While the lobster in this dish was sweet and tender, even this classy crustacean was nearly upstaged by Perez’s inspiring (as in, let’s go home and make some now) Gazpacho Blanco and Toasted Almonds that provide the brothy foundation for the dish. The “untraditional garnishes” included some unusual grapes that Perez had picked up at Central Market that day, called ‘witches fingers.” Dark and purple they were — and elongated. But their witchy presence was an artful addition to the white gazpacho.
Perez chose lamb — barbacoa, chop, loin and belly — for his third course. The rich meat was surrounded with an array of grilled and roasted vegetables that added color and tamed the fattiness of the course. The tender and flavorful barbacoa seemed to be a table favorite — “I’d buy a couple of pounds of this and take it home for breakfast tacos,” said one approving guest.
Spain was the Old World region from which De Luna chose his wine. A 1998 Gran Reserva 904 La Rioja Alta, Haro, Spain, Magnum was the kind of red wine that lamb wants — as the Spaniards know so well. The wine was a sleek version of this famed Spanish red, robust and smooth and was compatible with each of the versions of lamb on the plate.
We ended this culinary cruise with a cheese board, Sweet and Savory, which ranged from an excellent ricotta cheesecake brownie to the chef’s selection of cheeses, fruits and nuts. A fun surprise was to find a bit of dark, fragrant honey in the comb that was provided by one of our table mates, Robert H. Holliday. His longtime hobby of beekeeping added an intensely sweet ending to this meal.
With the cheese board came de Luna’s second Riesling of the evening, the 2001 Erdener Pralat Riesling Auslese Gold Kapsule Weingut Monchoff, Mosel, Germany. The “Auslese’ in the name lets you know that this is one of the sweeter styles of the wine, and with the rich cheeses and nuts, it was a fine match.
As the evening drew to an end, the various tables, set up throughout the kitchen and dining areas, each custom decorated by the hosts, gave out with loud cheers for their wines, chefs and crews. It was praise well-deserved.
Other chef/cellar master teams included chef/restaurateur Jason Dady with Phil Seelig and Hien Nguyen; John Brand, chef of Omni Hotels restaurants Las Canarias and Ostra with Gabriel Guajardo; chefs James Moore and Jeff White with Dr. Richard Becker of Becker Vineyards and Geronimo Lopez-Monascal, executive chef at NAO, with Dr. Joe Becker, Becker Vineyards.
To reach Fernando de Luna at Vintages 2.0, call 210-410-0296.
Photos by Bonnie Walker