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Food and Wine Pairing, Zinfandel Style

ZAP 2010 is officially rolling. Tonight, the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers kicked things off with an event they call Good Eats and Zinfandel Pairing. It could also have been called Mountains of Food and Plenty of Red Wine. I guarantee that nobody left hungry tonight.


Forty-seven Zinfandel producers teamed up with nearly as many restaurants. (A couple of restaurants handled two wineries.) Almost all of the wineries were pouring two or more wines. And some restaurants offered multiple dishes as well. The word gourmand means both a person who has excellent, discriminating taste in food and drink and one who overindulges. Either type of gourmand would have enjoyed tonight’s event.

Speaking of over-indulging, I somehow managed to get small nibbles and sips of most of the offerings, an act of heroism in the line of duty which I’ll surely regret. Having done so, however, allows me to provide you with a well-informed list of highlights.

Best Wine Pairing: Ravenswood 1997 Dickerson Vineyard and Ravenswood 2007 Dickerson Vineyard.

I did say wine pairing, not wine and food pairing... Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson was there in person, chatting with the guests and pouring two very good wines. Many people assume, and others insist that Zinfandel, doesn’t age well. The fact is that well-made Zinfandel can age very nicely. Let it go long enough and it may be almost indistinguishable from aged Bordeaux.

The 1997 Ravenswood was a good 20 years too young to pass itself off as claret. But, it was old enough to be considered long-in-the-tooth for Zinfandel. It was also one of the best wines of the night, easily so. Balanced and soft, lovely fruit, good acidity and a fine choice for food or for sipping on its own. The 2007 was, of course, bolder, more viscous and showing more oak influence. But, it was also a very good Zinfandel and a good candidate for cellaring if you can resist drinking it now.

Best Food and Wine Pairing: Murphy-Goode Snake Eyes Zinfandel and Murphy-Goode Estate Chefs’ (Healdsburg) Pork Belly Sliders with Liar’s Dice Zin BBQ Sauce.

Complexity in food and/or wine can be the enemy of successful pairing. If you have something that is über-complex, don’t pair it. Enjoy the complexity unpolluted by anything else. If you want to create a great pairing, keep it pure and simple.

The chefs at Murphy-Goode did just that while serving up a reminder that pure and simple can also be heavenly if well-executed. Their mini-sandwiches were served on brioche that was both soft and toothsome. It was toasted until golden, no less and no more. There was just enough butter on the bread to provide the delicious flavor but not enough to be greasy, cloying or even visible. The pork belly was tender, juicy, unctuous, warm, flavorful and perfectly seasoned. There was also a lengthwise slice of cornichon to provide a bit of crunch, acidity and interest. And the sandwich was finished with it was served with a dab of the Zin BBQ sauce to provide a sweetly spicy counterpoint and tie in with the wine, but not more. The sauce wasn’t overly spicy. It didn’t drip from the sandwich or even begin to overwhelm the pork.

The wine, poured by social media phenom and all-around nice guy Hardy Wallace, was good. The food made it better. It had pure black fruit flavors, some added complexity from oak and a hint of sweetness that stood up to the sweetness of the BBQ sauce. There was enough acidity in the wine to cut through the rich pork belly. The alcohol was, (for today’s Zins) moderate at 15% and provided no “heat” whatsoever but lent enough richness of mouthfeel to team well with pork belly.

Honorable Mention for Food Pairing: Estate Restaurant (Sonoma) Mini “PB & J” sandwiches with Mano Formate Bacon (more on these in a moment) with Gamba Vineyards and Winery 2007 Estate Old Vine, Russian River Zinfandel.

The Gamba wine from vines more than 100 years old was good but, in a hall full of good Zinfandel, the standout in the pairing was the excellent sandwich. Delicious, harmonious and just the right size for such events (a single bite), they would have worked with any Zinfandel in the hall. And that’s why this wasn’t the “top pairing.” The two items weren’t conjoined twins as were the Murphy-Goode offerings.

Best Food: There was a tie for first here and a tie for Honorable Mention. The two best dishes were the Murphy-Goode Pork Belly Sliders I drooled over above and the Estate Restaurant PB & J that I will heap praise on now.

First, the name PB & J is cute and served as an inspiration. But this was not your mother’s peanut butter and jelly. The bread was 1-inch balls of Pecorino Gougere sliced in half. (Gougere are French cheese puffs made from choux pastry. Cheese puffs that you would get at places such as The French Laundry and Alain Ducasse. You can find Alain’s recipe for them here.)

And there was no peanut butter. Estate used pinenut butter, presumably made from lightly toasted pinenuts that had been lovingly hand-gathered by Italian grandmothers. And, of course, there was the housemade Zinfandel jam. All of that would have made for a nice, elegant little bite. But Estate kicked it up several notches by nestling a two-inch length of thick cut, perfectly cooked, house-cured bacon that I think is made from their own pigs. (Mano Formate is the brand-name the Fig Girl family of restaurants uses for their house-made charcuterie. They also teach serious classes in making charcuterie.)

Honorable Mentions: These honors go to two East Bay restaurants. Angela’s Bistro of Alameda served thin, delicate and delicious slices of Duck Strudel with Port Wine Reduction Sauce. Miss Pearl’s Jam House (Oakland) offered Curried Goat with Mango Chutney on Roti Bread. Both dishes were good enough to make me want to visit the restaurants. Soon. And the Mango Chutney complemented the flavors of the Rosenblum Cellars 2007 Monte Rosso Reserve Zinfandel so well that the pairing nearly earned an Honorable Mention for pairing too.

Most Unusual Food and Wine Pairing that Worked: The winners here were the Three Wine Company 2007 Old Vines California Zinfandel and the Hali´imaile General Store Crab Manicotti with Cheese Sauce. If you’re guessing right now that it was the food in this pairing that qualifies as unusual, you’d be correct. Celebrated Italian restauranteur and Chopped judge Scott Conant would have been jumping up and down about the use of both cheese and seafood in an Italian-inspired dish. But it worked. The overall effect was one of American comfort food dialed back a bit and then turned on it’s head. Essentially it was a delicated Mac and Cheese with a heavy dose of sweet, shredded crab. The dish was tasty on its own and, inconceivably, worked will with the Zinfandel. The restaurant is one of those run by Bev Gannon who is the headline celebrity chef for this year’s festival. I’m looking forward to enjoying more of her innovative work in the coming days.

Most Over-the-Top Effort at a Pairing: The winner here is A Chef For You from Philadelphia, PA. I think we’ve already established that pork works with Zinfandel. So can some blue cheeses. And most people agree that ripe, rich Zinfandel goes with chocolate. And with dried red fruit. Hmmm... The dish they offered was a salad of Spring greens with crispy pork belly, dried cranberries, Maytag blue cheese, chocolate brownie “croutons” and chocolate vinaigrette dressing.

It was a valiant attempt that didn’t quite succeed. The first problem with my serving was that the pork belly didn’t make it onto my plate. Dang! The brownie croutons were also too sweet which made the wine taste a bit flat. And the salad had too much of the chocolate vinaigrette. Overall, it was a daring attempt perhaps let down by the challenges of executing for such a large group of people. As I mentioned above, simplicity is crucial to successful food and wine pairing.

The Please Don’t Try This At Home (No. Really. Don’t.) Pairing: This is another lesson for home chefs. One single ingredient can completely blow a pairing. It can take something that would be good and make it... awful. Mustards Grill (Napa) is a high-quality wine country restaurant that makes hearty, tasty food that goes well with red wine. That being the case I was completely baffled by their Pork Tostadita with Spicy Salsa.

If they had served exactly that, it would have been a fine pairing. But they topped the mini tostadas with a very large dollop of soft, tangy, salty Feta cheese. I discarded at least half of the Feta and the remainder was still enough to make the wine taste downright nasty. Note to self: never serve young Feta with red wine.

Best Bumper Sticker: I’m torn on this one. I’m going to call it a tie between Ravenswood’s Yiddish translation of “No Wimpy Wines” and their translation into Morse Code of the same line. Hilarious!

Now that I’ve told you about some memorable pairings from ZAP, I’d like to hear about some of yours. What’s the most memorable food and wine pairing you’ve ever had?

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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