Hidden Pleasures

Bottle of wine at local restaurant
photograph by John Anderson

Like a stoned pig in a restaurant Dumpster, Austin is growing. Drawn by the hip local nightlife and rich, computer-driven workdays, thousands are flocking to Austin and filling its roads with a metropolitan mosaic of cars.

Those of us already here sit idly by, helpless to stop the ballooning of our city's borders, and even worse, powerless to hush the accompanying annoyance of media "updates" about its growth. At all points of the compass, strip malls and chain restaurants spring to life, pulses powered by the wealth of newcomers. Yet, somehow, among the incursion of immigrant invaders and Macaroni-Grill masqueraders, an epicurean treasure hides among the trees of central Austin -- concealing itself from many, old and new.

The culinary Sasquatch of which I speak is the vintner dinner. You may have seen one of these dinners in a restaurant's back room or off in one of its cozy little corners. Or you may never have seen one and have no idea what I'm talking about. Either way, vintner dinners have a mysterious appeal that's well worth checking out. A vintner dinner is a prix fixe dinner event (price and menu pre-arranged) at which a vintner speaks about his or her estate's wines. Sound dry? Well, it's not ... not with five to six wines at hand, not to mention five to six courses, each precisely paired with a wine.

Usually ranging from $60 to $75, vintner dinners may seem overpriced, but this is usually not the case. In fact, Cathe Dailey, co-owner of Castle Hill Cafe, told me that Castle Hill rarely makes a profit from its vintner dinners; she does them mostly as a treat for her most valued customers. "The food has to be fabulous or people won't want to come back," she says, adding that the dinners are a lot of work. (In light of this, Castle Hill will stop hosting vintner dinners for a year or so to give the staff a break.)

Of interest is the way the menus are created for these events. Whereas wine is traditionally chosen to match food, vintner dinners demand the opposite; chefs create dishes to match the wines. This allows the opportunity to see the chef's palate and skills really shine.

The dessert course for a recent Fess Parker Winery dinner at Brio Vista illustrates just this point. Pastry chef Mark Paul was set the challenge of pairing a dessert to the 1997 Fess Parker "Central Coast" Muscat Canelli. Alone, the wine smelled interesting enough with some fuzzy peach, cinnamon, and lemon Mop & Glo characteristics but disappointed with a somewhat flabby palate -- it lacked acidity. However, with Miniature Spice Cakes with Sautéed Texas Peaches, the wine seemed citric and bright. Afterward, I complimented Paul on the pairing and asked if he thought the same about the wine. He agreed, saying that the wine's palate surprised him because a bottle he tried a couple weeks earlier didn't have the same lack of acidity. He then went on to explain that he added more honey to the peaches at the last minute to counter the wine's lack of tartness.

More recently, I greatly enjoyed the pairings created by the Four Seasons Cafe kitchen staff at a Pine Ridge vintner dinner. Here, the wines of Pine Ridge and sister winery Archery Summit were matched with a delicious succession of continental dishes. Most impressive was Risotto with Honey Pepper, Roasted Range Chicken, Braised Leeks, and Parmesan, paired with a pepper-, oatmeal-, and raspberry-scented 1996 Archery Summit Premier Cuvée Pinot Noir. Delicious.

Between courses, Nancy Andrus, who co-owns both Archery Summit and Pine Ridge with her husband, Gary Andrus, entertained us with background on the wine and stories of her husband's journey from Olympic skier to farmer. With elegance and sincerity, she explained in layman's terms the geography of Napa Valley, farming techniques, and background on the Pine Ridge philosophy. Really quite a nice occasion, as vintner dinners often are.

I found out about the Pine Ridge dinner on the winery's Web site calendar (http://www.pineridgewinery.com/), but the information about the few other vintner dinners I've been to has come to me by word of mouth. With this in mind, I started to wonder how anyone ever finds out about these dinners. After checking around, I found out that most restaurants maintain a list of customers whom they contact for such events. Jeffrey's, for instance, maintains an Excel spreadsheet of wine-loving customers who have shown consistent interest in eating chef David Garrido's foods. Fonda San Miguel, Sardine Rouge, the Four Seasons Cafe, Brio Vista, Ella's, Castle Hill Cafe, and Mirabelle maintain similar spreadsheets or databases.

Some restaurants, however, advertise their dinners in the restaurant. At Shoreline Grill, for instance, you can periodically find announcements at the front of the restaurant or in its check sleeves. Tocai of Austin does the same, in addition to maintaining a small database of interested customers. Other restaurants, such as Brio Vista, advertise their wine events in the Austin American-Statesman's XL Ent. and in The Austin Chronicle.

Another place to check for information about vintner dinners is the new wine megastore the GrapeVine Market, which will be co-hosting dinners with various restaurants around town. Its first dinner will take place at Ella's Restaurant on July 3. Wines from Bonny Doon Vineyard will be featured, and the highly eccentric vintner Randall Graham will preside over the dinner. GrapeVine will eventually list future vintner dinners on its Web site (http://www.grapevinemarket.com/).

Mirabelle Restaurant is also a good place to check. Michael Vilim, co-owner and general manager, is well-known throughout Austin for his impeccable wine-and-food pairing abilities. With a wealth of knowledge, Vilim and chef Jesse Torres plan to hold dinners once or twice a month.

Sardine Rouge, too, plans to host many wine events to accompany its French-centered wine menu. While still in development, the plans will most likely include vintner dinners, as well as some other wine dinners and tastings that should prove interesting to those wanting to learn more about wines from abroad.

Finally, if you're a Fonda San Miguel fan, don't miss the wine dinners it has planned for the fall. Owner Tom Gilliland and chef Roberto Santibañez will continue their exploration of wine and Mexican food pairing with a series of wine dinners scheduled about once every month. For a special millennium wine dinner, they'll even showcase some of Santibañez's skills with French and Spanish cuisines as well.

As I've mentioned, vintner dinners are hard to find. You just need to know where to look. Restaurants around town are consistently changing format and planning events shortly before they take place. If you're interested, you need to express your interest at your favorite restaurant; you'll never find Sasquatch if you don't seek it out.

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