In my nearly 12 years of producing and hosting “Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert” , I’ve had the good fortune to partake of many excellent dinners on just about every continent.
And thanks to my passion for cuisine and a score of excellent chef contacts, many of whom I call friends, I’ve also been treated to incredibly special menus: anniversary dinners , birthday dinners, James Beard dinners and any manner of winery and winemaker dinners.
I write this not to brag, but to put into perspective just how excellent and special was a dinner I attended staged by Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue.
The dinner was a celebration of 40 years of Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue and 40 years of Wagner Family of Wine. Jack Stack’s Martin City restaurant marked its 40th anniversary last August.
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Wagner Family of Wine is two years beyond that after going “all in” in the wine business in 1972. It was actually the following year that put the Wagner’s on the map.
The 1973 Caymus VineyardsCabernet Sauvignon was a huge hit, earning the Wagners both critical acclaim and consumer recognition.
Chuck Wagner was just 19 when his father, Charlie, told him the family was going to be replacing its orchards with vineyards. Charlie and Chuck worked many long days side by side helping build one of the most successful family-owned vineyard and winery operations in California and beyond.
Today, Wagner Family of Wine, still anchored by Caymus, also includes several other notable brands, and there are three other Wagners working with Chuck on an ever-broadening, ever-improving portfolio of excellent wine.
All of that was on display at the dinner, along with the culinary acumen of Jack Stack’s Freight House team led by General Manager Nathan Tilton and Kitchen Manager Farris Saadah.
“I was thrilled to have the opportunity to design the menu around Caymus wines given that our brands share so much in common,” Saadah said. “Both Caymus and Jack Stack are family owned brands whose focus has always remained on the quality of the product produced above all else.”
So, with all of that providing the back story, let me flesh out the details, which unfolded over several hours, multiple courses, and an ocean of fine wine.
The evening started with a passed appetizer of a Polenta Cake with Hickory Grilled Shrimp and BBQ Butter. I had one, but could have had five.
It was that good, as was the pairing, the Caymus Conondrum White Blend. Natural sweetness with the shrimp and polenta cake, a hint of sweetness in the wine, and crisp acidity on the finish made for a lovely match.
Next up was a Smoked Turkey Confit salad featuring baby frisee lettuce, goat cheese, spiced pecans and cranberry coulis. Two Mer Soleil Chardonnays accompanied the dish: The Reserve, which is unoaked, and the Silver, which features some oak aging.
The Mer Soleil wines hail from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County, prime territory for the Burgundy grape varieties, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
I’m not a big fan of California Chardonnay as a category, but the Mer Soleil offerings are the exception rather than the rule-wines based on balance and complexity rather than power and extract.
Not surprisingly, I enjoyed the unoaked Reserve more than the oaked Silver, and found the Reserve to be the better match for the salad.
And, that brings me to my favorite course and wine pairing of the night — the Smoked Salmon with edamame succotash, radish sprouts and lemon dill aioli, served with a Bell Gloss Pinot Noir Blanc — a bone-dry, aromatic rose.
I’m not a fan of the name, which is a bit confusing. Is it a red wine, a white wine or a pink wine? The answer is a very pale pink wine as the Bell Gloss Pinot Noir Blanc gets just a touch of exposure to the skins of the red Pinot Noir grapes from which it’s made.
But, I’m burying the lead as the real story on this wine isn’t the color, it’s the amazingly complex aromas and flavors as the Belle Gloss glides from the glass with a plethora of raspberry and cherry nuances on the nose, and then, on the palate.
What’s more, it was perfect with the salmon, just the right weight while pushing all the correct flavor notes. I finished my salmon and then my wife’s. My wine, and then, well, hers was already gone. Don’t judge me. It was that good.
Saadah agreed as this pairing and course was his favorite too.
“The salmon cooks so beautifully in the smoker. The fatty nature of the salmon allows it to absorb a generous touch of smoke in a relatively short period of time. The sweetness of the red pepper, corn and edamame provide the perfect foundation for the delicate smoky salmon, which all married perfectly with the red fruit undertones and crisp acidity of the wine,” Saadah shared.
After all those superlatives, there were still four courses to go: Pork Shoulder Burnt Ends with two Belle Glos single vineyard Pinot Noirs, a Hickory Grilled Rack of Lamb with mint chimichurri matched to a Caymus Zinfandel and an Emmolo Merlot, a Wild Mushroom Risotto with the Caymus 40th Annivesary Napa Valley Cabernet and the Caymus Special Selection Cabernet, and a Pumpkin Crème Brulee with the Mer Soleil Late Harvest Viognier. That’s a lot to digest, but you don’t have to tell me that. I was there.
As for the cuisine, the Rack of Lamb stood out for me. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the mint chimicurri sauce as I’m not generally a fan of savory and sweet, but there was just enough zing in the sauce to make it a perfect compliment for the lamb, which was prepared perfectly.
The Caymus Zinfandel was my wine of choice with this course, which was surprise number two as I’m not a big fan of Zinfandel.
Like the earlier Chardonnays, however, the Caymus Zin offered real depth of flavor and aromas without knocking you over the head with 16.5 percent alcohol.
But, the wine that really blew me away was the Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, long one of my favorite Napa wines as well as one of the better Cabs produced out of The Napa Valley.
The flagship wine of the Wagner Family of Wines, the Caymus Special Selection Cab is made from the very best barrels, never in difficult years. It is complex wine with layers of expressive fruit flavors and hints of with hints of jam and vanilla. I don’t think it was the best match for the wild mushroom risotto, but at that point I’d just be picking nits.
All in all, the Wagner Family of Wine/Fiorella’s Jack Stack dinner was an amazing event as gastronomy and bacchanalia, and I was honored to be there.
For his part, Saadah said he was honored to help created the dishes that made for such a big part of the evening.
“I was hoping diners would come away from the dinner full, happy and with a new found outlook on how truly remarkable our food is at Jack Stack,” he said. “Although we only have these special wine dinners occasionally, we put the same amount of passion and effort into each and every plate we serve in all of our restaurants.”
Well stated. Well created. Well matched. An evening to remember with Wagner Family of Wine and Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue.
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, for nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado.