Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Monterey Bay Aquarium and Estania Wines- pairing of two landmarks

by Dwight Casimere

Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the landmark attractions of the 
Monterey Peninsula, which sits as a commanding presence at the foot of historic Cannery Row. Likewise, Estancia (Spanish for ‘estate’) is one of the premiere wineries of the Monterey Peninsula, capturing the essence of this rich and agriculturally diverse region. Estancia’s General Manager and Director of Winemaking, Scott Kelley, teamed with the Aquarium’s Portola Restaurant Executive Chef, David Anderson, to create an unforgettable wine tasting dinner in the Aquarium’s Kelp Forest.

A walk-around tasting afforded sampling of the Estancia’s award-winning wines, including Estancia Reserve Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meritage and Riesling, which were later paired with Chef Anderson’s creations. About a hundred gourmands who attended the dinner, which was the premiere opening night event to the 13th Annual Great Wine Escape Weekend sponsored by the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association in conjunction with Wine Enthusiast Magazine, had an opportunity stroll the galleries and exhibits of the Aquarium while tasting Estancia’s exquisite wines.

More than 30,000 sea animals were on display with tasting tables interspersed among the galleries. Guests drank Estancia Pinot Grigio ($15) as they were served passed hors d’oveuvres of crab cakes, seared scallops and tuna tartar. Passing by the bat ray ‘petting pool’, one of the little critters must have figured something was up, because he surfaced from the water as he approached me, perhaps hoping to snag a tidbit of Chef Anderson’s tasty fare!

At another aquatic gallery, a giant octopus turned a deep coral/crimson color as it scurried from one end to the other, displaying its massive tentacles. “Its really unusual for her to come out like that before a crowd,” a nearby aquarium staff member told me, as guests flashed their cell phone and digital cameras at the fantastic display.

After that exhaustive photo session, it was time to refresh! Estancia’s superb Pinot Grigio, with its pale golden straw color, aromas of Golden Delicious apples and jasmine and distinct flavors of melon and citrus was the perfect refuge. It also provided an excellent accompaniment to the menu sampling.

Estancia’s General Manager Wine Director Scott Kelley was the gracious host, introducing the wines as they were poured, including Estancia Reserve 2007 Chardonnay(around $20, if you can find it!) paired with Spanish almond soup, wild Oregon pink shrimp, garlic chips and Carmel Valley olive oil.

“Chef Anderson and I thought it would be a good idea to use this dinner to not only showcase the wine, but to highlight the terrific produce, farm products and other regional delicacies like our olive oil and, of course, the bounty from the sea around us,” Kelley said.

Estancia’s marvelous Reserve 2007 Pinot Noir ($32) paired perfectly with the farmed arctic char blanquette crepe with pinot noir gastrique and gremolata as we dined under the watchful eye of a shark, swimming in concentric circles around the towering glass tank. Schools of fish huddled above as if seeking refuge near the surface. They looked like a shimmering blanket of stars above the sinister waters below.

Braised beef short rib with red wine risotto was the entrée’ and centerpiece of the evening. It was paired with Estancia Reserve 2006 Meritage ($29.99) from the famed Paso Robles region.“This is our pride and joy,” Kelley said, his chest swelling.

“We’ve also been making premium Pinot Noir long before the movie ‘Sideways.’ Its nice to know that the public is finally realizing what we’ve known at the winery and in this region all along. It’s a wine presented in a true Burgundian style with deep garnet color and ripe berries and a creamy mouth feel and long, smooth finish. The wine is aged in new French oak, but not so much that you feel like you’re chewing on it. We went for a lighter style that would pair well with a meal.”

From the taste of things, he was spot on!

All of the flavor ‘sign posts’ were in place, pointing toward a great wine drinking experience. The lingering taste of black cherries and the hint of vanilla confirmed the wine’s pedigree.

A rustic fig-almond tart with cinnamon, crème fraiche, caramel sauce and brandied cranberries heralded a return tasting of Estancia’s 2008 Riesling (a steal at $15). It rounded out a spectacular evening. Normally, I’m not a big Riesling fan. I used to enjoy German Kabinett Riesling’s when I was a young, upstart NBC news writer living at Carl Sandburg Village in what was then, Chicago’s swinging Rush Street area. I liked crisp, slightly sweet white wines then and I served them with almost everything, from an appetizer of Shrimp De Johnge (a Chicago mainstay) to Steak Diane (another Old School dining favorite) and Cherries Jubillee (am I dating myself?) It was nice to see how Kelley presented the idea of a similar semi-dry wine that preserved the essential sweetness of the fruit without sacrificing the integrity of the wine. It made for a well-rounded taste experience.

Estancia’s wines are exceptional in both character and taste. They are also an exceptional value. They can be found at almost any wine shop or supermarket where wine is sold and the price is surprisingly affordable. You could easily serve these wines decanted to some of your wine snob friends and they’ll swear that you are pouring them some of the more expensive French stuff.

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