You Know What I Know About Wine...Nothing!

It's not a problem - not knowing about wine - because there are plenty of people out there who want to educate and enlighten you about the welcoming world of fermented grape juice. On April 4th, I had the extraordinary experience of dining with a room full of people who are the exact opposite of what you would picture an oenophile (wine aficionado) to be. There was nobody in a black turtleneck and pipe or ascot and Italian loafers speaking through clenched teeth about the legs of the wine or the moistness of the cork. One of the most extraordinary and revealing comments came from Patricia Wamhoff of A. Bommarito Wines (a Missouri distributor) who declared quite emphatically that, "Wine is a beverage."

The event was a wine dinner at The Crossing in Clayton featuring wines from Robert Sinskey Vineyards of Napa Valley. Initiated by A. Bommarito Wines, the evening unfolded to reveal a prodigious marriage of superb food prepared by The Crossing's chefs Jim Fiala and Cary McDowell with fantastic wines from Sinskey. Representing the Sinskey Vineyards was Cellar Guy/Seller Guy Bryan Steelman, a former student of Anthropology and Latin American Studies who gave up the opportunity to go to Nicaragua for the Peace Corps to work at the Sinskey Winery. According to Steelman, "There really should be no pretense with wine. Feeling that pretense is a deterrent." Comparing wine appreciation to art appreciation, he said that in the same way you come to understand and admire a painting by Van Gogh, you come to understand and admire a good bottle of wine. It all ferments down to education: by trying many different bottles of wine and reading about wine production from grape growing to bottling, you begin to understand the subtleties and differences that separate the vinegar from the nectar.

The Sinskey Winery, according to Steelman, is predicated on iconoclastic principles in which they do things their own way with the sole purpose of creating a superior product. Their web site perfectly illustrates this point ( The gorgeous, rich, sepia-toned photographs (all taken by Robert Sinskey, Jr.) at first glance seem to represent a site devoted to fine art photography but they embody one of the Winery's philosophies: a celebration of the beauty of life found in nature and subsequently food and wine. The Sinskey Vineyard is self-sufficient, which means that every step of the wine-making (excluding the making of the bottles and corks) is done on the premises for the purpose of total control over the product. Believe me, you can taste that dedication in the wines themselves. Sinskey is also currently undergoing a transition to organic farming and by 2002 will be fully certified as organic producers under California law. The Winery is also becoming more biodynamic (branch of biology dealing with energy and/or the activity of living organisms) with respect to their farming and harvesting practices. Producing a high quality product in a nurturing and balanced environment is of paramount concern to Sinskey Vineyards.

The evening's menu was truly a collaborative effort between Sinskey Vineyards, A. Bommarito Wines and The Crossing. The alchemy was astonishing. The evening began with a 1999 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir that was light and sweet and just plain delicious. Although the wine has a high alcohol content, it was not at all detectable within its smooth, well-rounded taste. Steelman, who is well versed in the vernacular of wine, said that one does not have to be a scholar to be able to talk about the experience of wine. For a beginner, the wine will either taste good or it won't. Understanding the subtleties and complexities will come after drinking a variety of wines (not all at once) and asking a host of questions to proprietors of wine shops and wine stewards (or sommeliers) in restaurants.

After enjoying the Pinot, we sat down to a salad of Fresh Italian White Anchovies with Roasted Sweet Peppers (see photo) paired with a 1997 Los Carneros Chardonnay. The combination was outstanding. The anchovies were cured in white wine (rather than the ubiquitous salt) and the sweetness of the roasted red and yellow peppers illuminated the Chardonnay's extraordinary fruity taste. Neither the food nor the wine overpowered the flavor of the other. The fruity crispness of the wine heightened the fish's succulence and deepened the sweetness of the peppers. This was followed by delicious Roasted Cauliflower and Pancetta with Orechiette Pasta served with a 1997 Los Carneros Pinot Noir. I found the Pinot to have a strong alcohol taste - what Steelman referred to as "heat" - which can be attributed to the fact that the wine is young and hasn't been aged for very long.

The next course was Pan-Seared Tilapia with a Red Wine Reduction paired with a 1994 Los Carneros Merlot. Let's just say that if the world ended after that course it would have been okay. The fish with reduction sauce (comprised of red wine, sweet vermouth, shallots, fish stock and a hint of butter) was delicious enough on its own, but when coupled with the full bodied Merlot, I thought I understood the meaning of life. The Merlot was from Sinskey's Library (meaning it was held back for re-release) and according to Steelman (who was quoting the Sinskey Vintner), "If this Merlot were a human, it would have a great body and wouldn't have to shave," meaning that the structure of the wine is perfect as it stands. The Merlot was smooth and rich, and when combined with the wonderfully prepared fish, the two wove layers of incredible tastes.

Just when I thought there couldn't possibly be more, we were served a New Zealand Rack of Lamb with Crushed Yukon Gold Potatoes and Roasted Asparagus with a 1996 Stag's Leap District Claret. I amended my earlier declaration and decided I now knew the meaning of life. I was transported by the wonderfully rich and buttery lamb coupled with the Claret that tasted distinctly of berries and herbs. It was a truly inspired combination in which the wine held its ground against the richness of the lamb without overpowering it.

Dessert was a simple, but delectable Chocolate Mousse in a White Chocolate Shell with Crème Anglaise that rounded out the meal in a way that was a testimony to Jim and Cary's prodigious talents.

The whole evening embodied an experience of superb gastronomy that was orchestrated by individuals who truly understand and appreciate the importance of good food and good wine. More importantly, it was evident that a degree in oenology (wine-making) was not necessary in order to appreciate an excellent glass of wine and distinguish the subtleties between all the varieties that were served.

You know what I know about wine now? That it is accessible, that good wine can elevate an already fantastic meal, that it is an art form, and, most importantly, wine is a beverage that has its time and place in our lives.