Portlands’ veritable pantheon of viniculture mastery … your very own Iron Sommeliers
By Marshall and Carolyn Manning
And on April 13th, 2007, these masters of wine sat back and watched a private dining room brimming with anticipation. These brilliant matchmakers had already done their part days before. This was the first in a series of “Dueling Sommelier Dinners” planned in conjunction with some of the top culinary explorers in the Portland food scene.
Erica Landon, Sommelier at ten 01
Jamie Garrett, Sommelier at Bluehour
Ken Collura, Sommelier at Andina
Jeff Groh, Sommelier at the Heathman Restaurant
This first dinner consisted of four courses, fiendishly concocted by the Heathman’s Executive Chef, Philippe Boulot. Fiendish, I say, because each one was in its own way nearly impossible to match with wine. The task of doing so was not for the faint of heart.
Sampling each of the dishes a few weeks before the actual dinner, the participating sommeliers were charged with finding wines to complement each dish. To complicate things for them, they were neither allowed to try any wines with the courses, nor to take tastes of the dishes with them … except in their memories. Yes, they matched these impossible dishes solely from memory.
Once their selections were submitted, their work was done. There was nothing left to do but wait and watch on Friday night, as a sold-out crowd filed into the private dining room at the Heathman, selected their seats, and marveled at the arrival of four stems of glassware, each 1/4 filled with wines chosen by the four masters for the first course: a cauliflower vichysoisse with uni …sweet, cold, and rich rich rich. From their seats at the head table, the conversations at the other tables were nothing more than a buzz to the sommeliers. But at the tables, polite debates ping-ponged between the people at each eight-top. He likes #1 best. She believes the acid in #4 cuts the richness better. Someone else finds the still wine to match more cleanly than the others, which are all bubbly.
We vote. The plates and all four glasses disappear, only to be replaced with four new stems, with four new wines and the next course. We sip. We eat. We debate. We vote. And so it goes through a total of four courses.
The food? Top-notch ingredients, perfectly prepared … but quite odd in their combination. Take course #3: kobe ala ficelle with sorrel mousseline and pot au feu vegetables. The gorgeous beef was lightly seasoned and cooked to a medium rare perfection. The root vegetables were a delicate delight. And while the sorrel sauce was a shockingly beautiful green with an amazing grassy, sour taste, there was so much of it and the flavors were so strong, you could taste nothing but sorrel after the second or third bite. And as the sour, grassy flavors built up in your mouth, the beef and veggies weren’t the only things being overpowered. No wine could have stood up to that and come out alive, let alone shone as the brilliant food/wine match each sommelier had hoped for.
All in all, it was a fun event to attend. The creative variety of wines chosen for each course displayed the instinct, education, skill and playfulness of our Iron Sommeliers. If they could come even close to matching these wine-hostile dishes, I would certainly trust them to match my wine-friendly food choices at any of their fabulous restaurants.
Though I have not yet received the full list of future dates for the continuing series of battles, I have heard a rumor that such gustatory notables as Pascal Sauton of Carafe and/or Vitaly Paley of Paley’s Place may be involved with the future menus.
Regardless of who conjures up the next set of courses, it might be interesting to see which wines this amazingly talented pool of Sommeliers would match up with seriously wine-friendly dishes. The difficulty of the matches this first time around hampered the genius of these professionals, I feel. As a diner, we were forced to choose the wine that came closest to complimenting the food … as opposed to choosing the wine that perfectly complimented the food.
That may seem like a subtle difference, but it’s truly a huge one.
These sommeliers did the best they could with the dishes presented, so it is not their fault that the wine & food pairings left something to be desired. It was sort of like a presidential election: We voted for the choice that was the least offensive. It was a valiant effort on their part to come as close as they did, displaying great skill and imagination, but it was an impossible task.
Personally, I would like to see their wine choices for wine-friendly food, and see which one comes up with THE wine to have with that dish. Not just a good wine with the dish (even I can do that), but the perfect, ethereal match that makes one gasp at the beauty of it … where each sip of wine begs another bite of food, and each bite of food screams for another sip of wine, and each makes the other better than it would be on its own. THAT is true genius if you can do it every time and not just luck into it now and then.
I’m looking forward to seeing what our Iron Sommeliers come up with next time. Stay tuned!
From the press-release, here are the dinner courses:
SOMMELIER DINNER MENU
April 13, 2007
Cauliflower Vichysoisse with Sea Urchin Roe
Sweetbreads Retour du Japan
Kobe a la Ficelle with Sorrel Mousseline and Pot au Feu Vegetables
Szechuan Chocolate Pots au Creme
Here are the results of the first competition:
1st Albert Mann-K. Collura
2nd Taille Aux Loups-J.Garrett
3rd Elio Perrone – J.Groh
4th Pierre Peters-E.Landon
Costal Chablis – J.Groh
Bourgeuil – K.Collura
Paul Pernot – E.Landon
Muller Catoir – J.Groh
J.Albin – J. Garrett
Yulumba Muscat – E.Landon
Banfi Rosa Regale – J.Groh
Cossart Gordon – K.Collura
E.Perrone – Bigaro – J.Garrett
Current Sommelier Standings
1. Ken Collura 3pts
T2. Jamie Garrett 7pts
T2. Jeff Groh 7pts
4. Erica Landon 8pts
It would be nice to hear what the dishes were and what they were paired with. Which worked and why? Or didn’t. You seemed to touch on this, but I’d like to hear the whole story!
Just for clarification — are lower scores better? So Ken is in 1st place and Erica’s in 4th so far?
I also think this story could benefit from some additional information…
A more complete list of the wines would be interesting as well… most of your list includes only the name of the producer (Brundelmayer) or the region (bourguiel) or the varietal (Muller Catoir.) I’d be interested to see all three for each wine, as well as vineyard designates, etc.
Food Dude says
I added a list of the courses (from the press-release) to the story above.
We took detailed notes, and will gladly post all the info you requested, hopefully tonight.
Marshall Manning says
Sorry for the vague info above. The wine list and sommelier standings were from an e-mail sent by Jeff Groh (the Somm at the Heathman) to the attendees, and were forwarded to Food Dude, who pasted them on to the end of the article. Unfortunately, Jeff didn’t tell us how the scoring system works, so I don’t know how Ken has 3 points and Erica has 8 when they both scored two #1 spots? Jeff (or anyone else involved), can you explain the scoring system?
I had originally intended to add more detailed commentary about the individual wines, but thought that Carolyn’s synopsis (she wrote most of it) was good and wondered if the individual notes would be too boring and dry inserted into the piece. But, for those interested, here’s my commentary on the wines served:
Course 1 – Cauliflower vichysoisse with uni – I tried each wine with and without the uni, just to get an impression of how it affected the wines.
NV Pierre Peters, Cuvee Reserve, Brut Champagne – I found this a bit light for the creamy soup, and it actually seemed a little frothy and clunky (I thought it was Prosecco!) for what is normally a top Champagne from this usually reliable producer.
2004 Albert Mann, Pinot Blanc – A bit soft, as PB tends to be, but it seemed to do better when matched with the uni as opposed to just the soup itself.
NV Domaine Tailles aux Loups, Montlouis, Petillant Naturel – A sparkling Chenin Blanc from this village near Vouvray, I found this to be the best match with the dish. The nice fine mousse, good acidity, and clean minerality seemed to do a good job washing back the soup as well as complementing the briny uni.
2006 Elio Perrone, Moscato d’Asti, Sourgal – Always delicious on its own, this wine was far too sweet with the soup and it just didn’t seem to add anything to the dish at all, simply covering it with sweetness.
I would have tried a lightly sweet Vouvray with this dish, maybe something like the 2005 Foreau Demi-Sec.
Course 2 – Sweetbreads retour du japon – basically this was sweetbreads served over a molded macaroni and cheese/bread pudding cross.
2005 Domaine Costal, Chablis, Les Truffieres – A very nice Chablis on its own, unfortunately it was just too light for this rich, creamy dish that really needed something with more weight and maybe even a touch of sweetness
2002 Brundlmayer, Brut, Kamptal, Austria – Nice mousse and texture here, with sea air and mineral notes that seem to accent the richness instead of getting lost in it. My favorite of the flight.
2004 Bruno Porro, Barbera, Dogliani – This meaty, smoky Barbera was fine with the dish, but didn’t seem to really sing with it, either. It was better with the food than without, as it seemed a little on the lean side by itself.
2005 Christom, Pinot Noir, Mt. Jefferson Cuvee – A bit young and grapey still, the pretty raspberry fruit and light structure seemed to match better with the dish than I thought it would on first taste.
I’d have gone for something rich and white with this one, maybe a big Meursault or one of the Radikon whites from Friuli?
Course 3 – Kobe a la ficelle with sorrel mousseline and pot au feu vegetables. I found this course distracting. While the other dishes were difficult to match, but still were very tasty, I found the sorrel sauce far too green, herbal and bitter for the perfectly cooked beef, and it really did nothing for the dish. I tried to wipe as much of the sauce off my beef as possible once I had tried it with the wines.
2005 Domaine de la Chanteleuserie, Bourgeuil, Cuvee Beauvais – This Loire red did the best job of matching with the dish, but still didn’t make the sauce pleasurable.
2004 Paul Pernot, Puligny-Montrachet – A very nice wine on its own, but it just got lost with the beef as well as the herbal sauce.
2004 Muller-Catoir, Riesling, Mussbacher Eselshaut, Kabinett – Another delicious wine here, and the tangy peach fruit and bright acidity tried like hell to overcome the bitter sauce, but it just couldn’t do it.
2002 J. Albin, Blanc de Noirs, Willamette Valley – Another nice bubbly here (one of the better ones I’ve had from Oregon), with tangy apple fruit and good minerality, but it seemed a bit odd with the food. I’d blame the dish, not the wine!
The only possible match I could think of would be a poor vintage, underripe Bordeaux that was on its last legs.
Course 4 – Szechuan chocolate pots au creme – This was really 4 different little chocolate desserts, although I didn’t really detect any Szechuan flavor influence…none of the chocolates were spicy.
2006 Elio Perrone, Bigaro – A sweet, sparkling red for those who aren’t familiar with this wine. It went really well with one of the lighter desserts, but was overwhelmed by the others. It might have been better had they had more spice and less sweetness….like something from Sahagun.
2005 Banfi, Brachetto d’Aqui, Rosa Regale – Another sweet, sparkling red, showing lots of floral and raspberry. This one matched a little better than the Perrone, but still got lost with the sweeter desserts.
NV Yalumba, Museum Muscat – Thick, sweet, and syrupy, with molasses and baked fruit, this matched one of the desserts perfectly, but seemed to overpower the less sweet ones and could have used a bit more acidity for balance.
NV Cossart-Gordon, Madeira, 15 Year Bual – I found this one to balance the best with all of the various desserts, showing good complexity and vibrancy, which allowed it to be refreshing with desserts that were too sweet to be a perfect match.
Considering the variety and different sweetness levels, I couldn’t think of anything that would match the overall dish better than the Madeira.
Jeff Groh says
Sorry about the confusion regarding the scoring system. The lowest score wins in this event. Basically scores were totaled on the basis of 1st place wine = 1 point, 2nd place = 2 points etc… The reason the final scores don’t equal their mathematical totals is that there was a bonus for the Sommeliers who tried to do more with less $. If a Sommelier spent 15% under budget they received a -5 to their score. For the first round three of the Somms (Jamie, Ken, and Jeff) elected to take the bonus, Erica did not. That’s the reason the final standings look different than they might’ve. For the record we thought the bonus played too large a role in the overall scores and will be lowering it for the additional dinners.
Marshall and Carolyn were not alone in thinking that wine friendlier dishes might improve the event. For May’s dinner we have changed what was going to be another wine pairing nightmare (ex. Braised Short Ribs with Kim Chee) and decided to go with a Spring inspired Northwest/French menu.
Thanks to everyone that attended.
Ken choosing an Albert Mann? And a Loire Red? Okay, yeah, I would have bet money he’d choose such. :)