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FEBRUARY 14 2010: A Taste of South Africa Winemaker Dinner
at Cass Winery, Paso Robles, CA

cass_vday_table.jpgWe had so much fun at last year's Valentine's Day dinner at Cass we decided to make it a annual tradition. Especially after we got a look at this year's menu. Chef Jacob Lovejoy and event director Erin Du Fresne made sure the evening was delicious, elegant and fun. Going out to dinner on this holiday is never cheap, but at least we knew we were going to get our monies worth because we love their wine. Since they serve food at the winery everyday, it's an integral part of the Cass experience, not something done only on special occasions. The food is carefully paired – as the chef is very familiar with the wines – and eating in the barrel room, mere inches from the aging wine, a real treat.

In honor of their winemaker Lood Kotzé the menu was developed with the flavors of his home country in mind. We were worried it might be too much food and wine – especially after last year – but there was just enough of each for every course to enjoy the marriage of flavors without wanting more or being too full...or getting too drunk. This was our fourth dinner at the winery and I have to say it was the best so far. The meal was perfectly paced, the servers kept the glasses full and the presentation was delightful. At the end of the evening, Alice Cass again graced us with a few tunes on the piano. Dinner and a show, what more can you ask for? Personally, we can't wait for next year.


cass_vday_scallop.jpgGlazed Scallop
with Almond Caper Butter Sauce
2008 Roussanne

– This was one of my favorite white wines of last year and since it's now sold out, it was great to be able to have one last glass. The scallop was perfectly cooked and wonderfully presented. I am not a fan of capers so I tried a bit of the scallop with and without them. Chefs really now what they're doing. The briny caper perfectly countered the caramelly sauce, giving the scallop just the right notes of sweet and salt and bringing out the fruit of the wine. A great start.


cass_vday_carpacchio.jpgMourvèdre Vine-Smoked Ostrich
Filet Carpaccio with White Truffle Oil

2008 Mourvedre

– We were probably more excited about trying this wine, then the food. They sold out of their last vintage early last year and we looooove mourvedre. I can't say I'm always a fan of carpaccio, but the meat was tender, delicate and smoky. As much as I enjoy arugula, I just wished it had been tossed with the oil as it was quite dry, especially when there was too much of it in a bite. When the preportions were right, everything was fine. Perhaps a bit less of it would have been the key. The carpaccio was the star and it hit all the right notes, bringing out the meaty, spicy tones in the wine. Wanted a full glass, but controlled myself. Just bought a case instead to be enjoyed at a later date. This is a very young wine, but it has the potential to be as good as their previous vintages, which made us fall in love with mourvèdre to begin with.


cass_vday_saffronsoup.jpgGrilled Halibut Stew in Saffron Broth
2008 Grenache

–This is the one course that initially worried me, as I'm generally not a big fan of seafood. I enjoy shellfish, but this is probably the only halibut I'll eat all year. On the flip side, I LOVE saffron, so I hoped that would help me get through, especially since you could smell the saffron long before the soup entered the room. It was a lovely blend of savory flavors that packed a punch, but was still light at the same time and really complemented the fruit and spice in the Grenache. A delightful surprise for me. Not sure I would have asked for seconds, but I'm happy to report I ate the whole thing. Trying to change my palate one meal at a time.


cass_vday_galantine.jpgRoasted Chicken Galantine
with Fennel Pollen Beurre Blanc
& Crispy Fried Leeks
2007 Flying Nymph

– Hands down, my favorite food of the night. Clearly a great deal of care went into creating this galantine and I savored every bite. Chef Jacob's version was stuffed with prosciutto, filet & sausage then roasted, chilled and sliced. I don't normally like my meat cold, which is how this is traditionally served, but this is where another of my food rules bit the dust. The Flying Nymph is their everyday red wine – it's a blend of Mourvedre and Cabernet Sauvignon – and it held up well to all the meaty, oniony flavors, however, the galantine was the star. Wanted a second plate immediately.


cass_vday_shrimp.jpgSouth African Cucumber & Shrimp Salad with Lemongrass & Mint
2008 Oasis Rosé

– By this time in the evening my palate was pretty overwhelmed, so this fragrant and light salad was just what I needed to refresh my tastebuds for the final two courses. Again you could smell the lemongrass before the dish hit the table, which only made me dive in faster. It worked well with the Oasis, which is a bold and fruity rosé, giving it a bit more balance to it's ripe berry flavors. This was supposed to be the final course before dessert, but I'm glad they switched it, which enabled both meat dishes a chance to shine on their own instead of being lost in the progression.


cass_vday_lamb.jpgWine-Braised Lamb Loin
on Israeli Couscous with
Tomato Chutney & Gremolata
2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

– Honestly, at this point, I was one happy camper and I don't really remember very much about this combination except that I practically licked the plate clean. The meat was perfectly cooked, the couscous and chutney great complements, not too heavy and just the right amount of spice. The wine was quite young for a Cabernet, but the meal helped to subdue the tannins and allowed the fruit to come through. If more lamb were served like this more people would eat it. Was more than officially full after clearing this plate.


cass_vday_pannacotta.jpgStar Anise & Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with Fresh Berry Coulis & Sweet Creme Fraiche
Syrah Port Barrel Sample

– After drinking so much wine, I usually have to skip the dessert because I can't take the excess sugar with my alcohol, so I was relieved the finale of this dinner wasn't some massive chocolate bomb, but one of my favorites. Custard is my dessert weakness. The presentation was sweet, the texture was light and creamy with just the right amount of anise to give it a flavor kick. The perfect end to a great meal. About the port, well, it's only been in the barrel for about 5 years and it needs a lot more time to integrate the alcohol. Lood worked at several port houses before coming to America, so he knows what he's doing. It's just far from being ready. Still drank mine though. Hard to waste it when they climbed up onto the barrels to get it.


For us, there's no more romantic place than wine country and the past two years we were not alone in thinking this. Paso was packed and the wineries all had specials going on, so if you're pondering heading this way next year, I'd book a room far ahead. You can always cancel, but this region has become a very popular weekend destination and even with the addition of 5 new hotels in the last 3 years there's still a room shortage for holidays and the festivals. I still prefer non-event weekends to really get my taste on, however, this is a dinner I just don't want to miss...and thankfully with some restraint actually didn't regret the next morning. Maturity can be a good thing.

(By the way, the first 4 food photos were taken by Lindsey Dodson-Brown and are used with permission from the winery. The others are mine. I have to get a better camera.)

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