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MARCH 4 2009: Wine Pairing Dinner with McKeon-Phillips Winery
Risotto Restaurant, Studio City, CA

Though I'm not particularly "into" food, I have to admit that I'm totally obsessed with finding the perfect food and wine pairings. I have as many books on this subject – to help make my quest easier – as I do actual cookbooks. I spend more time each evening pouring through my new favorite, What to Drink with What You Eat, than actually looking at the recipe, which is probably part of the reason why my moderate cooking skills have not improved. It's always an amazing dining pleasure when you truly find the right blend of flavors between the glass and the plate, which for me only happens about once or twice a month, despite my constant efforts.

MckeonPhillipsPN.jpgOccasionally, I leave it to the professionals and actually pony up the cash to see how it's really done. For the most part, I'm rarely disappointed at the end of the affair, though sometimes it's had to discern if that's because of the free-flowing wine or the pairing synergy. Most of the time the settings don't really allow for serious note-taking; however, at a recent dinner I decided to attempt to be more discerning about what was placed in front of me. The 5-course dinner took place at Risotto in Studio City paired with award-winning wines from McKeon-Phillips Winery, which is located in the Santa Barbara wine region. I had a good feeling that I would enjoy the wines. The bigger question: Did the pairings work?

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Shrimp Salad in Endive Cups, Pear & Gorgonzola Puffs
2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Blue River Vineyards

– Though I love Sauvignon Blanc, this wine was a disappointment for me. It just didn't have the punch of flavor I was expecting. Fairly muted citrus and green fruit with some minerality and good acidity, but not that classic SB flare. I really enjoyed both the appetizers – you can never go wrong with blue cheese and puff pastry in my opinion – yet the wine didn't really seem to enhance the experience. The acidity did nicely counter the spiciness of the shrimp, but the endive was just too bitter and made the flavors even flatter. Not an auspicious start.

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Goat Cheese Salad
(Mache greens w/ baby red potatoes, haricot vert, red onions
in a champagne vinaigrette)
2005 Reserve Coast Pinot Noir, Los Alamos

– This was my favorite wine of the night. Fairly light-bodied but with great depth of flavor, finely balanced with a lingering finish. I wasn't sure what to expect pairing this with a salad, but the peppery nature of the mache and the baked herbed goat cheese actually worked quite well, bringing out a smoky, earthy quality to the wine while never overpowering the fruit. This was a nice melange of flavors and my second favorite pairing of the night.

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Wild Boar and Plum Risotto
2005 Nancy's Fancy Reserve Syrah, Santa Barbara County

– The clear favorite pairing of the night. I know this because the room became practically silent as everyone delighted in the perfect complement of flavors between the risotto and the wine. The rich, gamey flavors along with a touch of sweetness brought out the same components in this deep and earthy Syrah. I could have eaten this all night and wished I had a bigger plate. Didn't want this one to end.

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Rustic Lamb Stew with Roasted Corn Polenta
2002 Bailey's Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

– While I enjoyed the wine very much, this pairing was a wash. The stew was just too bland with not enough meaty richness to really affect the flavor of the Cab. The wine was the clear winner in this round and though it wasn't overly enhanced by the food it wasn't harmed by it either. Wished I had a piece of roasted lamb with some simple vegetables instead. Would have worked better I'm sure.

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Chocolate Panna Cotta with a Raspberry Glaze
2005 Reserve Cabernet Franc, Santa Barbara County

– My second favorite wine of the night. It's rare to find Cab Francs with so much elegance and depth of flavor while still tasting like Cabernet Franc. What I don't understand is why they paired it with dessert. This seems to be a growing trend, pairing dry red wines with chocolate whatever and all it does for me is kill the fruit and bring out the bitterness in the wine. While I liked both items in this pairing very much, they did not work well together. There's a reason people pair dessert wines with dessert. It's called sugar, which does not play well with tannic wines. Certainly some high alcohol Zinfandels can pass this test because they are overtly fruity wines with very low tannins, but that's it as far as I'm concerned. Clearly, the winemakers seem to think they know better. So far, I've not been convinced.

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What became clear over the course of the evening is that you're never going to please everyone all of the time. My husband really like the appetizer course and didn't seem to mind the dessert round, perhaps because he prefers his red wine drier than I do. One of our dining companions wasn't overly thrilled with the salad course, but enjoyed the rest. They obviously hit the nail on the head with the risotto and Syrah, since everyone made a point of complimenting the winemaker about that wine in particular. What I learned is that even for professionals this is not an easy task and that in the end, it doesn't really matter if it works, just that you had fun trying.

(I apologize for the lack of photos. I gave this responsibility to the Man since I was taking notes and he/we became so involved in the dinner we forgot until the dessert course. Oh well...)



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