Thursday, October 29, 2009
It was an ideal alliance of fussy man and messy nature: a white tablecloth dinner in the dirt. The inaugural event brought together a vineyard and 60 guests for the unveiling of a new vintage – and a turning point in Ventana Vineyards’ history.
Saturday, Oct. 17, marked the first Feast in the Field, a harvest event on the 40-acre Le Mistral Vineyard in the Arroyo Seco appellation. It was the first public tasting of the 2007 Le Mistral wine, the first vintage since Ventana purchased the prestigious 20-year-old brand from pioneering California vintner Joseph Phelps Vineyards.
The festivities began with a bus trip from the Peninsula and Salinas, and among other provisions, Monterey’s Lula’s chocolates, custom-made with Le Mistral. The pampered travelers were greeted in the vineyard by an acoustic guitar duo, and the feast began at the top of a hill with raw oysters and a 17-hour cured pork appetizer from a wild sow.
An educational stroll through the hillside vines included a tasting of the primary constituents of Le Mistral: Syrah, Grenache and Alicante Bouchet grapes, just-picked, and a barrel tasting of the 2008 vintage to be bottled next March. (The breakdown: 62, 35 and 3 percent, respectively, for the 2006 vintage;51,42,5, and 2 Petite Sirah for the 2007.)
We ventured down to a flat area of the vineyard, where a crew prepared our meal at a provisional outdoor kitchen. Smoke poured from the earth where the remainder of the wild sow was slow-cooking underground for our main entree. Hidden between two rows of vines, we discovered one very long table.
The dinner site was chosen for its beauty, natural coziness, and protection from the winds that sweep down the Salinas Valley daily from April into October, making this great wine region what it is. Le Mistral is the name of a northerly wind in France that influences the climate of Provence, but picks up speed particularly in the Rhône Valley.
The story goes that though Joseph Phelps was known for his Cabernet and his Insignia wine (the first Bordeaux-style blend produced commercially in California), his passion was for the wines of the Rhône Valley. Phelps commercially released a 1974 Syrah, thereby reintroducing a French varietal rarely bottled in these parts for 50 years. In the 1990s, Phelps took it further.
“He searched the state for a place to plant Grenache and Syrah, to make the finest expression of Rhône-style wine in America,” said Steve McIntyre, a partner in Ventana Vineyards and owner of vineyard management company Monterey Pacific. He currently manages 7,600 acres of grapes for various owners. “Phelps tasted some Grenache from across the street and knew he found the place.”
McIntyre helped plan the Le Mistral Vineyard, has managed it since its inception, and continues to oversee the meticulous operation where all vines are maintained by hand. Ventana’s winemaker, Reggie Hammond, is consulting with Phelps winemakers during a transitional phase to ensure the wine’s integrity.
“I have a lot of respect for [Phelps winemakers] Damen and Ashley. We have similar taste in wine,” Hammond said. “I envision getting a little more Grenache in it. They did a great job of managing tannins, considering the Syrahs here can be tannic. I’m big on tannin management and strive for elegance.”
Hammond has also added Meyrieux barrels to Phelps’ Ermitage barrels (white oak), which should add softness and more finesse to the wine. The limited production amounts to 4,000 cases each year.
With nine wines sampled, it was a wine lover’s night to remember. Five Ventana Vineyards wines accompanied the five-course dinner, plus the grapes of honor: the 2006 and 2007 Le Mistral vintages, and the 2008 barrel sample. McIntyre’s L’Homme Qui Ris, a champagne-style sparkling wine, was also a well-crafted delight.
The caterer, Outstanding in the Field, hails from Santa Cruz, but its staff executes meals nationwide, traveling by tour bus. They serve primarily outdoors on farms and beaches, in gardens and greenhouses. These visionaries source locally and forgo efficiency to find small local growers and specialty producers who fit with their mission of enlightening diners about their community’s foods.
It’s a beautiful thing to break bread with the guy who grew the elephant garlic, the couple who made the olive oil, and the man who killed the wild sow with just a knife – in keeping with the sustainability protocol at Le Mistral Vineyard, both firearms and wild animals are forbidden. This brash little piggy dug past the hog wire, only to be cornered by five dogs and a gentle farmer hell-bent on protecting his crop. Food doesn’t get more local than that.
The medium to full-bodied 2006 Le Mistral comes with notable accolades topped by 92 points from Wine Spectator. This deep-colored wine, complex in both aroma and flavor, features concentrated flavors of fruit and earth, and a bit of pepper, herb and spice held together by fine tannins and a long finish. The 2007 is more rustic, as expected for a wine one year younger, yet was unanimously preferred among those seated near me. Both cost $45, or $36 for wine club members. The 2007 is available for members now and for general release in late winter. Recommended pairing: a dark, pink sunset.
On the bus ride home, the transformation was remarkable. Gone were the polite guests of our departure. The party roiled on, with joking and storytelling, laughter and wine. Your chance will come if you are patient – next year.
VENTANA VINEYARDS TASTING ROOM (above Tarpy’s), 2999 Highway 68, Monterey • Tastings daily 11am to 5pm (6pm in summer) • 372-7415.
Ventana Vineyards, 38740 Los Coches Road, Soledad • 11am to 5pm weekends • 678-2900.