Love learning about food and wine pairings? Then you may want to become the newest member of the Tasters Guild International — a nationwide society of foodies/wine lovers who gather together with their local chapters to geek out on all things culinary.
While wine tasting at this year’s SF Pinot Days, I was lucky enough to meet John Engstrom and Jim Lipman of California’s only living Tasters Guild chapter, the Diablo Tasters Guild located in the San Francisco East Bay Area. They were kind enough to invite me to one of their monthly get-togethers where they sync a local restaurant’s venue and cuisine with a California winery. This month the Guild featured food with an Italian flare from Buon Appetito in Fremont alongside some Spanish-inspired wine from Bodegas Paso Robles.
For those who have never attended a food and wine pairing event, it can be a bit overwhelming. Especially when the hosting winery provides not one, but two glasses per course. It can be a lot to take in — both physically and mentally — luckily we had the expert guidance of Heather Gray, General Manager of Bodegas Paso Robles.
About Bodegas Paso Robles
Bodegas Paso Robles is the only California winery that focuses on winemaking utilizing grapes native to Spain and Portugal specifically. The grapes are acquired from several vineyards along the Paso Robles AVA in San Luis Obispo County and include exotic varietals such as Malvasia, Monastrell, and Trousseau as well as more familiar names such as Tempranillo, Albariño, and Garnacha (or Grenache).
Before each course, Heather would stand and talk a little bit about each wine and how and why she felt they would pair well with the accompanying meal. Of course, the fun part is taste-testing ourselves and discussing our experiences and preferences.
Course 1: Carpaccio di Salmone Affumicato (Thinly sliced smoked salmon, topped with fresh Arugula, red onions, and capers)
This was a beautifully cured salmon that came alive with the addition of the fresh vegetables and a creamy mustard-based aioli on top.
However, the dominant flavor in this dish was salt since, as you can see from the photo, the salmon was the star of that plate. One could argue that the dish was too salty, but that’s only the case if eaten alone. Pair this course with either of the two white wines from Bodegas Paso Robles, and you’ll experience an entirely different — more balanced — flavor profile.
The 2015 Galicia is made from 100% Albariño grapes. It’s quite a pale yellow in the glass and emits an intense floral aroma. On the palate, it’s quite dry and a bit spicy — there’s a hint of effervescence that tingles the tongue from start to finish. It’s this quality in the wine that helped cut through the saltiness of the meal as a whole and brought out the meatiness — the umami — of the salmon.
The 2014 Doña Blanca is a 50-50 blend of Garnacha Blanca (more commonly, Grenache Blanc) and Malvasia Blanca (often likened to a Muscat). In the glass, this white wine had a much bolder yellow color, releasing even stronger floral aromas alongside fruits such as apples or pears. To smell it, you’d think the wine would be a sweet one, but it’s not at all. There’s just enough acidity to cut through those perfumey aromas, yet the texture is quite smooth — almost oily — on the palate. That calm and creamy texture, again, helped to bring out the savory flavors along with the natural oils in the salmon, while the floral aromas brought forth the herbaceous qualities from the fresh vegetables. Personally, this wine allowed for the most variety and balance of flavor on my palate, and the one I would recommend to pair with this or any similar dish.
Course 2: Penne al Pomodoro Naturale (Tube pasta with light marinara sauce, fresh chopped tomatoes, basil & garlic).
In all honesty, this dish is very much like something I make at home all the time. It’s penne pasta cooked just over al dente with your basic marinara sauce. No muss no fuss and certainly not fancy. But that’s perfect for an event like this — since the wines are so unique, it’s a great idea to pair them with familiar foods, giving us a chance to explore these Spanish varietals even further (as well as get ideas for pairing wine at home).
The 2010 Garnacha, made from 100% Garanache grapes was a beautiful ruby red in the glass. On the nose, the wine emits intense aromas of green, grassy herbs (I’m thinking dillweed here) and the taste was just as herbalicious. Bodegas Paso Robles uses a combination of Hungarian, American, and new French oak when barrel aging their wines. This particular wine spent 18 months barrel aging, and all I can say is that was just the right amount of time. The wine is oaked enough to create that smooth, round mouthfeel without the overbearing flavor profile of oak — the herbs and bright fruits get to sing.
And what did this do for that run-of-the-mill everyday pasta? Well, it certainly brought out the herbs in the marinara sauce, elevating what could be a mid-week meal into something a bit more special.
The 2010 Vaca Roja, a combination of Garanacha and Monastrell (commonly known as Mourvedre) was significantly darker in the glass than the 100% Garanache. The addition of that Monastrell gave the wine not only a darker hue but a darker aroma and taste as well. On the nose, the 2010 Vaca Roja smelled predominantly of black cherries, deep red grapes, and ripe plums. On the palate, the flavors are even more complex bringing in hints of licorice, spice, and a little smoke along with those fruit flavors.
This wine was pure yum, but did it pair with the dish? Yes and no. What it did was give the pasta a bit of body that it didn’t have before. That lead me to believe that this wine would pair even better had the pasta had a bit of meat in it (such as pasta bolognese, spaghetti and meatballs, or Pasta Pomodoro with a healthy helping of hearty mushrooms).
Course 3: Risotto con Agnello e Funghi (Italian Arborio rice with roasted lamb, mushrooms, grilled fennel, red wine and Parmesan cheese)
I loved that the risotto was the perfectly cooked, completely immersed in parmesan cheese and the beautifully meaty mushrooms mixed in with every mouthful. For those elements alone I would say try this dish, specifically with the next wine pairing.
The Viva Tu Tempranillo, made from 100% Tempranillo grapes and aged in 70% new French oak is my top wine pick from the whole event. Visually, the Viva Tu is a gorgeous dark purple-red in the glass. Initial aromas included black cherries and sweet plums along with some savory scents of black olives and deep forest greenery. On the palate, the wine is so smooth, and those initial fruit and vegetable flavors give way to an almost nutty or caramel-like note. The finish is a long lingering one with just enough tannins to give the wine body and depth.
The calming smoothness of the wine paired beautifully with those mushrooms and the creamy texture of the risotto, while the aromas of the deep forest wildlife pulled out the herbs and fennel that had been hiding deep within the dish.
The 2009 Solea is a traditional Rioja blend consisting of 86% Tempranillo and 14% Graciano (a native Spanish grape, high in acid, used predominantly for blending purposes). This blend gave off quite a dark aroma — think raisins, prunes, dried cherries — and there was a definite kick of acidity even on the nose. On the palate, the 2009 Solea is quite dry with flavors including anise, fennel, with a bit of a damp, earthy funk. But just as the tasting concludes, there’s that kick of acid that adds a bit of spice, tickling the tongue well into the aftertaste.
Was this the perfect pairing for the lamb risotto? In theory yes. This wine would best be paired with a meaty stew-like dish. But make sure that your protein — whether lamb, goat, or beef — is packed full of flavor and its natural juices.
Course 4: Formaggi Misto (Assorted cheeses featuring Parmesan, Ricotta salata, and Manchego)
Forget the looks; the 2010 Pimentiero is all about its aroma — it smells like you’re walking through someone’s vegetable garden. The strong scents of capsicum and jalepeño peppers are overwhelming — it’s no wonder this wine’s name translates to “pepper pot.” But despite those spicy aromas, the 2010 Pimentiero is surprisingly refreshing. Soft fruits such as cherries and plums are pleasant on the palate, while the acid and tannins are both artistically restrained, allowing for a long, thirst-quenching finish.
It’s interesting how the different cheese brought out different components in the wine. While the soft Manchego cheese brought out the fruit flavors of the Pimentiero, the dry Ricotta revealed a smokiness in the wine, and the hard Parmesan showcased brightness and acidity.
The 2011 Trousseau, made from 100% Trousseau (one of the rarest grapes in the country) has the best aroma of the wines from the event. It was like sniffing one of the finest cigars — fruit meet flowers, flowers meet peppers, peppers meet leather — and they all mingle in this truly unique wine.
Paired with the Manchego, the Trousseau brought out a little extra “stank” we all love a good cheese. The farm-like funk was even more prominent when tasting the Ricotta along with the Trousseau, while the wine brought out the softer, nuttier notes of the hard Parmesan.
This is the money shot right here.
I’m not going to lie folks — as much of a chocoholic that I claim to be, I’ve never had a chocolate soufflé before, so I was more than pleasantly surprised when I broke into my dessert, and an incredible avalanche of fudge came pouring forth.
The cake, in contrast, was light and fluffy, with a crisp, almost cookie-like outer crust. Amazing. I want to try to make this at home…
I must also admit, as much as I love a good chocolate, I’m not a huge dessert person because I’m highly sensitive to sweets — as in things that are simply sweet are often too sweet for me. This goes double for dessert wines — I’m not a fan of sweet wines almost at all. But I do believe I found my exception to my rule. I think one of my problems was that I’d never had the perfect dessert pairing. Well, it lives — in this dish and this wine.
The 2013 Dulce Dama, made from Tempranillo and fortified brandy (in true Port-style) honestly surprised me. Yes, the initial taste is classic dessert — cocoa, figs, chocolate syrup. But if you let it sit in your mouth for a second, suddenly that flavor melts away, and these beautiful deep fruits come forward — cherries, blueberries, blackberries. Let that settle on the tongue and then the acidity kicks in, ultimately balancing sweet with savory and a bit of sour.
This paired perfectly with the chocolate soufflé. It’s almost like the sweetness of the dessert, and the sweetness of the wine canceled each other out allowing for the bright fruit flavors and the acidity to cut through all of that richness. I would certainly recommend this specific pairing — this wine needs this dessert as much as this dessert needs this wine. This course was by far the best pair of the evening.
Hungry for More?
Of course, this was a study of one dinner and one winery. There’s so much more to learn in the world of food and wine pairing — that must be why the Diablo Tasters taste every month. And with the intimate setting and knowledgeable hosts, guests are guaranteed to learn something at every sitting.
For more information about Diablos Tasters Guild, including how to get on the guest list or how to start your local chapter, contact either Jim or John on the Diablo Tasters Guild website.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Stacy on Wine without a silly Stacy selfie.