An insider's look at a wine dinner

Photo by William M. Dowd

They come in my mail in bunches, announcements of and invitations to one wine dinner or another.

Some extol the virtues of various domestic and foreign wines. Others emphasize the food. Whatever the offer, all are trying to get a piece of a very old activity that suddenly has become the hottest thing in the restaurant world, especially since members of the increasingly competitive wine industry try for a greater share of business.

What goes on inside a wine dinner?

Each has its subtleties and differences, but there's a general pattern to them. Don't be put off by the "insider-speak" some attendees use to inflate their egos. It's really just a matter of putting together food and drink that tastes good.

A good example of the genre took place at the venerable Jack's Oyster House in Albany, New York's capital city. Jack's has been open for business every day since it opened its doors in 1912. The event paired the culinary skills of Dale Miller and the wine-making skills of David Lake.

Each man has earned top industry honors, so the opportunity to explore their efforts at the same event drew a sizable group to 42 State St. and a second-floor banquet room at the oldest restaurant in town.

Miller is one of fewer than five dozen professionals in the entire United States who hold the Certified Master Chef designation, a title conferred to only the occasional survivor of a rigorous multi-day practical examination at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Lake holds the Master of Wine designation, which The Times of London calls "Britain's most rigorous professional examination.'' He's one of 226 in the world, and the only one in North America.

On this particular evening, it was a truly eclectic group, a mixture of wine novices, wine lovers, at least one competition judge, several wine sales execs and the just plain curious.

As with virtually all such events, what you find is an ad hoc partnership between the host restaurant and a winemaker, distributor or trade organization. On this evening, Canandaigua Wine Co. was featuring its Columbia Winery labels from Washington state, although the world's largest distributor obviously handles a wide range of brands.

The wine provider usually also supplies the host for the evening. The host handles the greetings, gives a brief background talk on the geography and climate of the area in which the featured wines are produced, and introduces a different wine with each course.

Ray Fox was the host, a genial, well-informed fellow who stays away from the intricate wine-snob jargon that is so off-putting to so many people, particularly those just getting into wine.

Prices vary, but generally are in the $45 to $75 per person range. The Jack's event was $65, which covered the meal, wines, tax and gratuity.

Miller tends to shine at special events, and this evening was no exception.

He opened with a pair of seafood appetizers.

A large, carmelized diver scallop was served with a clever "tartare'' of ruby grapefruit, avocado and roasted pepper. Citrus juices are wonderful with scallops, with a citrus marinade sometimes substituting for cooking. Here, the pan searing and the citrus inclusion were a perfect preparation device.

It was paired with a 1999 Columbia Yakima Valley pinot gris, with hints of lemon and grapefruit that worked beautifully with the scallop as well as its avocado garnish that always cries out for acid.

A slice of wild Copper River salmon filet was crusted in hazelnuts, basil and pine nuts, served with a pasta pillow stuffed with shredded leek and a vin blanc sauce. A 1997 Wyckoff Chardonnay from Columbia was a buttery, full-bodied perfect companion.

After a strawberry sorbet palate cleanser, guests plunged into the main course, a pan-roasted tournedo of beef with what Miller calls "a hodgepodge'' of smoky bacon, diced tomato and thyme, drizzled with a merlot-based demi-glace.

The succulent beef was accompanied by a truffled puree of Yukon Gold potato and a succotash. The wine accompaniments were a 1997 Columbia Milestone Merlot that I found rather thin and slightly sour, and a bold 1998 Columbia Syrah that offered an aromatic bouquet, rich flavor and smooth aftertaste.

The feast ended with a light, delicious gateau, an almond-scented cake with fresh berries, an apricot glaze and a splash of white chocolate. A peach-scented Columbia ice wine was the crowning touch.

Miller made an appearance, to enthusiastic applause, after the dinner to field questions from the guests. While he said more such dinners, with perhaps a live cooking demonstration, are in the offing, he said no theme had been decided.

Considering the initial dinner here was titled "April in Paris," and this one was called "North by Northwest," an appropriate movie title for any future event might be "La Dolce Vita."

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