24 October 2011

3rd 35th Birthday Dinner

This is the third dinner party celebrating my birthday (after dinners 1 and 2) and the first in which I didn't lift a finger or bring a bottle. It also had by far the most impressive wine lineup of them all. The legendary Mike Whitfield and his wife Darlene invited my parents and me over for dinner. I brought along The Roommate, and when I saw the chalkboard menu outside the house wishing me a happy birthday and listing the courses, I knew I was in for a magical evening.

Mike and my father have been friends since the 60s, and in the 80s and 90s Mike was responsible for introducing me to good wine. Over the past few years he's given me the opportunity to try some incredible bottles, such as the tasting of Barolos from 1967-1996.

We started the cheese and fruit course with a 1998 Domaine A.R. Lenoble Blanc de Noirs. With all due respect to Chardonnay, my favorite sparklers come from the red grapes. And I hope that this selection meets with Samantha Dugan's approval, given my usual routine of Prosecco and Cava. This bubbly had nice notes of yeast and toast with just a touch of dried apricot aroma. Good acidity and tiny bubbles, a well-constructed Champagne all around. I particularly enjoyed it with the Comté and Cranberry Wensleydale.

Oh yes, that's some capicola in the background. Love the cured pig cheeks and jowls. There's also a tumbler of Kentucky whiskey back there, but I'm saving the spirits for another post.

The first course was an unbelievably smooth cauliflower soup made with vegetable stock and topped with truffle oil. Rich and savory, and Mike did a great job of coaxing maximum flavor out of the humble vegetable. I did have to admit that the last time I had cauliflower soup, my grandfather heated it up on the engine block somewhere in northeastern California during a road trip.

He paired this course with an Amontillado that I neglected to photograph or jot down, but it had a deep and meaty beef broth profile, and did not overwhelm the soup. In fact, it amplified the flavors and went particularly well with the truffle oil.

Have you ever seen an Alsatian magnum? I hadn't before last night. It is freakishly tall and messes with your sense of proportion and depth perception. This bottle is 48cm/19 inches tall, and carrying it by the neck feels like you're swinging a baseball bat. It is a bottle format that doesn't fit in anything. Back at the house, it won't even go under the cabinets. For storage purposes you have to get creative, sliding it in sideways or diagonally.

That being said, this 1998 Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve was out of this world. The winery was established in Alsace in 1626, and I got an instant craving for choucroute garnie. It's always fascinating to see what happens when a wine region is in a transitional area between two countries and two different wine traditions. The wine has turned a dark golden color but the mild peach aromas and flavors have survived. Dry with a round mouthfeel, and any acidity has disappeared by now. Just a little hint of petrol and minerals.

The dish served with the Pinot Gris was a complete surprise to me: fish korma. I love Indian food, but that's a bad way to explain it. If you say you love American cuisine, are you talking about Cajun jambalaya, Maine lobsters, Hawaiian poi, or fried chicken? Korma comes from the Mughal years and is associated with northern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. And of course, the Indian seafood traditions take advantage of the subcontinent's long coastlines.

The biggest compliment I can say about this dish is that The Roommate loved it. She enjoys Indian food but can shy away from anything too hot. This was heavily spiced, but not hot, a distinction that a lot of people miss. The fish was tender and flaky, and the sauce was just thick enough to scrape up with a fork and slide on the fish. The Pinot Gris was a nice match.

1995 S. Anderson Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa, Stags Leap. Great Bordeaux style wine with classic Napa character. Mild and soft at this point, but not too delicate. It maintains a full flavor with dark plum and a little whiff of bell pepper.

The whole evening was like this: Mike bringing various treasures out of the cellar. I can remember going to some wine and cheese parties with my parents and Mike 15 years ago, and someone would pull out a bottle and everyone would ooh and aah. At the time, I really didn't understand what constituted a great wine, and didn't know all the names and grapes and regions. This time, I could recognize the bottles from across the room and already start drooling in anticipation.

(Take note of the dinner table that has panels from wooden wine cases under glass. A few bear the numbers scrawled on there by the late John Grisanti.)

For the main course, a savory fall dish: braised short ribs over polenta with green beans and brown mushrooms roasted in red wine. We had been smelling this dish throughout the entire evening and it was great to finally tuck into it.

The meat was tender and fell apart, and the polenta had the perfect consistency--not too thick or thin, just standing up properly on the plate. I will confess that I did not finish this, because I started waxing poetic about all sorts of things and neglected my food. But it was wonderful and something that I hope to recreate soon.

The pièce de résistance, and the final surprise of the evening that almost brought me to tears: a 1976 Faiveley Morey-Saint-Denis. I've always wanted to try a wine from the year of my birth, and over the years Mike has been on the lookout for one. We don't really have a lot of auctions or old bottles for sale in this area, so such an acquisition involves private collections or travel. I don't know how or where Mike got this, but it was very special to me.

I opened it without any cork issues, but at first I was a little concerned. A garnet color, the nose hadn't opened up yet... I was fearing oxidation. Mike encouraged me to let it wake up, and in about fifteen minutes the wine showed its true profile. Complex and slightly tart with dried figs and bright red cherry, smooth and a really long finish. I took a photo of my parents together with the wine, and just relished in the experience of touching the past, wondering where that bottle had been during its 35 year journey from the vineyard to my lips.

Over the years, my father and Mike and I have eaten hot dogs and Cokes, BBQ and beer, and some of the highest cuisine and finest wines on the planet. Yet the jokes and stories and friendship have remained the same, and with luck will continue well into the future. Thanks to everyone who made this special night happen, and I hope it's not too long before we pull some more corks together in fellowship.

P.S. Blogger now presents photos in a convenient slideshow. Click on any photo for a bigger version, and you can go through all the pictures for that post.


Big Mike said...


Thank You my friend and it was Darlene's and my pleasure to enjoy every minute of last night with you, the roomie, and your family. May we never eat or drink worst together

Allen said...

I have traveled to all 50 states and 67 countries around the world. Have cooked and eaten over campfires, then dined in some of the greatest places in the world. I would not trade the meal last night for any in the world. Look forward to doing the same with my son John. Darlene and Mike, thank you for the amazing night.

Allen and Susan

Benito said...


The physical distance is not that great, but time and perspective from the old days in Whitehaven are a different story. As always, a true honor to break bread with all of you.


Samantha Dugan said...

Sounds like a wonderful evening my friend. I've not had that Champagne but I'm with you in that I tend to get bigger goosebumps from those with a higher percentage of Pinot Noir.

There really is something magical to drinking a wine from your birth year, I've had the pleasure twice, (one like yours, a Burgundy and the other from a Sherry cask) and that thrill and introspection never gets old.

Fantastic recap of what looks like a nearly perfect night.

fredric koeppel said...

Congratulations on your birthday and on the wonderful friendships and multi-generational love this wonderful dinner embodied. Btw, the late John Grisanti and I drank a bottle of the Faiveley Clos de Myglands 1976 in his cellar in 1986. At that point, it was probably the best wine I had ever tasted.

Benito said...


There's a sweet spot between being old enough to appreciate wine from your birth year yet young enough to actually find a bottle that's survived. Getting one as a gift at 35 was the best of all possible circumstances.


Amazing coincidence. We toasted the memory of Big John, and Mike as always was great as Master of Ceremonies, with each bottle a new and unique surprise.