By Deirdre Bourdet
Last Sunday HALL Winery hosted their first annual Cabernet Cookoff,
inviting eight professional and eight amateur chef teams to compete for
cash donations to their non-profits of choice. The challenge: create a
dish to pair with the 2005 HALL Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, using
primarily organic and sustainable ingredients. After sampling each of
the sixteen submissions, accompanied by plenty of the wine in question,
guest attendees would cast their votes for the best amateur and best
The wine of the hour offered the chefs a lot in the way of inspiration… the 2005 vintage has a fresh herbaceous nose, but ripe red fruits and darker plum aspects on the palate, with harmonious integrated tannins and a nice bit of earthy cocoa to warm the soul. Both the amateur teams and the professionals turned out some very interesting creative dishes to complement the wine.
Undaunted by the professional teams across the way, the Napa Valley Vintners’ crew was churning out adorable ground pork sirloin sliders with cabernet caramelized onions, dried jack cheese, and a tomato-based cabernet barbecue sauce, served on tiny, sweet dinner roll buns. The pork was amply seasoned and spiced, with onion and garlic powder, allspice, ginger, tomato paste, pepper, and probably a few other secret things thrown in as well. Sweet, earthy, tangy, and chewy all came home to roost with a mouthful of the wine.
Nonetheless, my vote in the amateur category went to the team competing on behalf of the Cope Family Center
, “It’s a Family Affair.” Succulent chipotle and chocolate braised short rib tamales were bathed in a rich red wine sauce, and accompanied by a perky black bean and corn salad in jalapeno vinaigrette. Surprisingly, the layers of spiciness worked really well with the cab–there were no clashing or sour notes, and the wine more than held its own without losing its fruit character. The shortribs’ smoky, cocoa notes amplified those flavors in the wine, and the masa shell brought sweetness and toothsome texture. The earthy black beans, sweet corn kernels, and jalapenos brought variations on the theme and helped bring out the herbaceous aspects of the cabernet as well. Remarkably, the tamale dish was also a great match with the HALL sauvignon blanc, which had just enough sweetness to balance the spice, and just enough body to stand up to the meaty filling.
On the pro side, it was a tough decision… so many tasty delights, and only one could have my vote. The Winery Chefs’ grilled lamb flatbreads with fava puree, shaved fennel, and mountains of fresh herbs brought together a world of texture and richness and brightness. Paula Le Duc Catering’s grilled pizza with homemade cabernet duck sausage, braised nettles, sauteed ramps, and fresh herbed ricotta was also wonderful–rich, bitter, tangy, and smoky from being grilled over wine barrel staves and vine clippings.
Calistoga Ranch’s spring pea guanciale risotto with braised shortribs and shallots was compulsively delicious both on its own and as a pairing for the cabernet sauvignon… Taken alone, this dish was irresistable… and gone in about three seconds, barely enough time to slurp down some cabernet and totally bliss out. The wine brought new layers and complexity to the dish’s already luscious depth of flavor, exactly like it was supposed to. Pali’s Dinner By Design also delivered a winner with their seared duck breast, truffle mashed potatoes, and chunky port reduction…which alchemized with the cabernet into the sweet profundity of black fruits and ducky essence.
But my favorite pairing of the day came from Sunshine Foods Market
in St. Helena. Their dish hit every flavor receptor in my mouth, and knocked pairing synergy out of the park. Beautiful slices of beef Chateaubriand were crowned with crisp fried capers, garlic-infused oil, and grated Ewephoria sheep cheese, then drizzled with a deep, dark balsamic vinegar reduction that they tell me contained a whole bottle of HALL’s 1985 vintage cabernet. Whatever they put in there, this dish rocked. Tangy, earthy, beefy, fruity, chewy, umami-y…it had the cabernet fruit firing on all cylinders, and scored my vote in the fiercely contested professional category.
My takeaway lessons for pairing food with HALL cabernet are informed by what I felt were the most successful dishes. Start with a tried and true red wine winner–meat you can sink your teeth into–but layer on the earthy veggies and spices and umami factors, balance with sweet herbaceousness and tang, and you can flatter every aspect of the lovely wine…and make your mouth very, very happy indeed.