i heart wine dinners (as in abc wine at greenhouse)

wine“What kind of wine do you like to drink?” asked Jim Clendenen, named winemaker of the year in 1991 by Food & Wine and in 1992 by the Los Angeles Times for his Santa Barbara winery, Au Bon Climat. “Usually cabs – heavy, full-bodied, cabs,” I replied. “Oh. Then I’m afraid I’m not going to make you very happy,” he quickly answered.

Jim was seated at our table for the Au Bon Climat wine dinner at The Greenhouse Tavern last week. Actually, we had quite the table. In addition to Jim, was one of my best gal pals, Lori, Charity (I Heart Cleveland and Chartreuse), Ruth (Gatherings Kitchen) and Drew Neiman of Neiman Cellars. The company and conversation, coupled with the perfectly-paired courses and wine made for an exceptionally fun evening.

Chef Jonathon Sawyer prepared five courses for the dinner based on wine his team sampled and selected prior to:

  1. Potato crusted monk fish (poor man’s lobster) with herb salad / paired with Au Bon Climat pinot blanc
  2. Corn roasted pork with spicy soubise and fresno chilis / paired with Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay
  3. Ratatouille with zucchini flower, Chevre de Provencal, tomato broth and fresh herbs de Provence / paired with Santa Barbara Pinot Noir
  4. Fatted calf with poached cherry, proper polenta and filbert (hazelnuts) / paired with Isabelle pinot noir
  5. Pinot noir granita / paired with Dogfish Head Red & White

It’s true, I like heavy wines. I can’t even tell you the last time I intentionally ordered a white wine out (best guess latewine1 ‘90s). So truth be told, I was fully expecting to walk away with another ridiculously good meal from Greenhouse and sample a few wines, but not really be impressed by any of them.

I’m really beginning to enjoy when I’m wrong. I was really taken back by how much I liked the wine. While I still don’t think ordering white out or picking up a bottle is in my near future (unless for company), I certainly appreciated the whites we sampled, especially the chardonnay (even more so with the fried hominy in the pork). But what really won me over were the pinot noirs. I have tried to like this wine before and sampled plenty. But it just never did it for me. So I expected more of the same here. Not even close. These were light – but also rich. I was smitten. First with the Santa Barbara pinot but then came the true gem of the night, the Isabelle pinot named after his daughter (actually, the original name of this wine was Isabelle Morgan but he dropped Morgan from the name after his divorce – you learn a lot when seated with the winemaker!). Of course it was also the most expensive wine of the night at $55 a bottle, but it was worth it. In fact, I bought a bottle that night to enjoy with Jamie, and suspect more bottles are in our future.

Jim, a native of Akron, moved to California in the ‘60s. His winery, which means a well-balanced vineyard, was also listed on Robert Parker’s Best Wineries of the World in 1989 and 1990. He’s also recognized by Food & Wine as a master cook for sharing several published recipes with the magazine.

In between each course and prior to the start of our dinner, both Jim and Jonathon would talk and explain their approach. The two of them had great delivery and obvious enthusiasm for what we were about to experience. I actually learned quite a bit, without feeling like I was just schooled.

wine2Jonathon explained that he is fairly picky with the wine dinners and only interested in holding them when the winemaker is willing to come in and represent themselves. He explained that his goal is for the quality of the wine to enhance the quality of the food and to peacefully coexist. When this can happen, he shared, is when they thoroughly enjoy putting together these types of dinners for people to experience food and wine in a way they might normally not.

When talking about his wines, Jim shared that his winery was the first to get rid of asbestos, long before wineries were told they had to. He shared that he makes healthy wine – not because he “cares” about our health per se, but because he drinks more wine than anyone he knows and wants to be healthy. His wines, he added, have low alcohol content and low acidity. He joked that he likes to drink early and drink often, and with his wines, he can (low alcohol or not, I did have to take a few Excedrin in the morning!).

As for his favorite wine, that would be pinot noir – whether it’s his or someone else’s. He explained that it goes with absolutely everything. Especially duck with crushed raspberries and maybe a little garlic and ginger, his favorite pairing.

As for what we ate, once again the chef and his team made me a very happy woman. Seriously, these people can cook and have yet to disappoint me. These types of dinners are fun because you get to sample things not typically found on the menu and I would imagine it gives them an opportunity to play around and get creative. My favorite of the night though was the fatted calf – hands-down. As Sawyer put it, this animal lived a wonderful life, not as long as their parents perhaps, but still enjoyable.

Thanks again to GHT for inviting me to this dinner and for allowing me to give away a pair on the blog. Now seeing first-hand the time that goes into planning and executing these events, and how seriously the team takes them, I highly recommend checking out the next one for yourself. You will not be disappointed.


  1. Posted July 26, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    “I’m really beginning to enjoy when I’m wrong”. Get it, love it.

  2. Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I’m salivating over your pictures and realize I need to get myself back there sometime next month.

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