Thursday, April 26, 2012

Viognier Is Like Paris Hilton: Bridlewood Wine Dinner at Harvest

"I make wine in a barn," said David Hopkins, winemaker for the Bridlewood Estate Winery. The 105-acre estate, which sits on California's Central Coast just north of the Santa Ynez Mountains, started as a Mexican land grant and throughout its history served as a cattle ranch, an Arabian horse breeding facility, and a veterinary hospital. At one point, it was under the ownership of the owner of 1-800-FLOWERS. Now, Hopkins creates wines in a barn that was built in 1938, surrounded by roses, lavenders, and over a hundred different types of trees.

This is Hopkins' 38th harvest; he stumbled upon winemaking while studying chemistry and plant science at Fresno State. A lab partner asked him for help in the student winery, and it began. Indeed, he speaks of wine with the knowledge of a scientist (did you know that the chemical structure of white and black pepper is very close to that of licorice?), although his appearance leans towards West Coast hippie, with long white hair, a diamond stud in one ear, and a floral pattern embroidered on his button-down shirt. (Another science tidbit before we move along: if the presence of the aromatic organic compound pyrazine is below 15 parts per billion in wine, there will be no "green" flavors such as bell pepper, eucalyptus, and mint.)

An Ohio native raised on a dairy farm, Hopkins describes himself as a "hunter/gatherer" in that he is an avid fisher and quail trapper. He takes advantage of California to add surfing and scuba diving to his repertoire, and his neighborhood includes the Matchbox 20 manager, Bob Eubanks of The Newlywed Game, and musician David Crosby ("He's just a fat fart trying to get to heaven," said Hopkins.) He also has a yellow lab named Elvis to keep him company. The girls in the tasting room gave him the name "because he's a hunk of burning love."

Hopkins aims to make his wines in the French style from 50-100 years ago, mixing grapes to control the acidity rather than adding artificial things, and he leans towards a balance of higher acidity and lower alcohol in order to pair better with food. His love of food stems from his college days, when he worked as a sous chef to put himself through school.

It's fitting, then, that my first taste of Bridlewood was accompanied by food. On a Monday night in April, Hopkins hosted a small group of food and wine writers at Harvest in Harvard Square, and Chef Mary Dumont prepared a five-course meal to pair with a variety of Bridlewood wines. Hopkins' own plate was left largely untouched as he spoke quite literally non-stop about his background, the winemaking process, the California wine landscape, and more.

Course 1: Seared Scituate Scallop with Richter Farm Rhubarb, Celery, English Peas, Candied Ginger & Celery Salad, paired with Monterey County Chardonnay (2008)

This is Bridlewood's first chardonnay released on a national scale, and the smooth and sweet 2008 vintage contains 8% viognier, a percentage that has decreased in more recent vintages. "Viognier is like Paris Hilton," said Hopkins. "It doesn't matter whose party it is; when she shows up, it's her party." While I generally shy away from chardonnays, I was astounded by the sweetness of this one, a perfect complement to the scallops.

Course 2: Painted Hills Tenderloin Tartare with Caperberries, Crispy Shallots, White Truffle Oil & Toasted Country Bread, paired with Monterey County Pinot Noir (2008)

The acidity was too much for me when I tasted the pinot noir alone, but after eating the sharply sour pickle and caperberry, the wine suddenly became velvety smooth with an almost caramel flavor.

Course 3: Roulade of Giannone Farms Chicken with Wild Mushrooms, Green Garlic, Fava Beans & Vanilla Scented Carrots, paired with Central Coast Blend 175 (2010)

That vanilla carrot puree? Definitely one of the highlights of the meal. The wine is 50% syrah, 30% cabernet, 10% viognier (there's Paris Hilton again), and 10% malbec and grenache. Hopkins described the taste as earthy at first, then turning to blueberry and blackberry, and finally becoming...Juicy Fruit gum. As for me, I think sweet and musky about covers it. It paired deliciously with those carrots, and Hopkins was kind enough to send each of us home with a bottle of this one.

I hope I don't get Hopkins in trouble with the marketing department for recounting this story, but apparently this wine used to be named "Arabesque," until the marketing department declared that the name was a turn-off to American customers, for (stupid) reasons I'll leave you to dissect. They sat down with him to figure out a new name, asking questions like "How often do you think about the blend?" and "How many tries did it take to get the blend right?" 150 seemed reasonable enough at first, but someone with a marketing and psychology background was brought in and gave three rules for a name consumers would remember: It needs to have three digits, it needs to be odd, and it needs to have at least one prime number. Blend 175 was born.

Course 4: Rooibos Tea Marinated Pennsylvania Duck Breast with Bing Cherries, Fennel, Soy Beans, Forbidden Black Rice, paired with Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon

The Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon is 86% cabernet, giving it a cocoa flavor, 10% merlot, to lengthen the finish, and 4% petite syrah, to add cherry character. "This is my birthday cake," said Hopkins. The cherry and chocolate flavors mimic the cake his mother made for him when he was a child: devil's food chocolate cake with maraschino cherries in both the cake and the frosting. It paired exceptionally well with the woodsy duck and bing cherry sauce. I was particularly fond of the duck due to the rooibos tea marinade; rooibos is my favorite variety of tea.

Course 5: Toffee Chestnut Cake with Milk Jam, Mead Jelly, Orange & Sheep's Milk Frozen Yogurt, paired with Late Harvest Viognier (2010)

My familiarity with late harvest and dessert wines is limited to rieslings, ice wines, and similarly sweet choices, so the late harvest viognier surprised me (pleasantly) with its sharp citrus flavor. "It's like opening up a can of cling peaches and pouring the juice into a glass," said Hopkins, also noting the tangerine peel, apricot, and honeysuckle flavors. Harvested in the third week of November, the 2010 vintage has 13% residual sugar and no Botrytis (noble rot).

We asked Hopkins to describe his own favorite wine and food pairings; above all, he loves "a couple grilled quail and a bottle of grenache." He also recommended spicy lobster or scallops with a viognier or unoaked chardonnay. As for his favorite type of wine (aside from his own)? Rosé. Anderson Valley, in particular. On a somewhat surprising note, Hopkins admitted that he actually prefers the smell of wine to the taste. "When I smell wine, I see colors," he said. (An example of synesthesia or just figurative speaking? Either way, the intertwining of smell and color could definitely be an asset to a winemaker.)

Hopkins' outlook on wine is refreshing; while he takes his craft seriously and understands the science inside and out, he makes sure to have fun. "Making wine, for me, is like a kid playing in the mud," Hopkins said. "I never grew up."

See my favorite dishes on Tasted Menu
The food and wine at this event were complimentary. Nevertheless, all opinions expressed in this post are my own.

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