Five courses, five sommeliers, two bartenders and a Master Chef of France. As far as wine dinners go, last week's Guest Sommelier Wine Dinner at Philippe Restaurant + Lounge was nothing short of a tour de force.
The dinner marked the finale of sommelier Vanessa Treviño-Boyd's wildly successful Sommelier Tasting Series at Phil's Wine Lounge. For the series, guest sommeliers from around town were invited to present four wines to a small group of 15 wine enthusiasts. I attended one by Christian Varas of River Oaks Country Club, tasting four wines made from 70-plus-something-year-old vines, and found it completely fascinating.
For the finale dinner, Treviño-Boyd made things even more interesting: Each guest sommelier was assigned a course, selected a wine for that course, then worked with chef Philippe Schmit to create a wine pairing that would be served "blind" to all the dinner attendees. In other words, guests would be served the food and the wine first, and the wine would be revealed after each course.
"The wines that have been chosen have nothing that would attract your attention on paper," Treviño-Boyd said in her introduction. She went on to say that there would be no big names from the likes of Montrachet, Burgundy or Bordeaux, but that each wine had been chosen for a characteristic that mimicked a much more expensive wine, sans the big-name price tag.
The evening kicked off in the wine lounge downstairs, with a trio of cocktails created by "Ladies of Libation" bartenders Laurie Sheddan and Leslie Ross. Each was distinct, with cool names like "How does your garden grow" for a cucumber and Hendricks gin-infused cocktail with vanilla tomato jam; "Riesling Rendezvous" for a Riesling liqueur cocktail with rosemary-infused gin and orange blossom water (my favorite of the three); and "The Oaxacan 75" for an artisanal Vago Espadin mezcal, lime, agave champagne cocktail.
Treviño-Boyd was behind the first course pairing, pouring a champagne to complement a masterful rendition of lobster bisque with poached quenelles made from a recipe dating back to 1979, when Schmit was at a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Luxembourg. When the course was finished, she revealed that we'd been served a grower's Barnaut non-vintage blanc de noirs, made with grapes from a Grand Cru vineyard, asserting, "I believe a champagne should always start a dinner."
To follow, we were served a delightful course of bay scallops on the half shell with a brunoise of celery, carrot and lemon zest, and a natural veal jus with oyster mushrooms. It was paired with a white wine by Christian Varas of the River Oaks Country Club, whom Treviño-Boyd introduced as a sommelier with one of the best lists in the city: "It's got the most depth; it's very well edited; it has the best producers, the best vintages, the best of everything, basically."
After we enjoyed our course, Varas got up and revealed that the wine he'd chosen was a Kumeu River Chardonnay from New Zealand that reminded him of the $100-plus bottle of Les Enseigneres white Burgundy from Puligny-Montrachet, France. He explained how the open, fleshy notes could be attributed to the fact that both wines were produced on clay-rich soil and how he'd worked with Schmit not only to choose the bay scallop but to create a dish with a sauce that's not normally used on seafood.
The third course of rabbit three-ways with caramelized plum was paired with sommelier Jason Sherman's choice of red wine. "Jason Sherman is one of a handful of Advanced Sommeliers in the city," said Treviño-Boyd. "He's certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers, which is no easy feat. Jason's got a list at Brennan's of Houston that puts to shame any other restaurant in the city that tries to do an all-American wine list...The list is very dynamic and goes beyond Rombauer, beyond Far Niente, beyond Prisoner, etc., etc."
Sherman's wine was a 2010 Charles Joguet Cabernet Franc from Chinon, France, a region in the Loire Valley sandwiched between Sancerre and Vouvray. At around $50, this particular wine cost significantly less than other wines from that region because it had been fermented in stainless steel instead of expensive oak barrels. "You get earth, olive, ripe, jammy fruit, earthy spice," he said, which paired marvelously with Schmit's preparation of braised rabbit, confit of rabbit, and roasted rabbit saddle filled with wild mushrooms.
The fourth course, a stinky French cheese course that immediately pulverized the senses with its strong odor, was paired with a lovely raisinated-style wine, the 2006 Cesari Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC from Italy, which had a slightly sweet finish, along with a velvety texture accented with notes of spice. The sommelier behind it, Adele Corrigan was described by Treviño-Body as a "very quirky, very under-the-radar sommelier that is at the helm of 13 Celcius wine bar, one of the city's, if not the city's best, wine bar." Treviño-Boyd praised Corrigan's list for the Old World and New World wines that were "completely off the beaten path, from a producer that you've never heard of, but that you will fall in love with." And indeed, everyone seemed enamored of the red that Corrigan had chosen.
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For the finale, Kelly McCloud, formerly of Fleming's Steakhouse, chose what turned out to be my favorite wine of the night. Pastry chef Jami Kling had created an utterly scrumptious brioche and honey bread pudding served with olive oil ice cream, dried apricots and dried raisins to pair with McCloud's choice of a 12-year-old wine from Santorini, Greece. Made from the acertico grape, the wine was produced on volcanic soil, with the grapes taken in baskets and set out to dry for two weeks so as to extract the rich flavor.
For a wine lover, or someone just getting into wine, the dinner was spectacular. We not only got to learn from and interact with some the best sommeliers in town, we got to do it while dining on made-for-each-other wine and food pairings.
Treviño-Boyd is launching the second chapter of her sommelier series, the Summer Sommelier Series. For this new series, Treviño-Boyd will be speaking on subjects like contemporary women winemakers and sommeliers turned winemakers. The cost is $40 for 4 wines and a cheese plate, and if history tells the story, you won't want to miss it.