Soter Winery and Akaushi: A Tasty Pairing

Eclipsed by the street construction taking place on the stretch of Westheimer Road directly in front of it, 60 Degrees Mastercrafted, the restaurant by master chef Fritz Gitschner, opened this past November to little fanfare. Since then, however, the roads have cleared, and a new patio has been finished just in time to usher in the lovely spring weather. Suddenly, like the parting of clouds to let the sunshine through, it's as if the spotlight has finally been turned onto this River Oaks restaurant.

Certainly, that's the feeling I got when I arrived to a full house recently for an inaugural wine dinner featuring Soter Vineyards. Organized by Vanessa Treviño-Boyd, the beverage director at the restaurant, the evening promised to be filled with Pinot Noir and Gitscher's brand of "ranch-to-table" dining featuring steaks made of heart-healthy akaushi beef.

"Would you like to try our Asian-style pork belly?" asked a server circulating the room with a tray of canapés. Silver spoons of thinly sliced pork belly were topped with dark brown sauce of Asian-spiced sweet soy; the bites were delicious. As were the small croquettes filled with bone marrow that gushed in your mouth, as well as the smoked white fish with julienned green apple.

I was standing by the bar with Marc Borel (formerly of Backstreet Cafe, and the current GM at Coppa Ristorante on Washington Boulevard), sipping on a fabulous glass of pink bubbly as the canapés came around. We both enjoyed it so much, we asked for a second pour, and it wasn't until later that I found out we'd been drinking a very limited-production Soter vintage 2009 Mineral Springs Brut Rosé, which is currently sold out on the winery's website.

"That Brut Rosé was fantastic!" I exclaimed as Treviño-Boyd ask me how things were going. I'm a light drinker, so it's rare for me to indulge in more than one glass of anything. When I told her so, she smiled knowingly. "It is, isn't it?" she replied. "Most restaurants get only six bottles of these each year, so we were very lucky to get the 12 bottles for this dinner."

Personally, I think luck had little to do with it. Treviño-Boyd's pull as one of our city's finest wine professionals allows her to choose exceptional-quality wines to showcase in Houston. And as the evening progressed, it became clear that Soter was not just an ordinary vineyard, but one where sustainable practices are employed, and great attention is paid to the terroir, (Soter is based in Mineral Springs Ranch in Oregon's Willamette Valley) its expression in the fruit, and the way in which this translates into complex, elegant, high-caliber wines.

With regard to the Brut Rosé that I enjoyed so much, several things had to happen for it to become so remarkable. Made of a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, the fruit had to be picked at the right time so as to maximize sugar content while simultaneously capturing the complexities of the terroir. The method of production was also key: "We use the traditional French méthode champenoise to make the Brut Rosé, a laborious process which employs a secondary, in-bottle fermentation process to produce the bubbles," explained James Cahill, Soter's winemaker, who had flown in to attend the event. "When the fermentation process is complete, the dead yeast settles at the bottom of the bottle, and we have to remove it by a process called disgorging, which forces the yeast out of the bottle, leaving only the liquid. As you can imagine, this leaves only about two-thirds of the liquid."

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But on to the food. The evening commenced with a gorgeously plated smoked salmon course. On each plate, two generous slices of bright-orange smoked salmon were topped with a round of cauliflower panna cotta and a quenelle caviar, along with a circle of crisped breadstick for ornament. Treviño-Boyd had originally planned to pair this with a white wine, but changed her mind at the last minute, choosing to pair it with 2011 North Valley Reserve Pinot Noir (Inaugural Release), made entirely of single estate-grown grapes. And it worked, too, the wine cutting through the smoky meatiness of the salmon and creaminess of the panna cotta without being overpowering.

The next course would have been superb had it not been for an oversalted demi-glace sauce. I've been noticing a predilection for over-salting throughout Houston's kitchens lately, and I so wished that it had not happened in this case, because it really was a wonderful dish. Rounds of moist pheasant nestled together with a rich slice of house-made foie gras sausage over a bed of creamed savoy cabbage and strips of crispy bacon. My dining companions dug into the dish heartily despite acknowledging its heavy saltiness. The wine pairing, a 2006 Soter Napa Valley Proprietary Red Blend, displayed finesse and helped alleviate the salt.

As promised, our meat course, a pepper-crusted akaushi ribeye steak -- and the 60 Degrees Mastercrafted signature item -- was outstanding. Served medium rare, the slices of intensely marbled, Texas-raised akaushi beef oozed with juicy tenderness reminiscent of Japanese Kobe. In fact, so tender was the meat that I wondered if it had been prepared sous vide. Mock complaints erupted around our table about what a hardship it was to be eating the steak -- when in fact everyone enjoyed it immensely. Paired with a more robust 2011 Soter Mineral Springs Ranch Pinot Noir, it stole the show for the night.

In lieu of a dessert course, Gitschner offered a final course of three creamy Texas cheeses, served with greens and candied nuts, followed by a mignardise of house-made French macarons. These were paired with the Soter 2011 North Valley Chardonnay, a fitting end to an entirely memorable meal.

Want to learn more about wine? Treviño-Boyd just released the dates for her upcoming Guest Sommelier Series at 60 Degrees Mastercrafted, a collaborative program of wine tastings curated by local sommeliers. Each tasting costs $45, and will include five wines and a cheese board (limited to 20 attendees).

The dates and themes for each tasting can be found on the next page: 2014 Guest Sommelier Series at 60 Degrees Mastercrafted

April 22 Adele Corrigan, 13 Celsius The Most Intriguing Regions of France You Don't Drink Enough Wine From

April 29 Antonio Gianola, Houston Wine Merchant Bubbles In All Their Glory

May 6 David Keck, Camerata The New Northwest: Oregon & Washington on the Frontier

May 13 Samantha Porter, Osteria Mazzantini The Islands of Italy

May 20 Sean Beck, Caracol/Hugo's/Backstreet Cafe/Trevisio Summer Survival

May 27 Steven McDonald, Pappa's Steakhouse The Loire Valley from West to East

June 3 Ben Roberts, Republic National Distributors Millennial Wines ... Before You Were Even Born

June 10 Christian Varas, River Oaks Country Club Distinctive Flavor Profiles of the Taransaud Barrel

June 17 James Watkins, The Cordua Group Malbec: Argentina vs. France Go At It

June 24 Thomas Perez, Inn at Dos Brisas Classic vs. Modern Examples of Rioja

July 1 Jason Sherman, Advanced Sommelier The Beauty of Northern Italy

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