When I was a kid, there was often a gallon jug of Gallo's Hearty Burgundy on the floor beside my father's chair at dinnertime. Like many wine drinkers of a certain age, that was my introduction to wine as an integral part of every meal. It taught me that the two are intended to go together.
Just as wine and food are integral parts of a meal, the Cincinnati Wine Festival has become ingrained in the fabric of the Queen City. While events associated with the Festival occur during a single week in early spring, the funds raised by these charity events have a huge impact on numerous community groups throughout the rest of the year. In fact, in its 17-year history, the festival has donated more than $2.5 million to a diverse group of local charities and organizations. Its reach has grown so wide that few area residents haven't been touched by the festival in some way.
Of course, the Cincinnati Wine Festival's success isn't entirely due to its good social work, but because it's so much fun to participate. The Grand Tastings (March 28 and 29 at the Duke Energy Center) are huge walk-around affairs, with wines from all over the world available for sampling.
But if you really want to experience the mystical alchemy of food and wine together, then you'll want to attend one of the 10 Winery Dinners (all are $125 per person including lavish multi-course menus and wine pairings) that will be held at some of the city's finest restaurants March 27.
Here's a quick overview of what you'll find at four of them:
(441 Vine St., Downtown, 513-621-3111)
Morton's The Steakhouse, in its new space above Fountain Square, will host Winegrower Daniel Morgan Lee, owner of Morgan Winery in Monterey, Calif. Like many wine lovers, Dan reports that his earliest wine experiences revolved around stealing sips of his parents' Mateus and Lancer's Rosé. But these first steps took deep root in his consciousness, leading to a career as winemaker -- first with Jekel and later with Durney Vineyards -- before starting his family winery with wife, Donna, in 1982.
Morgan Winery doesn't make many wines in huge quantity, and production of its finest single-vineyard wines is actually quite small. But all its selections strive for a sense of terroir -- to reflect the place where they're made.
Now, I've enjoyed Morgan's wines for years, and their Sauvignon Blanc from the Central Coast is unique among its California competitors. That's because the blend includes 20 percent Semillon and they judiciously use oak-aging to add richness and depth without sacrificing varietal character. At Morton's, it will be ideal served with assorted domestic cheeses and Tuna Tartare Canapes.
Morgan also shows a deft touch with its fine Pinot Noirs. For instance, 40 percent of the fruit in its Santa Lucia Highlands 12-Clones Pinot Noir is from its organically farmed Double L Vineyard. It balances the relative merits of many clonal varieties to showcase a beautiful core of raspberry and cherry fruit while maintaining a palate cleansing level of food-friendly acidity. Morton's classic pairing with a cream of mushroom soup will not disappoint.
(934 Hatch St., Mount Adams, 513-721-COOK)
Chef David Cook and his wife Liz will be pairing their inventive and delicious cuisine with wines from Seifried Winery in Nelson, New Zealand.
New Zealand has been on a tear in recent years, producing outstanding examples of wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but also Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. Nelson, located in the northern part of the Southern Island, isn't as well known in America as Marlborough, though Austrian-born Hermann Seifried -- and his New Zealander bride, Anna -- have been making wines from this region's grapes since 1979.
Liz says that the Winery Dinner at Daveed's "will be served tapas-style, with waves of tasting platters coming out of the kitchen to coordinate with the wines being served." That way, you'll be able to see how a 2007 Seifried Pinot Gris (same grape as Pinot Grigio) pairs with multiple dishes -- from Scallops in Brown Butter served with a White Bean Salad to a selection of meats and sausages, including Chorizo, Soppersatta and Serrano. During a later wave, you'll get to see how their 2006 Pinot Noir pairs with dishes as diverse as a Duck Breast with strawberries, balsamico, XVOO and a gratin of onion -- and an earthy, expressive Truffle Risotto.
All this, and Anna Seifried herself will be on hand to talk about the wines and to discuss life Down Under with her winemaking family, which now includes all three of her children working in various ways to advance the family enterprise.
(3235 Madison Road, Oakley, 513-321-4846)
Greg Graziano will be at Hugo to pour and discuss his family's terrific wines from Mendocino County, Calif. Way back in 1918, his grandparents, Vincenzo and Angela, first planted vineyards in that northern, coastal county. According to Greg, during the dark days of Prohibition they sold grapes to home-winemakers (and a few bootleggers!) to stay afloat.
But by the 1940s, with Prohibition's repeal and the Great Depression ended, Vincenzo helped form Mendocino Vineyards Winery, which has been part of the family ever since. Now, "sophisticated Southern cuisine" is the inspiration for Chef Sean Daly's kitchen, and Greg's brash and likeable wines (many influenced by his Italian heritage) should pair wonderfully with Hugo's take on that region's bold flavors and homey ingredients.
For instance, you'll get to try two 2007 rosés -- one from Zinfandel, the other Dolcetto -- with a Pork Belly 'Duet,' one portion cooked with apple, caramelized onion puree and spiked cider jus, the other with grits, leeks, dried corn and a demi glace. Later in the meal, with a Golden Angus Sirloin, Greg will show his 2004 "Coro," a limited-production blend of Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Barbera and Dolcetto that's required to meet to quality standards developed for all Mendocino wineries. It's a big wine (14.5 percent alcohol) that showcases the superior results that can be obtained with Mendocino fruit.
(35 W. Fifth St., Downtown, 513-421-9100)
If you haven't heard, over the past decades E&J Gallo -- maker of that Hearty Burgundy of my youth and now a worldwide beverage behemoth -- has made a commitment to selling better quality wines than ever before. Their Gallo of Sonoma line has long been a benchmark of quality at its price point, and some of the wineries in their international portfolio -- from Whitehaven (New Zealand) to Clarendon Hills (Australia) to Martín Códax (Spain) -- produce truly outstanding wines.
If you come to the Winery Dinner at Orchid's you'll meet Stephanie Gallo, the Festival's honorary Chairperson for 2008. She's a granddaughter of company co-founder Ernest Gallo and is now the family company's director of marketing. As this article went to press, we weren't able to obtain a list of wines she'll be pouring, but I doubt that Hearty Burgundy will make an appearance. (Although, if I remember correctly from my youth, it does pair wonderfully with a frozen Salisbury Steak dinner.)
Other Dinners and Events
Be sure to visit www.winefestival.com for more information about all the Winery Dinners, as well as the other events held in conjunction with the Wine Festival -- the Grand Tastings, charity auction and golf tournament. Then go and have fun. But, please, remember to drink responsibly!
CINCINNATI WINE FESTIVAL takes place in various locations Thursday-Saturday. Get more details here.