Vegetarian wine dinner
Wine and vegetarian fare took the front burner last night at Louisville's Zephyr Cove restaurant, where I was asked to participate as a co-host and commentator over an evening of vegetarian fare prepared by the restaurant's chef de cuisine John McGraw and vegetarian specialist Phillip Wegman, with a flight of Gallo Sonoma single-vineyard wines chosen by the restaurant's wine steward, Len Stevens.

The dishes, mostly Wegman's creations, were so good that our group of omnivores in the table in the corner was periodically heard to exclaim, "We don't even miss the meat!"

The wines went surprisingly well, too, demonstrating once again that, while wine may have evolved to accompany an omnivorous cuisine, it is possible to fashion matches that sing with meatless fare.

Here's a quick look at the dishes and the wines, with my observations on the way they went together.

With sweet-potato raviolis floating in star anise-infused broth:

Gallo Sonoma 1996 Laguna Ranch Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay
Pale brass color, with fresh apple aromas and pleasantly spicy notes, a combination that evokes hot apple pie. Crisp, dry and very full-bodied, tropical fruit and oak evident on the palate. Neither as oaky nor as sweet as many California Chardonnays, and that's to its credit. (Nov. 22, 1999)

FOOD MATCH: The wine works very well with the first course. Its spicy nuances marry nicely with the aromatic star anise in a "likes with likes" match, and the full fruit flavors harmonize with the natural earthy sweetness of the sweet-potato ravioli filling and the root-vegetable broth. An exceptionally good match.

With vegetarian sushi rolls on a daikon watercress salad with broken mushroom walnut vinaigrette:

Gallo Sonoma 1996 Stefani Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel
Inky blackish-purple, with ripe blackberry and raspberry ("bramble fruit") aromas and flavors. Jammy, ripe and tart, big but balanced, so fresh and full that it cloaks the wine's almost Port-like 14.9 percent alcohol in a coat of velvet. Nice Zin! (Nov. 22, 1999)

FOOD MATCH: I might have suggested a Pinot Noir with this dish, seeking more earthy flavors to marry with the mushrooms and the beets used in place of the traditional sushi tuna, but the Zin's jammy fruit works surprisingly well with the sweet beet flavors while not warring with the mild vinaigrette or sushi rice.

With polenta "pizza" with grilled ratatouille, spicy red-pepper coulis and fresh mozzarella cheese:

Gallo Sonoma 1995 Frei Ranch Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Very dark garnet. Cassis and oaky vanilla aromas lead into a big, warm flavor, black fruit, substantial new oak and soft tannins. A bit on the woody side, but the fruit and structure are there, so the oak will likely integrate with a little time in the bottle. (Nov. 22, 1999)

FOOD MATCH: The rich mozzarella brings the dish up to meet the wine, although the polenta alone is a bit delicate for it. A table of dairy-shunning "vegans" who got this dish without the cheese may not have enjoyed the match as well, but the deep flavors of the ratatouille also do nicely with a light herbaceous element in the wine.

With chestnut "socca," Montrachet ice cream and a warm fig sauce:

Justin "Obtuse" California Port
Opaque, almost black in the glass. Clean "stone fruit," plums and prunes, and a sweet, tartly acidic flavor with a pleasant herbal quality that hints at its Cabernet Sauvignon content. Not likely to be mistaken for a genuine Oporto, but a sweet and pleasant after-dinner drink. (Nov. 22, 1999)

FOOD MATCH: I normally advise pushing back the wine glass until after dessert, based on the premise that sweet dishes tend to throw sweet wines out of balance by heightening their impression of acidity. Much to my surprise, though, the tangy-sweet goat-cheese ice cream makes a stunning match with the wine, converting it into an immense rush of mixed-berry fruit on the palate. A triumphant ending to a very interesting and enjoyable meal.

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All my wine-tasting reports are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores.

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