While many of us might fancy billing ourselves a “wine consumption specialist” as Leslie Thomas does, Thomas is the only one who has gone on to create a Wednesday Wine & Dine Social. (The rest of us have probably consumed too much to do much of anything.) Once a month, Thomas leaves behind her day job at QAD and gets to commandeer SpiritLand Bistro for a four-course dinner, where all the attendees bring a bottle to share of a designated varietal. That means each meal kicks off with a stand-up, walk-about, delicious cheese course (thanks, C’est Cheese) that might accompany, oh, 35 open, corkage-fee-free bottles of zinfandel, as it did at the dinner on May 28. Talk about your wine education.
Thomas explained that she got the idea from a similar dinner in Santa Cruz. “We were so impressed with the variety and quality of wines, as well as the fun atmosphere, that we wished it could happen in Santa Barbara.” The trick was figuring out where. Thomas was already a fan of SpiritLand, especially its organic focus, and got to know Joanne Hsian, who bought the restaurant in April 2007. “I told her about my wonderful experience in Santa Cruz, my work at Jaffurs Wine Cellars, my foodie inclinations, and my love of organizing wine/food events,” Thomas said. “I guess I divulged too much-a few months later, I received the assignment to take charge and replicate the BYOB event here.”
Hsian kicked off the series with the quote, “We want to create a spirited social atmosphere that uniquely encourages mingling and connection within the community while promoting a shared love of soul-nourishing food and wine.” It certainly works, for at the zinfandel night, people passing by on Victoria Street kept gazing in longingly at the often raucous merriment.
Not that we didn’t break for some elucidation. Each evening, Thomas invites a winemaker who specializes in the night’s varietal, and this night we got to hear from Amy Freeman of Saucelito Canyon, home to some of the oldest zin vines in California. People stopped their imbibing to ask some useful questions, and afterward Freeman praised the event, saying, “The collective enthusiasm for wine really added an energetic dynamic to the group. Pairing with great food rounds out one of life’s joys we are so lucky to be able to partake in. The marriage of wine, food, and people results in a truly unique evening.”
The wines were unique, too-not one repeat among the 35. But to say it was just 35 isn’t fair, for many event-goers also brought a bottle for the sit-down portion of the meal, too, and those started to make their way about the room in a genial “I’ll let you taste mine if you let me taste yours” manner. Zins showing well included those from Gray Wolf, Hartford, Kunin, and Saucelito, of course, and I’d be remiss not to point out the Turley and Williams Selyem I brought were great-you can’t go wrong with two of the best wineries in the state. Interesting, but not so tasty, were some old wines dug out of people’s vaults-sure, you can hang onto a zin for 21 years, but just because it’s now old enough to vote doesn’t mean it’s profound. Still, how often do you get to taste a 1990 Ravenswood?
SpiritLand does do a fine job, with Thomas’s help, of lining up a menu that plays to a wine’s strengths. Zins can burst with berryness, and often are high in alcohol, too, so they stand up well to full-flavored foods. Therefore a smoked gouda tart with sun-dried tomatoes, shiitakes, kalamata olives, and roasted garlic-a taste-bud tickler on many levels-still won’t bowl the wine over. (The spritz of bean sprouts on top sort of seemed like a pointless nod to our health, though.) The richness of duck breast, lathed in port-cherry sauce, practically quacked for zin. And the side of smoked walnut farro with grilled eggplant matched the red wine’s earthiness more than aptly.
Finally, for dessert, Freeman brought a special treat, her Late Harvest Zin, a semi-sticky that called for chocolate cake; and we got to eat that, too, with sweet beet drizzle and even beets grated into the cake, if our table wasn’t fooled, or confused by too much zin. It was a zin-full, nearly sinful night.
Enjoy a Wednesday Wine & Dine Social at SpiritLand Bistro (230 E. Victoria St.). Call 966-7759 or visit spiritlandbistro.com.
Next Up: Champagne versus Cava, June 25, 6:30 p.m.
Speaker: Lucas & Lewellen’s Megan McGrath.
Menu: Gourmet cheeses; spinach and mozzarella quiche; seared scallops with mixed vegetable succotash in coconut curry sauce; passion fruit mousse with seasonal berries.
Cost: $45 (includes taxes and tip).