Contrary to my last entry, I went with my family to a restaurant in Milwaukee when I was home for the holidays that was very much about ambience, and though the food and wine was not by any means gourmet Michelin star-rated, it was wholesome, tasty, and served Midwest-style (meaning, you had to roll yourself through the suddenly narrower door by the end of the meal). The place? The one and only Pizza Man on North and Oakland on the quaint and quirky eastside, where the streets are lined with independent grocers, used bookshops, and coffee houses.
Scrolling their wine list, it was clear that they favored California. I do believe there was not one Italian wine on the menu, though there may have been a couple that escaped my eye. Always craving the perfect pairing, slightly disappointed I couldn’t find a Chianti or similar high-acid Italian to pair with the dominantly marinara-based entrees, I was forced to go domestic.
Ahhh, but what was this? A 2006 Palmina Dolcetto from Santa Barbara County (note: this wine was under Sangiovese Selections—Wisconsin is still a little ways from becoming the center of the gastronomical universe, but it’s getting there).
Well, I was thrilled. I had the chance to meet the winemaker of Palmina, Chrystal Clifton (yes, the wife of Steve Clifton of Brewer-Clifton Winery), last year in Colorado Springs during the 18th Annual Wine Festival. Their theme, “Women in Wine,” included such women as Diana Snowden (SnowdenVineyards, co-winemaker and wife of Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac), Whitney Fisher (Fisher Vineyards), Lynn Penner-Ash (Penner-Ash Vineyards), Joy Sterling (Iron Horse Vineyards), and Chrystal Clifton. Needless to say, it was a phenomenal event and a great opportunity to get to know these winemakers in a much more intimate way. I was able to get a sense of their hopes, fears, ambitions, struggles, and triumphs with the vine.
For Chrystal, her captivation with rosé and turbulent love affair with Nebbiolo seemed to set her apart. I had never met a winemaker as genuinely enthusiastic as she. Chrystal was a natural storyteller, a master of the senses, a purveyor of passion. Her rosé sales go to benefit research in Breast Cancer, whilst her Nebbiolo stands as a personal nemesis. No other grape gets under her skin or has the potential to deliver such redemption as this thick-skinned little devil in disguise. No other grape requires so much patience, coercion, science, prayer, and outright physicality. To date, she cultivates the finest American Nebbiolo wine, in my humble opinion.
But, Dolcetto, well that’s a bit more forgiving. The Cliftons even explain, “’Dolcetto’ translates to ‘sweet little one’—not because it is a sweet wine (it is perfectly dry)—because it is a friendly and easygoing grape to work with and so pleasurable in the glass.” Soft, sensuous spices along with agreeable tannins made it a true table wine, in that everyone at the table benefited from its accessible, well-communicated personality. Black fruit and plummy goodness were generous on both the nose and palate. Most distinctive, though, was its old world acknowledgment. This wine didn’t flex California muscles or new world volume. It was a bit mellower, a bit more down to earth in both taste and temperament.
At $20 retail, this bottle selling for $28 on the list was an absolute steal. It didn’t break the bank for a table of six, everyone loved it, and I was able to sate my old world hunger.
Not to mention, I had a Ratatouille moment. Remember that scene in the movie when the curmudgeon of a critic places the rustic ratatouille in his mouth, transporting him back to a time when he wasn’t such a jerk? A time when this peasant dish was on par with Per Se?
Well, I had my meeting with nostalgia that night as well with a Marsala-bathed Portabella Ravioli dish. It wasn’t until I constructed the perfect bite, including the Parmesan toasted crustini, that it hit me. I fell silent. I almost cried (trust me, it was intensely metaphysical). For whatever reason, I was six years old again at this little restaurant called Froehlich’s in the middle of the forest in northern Wisconsin.
Talk about a paradox. Froehlich’s was nearly impossible to locate, but once you did find it buried deep in the dense northwoods, among only black bear and lumberjacks, you crossed the threshold and stumbled upon fine dining (at least, I remember it being the fanciest place ever, though it probably was not). I used to always get a petite filet mignon with red-wine mushroom sauce on a little crustini (I was a pretty picky eater, but this managed to make the cut…There is a reason we went here only about once a year…). Whatever the combination of flavors, I have never been so close to my culinary past as I was that night. Star-eyed and stuffed, I finished every last bite and rolled myself home.