I WENT TO LUNCH this week at Capital Grille on 42nd Street, a wonderful steakhouse with a Fortress of Solitude feel and plenty of business people taking their time Don Draper-style. I was meeting with Robert Skalli, the president of the Skalli Family Estates which produces both Rhone Valley Skalli wines in France and St. Supery wines in Napa Valley, along with Emma Swain, the CEO of St Supery.

The lunch was scheduled to run through recent releases from both labels, and we were fairly certain to enjoy both a fantastic lunch and a joyous wine experience. However, this time, through a combination of luck and experience, I managed to so perfectly pair my wine and food choices as to elevate both components and remind myself there is an art to perfect pairings.

St Supery has gone through a number of changes in the past year: Longtime CEO Michaela Rodeno retired in June, 2009 (and Swain took over the post after departing Sebastiani Vineyards). The company also welcomed back winemaker Michael Scholz, who had worked for the winery from 1996 to 2001. The winery itself, located in the Pope Valley and Rutherford regions of Napa, is relatively new, having been forged from the ground up in 1982 by Skalli. "Before we planted the Dollarhide Ranch vines, there were cows on the land," says Skalli (the Skalli estate wines in Languedoc were founded in 1961).

The tastings were typical, running through three whites (St. Supery Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Virtú 2009 and St. Supery Dollarhide Sauvignon Blanc 2009), three reds (Skalli Grand Vins du Rhone Chateauneuf du Pape 2007, Skalli Grand Vins du Rhone Cotes du Rhone 2009, St. Supery Élu 2005) and one dessert wine (St Supéry Moscato 2009). All pleasant and crisp. Scholz's interest in drawing out pineapple notes to augment the grapefruit notes commonly found in the Dollarhide SavBlanc grapes, and bring back the earthy "funk" also found these grapes is welcome. The finishes on the whites are clean and crisp, while the reds are long, with mild, approachable tannins even as young as they are.

Three wines in particular stood out for me on the sheer magic of the food pairings. Capital Grille produces flavorful steaks, lamb, burgers and other dishes, with a clean, elegant presentation:

St. Supéry Dollarhide Sauvignon Blanc 2009 / Blue Point Oysters
"The Pope Valley is very good for Sauvignon Blanc, because there are good changes in the temperatures between day and night," says Skalli. "You have very warm days and very cool nights." The 2009 SB ($35) marks the return of winemaker Scholz's appreciation of the natural "funk" the Dollarhide SB grapes possess. The grapes for this wine are from Parcel 5 at Dollarhide, which CEO Swain says tend to be the most pungent grapes on the ranch. Scholz took the grapes and barrel fermented 14% of them in new French oak, then put that back in steel for a month to accentuate the musk, white cheese and fresh beef notes that overlay the natural grapefruit and pineapple citruses also found. On the mouth it is round, meaty and rich, almost like a bold red. You still get the tropical overtones that the Dollarhide SBs are known for, along with mild butter and bacon grease notes. 
 The moment I tasted this wine, I craved oysters. I asked the wine manager to bring us each one oyster (as we had a lot to look forward to). They had Blue Points on hand (real, salt-driven blue points out of Great South Bay), and the pairing was sublime. The tropical and cheese notes of the wine rounded wonderfully, allowing the fermented notes to complement the brininess and shininess of the oysters and bring additional complexity to each bite. If I could change one thing it's that I think an even bolder oyster, like a Malpeque, would work even better. (At Capital Grille, the St Supéry Dollarhide 2004 lists for $138 per bottle (about $70 retail). I wish we'd taken the time to sample that one as well to cast the differences).

Skalli Grand Vins du Rhone Chateauneuf du Pape 2007 / Beef Carpaccio
This blend of 60% Grenache (70-year-old vines), 20% Syrah and 20% Mourvedre is a classic CdP. In fact, Skalli says his estate represents 10% of all CdP, producing about 100,000 cases each year. "For me, the Rhone Valley wines in France are wonderful," he continues. "The Bordeaux in a restaurant are so expensive. You can get a nice Cote du Rhone for €60, where you can't even touch Bordeaux for that."
Set aside the fact that Cote du Rhones generally don't match Bordeaux in depth and complexity, Skalli's got a point: Why pay through the nose if what you want is a nice wine with dinner?  The Skalli CdP ($40) is still young, with a dominant alcohol nose, but there is also a mild earthy humus and sweet fruits on the end. On the mouth, it is round, with well-balanced tannins, mild pepper and floral notes.
As luck would have it, I'd ordered the Beef Carpaccio on a bed of fresh arugula (how very '90s, I know). Again the dish paired perfectly and both wine and dish complemented each other. The hard edges of the wine's youth (I'd let this sit for another five years) mellowed, and its fruit and spice notes were drawn forth. Others had great luck with the St. Supéry Élu 2005 we also sampled, a blend that evokes sweet red fruits, black cherry and black pepper, with a nice tannic finish. Also elegant (but in need of aging): Limited Edition Dollarhide Cabernet Sauvignon 2007.

St Supéry Moscato 2009, North Coast:
 The coup de grace (in terms of pairing) may have been the Moscato. Dessert wines are, more or less, meant to stand on their own. Pair them with white cheese and pears, maybe a little honey. But I was in the mood for Créme Brulee, so I ordered one. "Créme Brulee and the Moscato pair beautifully," said Skalli. He was right. Rather than an overload of sugar-on-sugar, the dessert brought down the sugar of the Moscato, giving it a warmth and roundness and cutting the acid. Suddenly it was all banana and peach, warmth and coffee. I passed the Créme around and insisted everyone try, and I think most (at least) were suitably impressed. 

Though these are French wines (or California wines with a French sensibility), they marry food the way Italian wines do. They drink well enough on their own, but are elevated with just the right combination of spices, textures and tones. I would also venture to say that, for the most part when pairing, here the situation calls for like-with-like: Acids with acids, pungent with pungent, tropical with tropical. The Cabs will stand up to lamb or Argentine beef. They might overwhelm the sweeter Wagyu. The whites might dominate a Tilapia, but oysters and lobster - C'est Magnifique!


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    Robert Haynes-Peterson is an editor and writer based in New York City. When not exploring the vineyards of Mendoza, the distilleries of Cognac or the resorts of Hawaii, he can be found pursuing the next great meal or cocktail wherever he's landed.


    October 2010
    September 2010


    Food And Wine
    French Laundry
    St. Supery
    Tag Heuer
    Thomas Keller