by Philippe Montblanc
It’s an easy snobbery to dismiss the larger Californian wineries, but true wine aficionados know that some of them were groundbreakers (metaphorically as well as literally), that their high-end wines are apt to be spectacular and that even their mass-produced wines can conceal some pleasant surprises. A case in point was the Robert Mondavi dinner that I attended on August 19th at Octagon in the Mystic Marriott.
I have been a food and wine journalist too long to “write off” a powerhouse like Mondavi, but even if that weren’t the case, I have such faith in the instincts of Octagon executive chef John Trudeau that I would still have come with an open mind. I have attended dozens of his dinners, and I can’t recall a single instance of Trudeau allowing a bad wine to make it to the table or failing to design a dish that would marry well with its wine.
And believe me, I’m not easy to please. A few months ago, I dined at Per Se, the Thomas Keller restaurant located in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, christened in May the best new restaurant in the country by the James Beard Foundation, and concluded that Connecticut had at least a dozen better restaurants, Octagon being one of them.
On this occasion, hors d’oeuvre and glasses of ’02 Robert Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc, Stags Leap District, were enjoyed, not on the patio and not in the usual back room in which such events are held, but rather in the hallway for Vines, Octagon’s casual dining cousin. And so we sipped shot glasses of a pretty green chilled gazpacho topped with an orange splash of tobiko, then noshed on a summery salad of mixed greens, goat cheese, locally grown asparagus and marinated onions in a pleasing vinaigrette.
When we shifted to the back dining room, it became apparent why we had engaged in the preliminaries elsewhere. There had been much activity in our absence. Our seats were already assigned, and at each place setting were six goblets of varying size and shape resting on a paper placemat that doubled as a “cheat sheet.” This was clearly not destined to be a typical Octagon wine dinner.
Kevin McGill of Hartley & Parker, a wholesale wine distributor based in Stratford, was the keynote speaker. It turned out we were not only learning about Mondavi wines but also Riedel Crystal. It was a natural pairing – it was by persuading Mondavi to use Riedel stemware that the Austrian company first made significant inroads into the American market. In my case, McGill was preaching to the choir, because I never fail to compliment an eatery that uses Riedel or Spiegelau stemware to maximize enjoyment of its wines. So imagine my amusement upon learning that Riedel, which has been in business for hundreds of years, recently bought out its chief competitor, Spiegelau.
What followed was an elaborate, and enlightening, seminar in which Riedel stemware designed to optimize the characteristics of specific varietals was contrasted with ordinary goblets. While I had previously raved about the difference good stemware makes, I had never before had the opportunity to engage in side-by-side comparison. Afterward, my companion and I resolved to bring our own Riedel goblets to restaurants not sufficiently enlightened to provide them. Octagon, of course, has been utilizing them all along.
With proper stemware, we were able to appreciate fully an ’02 Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley (note that Fumé Blanc is another name for Sauvignon Blanc, a Mondavi marketing coup). Mondavi takes the unusual (and successful) step of oaking its Sauvignon Blancs to make them a little less one-dimensional than their overseas counterparts.
With this wine, we enjoyed an extraordinary tempura-battered squash blossom filled with lobster mousse, which balanced atop a lobster tail bathed in corn coulis, which in turn rested on thin slices of red, yellow and green tomato in a vaguely sweet vinaigrette. We asked ourselves (as we always do), how does Trudeau come up with these creations?
While some chefs are repositories for mostly bad ideas (or good ideas poorly executed), Trudeau never fails to dazzle with his brilliant inventions.
Just as unusual, the next dish paired cooked and raw fish. A lovely tartare of marinated yellowfin tuna rested on gently poached black sea bass in a truffled hollandaise sauce. My companion and I disagreed on how to eat this dish, I relishing the combination, he feeling like he doubled his pleasure by eating the two fishes separately.
We both agreed, however, that an ’02 Robert Mondavi Chardonnay, Carneros, with notes of honey and toasted oak, was ideal accompaniment.
With our meat course, we savored a lovely ’02 Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir, Carneros. And what a meat course it was! Generous slices of well-marbled Kobe beef from Snake River Farm in California were escorted by thin shavings of local heirloom squash and an orange mound of puréed sweet potato.
Until this point, all of our wines had been quite nice, but now we stepped into the “big time,” exclaiming over a fabulous ’96 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, that is essentially unavailable. The 2001 can be purchases at stores, and if you pick it up and age it a few years, you’ll have some idea how fortunate we were to taste this wine. For dessert, we relished a delightful black cherry pound cake with caramel-chocolate mousse.
At the conclusion of this wonderful dinner and Mondavi wine/Riedel stemware seminar, Chuck Bowe of Grand Wine & Spirit (two stores in Groton) added a few words, then each guest was gifted a tall tapered goblet perfectly suited to drinking Pinot Noir, (possibly my favorite varietal).
The next Octagon event, planned for October, will feature the products of state-of-the-art Californian winery Sonoma-Cutrer. Tickets can be obtained by calling 860-326-0360. Be there or be octagonal!