Chicken/egg, TV/commercial, show-me-yours/I’ll-show-you-mine; which came first, the food or the wine? In our house, such questions carry weight, a seriousness you might consider more properly reserved for electrocardiograms, or matters of national security. The thing of it is, in wine country, at least in the fractional hectare of the 707 area code delineated by our split-rail fence line, the ordinal structure of food vis-a-vis wine matters, not least because you’ll neither be fed nor drunk until we’ve settled the matter, and I seriously doubt that I’m alone in building menus around bottles at least as often as doing so conversely. To wit, another kid-friendly, three-ingredient meal in the works – Sunny Eggs with Crispy Polenta and Creamy Mushroom Sauce – designed specifically to pair with a wine that my wife adores and that Presidents Obama and Bush Jr uniquely agree upon, because it’s been spilled on the official tablecloths of Republican and Democratic White Houses alike…
But first, context is warranted: My wife is on what I can like to call a Chard bender, and the wine racks where we keep our whites look a bit like the maples of her youth come the first snows of November: You know that they were full only recently, you clearly remember seeing them shot through with color and promise, but all that stands in front of you today is dry wood and the lonely spaces in between. This is, to be clear, an issue of frequency, not of quantity, because my wife doesn’t really drink all that much. However, and here again I count my blessings, she is happy enough to drink small quantities frequently, thereby encouraging both my regular raids on the family cellar and my predilection for pigging, but also – when the Chard bender is in full effect – leading to Saharan absences of the one white varietal that will acceptably whet her cute little whistle.
Result: Me, along with my youngest daughter, the inimitable Miss Maggie, on a late afternoon restocking mission. I wanted to go to Alexander Valley, where we believe – heretically, to most of our Russian River Valley neighbors – some of the very finest Chardonnays in the New World are produced (I’ve posted on AV Chards here, here, and here). Unfortunately, my darling nina was not feeling well, so rather than strap her into the back of the car and drag her around the next valley over, we played turistas and tooled around the Healdsburg plaza, her with an organic chocolate frozen yogurt from Snow Bunny (outlandishly overpriced by the calorie, but healthy and delicious all the same), and me with a visit to one of my favorite makers of local Chardonnay, Ms Susie Selby of Selby Winery. Another very accomplished winemaker (Bill Parker, currently making outstanding wines for White Oak, and previously for Matanzas Creek and BR Cohn) once told me that Chardonnay, more than any other varietal, reflects the influence and intentions of the winemaker: Just as a great vineyard will display its terroir in the wine that it births, so too will a fine Chardonnay reflect the hand of its maker. This turns out to be great news for Chard drinkers, because it means that if you can find a winemaker whose style of Chardonnay agrees with you, you can pretty much stop worrying about the rest.
It also means I’m a regular at Susie’s tasting bar, because my wife and I share an affinity for her particular style of Chardonnay, somewhat unfashionable these days, defined by a dense core of fruit framed in toasty oak and featuring flavors like sweet butter, toasted coconut, and creme brulee. We’re much less keen on either the overtly tropical-almost sweet or the steely hard-almost austere styles that have become so much the rage in our Valley and down into the Central Coast, but Susie makes just the sort of Chard we love – from local fruit (one of her vineyards is across the street from our kids’ elementary school, an endearing factoid for me), using classical techniques and French oak barrels. Plus, we think it’s kind of cool to support female winemakers: Not only do women often have more refined palates than men but, like professional chefs, their presence in big-time wine making keeps growing, despite the inversely-stacked odds of an industry – not unlike the kitchen – steeped in generations of male jefes calling the shots.
The other really cool thing about Selby is that the White House Ombudsman regularly serves her Dave Selby Reserve Chardonnay at big-wig State dinners, and the menus are all over the tasting room walls. And, as I mentioned, this is not an Obama phenomenon, because the Ombudsman has been pouring Susie’s wines for at least two Administrations, and which probably says something profound about the ability of good wine to transcend poor politics. It also provides a serious tactical edge to the home cook who, like me, having already fallen in love with the wine, now needs to build a menu around it, because you get to steal ideas from the executive chef of the White House itself. Engage your mental palate and sip the wine while you peruse the menus, and I will assure you of this one thing: You will take the Chardonnay home, and you will almost surely try to cook something using scallops or corn to match.