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Let's eat.

From Big Sur's killer cliff-clinging eateries to Salinas' unparalleled produce, this blog aims to sniff out all things Monterey County can stomach, via picture and prose, curiosity and appetite, hand and mouth.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Outclimbing Expectations at Bernardus - Garys Wine Dinner

The primary difficulty with assembling a dream team dinner is that its brings with it fantasy-scale expectations—and, inversely, an accompanying margin for error about the size of a shard of Himalayan sea salt.

Most fortunately for diners at the annual Bernardus Lodge (658-3400) epic with Gary Franscioni and Gary Pisoni, the best gastronomic gamers from our region came to play last Thursday.

By the time Pisoni was onto his fifth or sixth swirling story of the night, taste buds and brains alike were dizzy with the combinations Bernardus Exec Chef Cal Stamenov (above) came up with to complement the Garys' celebrated grapes.

"Although it is an annual dinner with many returning guests," chef says, "the night is always unexpectedly outrageous. We tend to over-do it; our owner Mr. Pon is there, the whole Bernardus team and the Garys, who start opening big wines unexpectedly. It is a healthy competition on who can be the most over the top."

Pisoni definitely lived up to his end of the bargain, with anecdotes that included smuggling grafts (or seeds or some such thing) from Italy's best vineyards in his underwear and telling the curious customs agent, "You wanna check it? I'm Italian!" (She declined.)

Here's my best conception of how they managed to climb past the expectations we entered with:

The gorgeous boche lawn-adjacent patio, which was just as welcoming later given its riverstone fireplace, supplied a perfect summertime setting for sips of Bernardus' own 2009 Griva Vineyard Sauv Blanc…and what I think was Pisoni's new (and surprisingly colorful) 2009 Rosé "Lucy" and nibbles of some salmon mousse a la Stamenov.

I abandoned the patio for the grounds, though, to check out the ample and darn handy gardens, guided by friend/Cachagua icon/self-described "poor dirt farmer"/Bernardus Vineyard Manager Matt Shea, who—in addition to tending acres and acres of fabulous Marinus fruit that Dean DeKorth builds mighty wines with—masterminds the landscaping at the many Bernardus properties and cycles a mountian of compost materials from its kitchens to the vineyard.

He mentioned the 100-plus species of roses. He pointed out the thousands of lavender plants. What he didn't mention might be as beautiful as all the gardens put together: In a world of vast corporate hotel chains, Bernardus is independently owned. At dinner owner Ben Pon—born Bernardus Marinus Pon before racing cars professionally, competing in the Olympics in clay pigeon shooting and delving into the wine world—shared a table with the Francscionis and Pisonis, smiling as Pisoni told hunting stories from his visits to Pon's European estate.

Emcee for the evening and esteemed conductor of the pairings Mark Jensen mentioned Pon spends half the year here. Stamenov's team spends lots of time in the kitchen garden just off the restaurant and the other beds further afield, snipping exotic oreganos and edible flowers...

...and fennel. Thankfully that had just been harvested and starred in the kind of soup that worked as a metaphor for the whole dazzling Bernardus-Marinus operation:

• The fennel root experience was delivered with smooth precision by a synchronized team, just cool enough so it wouldn't burn, but sizzling sufficiently (and deliciously) to have no chance at growing cold before it was lapped up.

• The broth (head-shakingly smooth, creamy and lively) and the Dungeness crab-delta crayfish dumpling with Carmel Valley olive oil (with a texture and cohesion as impressive as its freshness) deliver irrefutable evidence for Stamenov's gift for executing with the best ingredients.

• The soup's success with the 2008 Bernardus Chard and even greater (albeit different) affection for the '08 Rosella's Vineyard Roar demonstrate what wonders can happen when a wine mind like Jensen works with someone like Stamenov for 15 years.

(We saluted the super soup by making it easier on the wash team: Not a bowl within eyesight looked anything other than licked clean to me.)

There was no way the flavor could fly higher, but the Pacific king salmon with little chanterelles and a delicate black truffle-potato sauce might've matched it. The joy here: seeing this atypical ly creative combination of classic flavors play nicely—particularly with the 2008 Roar Garys' Vineyard Pinot Noir boasting big fruit that will hold up over time, and softened significantly from the first sip to the sixth.

Next a 2008 Bernardus Pinot with grapes from Pisoni Vineyards—the first ever made—has me more hopeful for the future than before it hit my lips.

Impressively enough, it won about as much affection as the '08 Pisoni Vineyards Pinot that Jensen delivered alongside it (and the alder-smoked Pekin duck on cherry-braised pork belly with sweet corn and torpedo onion, above).

BoldAnd it's not a Bernardus party without something inspired from pastry pimp Ben Spungin. Check out this lemon verbena (ah yes) housemade ice cream with a baby block of peach "jelly," little pucks of vanilla cake with pistachio crumble and colorful raspberry purée—not bad at all with a late harvest Bernardus Sauvignon Blanc with Arroyo Seco Griva grapes.

Speaking of party, the dessert did not mean surrender, as anyone familiar with the Garys could've guessed. They poured 5-liter standouts, intriguing conversation spilled into Wickets and the patio, and rising and falling as more winemaking stories fermented from the gregarious Garys.

Earlier Pisoni had bastardized a Napoleon quote about war.

"When we win, we deserve it," he said. "When we lose, we need it."

I'd call this evening a win.

~ ~

Upcoming events at Bernardus*:
*with notes from the kitchen's own
Gina Martin.
**I've heard good things about the artist series, where Stamenov designs menus to match the artist's inspiration, and the artists discuss their passion and perspective at different intervals during the meal.
Artist Dinner Series** at Marinus Restaurant: Patricia Qualls
Tuesday, Aug. 24
6:30pm reception with dinner to follow
$95 per person, inclusive of tax & gratuity
Marinus is proud to welcome back local expressive abstract and contemporary artist Patricia A. Qualls, who grew up in the wide open spaces of the Tennessee Valley, eventually finding her way to Carmel Valley where she now resides. Having discovered her artistic passion, Patricia is now a highly recognized expressionist artist, working full time in her art studio in Carmel Valley. The Spa at Bernardus Lodge features artwork by Patricia whose work is inspired by the beauty of the mountains and oceans that surround us from Carmel Valley down to Big Sur. Please visit to view Patricia’s work.

2nd Annual Garden Party
Sunday, Aug. 29, 2010
Celebrate the dream! Bernardus Lodge will mark 11 years as a full service boutique luxury resort with a summer garden party. The afternoon will feature live music, newly released Bernardus wines, signature cocktails and masterfully-crafted hors d’oeurvres created by Chef Cal Stamenov.

Heirloom Tomato Lunch
Saturday, Sept. 4, 2010
$85 per person, inclusive of tax & gratuity
Join Chef Cal Stamenov for an afternoon celebrating the peak of heirloom tomato season. Guests will savor over 8 varieties of local certified organic heirloom tomatoes while Chef Cal shares his favorite recipes for easy family-style cooking. Guests will enjoy a garden inspired buffet lunch featuring Cal’s Tomato Ratatouille, Carmel Valley Gazpacho, Roasted Free Range Sonoma Chicken and Natural Prime Beef. Pastry Chef Ben Spungin will create a decadent dessert buffet featuring handcrafted chocolates, tarts and ice cream. Lunch will be paired with new release Bernardus wine. Enjoy the bounty of Carmel Valley wine country at this annual event!

Artist Dinner Series at Marinus Restaurant: Thierry Thompson
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
6:30 reception with dinner to follow
$95 per person, inclusive of tax & gratuity
Prominent artist Thierry Thompson and his “Natural Wonders of the Monterey Peninsula and Big Sur” oil paintings—mountains, valleys, seascapes and trees. A deftly painted sky or a seascape in motion is almost always included in his compositions, and weather (often with the famed local fog), is usually an element of the artists photo-realistic interpretations of the California landscapes. It is this attention to detail, which gives the paintings a life of their own.

8th Annual Bernardus Wine Dinner
Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010
6:30pm Reception, 7pm Dinner
$165 per person, inclusive of tax and gratuity
Stamenov does a 5-course autumn-inspired dinner paired with new release Bernardus wines. This annual dinner is hosted by Bernardus Winemaker Dean DeKorth and the team at Bernardus Winery.