Bigger isn't always better.
Often when I'm going to a wine dinner, I assemble a party-sized group around me, a chance to catch up with friends and savor wine and food pairings over the course of an evening. Only problem is, there are so many conversations going on at once, that's it's easy to miss out on one on one interactions.
Tonight I kept it intimate.
It was just me and a favorite couple and it wound up being a most enjoyable wine dinner because of it.
He and I have been friends for six years, having met over his bar and forming a solid friendship in no time. She's the smart and personable girlfriend I helped him win (dating tips from one who's been there), not that he needed much assistance given his looks, talent and charm.
Our table a trois was situated in front of the "fireplace" at Camden's, putting us out of the fray but within earshot of the '80s British soundtrack: Bowie, Echo and the Bunnymen, Talk Talk. My youth, in other words.
Ancient Peaks Winery out of Paso Robles provided all the wines and I have to say, most were atypical Central Coast wines and that's a good thing.
Representing Ancient Peaks was Chris, a genial fellow who began by explaining why their wines were better than the average Central Coast bear, namely five distinct soil types, winds and an unusually cool growing environment.
The difference became obvious with the first wine, a Sauvignon Blanc that tasted more of tropical fruit and apple than the traditional grapefruit, and a fine pairing for brined shrimp salad with kiwi in cucumber. "I haven't tasted anything this fresh-tasting in a while," my friend commented, devouring his.
After being asked about how it was I began my writing career, I blathered so long I was still sipping my wine long after my companions' plates had been cleared and our server was making jokes at my expense.
Don't ask me to talk because I am a blabbermouth.
The elegant Zinfandel that accompanied Virginia's Mountain View Farms Marmac Cheddar (plus grapes, almonds, pear and crackers) was as unlike a typical California Zin as we could hope for and a genius pairing with the wine. I could have sipped that all evening long.
We took our time with this course, discussing back stories and tales of love while eating our way through the massive platter of food.
When Chris came over to talk about the wine, he made the point that Ancient Peaks was still doing Zin the way California had been doing it 40 years ago. "We're behind the times," he explained and our palates were the better for it.
Accidentally, the three of us got off on a deep discussion of home and home meals and what that meant to each of us while being poured Merlot and served California's favorite cut, tri-tip steak, along with braised chicory, horseradish cream and fried oysters.
The Merlot had fabulous structure, nice acidity, gorgeous mouthfeel and wasn't overly alcoholic, all in all everything balanced so perfectly it dispelled the myth of flaccid Merlot.
My male friend was happiest once a big bowl of pork stew with onions, potatoes and carrots arrived, as much because of the chunks of venison sausage and perfect farm egg as for Renegade, the big red blend of Syrah, Petit Verdot and Malbec that accompanied it.
Chris shared that the name had to do with the historic ranch where the winery is located and the notorious James Brothers who hid out there for a while between 1869 and 1872. It would have been a terrific wine anyway, but it got even better with a story behind it while that killer stew was the ultimate crowd-pleaser.
Needless to say, we weren't paying any attention to the other tables with all the lively conversation going on at ours, but that's exactly why tonight's smaller gathering was so satisfying. All three of us learned things about each other we'd never known before, but I'm willing to bet all of us learned stuff in general from the brilliance of others.
I'm happy to report that dark chocolate pate with a schmear of cranberry accompanied our last wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon with a blackberry nose, the grapes for which used to be sold directly to the house of Mondavi for their blending purposes.
Now that Paso Robles has been designated its own AVA, you'd better believe those grapes are staying where they're grown. They didn't stay long in our wine glasses, though, because of the appealing black cherry and cocoa notes. Yum, in other words.
We lingered, talking about hot dogs versus sausage, how it is that people no longer feel like they have to follow the rules and why I should have visited my friend in Denver while he was living there. They worked out their wine order while a woman at another table bought a piece of art off the wall. Strangers told us goodbye as they left.
Best of all, I got to be part of every conversation because it was just us three, which, when you're eating and drinking, is definitely not a crowd.
It's actually kind of civilized. And as our host had said, civilized folk belong in chairs, not bar stools.
Even when they're the last to leave. As usual.