For decades, serious wine lovers and collectors have flocked to Walla Walla during the first weekend in May for “Leonetti Weekend,” the only time of the year iconic Leonetti Cellar opens its gates to invited buyers.
Officially, however, the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance refers to it as Spring Release Weekend. This year, it runs May 3-5, a timeframe that’s also a harbinger of deliciously famous crops such as the Walla Walla Sweet Onion, asparagus and artichokes.
When it comes to pairing them with Northwest wines, however, sometimes the results can be awkward.
“I had a fear about asparagus,” said sommelier Shawn Smith, who doubles as the tasting room manager and restaurant manager at Waterbrook Winery in Walla Walla. “In the past, I would have said, ‘Get me a fino sherry or I’m dead.’ ”
Waterbrook is the Walla Walla Valley’s fourth-oldest winery, dating back to 1983 when Eric Rindal founded it at the age of 23. He sold it to Precept Wine in 2006, and it stands as the jewel in the crown for the Seattle-based company led by CEO Andrew Browne, who grew up in Spokane.
Last year, Precept hired Sierra Grden as its corporate chef, and now that wine touring season is in full swing, Waterbrook is open for dinner on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“I’m the food program manager, too, so I need to bring food to all of the other properties as well,” she said.
A decade ago, Grden, whose name is of Polish-Hungarian origin and pronounced “Grr-DANE,” left a career in Manhattan as an industrial designer of kitchen products for Lifetime Brands to return home to the Walla Walla Valley.
“I was really unhappy, and I always wanted to be a chef,” she said. “And I’ve always loved wine.”
She spent time with French-themed Brasserie Four, the now-closed The Ox & Cart, and catered around the valley before stepping away from the commercial kitchen.
“I took time off to write a book on edible root vegetables of the world to help educate children,” said the graduate of Western Washington University. “Then a year ago, Precept found me. It was a surprise, and I’m almost done with my book, but this is such a perfect job for me.”
This spring, she collaborated with Smith to create a series of dishes featuring spring vegetables that pair with a selection of Waterbrook, Browne Family and Canoe Ridge Vineyards wines - three of the most important brands in the Precept portfolio.
All but one of the wines came from the cellar of John Freeman, one of the most affable and overlooked winemaking talents in the Walla Walla Valley, and his tenure as Waterbrook’s head winemaker goes back to 2005, which precedes the sale to Precept.
While these dishes are not regularly featured on the seasonal menu, they are reflective of the imagination, execution and talent Grden is bringing to the culinary program at Waterbrook and Precept.
“Between the restaurant, our catering and special events, these dishes will find their way on tables,” Smith said.
All of these wines are available online. The Browne Family Vineyards wines can be sampled at the downtown Walla Walla tasting room and in its Seattle’s Pioneer Square tasting room. Canoe Ridge Vineyard recently moved its Walla Walla tasting room downtown on Main Street, and Waterbrook’s remodeled tasting room stands a stone’s throw from Highway 12 and a chip shot from Freeman’s winery.
Walla Walla Sweet Onions from Locati Farms in Walla Walla
Entrée - Opposite Soup with Icon by Waterbrook 2016 Dolcetto
Grden used Waterbrook Mèlange Founder’s Red Blend in the red onion prep and Waterbrook Mèlange White for the white onion prep. Other ingredients include cream sherry, pearl onion flowers, strawberry, begonia leftest, begonia flowers and thyme.
Smith described it, “Meaning ‘little sweet one,’ the Icon by Waterbrook 2016 Dolcetto ($34) is actually dry with hints of dried cherry and strawberry, lingering tannins and balanced with bright acidity.”
Dessert - Onion and Waterbrook Wine Ice Cream with Waterbrook 2017 Mèlange Founder’s White Blend
Sweet red onions are boiled to extract sugar from the bulb, and this is presented in a red and white chocolate onion cup, along with fermented honey sauce and orange blossom candy.
The key with any wine pairing with dessert is that the wine must be sweeter than what’s on the spoon or fork. In this case, the Waterbrook 2017 Mèlange White ($12), which leads with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat, comes in between off-dry and semi-sweet, and Smith hit the mark. The Onion and Waterbrook Wine Ice Cream is delicate, complex, slightly savory and only lightly sweet.
“This offering has a balanced approach to sweetness and fruity characteristics of pineapple, kiwi, starfruit and mango,” he said. “This wine plays well with the ice cream and the sweetness from the sugars extracted from the onions along with the hints of orange that really make this item stand out.”
Asparagus from Larsen Farms in Pasco, Wash.
Entrée - Asparagus and Two King Duo
Larsen Farms asparagus shares the stage with spring Chinook salmon from the Columbia River and white King salmon from the Pacific Ocean. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, about 5 percent of King salmon have white meat and have been dubbed “the Ivory Kings.” They don’t carry the gene that allows them to metabolize pigment in their food and store the red-orange carotene in their muscle. Many of these white Kings come from the Fraser River in British Columbia.
Grden built the umami-filled dish around white asparagus, blonde and forest morels, slightly spicy green garbanzo beans, fiddle ferns, English peas and fava beans. She accented it with asparagus flower and her Asparagus and Rhubarb Sauce. “When you sauté asparagus, a natural lemon flavor comes out,” she said. “And rhubarb has a similar texture to asparagus.”
The pairing with the Canoe Ridge Vineyard 2015 Canyon Vineyard Ranch Limited Edition Roussanne ($20) was spot-on with the spring Chinook. Interestingly, it didn’t quite click with the white King, which is more prized by restaurants. “It’s a bit pricey, but I wanted to have it,” Grden chuckled. Smith’s lean toward the full-bodied Roussanne made by Bill Murray from this Yakima Valley site highlighted notes of tropical fruit, pineapple and honey while offering a grassy, sweet and tart kick to Grden’s Asparagus and Rhubarb Sauce. “A little spice goes well with the Roussanne,” she said.
Dessert - Creme Brûlée
Indeed, Larson Farms asparagus contributed to Grden’s imaginative and beautiful custard that came with Violet Sorbet, Parmesan jasmine cookie, toasted pistachios, fennel frond and even a thimble-sized shot of absinthe.
For the wine pairing, Smith mixed in a curveball that produced a hit with the Browne Family Vineyards 2016 Malbec ($35), playing well with each phase of this dessert. Freeman’s delicious work with Malbec has been somewhat unheralded, but perhaps that is about to change as his Waterbrook 2016 Reserve Malbec won best of the class recently at the Cascadia International Wine Competition. “The Browne Malbec is supple yet strong enough to form a warm cocoon of beautiful currant and blackberry fruit immediately and long as long lasting tannins are flanked by a creamy texture and vanilla tones.”
Artichokes from Hayshaker Farms in Walla Walla
Entrée - Lamb Chop
Certified organic Upper Dry Creek Ranch in Weston, Ore., south of the Walla Walla Valley in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, provides the protein and the platform for petite artichoke, artichoke heart, artichoke bottom and black garlic artichoke sauce. It’s a remarkably earthy, fascinating and detailed dish that includes foraged black trumpet mushrooms, black caviar lentils, maple buds and black moss. That crispy moss tastes like a kettle chip.
The Waterbrook 2016 Reserve Merlot ($23) indeed is a classic pairing for lamb, and an easy option for Smith. “This full-bodied Merlot with moderate acidity and balanced tannins set this dish off with the red-fruited flavors of strawberry, red plum and further accented the peppery and rich character of the finished product.”
Dessert - Artichoke Almond Cake
Peach and orange blossom whip cream top this slightly savory cake that comes with artichoke dust, amaretto green almonds and a shot of Cynar. Grden dives deep into the world of mixology with Cynar, pronounced CHEE-nar, a natural digestif that Italians developed using artichoke leaves. Cynara is the Latin name for the sunflower family, which artichokes are members of.
Rather than relying on a late-harvest Sèmillon, the Browne Family Vineyards 2017 Riesling ($18) nicely rounds off this far-from-cloying dessert. “The crisp acidity has enough sweetness to not only meet the sweetness of the dish but also pair with aspects of licorice and tease the palate with zesty orange characteristics,” Smith said. “Peach and stony minerality pleases and cleanses bite after bite.” The key for any dessert wine is that it be sweeter than the dessert itself. At 2.6 percent residual sugar with ample acidity, the interplay from Riesling to Artichoke Almond Cake and back is enjoyable.
Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at greatnorthwestwine.com