Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A "Wine"derful Time with Robert Mondavi Winery (TASTE Philadelphia Pt. II)

The 6th Annual Robert Mondavi Discover Wine Tour made its final stop in Philadelphia for the 2nd Annual TASTE Philadelphia Festival. The wine tour aims to bring “the Napa Valley wine country experience to wine lovers across the United States” through various educational seminars and interactive stations. At TASTE, Mondavi set up a Napa-inspired tasting pavilion with details down to the very last trellis. I was fortunate enough to attend a cooking demonstration with Ted Allen, host of Food Network’s “Chopped,” and participate in an intimate wine tasting session.

My evening began with the delicious cooking demo, complete with excellent samples. Ted has been a Robert Mondavi Private Selection Food and Wine Ambassador for five years running; his enthusiasm for the role was evident as soon as he took the mic. After explaining his passion for Mondavi Winery, he engaged the fifty-person audience in a toast and soon took center stage in the makeshift kitchen. He happily answered questions from the audience and offered helpful tidbits of advice throughout the demo, from identifying the best steak to serve “blue” (a.k.a. very, very rare) (after much thought, he suggested a filet) to encouraging chefs at home to “taste as they go” to produce the best dishes.

For this festival’s demonstration, he prepared corn salad and grilled skirt steak with chimichurri sauce. The corn salad included its namesake ingredient, beefsteak tomatoes, garlic, basil, extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. The salad was crisp and refreshing; the plump corn kernels had a sweet juiciness, while the other components meshed to satisfy my taste buds. It reminded me of summer; it would be the perfect side to bring to a backyard barbecue.

Ted next prepared the chimichurri sauce—which I always think of as an Argentinean pesto—for the steak. After humorously warning us about the “obscene amount of seasonings” he was about to use, he blended parsley, chervil, cilantro, red wine vinegar, red wine, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper. This produced a thick, herby paste with a vibrant green hue. Moving on to the steak, he suggested seasoning the steak “aggressively with salt and pepper” to bring out the flavor. He insisted that it should not be cooked long: at most, it should be medium-rare. It took under five minutes for the steak to cook perfectly, after which it was left to sit for a few moments so the juices could absorb into the meat. The skirt steak was extremely flavorful, but the true star was the chimichurri sauce. Each ingredient shone through, enveloping my tongue in garlicky goodness. It inspired me to make the recipe at home myself!

In addition to the cooking demo, the audience was able to sample two wines from Robert Mondavi’s Private Selection. We tried the Meritage (sounds like “heritage”), which was a “classic Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc that offers lavish black fruit flavors, a plush texture, and supple tannins.” This dark wine was contrasted by a white Chardonnay with “enticing fruit flavors and floral aromas.” The “partial barrel fermentation and sur lie aging” during the winemaking process incorporated “just a hint of oak through the silky texture and lingering finish.” Everyone acted as true wine connoisseurs as they gently swirled their glasses, took a deep sniff to soak up the aroma, and sipped away to their heart's content.

An exclusive blogger tasting followed the largely attended cooking demo. I was guided through four different wines, learning about the production process and the best way to navigate each tasting. At a small wooden table set up for the tasting, the three of us were introduced to two red and two white wines, my favorite of which was the Chardonnay, which I could imagine pairing with a pecan and herb encrusted grilled salmon, an excellent food and wine experience indeed. It has been well established that Robert Mondavi was an innovator in Napa Valley’s early wine industry, introducing to California the cold fermentation process and the use of stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels, a mix of new technology and beloved tradition. A lesser known fact is that he did not launch his winemaking business until the age of 53, proving that it is never too late to follow your passion. His passion: sharing his love of food, wine, and art with family and friends. Interestingly, the representative from Robert Mondavi Winery seemed to follow a parallel path: he switched careers and has found great joy in becoming a wine expert. It seems that we could all learn a lesson from their stories about following our dreams. It was a unique opportunity to engage in such an intimate wine tasting experience and to get a sense of Robert Mondavi’s philosophy, “drink what you like, and like what you drink.”

I greatly enjoyed my time at the TASTE Festival, especially my Mondavi experiences. Thank you to Robert Mondavi Winery for giving me the opportunity to partake in such great sessions!

Don’t forget about Penn Appetit’s Mondavi prize pack giveaway! Contest ends on Thursday, October 27, at 7 pm; contest rules can be found here.

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