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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Aus-some Wine and Delectable Dishes

Aus-some Wine and Delectable Dishes
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Wethersfield, CT – “Water separates the people of the world… but Wine brings them together.” This is the ever-present message at the bottom of Tony Reynolds’ email and certainly an adage that rang true on a recent evening at Carmen Anthony’s Fishhouse on Berlin Turnpike.

Reynolds, a representative of 2Fly Wines, an East Hartford-based importer of Australian wines, was among the handful of gregarious folks hosting a special Wine Dinner at the eatery. The event showcased two of the wineries the importer represents – K1 and Pertaringa – as well as Pertaringa’s Head Winemaker Shane Harris. To the delight of some two-dozen local wine and food enthusiasts in attendance, select wines from these companies were paired with sumptuous foods served by the restaurant.

Many miles had been traveled by the gentlemen at the head table, which included Reynolds from Hackham, South Australia; Michael Wehrs, Pertaringa’s Business Development Manager from Adelaide, South Australia; and Harris from McLaren Vale, South Australia. Joining them were two other gents who had enjoyed a shorter commute – Chris Didden, founder and owner of 2Fly, and Craig Witzke, owner of South Glastonbury’s South Side Wine & Spirit Shoppe, one of the early supporters of Didden’s efforts to establish his importing business in the U.S.

After a brief intro provided by Reynolds, Wehrs spoke about how he met the owners of Pertaringa, a boutique winery that only produces about 20,000 cases annually. The graying, spiky-haired Bavaria-born brand manager said the operation is very “hands-on”, comprised of ten individuals and that it wouldn’t be unusual for him to be seen driving a forklift around in addition to managing his sales duties.

Harris, a young, bearded, stocky guy with a thick Australian accent, was next up on the roster. He described the portfolio of wines as “house” style and that there’s no “chopping and changing” between vintages. A chef by trade, he confessed, “As you can see, I’m not the smallest guy in the room… food is a huge love of mine so wine pairings are very important to me.”

Lord of the Manor Didden, a bespectacled bear of a man with salt-and-pepper hair and goatee, followed Harris, noting that it was the quality of the wines that drew him to the wineries when he first visited Australia several years ago for a family wedding. After learning that the Pertaringa and K1 brands weren’t available in the U.S., he evaluated becoming an importer and ultimately started 2Fly in June 2008.

Didden’s approach to wine is simple: “If I drink the wine and like it, I buy it.” And that’s how he first cottoned on to the wineries. “What you’re drinking is my palette.”

Every year, Didden travels to Australia and spends three weeks there, tasting, discussing, strategizing… and did I mention tasting? “I start at 8 in the a.m., end at 9 p.m. and have a gin and tonic at the end of the night to clean my palette,” he explained with some degree of amusement.

Like the wineries, Didden is equally hands-on. “I get knee deep in crud and mud. I’m purple one day, white another (depending on the grape variety)…  and peppered with bee stings.”

Deciding the gathering had heard enough chatter from its hosts, Reynolds raised a glass of the first wine selection, a 2009 Pertaringa Scarecrow Sauvignon Blanc, and announced, “Cheers! Let’s push the boat out!” The group followed his lead, returned the toast and finished the last slivers of international cheeses, cured meats and dried fruit that had been set out as nibblies.

In an aside, as the dinner officially commenced, Didden explained that “feeling, touching and getting great partners” has been the recipe for his success. However, getting an initial audience here in the U.S. hasn't been easy. About wine retailer Witzke, he chided, “I visited him 14 times. He didn’t want to taste the wines. Then on the 15th visit, he agreed to go to lunch. An article (about 2Fly) had just appeared in the Glastonbury papers. Craig said he’d missed the boat but quickly jumped on board. He’s been an awesome partner since then.”

To this, Witzke added, “I still get passionate about a great bottle of wine… teary even. I recently saw a sign at a small café near my store: ‘If we don’t enjoy what we do, we’re only living up to a fraction of our potential.’ You need reaffirmation of your passion every once in a while. Chris and I both enjoy that passion.”

As the first course appeared – a hand-rolled organic lasagna finished with a creamy pesto sauce and roasted walnuts -- Harris tapped a glass to signal that “church is in session.” Paired with this food offering was a K1 selection – a 2007 “Gold Label” chardonnay. Harris noted that only 400 cases of the Chardonnay are made annually, and only 72 cases are exported to the U.S., all to 2Fly’s warehouse in East Hartford.

From across the dimly lit, dark wood-trimmed room came the voice of a woman who admired not only Harris -- “He’s from Australia… he’s cute” – but also the wine. “The Chardonnay is very, very good,” gushed Brenda McDonald, an Old Saybrook resident with French Canadian roots and originally from Maine. She strode over to the host table and asked, “Where is your store? Do you ship? I would like to buy a case.”

McDonald had been invited to the event by her friend Sharon Muthig, Carmen Anthony’s CFO. “Sharon knows I love wines. I’ve been all over trying them. This is the best Chardonnay I’ve ever had. Better than any French or American Chardonnay.” Sharon added, “This is the most complex white wine I’ve ever tasted.” These were strong testaments from experienced wine connoisseurs.

Upon the arrival of the main entrée -- a grilled petite filet mignon topped with fresh sliced artichoke hearts and a fresh barramundi fillet encrusted with pistachio breadcrumbs and pan seared – Witze commented on the wine accompaniment. In this case, these included a 2007 K1 Shiraz Viognier for the fish and a 2007 Pertaringa Undercover Shiraz for the meat, both outstanding reds. “This is what Shiraz can taste like… what it should taste like. I think much of the country’s palette has been dumbed down by trendy Australian wines.”

The volume level in the room had noticeably climbed by this point, cheeks were flushed and ties loosened as the entrée and wine was enjoyed. “More for you?” said Wehrs to Reynolds, assuming for the moment the guise of a waiter and offering some Shiraz. “Is the pope Catholic?” joked Reynolds, encouraging the pour.

Not the only joker in the room, Didden, when dark-suited restaurant manager Michael Picard asked him if he was enjoying his dinner, replied, “It sucks. We were looking to throw it away!” At that, Didden popped the last bite of fish in his mouth, a satisfied smile spreading across his broad, tanned face.

Wehrs, married to a “Sheila” back in Adelaide, S.A., mentioned that he was currently on a 10-day North American tour, which began at a wine fest in Vancouver (Pertaringa’s biggest Canadian market); continued on to Calgary, Alberta; tripped through Banff; touched down in New Jersey; and would conclude in Nantucket. The journey was tiring but necessary to “get the brand out there.”

Several well-heeled dinner attendees had asked Didden about the combination of the reds with the entrée, with the fish in particular, so he addressed the issue.
“What do you normally have with surf and turf?” “Vodka!” someone cried out, eliciting titters. Harris stepped up, pulling from his mental encyclopedia to help explain the pairing. He used terms like tannins and skins, described the planting process, soil depth, elevations, sunshine exposure, ripening speed and finish, but most importantly, the Shiraz’ perfect alignment with the fattiness in these foods.

“There’s not a wine I’ve had here that I wouldn’t have on a regular basis. It’s ridiculous,” declared new fan McDonald, who had committed to an additional two cases of wine. Bubbly redhead Kate and her silver fox companion Bob, who had come up from New Haven, agreed, “We’re both into reds and really enjoyed the Undercover Shiraz. The Scarecrow Sauvignon was also nice… drier, with hints of Granny Smith apples. Kate added, “The guided sampling takes the risk out of pairing and allows you to experiment.”

For another table, this was a family outing. The Paretti sisters – Sarah from West Hartford, Teresa from Simsbury and Patty (with her husband Michael) from West Simsbury – were heartily enjoying themselves, and receiving a good wine education at the same time. “From Shane, I learned that the Shiraz complemented the fattiness of foods. And though I’m really a red wine drinker, I would try a Sauvignon Blanc… it was an awakening… delicious!” Sarah agreed, “Crisp…. Delicious.”

The dessert offering was a sampling of different-flavored truffles and served with Pertaringa’s 2007 “Two Gentlemens” Grenache, which exhibited a bright ruby color and fruity flavor that complemented the sweetness of the chocolates. 

As the evening wound down, Harris asked for a show of hands for the group’s favorite brands. McDonald very enthusiastically raised both hands upon mention of the Chardonnay. “Raise your third hand Brenda!” called out Reynolds. She thrust a fan into the air. Then Harris quizzed the group about the vineyard founders and vintages. Answers were amusing including one shout of “Russell Crowe!”

While the gathering may not have retained all the facts, one thing was for sure… they certainly enjoyed the experience. Summing up the wines, Wehrs contributed a final thought, “Our wines are meant to accompany food, not take away from their flavor. They have good structure that works with good food.” Good on ya, mate, well put.