There are only about a dozen great independent restaurants in Tucson. In a desert full of Tex-Mex and "Family" restaurants what a treat it has been to discover Vintabla, a winebar/restaurant owned by Master Sommelier Laura Williamson and several of her colleagues. Laura is one of few women to achieve Master Sommelier status. Imagine a restaurant with three or four sommeliers and a great chef. Now imagine a rolling twenty acre vineyard above beautiful glacial Lake Chelan in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. What happens when an evergreen environment meets an oasis in the desert? You get the perfect pairing of food and wine.
Winemaker Larry Lehmbecker starred at a recent Winemaker dinner at Vintabla. Larry still has a day job, as a lawyer, and is pretty much self-taught in winemaking, though he does come from a family where wine was made. Larry submitted twelve of his wines to the San Francisco Wine Competition and, guess what, he came away with twelve medals. A pretty impressive sweep! It appears that this was the greatest number of awards garnered by a Northwest winery at the event. Larry's wines are very carefully made to capture the essence of each varietal. He uses no wood, so the flavor profile depends primarily on the character of the varietal. Larry's whites are pristine, fairly light, crisp and dry. While they seem to reflect the pure crystalline quality of Lake Chelan, they are the perfect refreshment for a hot sunny day in the Arizona desert.
In my experience, the one thing that really distinguishes Sommeliers from other wine professionals such as Masters of Wine is an intimate knowledge of wine and food pairings. Laura outdid herself. The dinner started with Larry's 2007 Viognier - fresh and light without the sometimes annoying big ripe fruitiness found in so many American Viogniers. Then the exquisitely perfect match. Blini with Cured Salmon, chive gelee and lemon creme fraiche served with the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc was a union made in heaven. The closest thing to nirvana here on earth. This brought me back to the best three star restaurants in France. Then a very clever tart on tart pairing of the 2007 Pinot Gris (BTW, this would be fabulous with oysters) with salad in an herbed red wine vinaigrette. Earlier last week, I had been telling Dave of my duck craving and how difficult it is to find duck in Tucson. To my delight, the main entree was Duck Confit over braised lentils with hedgehog mushrooms - one of my favorite dishes in the whole world. This was served with two of Larry's reds - the chocolate and coffee accented 2006 Red Cafe Syrah and the elegant, refined, gold medal winning 2006 Cabernet Franc - two wonderfully different ways to experience the duck. The 2006 Ice Wine was matched with what looked like a deliciously light goat cheese cake with ginger and Blood Orange Syrup. Since I can't eat cooked cheese because of gastric reflux, I was immediately provided with a trio of sorbets. The two usual suspects, mango and raspberry were tasty, but the standout match with the Riesling/Gewurz Ice Wine was the Meyer Lemon sorbet.
Altogether a standout experience without the cost and jet lag of flying to France! BTW, this evergreen/desert union was facilitated by Wanderlust Trading Company. The event was very well attended with many knowledgeable Washingtonian guests present with the exception of the lovely Jennifer who was from L.A. If you are lucky enough to be a Washington snowbird or any kind of snowbird, or that rara avis a native Tucsonian(?), Tusconite(?), there will be two more opportunities to experience the perfect pairing of wines from the perfect climate (Washington) with food from the perfect desert (Sonoran Desert). On February 18th, Annette and Amber, owners of Bergevin Lane will grace us with their wines at Dove Mountain Grille, Vintabla's new sister restaurant near the Ritz at Dove Mountain. This will be followed by the Mantones with their spectacular Syrahs from Syncline Cellars back at Vintabla. As Speight Jenkins, Seattle Opera impresario says, "It's going to be a great show!"