Melissa L. Smith
What do you do with all of that Cab?
Heads up, that this may rub a lot of you the wrong way, and I do accept that this is the majority, and not the rule. Stick with me though.
All of my client’s cellars are FILLED with Cabernet, and unless it is an investment cellar filled with Burgundy, they are low on Pinot. Why is this? People drink through their Pinot. It is infinitely more food friendly, doesn’t take as long to age, with softer tannins, minimal oak aging, and with the exception of Burgundy and some of the more luxury brand California and Oregon Pinots, the price tag is much lower.
That being said, Cabernet and Bordeaux blends certainly have a place at the table, but because of the more limited pairing opportunities, and higher investment, they often spend decades in bins until one day, the collector decides to sell. Cabernet can be seen as precious, and a bottle to open on a special occasion, and for that reason, holds valuable real estate in your cellar, instead of at the dinner table. I’d like to change that. Not by offering new and exciting pairings, but by revisiting old school steak and potatoes preparations, and encouraging you to invite over a group of friends that will appreciate the wine and the generosity of the occasion. I guarantee, after one dinner you will see that this is the perfect pairing. Delicious food, special bottles, opened and shared with special people.
Why am I writing about this now? Well, I’ve recently listed my home for sale. An incredible property in a historic neighborhood in Oakland that has two backyards and a year round creek running through it. I’ve hosted intimate dinners, dinners for dozens of family and friends sat at a table extending from the living room to the dining room, and casual get-togethers creekside or overlooking the back property. All of them were memorable, but in preparation for the sale, and an overwhelming amount of wine that had to me moved, I decided to host a final series of dinners offered to wine enthusiast friends, neighbors, and peers.
I had cases of incredible wines that were given to me by clients, purchased from clients, rejected from auction houses, and just acquired over time. None were overly valuable, but many were very rare, and almost all were from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, with some from the last two decades available for comparison. I decided on a menu of reverse seared steaks, with creamed greens (kale, spinach, and stinging nettle from the garden), and Syracuse salt potatoes. Why would a French Laundry trained chef prepare such a basic meal? The thinking was, I didn’t want the food to outshine the wine, and I wanted the wine to perfectly pair with the food. I was going for classic, and used exceptional ingredients, and the result was just as I'd wished.
The wines were decanted and presented three at a time for the group of ten. Extra glasses were offered to anyone that wanted to taste them side by side, and the dinners went on for hours. The tannins in the wines had done their job in preserving them, and had all but disappeared. The acid was still there to keep the wines fresh, making it easy to go from bites of rich steak, buttery potatoes, and cheesy indulgent greens to sips of elegant red wines, and back again.
Of the sixty or so bottles opened over three nights, only one was actually bad, and the 1971 Robert Mondavi Cabernet was the highlight in my opinion. Some bottles had signs of seepage, but most of the fill levels were great considering their age. What was truly fantastic though, were the conversations that went on into the late nights. After everything was served and plates were collected, I sat with these people, some of whom I’d only known through Facebook, some were neighbors that I’d never met before, and some were industry professionals that heard of my dinners through the grapevine. After eighteen months of missed industry events, social gatherings, and restaurant meals, the opportunity to sit with people over a great meal, with great wines, was exactly what we all needed, and I was honored to present the opportunity.
How do you decide what to open? Well, ideally you have your inventory uploaded to Cellar Tracker, and have paid for your membership so that you can easily access its value, and recent tasting notes. Or not, and you can just grab bottles at random.
I wouldn't crack a case for this (full cases are more valuable if you ever plan on selling), but I would definitely use it as an excuse to open some of your single bottles. In my client's cellars I organize an entire row of single bottles from each varietal (versus wines where multiple vintages of the same producer are present in the collection, those are grouped together). Go for the bottles with the most age, but also offer a couple of the younger ones in case your guests aren’t fans of older wines. Pick bottles that were gifts, and you haven't gotten around to opening them for one reason or another. Decant the older wines using a fine mesh screen, and double decant the younger ones. Offer wines from the New World and Bordeaux, or stick with one region or the other. This is also a great excuse to buy a few decanters if you don't already collect them. I've found some fantastic ones at thrift stores, and Ikea even has a great one right now. Make absolutely sure that as the host, you have the first sip of everything. Before you know it the bottles will be empty, and you don’t want to miss out on experiencing each one. Also, you’re checking for flaws.
Make sure that you have plenty of high quality wine glasses available, keep the water flowing, and send out an invitation outlining the event and protocols as I did, ensuring that the guests knew to not wear perfume or cologne, or anything else with scents, smoking was not allowed, and that they were all encouraged to take an Uber to and from the event. I wanted everyone to enjoy the evening to its fullest, but be responsible.
Stick with a basic menu, and seek out the best ingredients. Serve everything family style, and make it as easy on yourself as possible to execute the dinner so that you can sit with your guests as much as possible.
To make it that much easier for you to replicate, I am including the menu with links to recipes comparable to what I prepared. Also, bring all of your bottles of non vintage bubbles out and serve them to your guests upon arrival, this is a great way to cycle through bottles that were not meant to age, but may have transformed into something extraordinary and unable to duplicate. The dessert was designed to use the massive batch of Armagnac soaked prunes that I made during the pandemic from the fantastic book Unforgettable, a biography and cookbook on Paula Wolfert. While combining two old school recipes, it was actually the perfect conclusion to the meal and lent itself to some amazing pairings including Cognac, Whiskeys, Amaros, and Ports (another often collected seldom opened category) that I brought out of hiding for this specific occasion.
Gougere with Non Vintage Champagne
Reverse Seared Tomahawk Steak, Syracuse Salt Potatoes, and Creamed Greens
Molten Chocolate Cake, with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream and Armagnac Soaked Prunes