Wine Swirls…at the Joseph Phelps Wine Dinner

Posted by on Oct 21, 2011

Heather Kanter-Kowal

It was a cold, rainy and miserable night in Milwaukee. Not so long ago, we had been basking in sunshine of an Indian summer…but this had clearly come to an end. A bowl of tomato soup with a grilled cheese enjoyed while snuggled up in a blanket while watching a funny movie seemed to be the only cure for such a gloomy day.

Better yet, how about a soul warming glass of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with seared elk loin? A little less traditional, but I promise that no one was thinking about the chilly weather anymore. Mason Street Grill invited Chris St. Marie, medical the National Sales Manager of Joseph Phelps Vineyards, to talk about this revered Californian estate to a sold-out room of food & wine lovers. The evening began with a crisp and refreshing glass of Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc and oysters as guests entered the room. Chris began his talk by asking the room “How many of you have been to Napa Valley?”, and shockingly the majority of the room raised their hand! He then went on to explain how the “Judgment of Paris” was possibly the moment in time that Napa Valley wines rocketed onto the world stage of wine. The “Judgment of Paris” refers to the tasting that Steven Spurrier hosted in 1976 with a panel of French wine experts. It was a blind tasting of very celebrated Bordeaux and some not yet celebrated Cabernet Sauvignon from California for the reds, nurse and high-level white Burgundy competing with Chardonnay from California. Mr. Spurrier was the owner of a not incredibly profitable wine shop in Paris, and was using this tasting as a stunt to demonstrate the superior quality of French wines. The winner of the white tasting was a Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena (sounds French, but this was from California!) while the highest score for a red went to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. A reporter from Time Magazine was at this tasting and reported the news to the world that wine from California was worth taking seriously. The movie “Bottle Shock” was based on this story and is quite entertaining (there is even a shout-out to Milwaukee if you listen carefully!).

Joseph Phelps founded his family winery in 1973 and was a man in the right place at the right time. The first vintage of their Bordeaux-inspired blend (also known as a Meritage) was bottled in 1974 and bore the name “Insignia” and was truly the first of its kind. Before Opus One, Quintessa or Dominus, there was “Insignia”. Readers of Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator know “Insignia” as a perennial blue chip Meritage that ALWAYS garners a score in the 90-100 point range (which is tremendous) and has acquired a blue chip price tag that is well-deserved along the way. The Mason Steet Grill patrons had the privilege of enjoying the 2006 Insignia with some very tender Wagyu beef, candied shallots, and hay smoked potatoes. The smell of the hay smoke in the afternoon while Chef Weber and Chef Hauck prepared for the dinner gave a really delightful autumnal scent to the restaurant, like burning leaves in a bonfire. I almost forgot that I was sitting at my desk in a modern restaurant in bustling downtown Milwaukee.

Chris also talked to us about a newer project from Joseph Phelps that we poured that evening. In 1999, the family acquired a new piece of land in cooler Sonoma Coast AVA to pursue their dream of making Burgundy inspired Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This plot of land put them in Freestone, a quiet bohemian community which was not interested in being home to a big, wasteful, corporate winery. I believe the words “hippies” and “growing weed” may have been tossed around. The decision to be environmentally aware and utilize bio-dynamic farming practices have quelled these fears. We poured the Freestone Chardonnay with poached langostinos with compressed melon, keeping all of the flavors bright and clean. The Freestone Pinot Noir was a comforting match for a hearty bowl of garganelli pasta with roast pheasant in a rich marscapone sauce. After the aforementioned Cabernet Sauvignon and elk loin course, and the Insignia and Wagyu beef pairing, it was time for something sweet. We were fortunate to obtain a few bottles of the very allocated “Eisrebe”, a dessert wine made from the Scheurebe grape, a wine so intense with floral, peach and apricot notes it evoked a spring picnic. Chef Carlson baked a delightful apricot frangipan tart to highlight that sunshine trapped in a glass.

It was a cozy and delicious way to spend a bitter fall evening, and it was entertaining to hear Chris St. Marie’s anecdotes about the wine business. Quite honestly, any day at work that ends with a splash of something as beautiful like Insignia in my glass reaffirms why I have the best job in the world. I look forward to talking about our next events for the winter, which include a fun holiday sparkling wine & Champagne event in early December.


Heather Kanter-Kowal


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