I had dinner last night with winemaker Ken Bernards at the Ancien-Sardine dinner, courtesy of my friend Tom Loup and the good folks at Vino Veritas Wine Distributors. I had never been to a Sardine wine dinner, and the reason for that is simply because they don’t have many. Sardine has had just 4 or 5 such dinners over the years, nearly all with Ken Bernards and his Ancien Wines. Ken has been selling under his own label in WI for 15 years now, and his trip to the state this week is something of a victory lap as well as a continuing conversation with his faithful early adopters.
Bernards is a soft-spoken winemaker, less prone to grand tales than to measured and incisive observations, but he did light up when describing kayaking in Tomales Bay early yesterday morning before catching his flight to Madison. “The trick is avoiding the sharks,” he said off-handedly to me as we sat down, “it’s the largest great white shark breeding ground in North America. And they were out.”
With conversation off to a rousing start, it was time to drink some wine:
The first course was a starter of figs and French triple cream on a crispy bit of baguette with spicy arugula in a lavender-honey vinaigrette. It was a delightful way to start— all crunch and goo— and paired perfectly with the Sangiacomo Vineyards Pinot Gris. This was a thick and multi-layered Gris, and I yearned to try Ancien’s Chardonnay next—although of course, sadly, it wasn’t included in the all Pinot line-up.
Next was the ’09 Carneros Pinot Noir, a wine Bernards and Loup were visibly excited about. This is a luscious and rich wine that I felt might have worked better at the end of the meal rather than with the next plating, which was a gorgeous dish of arctic char and sweet pea risotto. There was a touch of Pernod in the pea shoot dressing, and the subtlety made this dish perhaps the most memorable of the evening. The food was impeccable, the wine was brilliant. Just not together.
Third course was a duck confit and ramp cake over spring slaw. Slaw juice collided with the thick reduction on the plate a bit, but overall this dish sang with the ’09 Russian River Pinot. Bernards explained to me that he uses roughly 35% whole cluster fermentation to bring more structure and complexity to this wine, and it is true that it did not have that monolithic fruitiness that some Russian Rivers exhibit. Exceptionally layered wine.
Black cod with mushrooms, baby bok choy and veal broth was the next course, and it went nicely with Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot, which was dark and rich and compelling—having a little more age as it was an ’06. I busied myself cutting perfectly cooked bok choy, chatting, and enjoying a delicious bit of cod.
I have to admit, I like cheeks. Braised veal cheeks, gnocchi, fava beans, roasted tomato, rutabaga, and oil-cured olives brought the meal to a sumptuous conclusion. The ’09 Shea Vineyard Pinot was a crowd pleaser. A straight-forward, bright, floral Pinot with plenty of acid. It was almost a little too light and bright for the rich veal, but it completely charmed us and I was glad that it was the bottle we were concluding with as it had such iconic Pinot flavor.
Dessert was a delicious pot de creme, which sadly I did not get a picture of. I did, however, have the chance to sneak a taste of the ’05 Russian River Valley Pinot, which was extremely distinctive and exhibited what attracted Ken Besnards to this grape in the first place—the chance Pinot affords winemakers to reap total glory from terroir.