When I arrived at Wild Rice in Bayfield, WI, executive chef Jim Webster graciously led me on a tour of the restaurant. I took in the stunning architecture, congenial staff, generous kitchen, tasteful artwork and prodigious glass wine cellar.
The more Webster showed me, the more I had a burning question about how such an elegant spot came to be built here on the far-flung edge of Lake Superior. When I met owner Mary Rice, the answer was clear.
Rice, 73, walks with a gnarled cane and sports playful goggle-like red glasses. Heiress to the Andersen window fortune, she has a passion for art and vittles. And a wicked sense of humor.
In a dining area that otherwise rivals three star Michelin restaurants, two female mannequins dressed as though on their way to Mardi Gras sit together at a table.
Rice soon asks me if I’ve made their acquaintance. I answer in the affirmative, but complain that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. This pleases her immensely.
We are gathered for the second annual Zepaltas wine dinner. Ryan Zepaltas is the winemaker for Siduri and Novy, and also makes wine under his own label. He was raised in Eau Claire, WI. The dinner was organized by Tom Loup of Vino Veritas, the winemaker’s Wisconsin distributor.
Zepaltas is on a roll with his label. He related that his rosé recently became the glass pour at Mission Chinese in San Francisco. I’ve written about the Zepaltas rosé before, having fallen in love with it last year when it was the glass pour at Maduro Cigar Bar in Madison.
After sipping our first glass with Mary Rice, Tom Loup, Ryan Zepaltas, and Douglas Weber (a sales rep for Purple Feet in Madison who worked harvest with Zepaltas last year), we sat for the six course meal.
The first course was a well-composed plate of tuna and salmon with an avocado ice cream and bits of crunchy diakon. This was served with the steely and citrusy Sauvignon Blanc.
It is always educational to focus on a single winemaker’s offerings together in a line-up, and I was summarily reminded that I enjoy the Zepaltas Chardonnay. “Chardonnay for people who think they don’t like Chardonnay,” is how Zepaltas puts it. It has both acidity and minerality, making it a beautiful accompaniment to the halibut we were served.
I learned once in a pairing seminar from chef-instructor Bill Briwa at the CIA at Greystone that Chardonnay loves citrus; Briwa uses oranges. Here, the Meyer lemon served this function and morels lent a fundamental earthiness.
Next, we had the Russian River Pinot accompanied by veal sweetbreads and crab.
This was the first time I’d sampled the W.E. Bottoms Russian River Pinot, a remarkable wine of layered complexity. It was perfect with the pork belly in a rather delicate mole sauce. I think of pork belly is the wedding cake of the animal world; layers of decadent velvety fat and meat ascend to a crispy frosting.
The Rosella’s Vineyard Syrah was gorgeous with the tenderloin and foie gras butter sauce. The pickled mushrooms in this dish were inspiring enough for me to try preparing them myself–earthiness and acidity all in one bite. This is elegant, small batch Syrah–only 48 cases.
After the meal, Chef Jim Webster answered a few questions from guests regarding the sous vide method used on the halibut. A sumptuous dark chocolate marquis with strawberries and passion fruit gelato rounded out the event.