Elements Tapas Bar and Lounge
The Rogue Valley's wine and restaurant industries certainly have made good bedfellows.
Beyond the growing number of local labels served in the area's casual, ethnic and upscale eateries, the winemaker dinner is a concept that gives diners a taste of numerous vintages and an insider's view on the winemaking process. Most of these events, however, were confined to just a few each year.
That is, until Chris Dennett of Elements Tapas Bar and Lounge came on the scene.
The logical pairing with tapas, Spanish varieties anchor Elements' wine cellar, but Dennett dedicated almost half of the list to such wineries as Valley View, EdenVale, RoxyAnn and Troon, among others. The labels gain more relevance during monthly winemaker dinners at the restaurant, the most recent hosting RoxyAnn wines and winemaker Gus Janeway for $60 per person.
For those who have never attended a winemaker dinner, expect a parade of five or six courses, each paired with a complementary wine and accompanied by a short presentation from the winemaker. If you're barely acquainted with Southern Oregon wines, a winemaker dinner is a delicious introduction.
An event of this type also affords the opportunity to taste a winery's most successful and sold-out vintages. You're not getting a full wine glass with each dish, but multiply 2- to 3-ounce pours by the number of courses, and diners are deep into a bottle by evening's end.
The Feb. 11 menu betrayed the season's somewhat limited produce but capitalized on rich flavors of salmon, quail, duck, pork and lamb. Additional nods to local specialties came by way of Rogue Creamery Oregonzola cheese and pears pureed into sorbet.
The evening started with a short dissertation on the rising prominence of pinot gris with RoxyAnn's 2006 vintage as an example. The light, crisp white let the house-made lox shine, accented with spicy hints of scallion and the salty burst of lumpfish caviar.
Sweeter than the pinot, RoxyAnn's 2006 Viognier was a treat with heavenly floral aromas and a sugary smoothness that assimilated the roasted quail's fatty juices. The stuffing used winter squash simply as a vehicle for conveying Humboldt Fog chevre into the dish.
Elements honored RoxyAnn's signature wine, 2005 Claret, with chef Chad Smith's signature dish: confit of duck leg with large chunks of the creamery's rich blue cheese. The incomparably tender duck fell off the bone with nary a critique except the wish for more.
Dried cherries and currants in the next dish — pan-roasted pork tenderloin — were meant to complement the fruit in RoxyAnn's 2005 Merlot, Dennett explained. While not as impressive as the preceding pairings, the course did provide one of my first opportunities to really appreciate merlot.
But little compares to syrah and lamb, a truly sacred duet of big, bold notes. Crafting a syrah that seems drier than many others, Janeway said he embraced the grape's complexities in the 2005 vintage. Dennett cushioned the petite rack on pomegranate bread pudding, a soothing backdrop to the lamb's black pepper and rosemary crust.
This course's subdued sweetness was a warm-up for RoxyAnn's late-harvest pear wine, which probably would have come off a tad flat if the muffin-sized chocolate cake hadn't been made with entirely bittersweet cocoa. Pears made a strong appearance in the sorbet with its bits of grainy flesh.
The evening ended on a festive note with the chefs circulating among the tables to collect kudos. Their efforts are rapidly becoming a favorite among an established list of Elements' most loyal patrons.
Reserve in advance for Elements' March 10 and 24 winemaker dinners, which only have room for about 40 guests. Be sure to arrive well before the 7 p.m. reservation time if you want a booth, as seating isn't assigned and small parties join those already there.
— Sarah Lemon