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What I love about wine dinners

To be honest, I love any dinner that someone else cooks. But way beyond that baseline note of appreciation is what I feel toward this most rewarding of culinary experiences.

I say “rewarding” because it captures the idea of getting what you expect and then some. It’s a plus that’s hard to quantify but was immediately apparent in three wine dinners I attended recently.

The first took place in the depths of winter on a cold January evening that made the cozy interior of Cucina Biazzi, Beasy McMillan’s country Italian eatery in Ashland, all the more welcoming. My husband, Gary, and I met another couple to celebrate his and her birthdays. When we invited them, we didn’t mention that dinner would be a celebration of Simple Machine wines paired with a five-course menu by chef Chandra Corwin. We knew our surprise was a success when our guest couple showed up with wine to go with the meal. We saved that for another time.

The hospitality of Simple Machine winemaker Brian Denner and tasting room/business manager Clea Arthur made the evening convivial and fun. And the fare — pan-seared scallops paired with Denner’s 2017 Sauvignon Blanc; tagliatelle with a fabulous lamb ragout paired with 2015 Vector (a syrah/grenache blend); and short ribs braised in 2014 Vector and paired with the same vintage — wowed us.

The food, beautifully garnished but not fussy, incorporated an array of flavors but was not confusing to the palate. It came to the table at the right temperature and tempo, slow enough to let us fully appreciate the previous plate, share our impressions and enjoy the wine. Between courses it’s traditional for the winemaker to talk about the vintages. Denner appeared to be a little reticent at first, so one of his devoted wine club members took it upon herself to entertain with remarks that made us laugh and prompted the winemaker to speak up.

Fast forward to early March and the Chocolate Maker’s Wine Dinner, the gala kick-off for the Oregon Chocolate Festival. It was held in the Ashland Springs Hotel Grand Ballroom, and the table settings sparkled with stemware, golden chargers and place cards. This was a dress-up occasion to share with a female friend I never get to see often enough. The companionship was perfect for this exploration of chocolate — as a component of a chili paint for crab fritters, a rub for beef brisket or a braise for pork belly — and local wines. A different Rogue Valley winery pairing appeared with each course: RoxyAnn 2015 Chardonnay with the crab, Quady North 2015 Syrah with the beef, Upper Five 2016 Grenache with the pork belly. The finale was a dark chocolate/Earl Grey terrine paired with 2Hawk 2015 Ruby Port. My chocolate dreams fulfilled, I left feeling great, even after all that rich food and wine, because the portions and the pours weren’t too big. (Servers were only too happy to refill glasses when asked.) Another key, the pacing of the courses was leisurely. Put me down for that event again next year.

Gary and I went to Medford for a micro-vacation (a night at the Inn at the Commons) and the Awen winemaker dinner at Rogue Grape, Natasha Hopkins’ downtown wine bar opposite the Craterian Theater. The Rogue Grape should be on your “must try” list if you haven’t already been. Awen Winecraft winemaking partners Sean Hopkins and Tom Homewood and Truffle Pig Craft Kitchen put on a candle-lit affair with a spark of romance amid the culinary brilliance.

I’ve been bowled over by Awen wines ever since I tasted their first release of grenache blanc, a grape that’s relatively uncommon, with varietal flavors honed to perfection in Awen’s small-lot production. The 2016 Grenache Blanc with a confit of five-spice heritage pork over red lentils had me writing tasting notes all over my menu. The next course, lemon and fennel bay scallops with tortellini paired with 2017 Vermentino — a rare grape, with only 10 acres total in Oregon — had me scribbling accolades all over my wine order form. Then came the 2016 Zinfandel made in the lean Sonoma style with beef accompanied by wild Oregon morels in a reduction of the same wine. For that I had to write on two place cards.

Even with all that note-taking I can’t adequately describe the magic. I will say this, though, I don’t know whether my feet touched the ground on the walk back to the inn.

What’s your take? Email MJ Daspit at mdaspit@jeffnet.org. For more on this topic, check out her Backstory Blog at mjdaspit.com.