Wine dinners with Sommelier David Johnson always feel more like an eccentric dinner party with an array of characters you never knew you wanted to meet but suddenly can't believe you didn't know. Johnson is the most popular guy in school: No, not the quarterback who got all the girls, but the gregarious guy with the larger than life personality and the physical presence to match. And Tuesday night's wine tasting at the newly remodeled Avalon did not disappoint: Red wine flowed freely, conversation got juicy, Johnson regaled the crowd with tall tales, and Destination Arizona cameras rolled.
"The way we become a true wine drinking society is by experimenting with wine," Johnson said introducing the mix of old and new world wines he'd be presenting with Chef Brandon Crouser's tasting menu. On the roster Johson's "new happy medium" wines for daily drinking: an Argentinean Malbec, a Tuscan riff on Sangiovese, an Australian blend, and California wines that won't knock you out.
"In the 1990s, we couldn't give Argentinean Malbecs away," Johnson says of the "funny little grape" with French roots. "Now they're everywhere."
Putting its versatile foot forward, the Alberti 154 Malbec lead the tasting. As a cocktail wine, it was a smoky floral, but the smoked salmon and three-cheese chive potato cake pairing brought out its licorice notes.
"The key to pairing is matching the body weight of the wine to the body weight of the food," Johnson says, nixing the red wine with red meat and white wine with fish and fowl rule.
Speaking of whites, Johnson recommends keeping an eye out for Torrontes, the Argentinean white he calls "the next Malbec" and compares to a Pinot Grigio or Chenin Blanc at less than $10 per bottle.
Johnson called the second pairing the "made in heaven" combo of the night, but we wouldn't know because we stopped eating after course one when the dishes starting ramping up the meat-quotient. Luckily, our imbibing counterparts started piping up...
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The Poggio Marino Morellino de Scansano brings Johnson on a trip down memory lane to a Tuscan town where he met Chef Mario Batali while they worked at neighboring vineyards. The region-specific Sangiovese grape yields a gamey wine that's more fruit forward than you'd expect.
While Crouser paired it with traditional Italian beans, Johnson recommended trying the wine with pasta, mushrooms, or Italian salami at home. The tasting's kicker was bringing home a bottle of each wine we tasted to test out with other dishes.
Johnson took a break from the Australian "critter wines" to showcase a different side of the Shiraz that both put the country on the wine world map and killed its reputation: "The Red One" is a kitchen sink blend of Australian grapes, primarily Cabernet, Shiraz and Barbera. While less offensive than the cheapo Shiraz of years past, this wine is still fruity, which makes it quaffable, "but it tastes much better with food," my tablemates assure me.
The main lesson to take from Australia? "Screw tops don't equal poor quality," Johnson says of the country's approach to more eco-friendly and efficient wine packaging. Yep, this bad boy comes in a screw-top bottle and has some complex flavor profiles going on.
The Bandwagon Pinot Noir from Monterrey, California, was overpowered by conversation about Johnny Chu's innovative dining concepts that are reviving downtown (tip of the hat to our own Michele Laudig for calling this) and the merit of the hype around St. Francis and Beckett's Table.
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The 3 Wine Company's Old Vine Zinfandel rounded out the dinner, with a conversation on Mondavi's "overlooked"contribution to California wine and the DNA of grapes. Not to mention a very staged, very cheesy Destination Arizona pose where we all cozied up to Johnson and Avalon's new manager James Farmer as my fellow diners talked networking events at the remodeled 3 Palms restaurant that also has a retail license.
Cameras on or off, we'd swing back to Avalon for a glass of wine at the uber-swank bar. And if Johnson's there we know it'll be dinner and a show. We're looking forward to the promised wine education room at Oakville Grocery Co.'s CityScape location that's in the works for that very reason. Let's see if Johnson's big personality can salvage the concrete wasteland... after all he says the reason he's in wine in the first place is "that it's not sterile, it's a direct reflection of human history." Fingers crossed that it's not a history that repeats itself.
Check back next week Wednesday when Wine School resumes its regularly-scheduled programming, and leave your questions for our wine gurus below, no hand raising necessary.