Turning the Tablas

[vineyard & rock]Notes from a Tablas Creek wine dinner at Simon Pearce in Quechee, Vermont. Food pairings, and their appropriateness with the wines, are described below.

Tablas Creek 2005 Grenache Blanc (Paso Robles) – Stone fruit and almond oil with hints of acacia. Crisp apples dominate the midpalate, which brightens and freshens everything before a denser finish of blood orange rind. This is a really nice wine, with more life and vivacity than one might expect from a Rhônish white, and it would appear to have some medium-term aging potential as well. (1/08)

Served with: Peekytoe crab & shrimp cake with a cucumber/lychee relish and a Key lime vinaigrette. This dish is a tremendous accompaniment to the wine, with each enhancing the other.

Tablas Creek 2000 “Clos Blanc” (Paso Robles) – 45% roussanne, 19% viognier, 19% marsanne, and 17% grenache blanc. Definitely showing signs of age, with a buttered caramel, lactic character dominating the nose. The palate, too, has turned to fat without sufficient substance. However, things are not quite so dire once one really works their way into the wine, which shows intense Rainier cherry, strawberry and apricot warmed by the hot Paso Robles sun. And then, things turn strange again, with an angular, somewhat distorted finish. I wouldn’t hold this any longer, if you’ve still got any. (1/08)

Served with: Atlantic halibut and smoked salmon roulade, almond orange rice pudding, and apricot honey vin blanc. The dish is grossly, inappropriately sweet, and completely obliterates the wine…not that what could be discerned seemed to match very well. Even taken on its own merits, this course is abominable. The rice pudding would be pretty nice on its own, as a dessert, but here? Ugh.

Tablas Creek 2004 “Côtes de Tablas” Rouge (Paso Robles) – 64% grenache, 16% syrah, 13% counoise, 7% mourvèdre. This feels a little lighter than previous vintages, but that may just be the influence of the food. Dark fruit and a slim but present structure dominate, with a dusting of fennel pollen and the very slightest edge of volatile acidity hovering atop the aromatics; nothing that anyone not oversensitive (like me) will notice, though. Soft and accessible throughout, though it seems to fill out on the finish. A typically solid, reliable, good-quality effort. (1/08)

Served with: juniper-seared venison loin, white truffle cauliflower gratin, and cherry molasses sauce. The food is too powerful for the wine, though I suspect a lower-volume dish with the same flavors would make a pretty good match. The sauce isn’t as sweet as it sounds, but the real star on the plate is the cauliflower gratin, which has a crumbed coating and is a really terrific way to extend the natural qualities of this sometimes overlooked vegetable.

Tablas Creek 2004 Tannat (Paso Robles) – 92% tannat, 8% cabernet sauvignon. This is my first domestic tannat; the only other examples I’ve tasted have been from France, Uruguay, and New Zealand. And if this is any indication, there’s great potential for this grape, though I can’t imagine the marketing nightmare it might represent. Deep, dark, mysterious, and even a little murky, with enticements of black licorice and blackcurrant, there’s the expected quantity of tannin here, but none of the usual qualities of tannin one expects from this legendarily tannic grape; instead, the structure is leathery, ripe, and…well, lush. It does calcify a bit on the finish, though…tannat fans need not worry overmuch…while the wine veers into an iron-rich, blood-like phase. There’s a touch of heat throughout, but only a touch. Terrific, and obviously quite ageable. (1/08)

Served with: braised veal cheek, caramelized shallot, marrow, and potato hash with pomegranate cassis jus. A little sweeter than it should be, but the braising and caramelizing components work well with the wine’s deep blackness. The marrow is completely lost, and I think that this dish would, in general, be better without the fruity enhancements. But, of course, Simon Pearce can’t help itself when it comes to adding sweeteners to food.

Tablas Creek 2005 Vin de Paille “Sacrérouge” (Paso Robles) – A dried-grape sweet wine made from mourvèdre. And it tastes like…figs! Black Mission figs, to be precise, in an almost uncannily accurate alcoholic form. Vague suggestions of strawberry jam, plum, or even prune are quickly dismissed by the figgy assault, and the wine has the texture of the seedy pulp left over from squeezing fruit as a preliminary step towards producing jelly. It’s relatively balanced and really, really fun. Will it age? Maybe, but I defy anyone to stop drinking it, once they’ve opened a bottle. (1/08)

Served with: Guanaja chocolate chèvre cheesecake with a hazelnut/fig spread. I should note, up front, that I’m not a big fan of figs except in their raw fruit form (and even then, I can take or leave them), so for me the hazelnut/fig elements of this dish are a complete waste of time. The “cheesecake,” however, is another story…brilliant, in fact, with an unusual texture and a fascinating mix of soft and chalky, bitter and sweet, that pairs beautifully with the wine.


  • Jason Haas

    January 10, 2008

    Hi Thor,

    What a great recap! I’d seen the menu, and been wondering how everything would turn out and go together. Alas, it was my parents, and not me, who got to go to this one.

    As for your comment on the Clos Blanc, we just opened a vertical of our whites at the winery this Monday, and the Clos Blanc was interesting. I think it’s actually in the middle-age stage that some Roussanne-based whites go through, where they taste a little oxidized and heavy. The 1997 and 1998 (which were undrinkable two years ago) were out that stage, and much more vibrant than ever before, intensely mineral with great acids. I actually think that anyone with 2000 Clos Blanc in their cellar would do better to forget about it for a couple of years than to open it now.

    Anyway, great recap… I’m going to link it from our blog.

    All the best,

    Jason Haas
    General Manager
    Tablas Creek Vineyard

  • thor iverson

    January 10, 2008

    Thanks, Jason, for your response.

    And thanks, especially, for the comments on the Clos Blanc. It doesn’t — at least for my palate — exactly taste the way that closed-period Rhône roussannes do, so I really have no reference point for judging its future, other than what’s in the glass. It’s good to know that there’s confidence from the people who would know. The lactic thing, especially, is really outside my experience.

    If you don’t mind, I’m going to replicate your comment on my site, so the alternate opinion on the Clos Blanc’s aging potential can be seen by everyone.

    And if you’re ever in MA or VT (though I understand it might be difficult, as I believe your father has ties to VT, yes?), please do drop me a line.

  • Anton Vicar

    January 11, 2008

    Dear Thor,
    Thanks for providing your opinions on our Tablas Creek wine dinner.
    There’s one thing that bothers me about your comments and your general comments about Simon Pearce’s food.
    I’ve talked with you numerous times over the past couple of years and not once have you passed on your opinions regarding the “sweetness” aspect of our food and your strong opinion about it. I really enjoyed reading your comments and respect your palate.Your comments have indeed spurred me to look at our culinary offerings from a different perspective, asking myself questions about that sweet/acid/savory balance.
    What we must all remember is that your perception of “sweet” is not necessarily every guests’ perception of “sweet” and that food and wine are so inherently subjective.
    Although you thought that the Clos Blanc and the Halibut & Smoked Salmon pairing was “abominable”, we had many of the 80+ guests tell us how much they enjoyed this course and that the wine showed well, taking on different characteristics that were not at first obvious but were brought out with the food pairing.
    That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Seeing what the food does to the wine and vice versa and how this match works for you, personally. There is no “right” or “wrong”. It’s all opinion.
    We’re not always going to get it right, as you well know from your own experimentation but “abominable” I think not. I enjoyed this dish and the pairing fairly well but admittedly I am “slightly” biased!
    Was it my favorite pairing ever? No, but it wasn’t as bad as you make it out to be (in my opinion and many others).
    Keep up the good work and next time let me know in person, rather than having me find out your opinions in the somewhat sterile blog environment. We like the more personal approach at Simon Pearce and feel that we give every guest the opportunity to let us know their feelings while they are enjoying their meal (or not!)
    Myself, our chef and our wonderful staff appreciate all comments from our guests, good or bad.
    They only help us improve:-)

    Anton Vicar
    Simon Pearce Restaurant

  • thor iverson

    January 11, 2008

    Anton, thanks for your response.

    First, it’s worth stressing: if I didn’t enjoy your restaurant, I wouldn’t return as often as I do. As a whole package, I very much enjoy the experience. You and your staff are wonderful, the wine list is epic, and of course the view is hard to beat. And despite my concerns, there is some skill in the kitchen; I’m rarely of the mind that something is badly-cooked.

    You’re almost right that I’ve never passed along my concerns over the sweetness that’s present in almost every dish. And the reason is that I don’t see the point. The restaurant is very successful, probably as successful as it’s been over the ten years or so I’ve been visiting, despite what I see as the ever-increasing sweetness of the food. The natural conclusion is that what you’re doing is popular, and anything I say is unlikely to change the general direction of the kitchen. My wife (who feels the same way) and I are not enough of an economic force to induce change.

    The truth is, I did once raise this issue with you, after the Trimbach wine dinner last year…though I did it casually and in passing as you were already seated for the staff dinner. There, the persistent sweetness of the food really stood out, and not in a good way, because Trimbach’s wines are so deliberately dry; the sugar in the food made the wines taste more acidic than they were, to their detriment. I didn’t make the case as forcefully as I did here, which is probably why you don’t remember it. Again, I doubt you’re going to change just because I say so, and I do enjoy other aspects of the restaurant enough to return, so why make a fuss? (Incidentally, I think you’ll find that Jean Trimbach shares my opinion of the food: good, but too sweet.)

    I’m quite sure many others enjoy the sweet aspects of the dishes. There’s a reason that most mass-market American wine brands are not free of residual sugar. There’s a reason that mass-market Australian wines are sweetened for the American market. There’s a reason that Champagne is sweetened for the American market. There’s a reason that there’s high fructose corn syrup in almost everything we eat. Americans love sugar, to the point that I’m not sure we’re even capable of detecting its presence anymore. A restaurant could make a worse economic decision than catering to that audience.

    That said, I don’t think you’ve made a deliberate choice to do so. I’m not quite sure what has driven the change, but I do know that it wasn’t the case, years ago, that pretty much every dish on your menu except the salads (and even then, there are exceptions) has a sweet element. At the Tablas Creek dinner, it was the same. Lychee in the first course. A sweet orange rice pudding, apricot, and honey in the second. Cherry and molasses in the third. Pomegranate, cassis and the caramelization in the fourth. (And the fifth was dessert.) Take a look at your menu, honestly, and see how many courses are actually free of any sweetening elements: simple or complex sugars, fruit and fruit-infused sauces, glazes, caramelization, etc. Almost none, unless there have been dramatic changes over the last two months.

    I agree that balance is a subjective thing, and anyone who knows my wine palate knows that I’m no fan of stealth sugar in wines, though I do love dessert wines. And I fully embrace the idea of a dish here or there that has sweetness as an element (though it does to be balanced, and preferably by acidity); the first course at the Tablas Creek dinner worked very well. But I do think that a steady procession of sweet elements becomes tiresome, just as a steady procession of sour, bitter, or fiery dishes would become tiresome. And when it comes to wine and food matching, sweetness in the food works to the detriment of dry wines, because the sweetness in the food “cancels out” any tiny bit of residual sugar in the wine and highlights its structure, which is not usually to the benefit of the wine. I admit that when I dine there, I no longer order the food I would probably like the most, but instead order whatever I think is likely to have the least powerful sweetness, because the wine at your restaurant is usually the most important part of the experience for me. And it has gotten to the point where I’m tempted to just order German rieslings, because the match has gotten so difficult due to the presence of sweetness is almost every dish.

    Regarding the specific course that I so disliked (as did my wife), the problems for me were threefold: the intense sweetness of the sauce and the rice pudding made it impossible to taste the fish, the texture was overly soft in each of the “solid” elements (making the whole dish mushy), and the dominant character of the dish was an overpowering sweetness. That in addition to the fact that it was paired with what I felt was the most difficult wine to “get at” in the tasting, the others having a bigger and more upfront sensation of fruit due to their youthful exuberance.

    In any case, and as I said earlier, I do enjoy your restaurant. Criticism is one of the things I do, and I hope you don’t take those directed at you personally; if I was really horrified, I simply wouldn’t return (there are restaurants in your immediate area that I won’t patronize anymore, simply because they’re hopeless and likely to remain so). I’ll be back for the Beaucastel dinner, and probably many more times this year.

    If you don’t mind, I’m going to attach part of your response to the version of this article on my non-bloggy site. I do welcome opposing points of view, and I think yours is worth hearing.


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