- Walter Novak
- Toast of the town: Marianne Frantz of the Cleveland Wine School and Chef Terry Menear of the Ritz-Carlton.
In her navy blue suit, with her hair pulled back and the occasional cloud of concentration throwing a short-lived shadow across her eyes, Marianne Frantz looks more like a high school chemistry teacher on a job interview than a fun-loving oenophile. But looks can be deceiving: This petite woman with perfect posture throws one hell of a party.
Take her February shindig at the downtown Ritz-Carlton, for example. The event, the second in a series of four epicurean blowouts sponsored by Frantz's Cleveland Wine School, hit all the hot buttons for local gourmets: wine, fellowship, wine, a cooking demonstration, wine, a fantastic five-course menu cooked up by three top chefs, and, of course, wine.
The official raison d'être for this rare affair -- Mastering Reds -- was to further an appreciation of Californian red wines, in particular those drawn from the portfolio of Franciscan Estates. Ergo, the numerous bottles of Ravenswood, Simi, and Estancia wines parading down the center of the tabletops, as well as the presence of Quintessa spokeswoman Battina Sichel, who helped bring the famed Napa vineyard's first vintage to market in 1997.
Between the patient efforts of Sichel and Frantz, who actually was a high school chemistry teacher before moving to N.Y.C. some years ago to pursue a career in special-events marketing, it was damn near impossible to not pick up some little tidbit of wine lore or another. Did you know, for example, that Quintessa's first vines were planted in 1990, on one of the last remaining virgin properties in wine country? And that the original landowners (a pair of battling siblings) had turned down 13 prior purchase offers before allowing winemakers Valeria and Agustin Hunneus to sweet-talk them into parting with their 280 pristine acres in the heart of Napa Valley? Neither did we.
But of course, the actual reason why 115 area food-and-wine enthusiasts, of all ages and levels of gastronomic development, coughed up $125 each and donned their best threads to head downtown was decidedly nonscholastic. Simply put, they were looking for a good time. And somewhere between the sparkling Schramsberg Brut Rose at the opening reception and the Ferrante Grand River Valley Vidal Ice Wine at the indulgent dessert-buffet ending, we'll wager that nearly all of them found one.
While wine was ubiquitous throughout the event, for true connoisseurs the evening's high point was likely the vertical tasting of the 1998, 1999, and 2000 Quintessa vintages (each a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot grapes), an undertaking meant to demonstrate the nuances that weather conditions, the precise composition of the blend, and amount of bottle time can impart to a particular wine. Debate was fierce throughout the room as we swirled, sniffed, and sipped each vintage, but eventually Sichel won most of us over to her point of view -- that the 1998 and 2000 vintages were the most engaging, with a soft, elegant mouth feel, but that the 1999 vintage, the product of an unusually warm season, was still harsh and tannic, and needed to spend at least a few more years tucked away in a bottle. Of course it didn't dampen anyone's pleasure to realize that, beyond serving as an amusing little exercise, the Quintessa tasting was a rare treat: With wine priced at $100 a bottle, few of us could expect this to become as commonplace an occurrence as popping the top on a Pabst.
As for the food fiends in the group, the very notion of nibbling away on dishes created especially for the occasion by three notable chefs was enough to set taste buds to tingling. French-born Eric Chopin, executive chef of the four-star, five-diamond Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead, Georgia, kicked off the culinary aspect of the evening in the ballroom with a cheerful demonstration of his signature dish, seared quail breast and yucca, finished with a peach, port, and thyme jus. He had no sooner finished plating the colorful creation than a cadre of servers emerged from the kitchen with portions for all 115 of us. After all the preparatory drama, though, it seemed ironic that the dish rated a mere so-so -- not quite hot enough and doubly undercut by the flatfooted flavors of out-of-season peaches and the yucca's bland starchiness.
Happily, the quail was one of the evening's few disappointments. Seated soon after at one of a dozen 10-tops in the elegant Riverview Room, we were almost immediately consoled by Chef Terry Menear's fantasy on a theme of foie gras. (Menear is head of the kitchen at Century, the Cleveland Ritz's upscale restaurant.) A two-part study in extravagance, the dish included a thick slice of indescribably rich foie gras tourchon -- goose liver that is first cleaned and soaked in milk, then pressed and marinated with brandy, and finally coaxed into the shape of a slender log -- and a ramekin of sweet-savory foie gras crème brûlée, Menear's clever reimagining of the classic custard, now flavored with puréed foie gras and topped with a translucent lid of caramelized sugar.
Not that the Cleveland Ritz's executive chef, Paul Carter, made any less of an impression. His contribution (the third of the five sit-down courses) was impeccably pan-seared wild Scottish salmon, its mild, fresh flavor piqued with a confit of peppers, a scattering of plump white raisins, and a hint of aromatic basil.
Fork-tender medallions of braised veal cheeks appeared next, topped with earthy chanterelles and sided by bundles of white and green asparagus wrapped in thin sheets of pasta. (With this robust fare, the wines of choice were a full-bodied 2000 Simi Landslide Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2000 Franciscan Magnificat, a Meritage blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot grapes.) And finally came the cheese course (and the Quintessa), with triple crème Brie, a lightly toasted wedge of Crottin de Chavignol (a whole-milk goat cheese famously made in the Loire Valley), and a scattering of glossy poached grapes.
An after-dinner dessert reception, held in the nearby ballroom foyer, provided a last opportunity to compliment the chefs, compare tasting notes, and query the wine experts while snaring a glass of Riesling or award-winning Vidal Ice Wine from Ohio's own Ferrante winery. And there was more to eat, too -- a stunning collection of miniature tarts, tortes, biscotti, and assorted chocolate creations, arranged like jewels in a portable dark-wood pantry (and, as is almost always the case, looking just a little more spectacular than they tasted), as well as tender beignets, topped with flambéed-to-order apricots and sleek almond sorbet (which, though it scarcely seems possible, tasted even better than they looked).
Frantz has produced culinary events for clients all over the country, including the James Beard Foundation and the former Windows on the World; has quaffed wines from Bordeaux to Boonville; holds an Advanced Certificate in Wine and Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust in London; continues her studies through the International Wine Center while operating two businesses, including the Cleveland Wine School; and works tirelessly to promote Cleveland's fine-dining scene. After this night, she can chalk up one more success. But like all the best hostesses, she probably won't waste much time basking in the glory: Her next epicurean party is in May, and odds are it will be bigger and better than ever.