A trip to the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area usually means Lycra shorts and bike helmets, or skis and snowboards. But on one Friday evening each month, May through November, it's Fancy Duds Night in the valley, as Brandywine Catering hosts an extravagant Winemaker Dinner at the Brandywine Ski Resort.
Owners Dick and Erleen Ludwig launched these dinners in 1995, both as a way to use the facility during the off-season and as a chance to explore their own love of the grape. The events have been well-received and usually draw guests from throughout Northeast Ohio.
The meals are an excellent opportunity to sample various styles of wine, investigate the output of a specific winery, or delve into assorted food-and-wine pairings. Although prices and menus vary (most, like tonight's event, are $65 per person; an upcoming tasting of Silver Oak's legendary Cabernet Sauvignons tops out at $125 per person), the Winemaker Dinners--with their sophisticated atmosphere, multiple courses of interesting foods, and assortment of wines--are also an entertainment bargain.
Tonight's crowd--women in silk pajamas or brocade pantsuits, men in linen sports coats or leather vests--starts to drift in around 7, climbing the steps to the second-story deck outside the ski center's airy banquet room. On this May evening, our seven-course dinner will feature the wines of California's Beringer Vineyards. As we reach the deck, with its beautiful view of the park, Tracey Huntington, the ski center's conference and group sales director, throws open the dining room doors and presses cool glasses of 1997 Chenin Blanc, a friendly, easy-drinking wine, into our hands.
Tracey points us toward one of six tables for eight, which we will share with four old friends and two new acquaintances. (Fellow wine drinkers don't remain strangers long at these events, which usually foster lively conversations and lots of laughs.) This is our fifth Winemaker Dinner since the events began, but we still gape at the splendiferous table laid out before us: white linens, fresh flowers, and 56 crystal goblets--one for each course, for each of us, plus water glasses--that glitter in the candlelight.
Our reverie is broken by servers working the room with platters of hot hors d'oeuvres. Experience has taught us to take it easy here, despite the tantalizing aromas of tonight's offerings: firm, moist turkey meatballs, vegetable quesadillas on blue-corn tortillas, diminutive creamy quiches filled with mushrooms or sausage, crisp wonton-wrapped shrimp, and delicate triangles of shrimp toast. After all, there is a lot more food to come and all those wine glasses to empty.
After a half-hour of mingling and nibbling, we are invited to take our seats. Mike McNally, district sales representative for Beringer Estates, rises to tell us some of the winery's history and to provide details about the seven wines we will be sampling. This doesn't feel snobbish or stuffy: Casual wine drinkers and dedicated oenophiles alike can learn from the relaxed presentations Mike will make at several points throughout the evening.
We begin the sit-down portion of our dinner with the soup course, a rich, dark chicken consomme flavored with julienned strips of braised baby spinach and kale. To go with it, Tracey and her staff pour an oaky 1996 Knight's Valley Alluvium Blanc, a piquant blend of sauvignon blanc, viognier, chardonnay, and semillon grapes that picks up the earthy flavor of the broth.
Chef Jeff Decker's next offering--the salad course--is a real showstopper. An eye-pleasing arrangement of fresh, plump grilled scallops and slices of pale yellow grapefruit, red blood oranges, and golden tangerines, the plate is completed with a pouf of green watercress and spoonfuls of black and red caviar. The scallops' natural juices have been caramelized by the fire, rendering them sweet and slightly sticky. They become even more heavenly when paired with the bite of tart citrus fruit and grains of salty caviar.
The salad is accompanied by Beringer's flagship wine, a 1997 Napa Valley Chardonnay that was recently featured in The Wall Street Journal's "Dow Jones Under-$20 Chardonnay Index." While the Journal's wine experts, Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, described the wine as "very good" and "not huge, but with very pronounced tastes," the eight of us remain unconvinced. Maybe it's the wine's position following the complex and sophisticated Alluvium Blanc, or maybe the white just can't compete with the extraordinary flavors of the salad, but it seems to us to be thin and unremarkable.
Next up is the appetizer, a small portion of buttery saffron capellini (angel-hair pasta) as subtle as the salad was attention-grabbing. Garnished with slices of creamy ripe avocado, a sprinkle of grated Parmesan, parsley-topped chopped tomato, and a sprig of fresh, aromatic dill, the dish is both dainty and delicious. Still, the wine selection, a 1996 North Coast Pinot Noir, fails to keep up.
Servers, whose features are somehow becoming a bit indistinct, now whisk away our appetizer plates and bring forth the hot entree, a split, charred chicken breast on a pool of thick and tangy kiwi-basil balsamic vinaigrette, garnished with two slices of sweet kiwi and a big leaf of fresh basil. My poultry portion is thick and juicy, with a wonderful crisp-from-the-grill exterior and a moist, tender interior. Along with the tongue-tingling dish comes a glass of 1996 Founder's Estate Merlot, an agreeable red wine with a plummy flavor.
Now the refresher: a creamy frozen grape souffle in yet another crystal goblet. The arousing combination of cold, sweet, grape-flavored mousse and puckery frozen grapes quickly accomplishes its mission of cleansing our palates before the piece de resistance is served.
During my first few Winemaker Dinners, this was the point--after hors d'oeuvres, five formal courses, and five glasses of wine--where I was typically overcome by a food-and-drink-induced stupor. Although I'm fairly certain I continued to eat, drink, and sit upright, I have absolutely no memory of what was served, who served it, or even of how I got home. Learn from my example, fellow chowhounds: Restraint is essential, should you wish to last until dessert.
The only exception to my fifth-course memory loss was one spectacular piece de resistance from a July 1996 Brandywine Catering dinner: half a crisp-skinned roasted duck in a thick, jammy glaze of chopped apricots and Amaretto, sprinkled with sliced toasted almonds and served with summer-fresh green beans. I can still recall the mouth-watering taste of that rich meat, kissed by the intensely sweet-and-sour apricot glaze and spiked with the crunch of buttery almonds . . . Bliss on a plate.
However, tonight's main event--roasted tenderloin of beef on a bed of black beans with spears of fresh asparagus--is not in the same league. Although it shows up everywhere, I am still unimpressed by the juxtaposition of juicy, tender meats with piles of dry and mealy beans. On this occasion, however, the tables are turned: It is the meat that is dry and tasteless, while the beans are moist and flavorful. It's a sad state of affairs when beans taste better than beef, and the course, overall, is a letdown. We compensate ourselves with a glass of a pleasant 1995 Knight's Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
At last we arrive at dessert, an enormous portion of Strawberry Shortcake Supreme: a divine buttermilk biscuit with a firm but tender crumb and a subtle sweetness, topped with whole berries and clouds of whipped cream. While real Ohio strawberries are still out of season, the imports pressed into service tonight are reasonably ripe and tasty, and the dessert brings our meal to a sweet conclusion.
The accompanying wine, however, is a strange 1994 late-harvest Johannesburg Riesling that sparks controversy around our table. Even up against our dessert, the thick, almost syrupy white has a stunningly sweet taste that takes some getting used to. More off-putting, however, is its nose, a chemical-scented bouquet that reminds us of plastic. The wine's saving grace is its big green-grape taste, which peeks out from beneath the sugar and the fumes, and gives it a certain appeal. However, after heated debate, most of my fellow diners declare it a dud, some going so far as to say that the lesson of this evening is that they don't like Beringer wines.
After nearly three hours of drinking and dining, we cap off our evening with cups of fine-ground Colombian dark-roast coffee and begin to say our goodbyes. Tomorrow, CVNRA visitors will be back in hiking boots and blue jeans. But tonight's feast proves that not all park adventures involve the great outdoors. At least for one evening, culinary explorers have had a chance to examine those most fascinating of natural resources--food and wine in the Cuyahoga River Valley.
Brandywine Catering Winemaker Dinners, 1146 Highland Road, Northfield.
For reservations, questions, or to be added to the mailing list, call 330-467-2242.
Upcoming Events (prices include tax and gratuity)*:
Preferred Cabernets $85/person
Wines of Italy $65/person
Wines of the Pacific Northwest $65/person
Wines of Australia $65/person
Silver Oak Vertical Tasting $125/person
Nouveau Night $65/person
*Menus for the six- or seven-course meals will be available in advance of the event.