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Last weekend, my wife, Barbara, and I once again attended the Relais & Château GourmetFest in Carmel. This is the third annual GourmetFest under the direction and planning of our good friend and host “extraordinaire” David Fink, founder and CEO of Mirabel Hotel & Restaurant Group.

Long before his launch of GourmetFest in 2014, David created and presided over the heralded Masters of Food and Wine at the Highlands Inn in Carmel where he also served as general manager for more than 15 years.

As with the Masters, David attracts the participation of world-class chefs (now exclusively from Relais & Château properties) along with heralded vintners and winemakers from around the world. The weekend is studded with wine tastings, culinary experiences, and combinations of both that just cannot be found elsewhere. Everything from wild mushroom hunts and a truffle dinner to exclusive tastings of Latour, Leflaive and Masseto are available to those looking for extraordinary epicurean/vinous adventure.

Among the highlights of GourmetFest this year was a special vineyard and lunch experience with Mark Pisoni of Pisoni Vineyards and Gary Franscione of Roar Wines, both located in the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) appellation above Salinas Valley. And what a noteworthy celebration it was.

The Pisoni family, under the leadership of Mark’s father Gary, and Gary Franscioni have partnered in some of the SLH’s most prominent and respected vineyards as well as independently owning others.

Our day began at Garys’ Vineyard (the two Garys) that is adjacent to the equally esteemed Soberanes Vineyard (also owned and farmed by both families).

At Garys’ Vineyard, we were greeted with a glass of 2004 Lucia Pinot Noir Garys’ Vineyard from Pisoni poured from an etched 5.0-L Jeroboam. Then Mark and Gary led us on a pruning exercise and tutorial. Fortunately, we were guided by several seasoned vineyard supervisors who served as our “maestros” or teachers. This was not an easy technique to master, and hopefully we did not botch the job on these precious vines that will produce grapes for a spectacular 2016 vintage.

Following the pruning, we were transported to the magnificent hilltop home of Gary and Rosella Franscioni that is surrounded by breathtaking views of the vineyards and valley below. A Champagne Taittinger reception was followed by a delightful four-course lunch prepared by two Relais & Château chefs from Maui and New York. Each course paired with a Pisoni and Roar wine from either the same or separate estate vineyards.

We began with Roar Viognier (only 45 cases produced) and then enjoyed two chardonnays: 2014 Lucia Soberanes and 2013 Roar Sierra Mar. What followed was a most educational and sensory experience highlighted by two exceptional wines for each of the next two courses.

The roasted Muscovy duck au jus paired with a Lucia and a Roar 2013 pinot noir from Garys’ Vineyard. Though the wines were from the same vintage and vineyard, each showed its own personality while carrying forward the signature characteristics of Garys’ Vineyard.

The Roar (from magnum) was a bit more opulent but still elegant with powerful structure and needing more time to show its excellence. The Lucia exhibited more elegance than power with red cherry coming forward with a hint of black cherry and good acidity to accent the wine’s complexity that will grow with more time in the bottle.

Next, the berbere-glazed lamb crepes with scallion pancake were served family style and paired with two very special 2007 pinots from individual estate vineyards. Both wines were poured from 5.0L Jeroboams and demonstrated the virtues of a great SLH vintage coupled with a large format bottling that slows and deepens the aging process.

The Pisoni Estate showed great depth, both red and black fruits, an intriguing sense of earthiness and a long layered finish. The Roar Rosella’s Vineyard was a bolder expression of black fruit accented by red cherry demonstrating more power and extraction. Both delightful wines with different personalities and a treat to enjoy side-by-side.

Much more than simply the perfect “hedonistic” extravaganza, this adventure was a vinous experience demonstrating the great relationship of two families working together and separately to achieve prominence in an appellation teeming with outstanding wines.

My Feb. 19 column, “Do we think dry but drink sweet?” attracted many comments acknowledging the trend to sweeter wines being marketed as dry. Some asked, “Is that a bad thing?”

Ross—It isn’t only with wine that we find the human preference for sweetness and maybe those winemakers producing smooth, fruity wines with 1 percent, 2 percent or more residual sugar are the clever ones with an implicit understanding of their customers’ tastes.

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Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.


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