Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sushi Gets Along Swimmingly with Star Lane

If you're like me, dear reader, when it's 4 o'clock you have this struggle--what in the world do I want for dinner? And when you figure it out, at 4:30, you're all proud of yourself. You have a plan.

Let me introduce you to the world of the Dierbergs, the family behind Dierberg Star Lane. They've got a 250 year plan.

Now, we could all feel embarrassed about our lack of future thought, or we could have a glass of one of the many fine Dierberg/Star Lane wines and contemplate the future in a more pleasant place. I vote for that plan, and would do so for 250 years, if I only could.

The Dierbergs have managed to buy some of the most wonderful wine-growing property Santa Barbara County has to offer, from the Dierberg Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley to the Drum Canyon Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills to the Star Lane Vineyard in Happy Canyon. Add those three prime locations up and even someone with no wine knowledge could stumble upon some good pinot, chard, sauv blanc, and cab. But, of course, you don't kick off a 250 year plan with a someone as your winemaker.

Nope, the Dierbergs hired Tyler Thomas, stealing him from the more famous wine counties up north, which shows a certain sense of commitment. Thomas has one of those stories--French grandmother, wine at the table, college years studying botany and getting into cooking. Then, after marrying young, he and his wife traveled the world, only to land in New Zealand and discover winemakers. It seemed like a cool career.

Fast forward through a Master's from Davis (viticulture and enology) and an ornery mentor, Mark Matthews, author of Terroir, and Other Myths of Winegrowing, with whom he didn't always see eye-to-eye, and that feisty back-and-forth made him a better winemaker. For as Thomas puts it, "In wine school, you tend to learn how to do stuff to wine, and that's not always good."

He got practice learning not to do too much at Hyde de Villaine in Napa and Donelan in Sonoma, but the Dierbergs came wooing, and once he saw the properties, and heard of their desire for a long-range plan, he couldn't say no. So now they get to do things like plant all sorts of clones to see which grow best ("it takes 25 years to see what clones work on your site"), and to experiment with stem inclusion (he's a fan, in moderation), and to age in oak vs. maloactic fermentation to find what creates more "body," and to see what different barrels can do, and to grow grapes at different elevations (thank you, rising Happy Canyon topography), you name it.  If there's a best way to make a wine, Thomas and his team will find it.

In addition to the magnificent sites to grow the grapes in the first place, and that they've even got 15 acres of own-rooted vines in Happy Canyon (did I mention they have 40% of the planted acreage in that Bordeaux-blessed area?) since it's protected enough from phylloxera (plus they have to water less, and the flavor profiles seem more classic, with richer textures), they've got a half acre of caves to age the wines in perfect conditions. There's something nearly religious about a place like this, as if you can feel the growth and change about you amidst the silence of the barrels.

They're also after perfect pairings, so let a bunch of us heathens, uh, journalists, in for a tasting with Chef Kiminari Togawa from Sushi Karaku in Tokyo. Alas, I have not been to Japan, so don't know the culinary highlights, but a family came from Japan to this event as they like Togawa so. That's dedication. (Here I go with my limited knowledge, but they sort of looked like a couple from Tampopo.)

The point was to prove you can have red wine with fish. It helps that Togawa does Edomae sushi, the older version that has been pushed aside by what we now know of as sushi (but that's only 50 years or so old). That means fish that's pickled, marinated, even sometimes slightly quickly cooked, yet still sushi. You don't dip this into soy and wasabi, as it's got all its proper flavor pre-packed, as it were. It looks like simple nigiri, but my god, do those flavors last and last--one way it certainly works with red wine, as it finished as fine and long as a delicious cabernet.

Take the pickled red maduro (tuna red meat) in soy alongside the chu-toro (fatty tuna) sprinkled with wine salt (photo above). The maduro glistens for a reason, hinting at its richness. It almost had red beets depth, and sure enough their handy flavor profile matching chart nailed the fish's iodine and iron core. Then the wine salt on the chu-toro excellently bridged sea and grape in one tasty bite. These two paired so well with the pinots, one from Santa Maria--the 2014 Dierberg Vineyard--and the other from Sta. Rita Hills--the 2014 Drum Canyon. Guess which one had more salt air, to match? You see how this can be, done, don't you.

Of course, there was even more, brilliant non-sushi bites between the courses, like a king crab mille feuille that had no pastry, but lots of crab, plus bonus salmon because why not, and then that rich zip of spinach for both color contrast and earthiness.

Or this modestly named oil marinated salmon with tomato water, that somehow left out the salmon roe atop that gave the dish a crazy series of bright bursts.

So does sushi go with red wine? You bet. And I'm pretty sure it would even not in a stone cellar setting, made by a chef flown in from Tokyo for the event, with wine poured from a producer with a 250 year plan. (How did I not get to the mirin marinated conger eel and the 2011 Star Lane "Astral"? Was it because I gave up on notes and was reduced to grunting with pleasure?)


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