Thursday, May 13, 2010

Robert Keenan Wine Dinner

ONE OF THE BEST RESTAURANTS in Austin, Mirabelle, is just around the bend from my place (or was; it closed in 2012). The food is excellent, and a few of the entrees are among the best in town. The wine list is really, really good: not vast, but well-designed. It pairs well with the menu, and there are always good deals to be had for someone with a little wine knowledge. Those without such knowledge will be thrilled.
Keenan Vineyards on Spring Mountain, Napa Valley, CA

"You get infected...with this thing in your blood," Michael Keenan told us, about getting into the wine business; "it's like a virus." I agree, and I ain't even in the wine business. I've reviewed Keenan wines before, so I was delighted at the opportunity to meet Michael Keenan and to taste some of the winery's other offerings.

Before reflecting on the event itself--a different experience from my previous wine dinners--let me run down the wines, for surfers looking for opinions about how these wines were drinking:

2007 Keenan "Spring Mountain" Chardonnay: On the nose, some buttercream, a little pineapple, but reasonably tight. On the palate, excellently balanced, with lime, pineapple, butter, even a hint of mint, which was delightful, on the finish. Bourgogney. Splendid with a little crepe, prosciutto and gruyere canape. Circa $25 retail.

2006 Keenan Napa Valley Merlot: On the nose, licorice and cherry, with a hint of cinnamon. Chocolate, violets, and black cherry on the palate. I really liked this--I think it was my favorite. For a comparison, see this entry. Even better, as it's still young, with the arctic char and fava bean puree. They cheated by doing a Merlot reduction alongside--but I saw that coming, and tried the wine with the fava bean puree first, and it was a charming combination. Circa $30 retail.

2005 Keenan Napa Cabernet, circa $50 retail: On the nose, briary, smoky, plum-ridden; really intense. On the palate, the usual cherry, licorice, and plum, harmoniously balanced. A caveat: I favor  mountain wines from the Napa/Sonoma areas, as you'll see from some other entries. And this is an '05: it's still young, and it had not been open long--yet it was damn tasty. And the same goes for...

2005 "Spring Mountain" Cabernet, Reserve: Pepper, plum, bell pepper, blackberry, and tar on the nose--though not tremendously focused. On the palate, more focused plum, licorice, smoke, and  charming sage at the close. A charming wine in general, though worth the $90 price tag? Hard to say. Both Cabernets were delightful--and showed better--with the lamb enchilada and espresso crema sauce.

2005 Reserve Merlot, "Mailbox Vineyard": This has the hallmarks of a young vineyard. On the nose, black fruit, but a little sweetness in the aromas, and fascinating desert sage. On the palate, chocolate covered raspberry, plum, orange, and a hint of cilantro. Those with less affection for the mountain style, with its briary smoke, will like this one more, I think; and too, it's young. These wines are built to age, as my previous encounters with them suggested. This paired well, though not perhaps as elegantly as the previous courses, with a beef filet topped with foie gras.

The genre of the wine dinner is still a bit of a mystery to me. I'm tempted to say that its characteristics are not generalizable--that each wine dinner tends to show its peculiarities in relation to the venue. Mirabelle is in a comparatively wealthy, comparatively suburban neighborhood, and its chef is a player in Austin's food and beverage realm. So perhaps it's not surprising that this dinner saw a fascinating combination of established, older folks with younger, mover-shaker business types. I'll do another of these dinners before long, and to test my theory, I'll choose an utterly new venue to me.

I had the good luck to be seated with a charmingly clumsy photographer (who, I suspect, also preferred the Merlot), some mover-shaker folks (who, appallingly, left behind most of their wine and decamped early), and some longtime fans of Mirabelle. I was struck by the appreciation that Mirabelle's owner and head chef, Michael Vilim, showed for his staff, both by introducing them to us during the dinner and by naming all of them--servers, buser, and sous chefs--on the menu. A big small thing. (New York City peeps: please do post a comment if you have been to a restaurant-hosted wine dinner at which you learned the full names of all of your servers and sous chefs.)

Michael Keenan has done a million of these things, you can tell, and he got up three times to talk about the wines, but otherwise hung back or cruised among the tables, informally chatting. That, it seemed to me, was an ideal approach--no pitch, no bullshit, no anxiousness, just passion. Or perhaps, a virus.