Johnathan L. Wright •
Top American wines star at food editor’s lavish dinner
For the past two years, Christian O’Kuinghttons has been hunting Peter Michael.
Not Sir Peter himself, owner of one of America’s best wineries, but the fruit of Sir Peter’s vineyards: a rich sauvignon blanc braced by minerals, a delicately fragrant pinot noir, a powerful yet supple cabernet blend.
Peter Michael Winery in Sonoma County produced the Wine Spectator’s No. 1 wine of 2015. The winery is closed to the public. Its member list for folks to purchase wines is likewise closed (there is a waiting list).
And the wine is highly allocated to the trade — as in only 20 cases of one cabernet blend for the entire state of Nevada.
Hence, the hunt.
“The winery is never into overproducing in order to increase the bottom line. Every drop of wine there has a destination,” said O’Kuinghttons, the longtime cellar master of the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa.
“We get our initial cases, then I have to check with the distributor or other parties or places who might not want their allocation. I’ve had to beg, borrow and steal for two years for this dinner.”
The dinner in question, on Sept. 27, is the fifth annual evening in the Atlantis Steakhouse hosted by yours truly. Pours from Peter Michael will accompany five of the six courses, each made with ingredients every bit as fine as the wine.
The dinner is $225 per person (inclusive of tax and gratuity), the most the Atlantis has ever charged for a wine event. But the quality of the pours alone is worth the price, O’Kuinghttons said.
“They are extremely well balanced, and there is attention to detail to the nth degree. The evolution of super-premium wines in America would not exist without Peter Michael. The winery has set the standard.”
Above the clouds
As it has since its debut in 2011, the “Dinner with Johnathan,” as we call it, has offered the Atlantis’ food and beverage team an opportunity to showcase menu items while also experimenting with new pairings or dishes.
“When we begin planning the dinner each year, we all love throwing out ideas,” said Dennis Houge, executive chef of the Atlantis. “We love getting new flavors into the restaurant.”
The 2016 dinner begins with California red abalone, an ingredient that ranks among the choicest in the land because it cannot be commercially fished. Served in the shell with Meyer lemon beurre blanc, “it’s a classic presentation that gets everybody in the mood,” Houge said.
The pairing, Peter Michael’s L’Après-Midi sauvignon blanc, “wasn’t difficult to put together,” O’Kuinghttons said. “Toasted almonds, acidity — it’s an absolute complement.”
Butter-poached Maine lobster touches down next, joined by paddlefish caviar and beet essence, a union of brine and earth. These qualities guided the pairing: La Carrière chardonnay from the cloud-kissed Peter Michael estate high above Sonoma County’s Knights Valley.
“Two of the main components of the wine are white peach and mandarin orange, so we wanted to create a contrast between that and the earthiness and brininess,” O’Kuinghttons said. “We wanted to produce a tension within the palate.”
Like the abalone, the Chilean sea bass comes from the Atlantis Steakhouse menu, but for the dinner, it’s being refashioned with a Parma ham pashmina, morel ragout, and wood-fire plum and cherry chutney.
The wine, Ma Danseuse pinot noir, mingles “savory, acidity, sweetness. This was an easy pairing,” O’Kuinghttons said, adding that the clones for the vineyard came from grand cru (most superior) vines in Burgundy.
Oh my cones!
Colorado lamb loin with ratatouille and Niçoise olive jus “is totally inspired by the South of France,” said Shelly Curt, the Atlantis’ food and beverage creative development manager. “Originally, we were going to do kalamata olives, but the Niçoise olive jus is the perfect bridge to the wine.
At the wine end of the bridge, you’ll find “cedar, coffee, berry,” O’Kuinghttons said of the L’Esprit des Pavots (Spirit of the Poppies) cabernet blend. “This wine keeps expressing itself in different ways every time you go to the glass.”
For beef Wellington, the fifth course, the kitchen is slicing from a whole loin and updating the pâté with foie gras mousse. And micro-crudités, a jumble of elegant miniatures, remind me of Truman Capote’s line about the rich having tinier vegetables.
Les Pavots, another cabernet blend, accompanies the Wellington, its dark, berried, cocoa, truffled depths providing the perfect pairing.
Dinner finishes with croquembouche, a superlative French classic in which filled pastry balls are piled into a cone and bound with swirls of spun sugar. The dessert is traditionally served in large format, but for the dinner, Atlantis executive pastry chef Kayline Johnson and crew are sending out individual croquembouches.
Said Curt, the creative development manager: “This is one of the most beautiful desserts I’ve ever seen come out of our bakery.”
If you attend the dinner, you can see (and taste) for yourself.