photos by Tenley Fohl, Tenley Fohl Photography
For their very first estate wine dinner, Larner Winery picked the theme, “Under the Stars.” And on this crisp and beautiful evening in Ballard Canyon – when 21 of us sat at a decked out communal table under a string of lights and a wide open sky – plenty of stars shone brightly.
There was the star in the kitchen, for one – Vanessa Craig, the Santa Barbara private chef whose appearance on the finale of Food Network’s “All-Star Academy” just a few days before had already created big local buzz. The cutthroat kitchen reality show had placed Craig on celeb Chef Michael Symon’s team, and although her first-runner-up finish was a high-profile coup all its own, the consensus among those of us dining together this evening was that she really should have nabbed the trophy.
|Vanessa Craig leads her star crew in the Larner kitchen|
|That's me in the center, in great company!|
|The Sweet Corn Fritter Salad w/Spice-Rubbed Chicken|
At the table, our meal began with a Sweet Corn Fritter Salad with Spice-Rubbed Chicken, a delicious execution by Craig. Winemaker Michael Larner, who greeted each course with a story about the wine to come, matched this opener with his 2013 Viognier. The wine showed off a lovely floral nose, complexity and vanilla notes.
|Vanessa Craig smiles at her fans|
|Vanessa Craig & Michael Larner|
I thought the Black Pepper Beef Stew with Morel Mushrooms was a culinary triumph for Craig. A hearty, flavorful stew wonderfully deconstructed so that the flavor of each individual ingredient was allowed to shine. Together, delectable. Larner’s 2010 Elemental was impressive – Old World in its depth and flavors and yet approachable and lithe in its mouth feel. This wine has a beautiful nose and jamminess on the tongue.
|"The Perfect Dish"|
|The 2010 Larner Syrah (my pic)|
For this sweet tooth sufferer, dessert was amazing: a Greek yogurt panna cotta decked out with a wine-marinated apricot compote. The 2014 Solamer, with a honeyed mouth feel and brilliant flavors, is a new Larner experiment. Malvasia-bianca at its core, it was made in the classic vin santo style, with ripe grapes set out to dry in the sun to concentrate sugars and allow flavors to burst.
What was especially neat to witness during this intimate evening was the Larner dynamic. This is, first and foremost, a family endeavor, and stories about the Larners’ hands-on approach abounded. Michael recalled one night when, while on a work trip in Italy, a text alerted him that frost alarms back home had gone off in the wee hours of the morning; he had to call and rouse his mother out of bed so she could head into the night and turn sprinklers on to protect the grapes. Christine, herself, recalled helping to make that Solamer nectar, hand-sorting the malvasia grapes onto drying racks by hand, and one by one. And Michael’s wife, Christina, expressed to me how excited she was to finally be able to rejoin her husband in the winery, now that their youngest toddler is old enough to give Mom some free time. Michael and Christina Larner have two children: Stevan, 4, and Sienna, 1.5.
It was a treat to be part of a guest list that included a real who’s who of influencers, including wine writers Wendy Thies Sell, Allison Levine and Louis Villard, wine blogger Shawn Burgert, Santa Barbara news anchor Shirin Rajaee, photographer Tenley Fohl and Larner tasting room and wine club manager Emily Dixon.
For more on Vanessa Craig and her catering business, check out www.VanessaLovesFood.com.
For more information on Larner, go to www.LarnerWine.com.