Sunset Winemaker Dinner at Mandalay Beach Resort
2101 Mandalay Beach Road

I was fortunate enough to attend the Sunset Winemaker Dinner at the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Hotel to close out California Wine Month in September.

When I say sunset, I mean that we were supposed to dine al fresco on the picturesque patio overlooking the calm Pacific Ocean at about 6 p.m. When we arrived to the Embassy Suites expecting to enjoy said romantic sunset and patio dining, the intrusive, intense wind had other plans. Umbrellas were quickly removed and fashionable hats flew off the heads of eager diners as the Coastal Grill staff rushed to move the entire five-course dinner to the inside private dining area. We enjoyed drinks at the bar until the transition was complete; and when the dining room was set up, I must say, it looked stunning. Clean and elegant white tablecloths were topped with classy dinnerware and crystal-clear wine glasses. I was hoping for the romance that the sunset would have brought because I’m a softy like that, but I quickly forgot about it when I polished off my gin and tonic and we took our seats.

There was a bit of awkward tension at the beginning of the evening. I soon came to realize that there was a miscommunication between the winemakers and the chef as to which wines were to be paired with the menu. The ambience felt as though we were at a wedding, but no one knew the bride or the groom. In true wedding form, however, once the drinks started getting tossed back, we all felt like close friends; and by the end of the night, we even exchanged contact information with the people sitting next to us.

Determined to bring the party to the next level, winemakers George Gilpatrick (and owner) and Faye of Rancho Ventavo Cellars in Oxnard kept the wine and the stories flowing. They have such an infectious passion for the wine they are producing. They continuously invited everyone to their winery, located at 741 S. A St. in Oxnard, to see firsthand the extensive list of wines they’re offering. It was refreshing to see such a raw love and enthusiasm for wine, while not taking themselves or the process too seriously. Faye and Gilpatrick had as much fun as anyone at the party and simply wanted all of the diners to drink up and have a blast.

“Enough blabbing. How were the food and wine?” you say. Well I’d prefer you framed the question in a nicer way, but here it goes: The first course, prepared by Coastal Grill Chef Tim Hulbert was the creamy wild mushroom risotto with roasted corn and sundried tomatoes paired with the 2007 zinfandel. The white corn offered a nice sweetness and the arborio rice was cooked well. The acid coming from the sundried tomatoes and the earthiness of the unexpected mushrooms were what made the pairing with the two-year barrel-aged zin a big success.

The second course was the braised Kobe short ribs with Yukon gold garlic blue cheese mashed potatoes. I loved this dish in concept and presentation. The potatoes were salty and rich, complementing the garlic mirepoix and merlot reduction served alongside the short ribs. The tenderness of the Kobe was where the dish fell a bit short for me. I found myself thinking, if the short ribs had been braised longer and maybe braised with the wine, this dish could have been a homerun. The pairing was a 2007 petite szyrah and I thought it was a great choice for that particular dish.
Thirdly, we enjoyed pan seared diver scallops with an “island chimichurri” served alongside angel hair pasta. This was hands-down the best dish of the evening. The scallops were seared and seasoned beautifully. Chef Tim’s chimichurri wasn’t a traditional one, but it had some good citrus and jalapeños that were bursting with flavor. When eaten with a bite of scallop and buttery, perfectly cooked angel hair pasta, it was a trifecta of awesome flavor. The only asterisk on this dish was that it was paired with a 2006 cabernet sauvignon, which almost worked because the tannins were extremely mild, but ultimately, the pairing was a miss.

Next up was the stuffed Mediterranean chicken breast, paired with the ’07 “Majecc” blend from Rancho Ventavo. The chicken was fine and the wine was interesting. If it had been served as the second course, it might have had more success, but following the scallops, the table and I thought it was good, but not great.  

The dessert is where the evening all came together and harmonized beautifully. Chef Tim prepared brie stilton and cranberry croquettes with vanilla bean ice cream and it was paired with a 2008 late harvest zinfandel from Amador County. The croquettes had such a nice rich saltiness from the stilton and tartness from the cranberry with the creamy vanilla bean ice cream — it was sublime. Surprisingly, the late harvest zinfandel was just about everyone’s favorite wine of the night. We couldn’t stop raving about how it had such a mild sweetness, but with a velvety, smooth finish. This was the pairing of the night and the perfect way to top off the evening. Despite some trials and tribulations, both the Coastal Grill and Rancho Ventavo received a big round of applause at the end of the night and everyone went home fat and happy. The End.