Wine dinners are food for thought

Vino 'experts': Centro's Restaurant in downtown Lowell attracted 36 people to its Pacific Northwest Wine Dinner. Seated at the Wine Novice table were, from left, Cathy and Richard Rourke, Carol Dubuc, Mary Lee Harrington, and Judy and Mike Pigeon.

If you’ve never been to a wine-tasting dinner, you’re missing out on a lot of fun.
It’s one thing to go out to a restaurant, study the menu, perspire over selecting the right wine, and then wonder if you’ve made the correct choices — all for a $100 tab for two with a tip.
It’s quite another to go to a five-course wine dinner. There the chef welcomes you ito the restaurant, picks out the dishes for you, and selects the wine pairings for each course (or has a sommelier or staff person do it) while you and your guest sit back and enjoy — probably for the same $100.
Wine dinners come with an education too. There’s someone who explains the food and wine pairings and why they might be a good fit. For instance, the acidity in a wine cuts through the oils of fatty foods, often enhancing the pleasure of eating certain fish or game. Likewise, the sweetness in wine — sometimes from sugar content or ripe fruit tastes — bring out the best in spicy dishes or bitter-tasting vegetables.
Yes, opposites do attract in the wine world. I, for one, prefer dry Riesling with my spicy Asian foods.
Wine tastings do not have to be expensive or intensive. Most local wine stores offer free tastings on Saturdays or charge a nominal fee to cover the cost of cheeses and crackers. Harrington’s Liquors in Chelmsford, Tutto Bene Wine & Cheese Shop in Lowell, and Andover Liquors in the Shawsheen Plaza are very aggressive in promoting distributors and their products. You should check their web sites for coming events.
On Sunday, the Wine Goddess took me to Centro’s in downtown Lowell for a five-course Pacific Northwest Wine Dinner, featuring selections from Oregon and Washington State. The cost was $50 a ticket, and very reasonable for the food and the wine that was poured freely throughout the evening.
Our table companions included the Wine Butler (Mike Pigeon and his wife, Judy) and the Wine Wizard (Tutto Bene co-owner Richard Rourke and his wife, Cathy).
Patti Stella, Centro’s owner and head chef, greeted 36 guests and then turned things over to Jim Barnard, an M.S. Walker sales representative who explained the pairings. The event began at 4 p.m. and ended nearly 4 1/2 hours later.
The first two courses featured wines from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Washington State wines from Columbia Valley filled out the three remaining courses.
What follows is a description of the pairings. Tutto Bene supplied the wines, which are available at most area wine stores.
First course: Appetizers of house smoked salmon crostini with dill and cucumber creme fresh and deviled eggs were paired with a Cooper Hill Organic Pinot Noir ($14.99).
Second course: Roasted red beet salad with bleu cheese, walnuts, apple chips and champagne vinaigrette with Erath Pinot Gris ($13.99).
Third course: Wild mushroom ragu over goat cheese polenta with 14 Hands Hot to Trot ($12.99) red blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Fourth course: Roasted half chicken with preserved lemon and thyme served with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes, Fuji apples and leeks, with Chateau St. Michelle Chardonnay ($12.99).
Fifth course: Maple and apple medley bread pudding with Hogue Late Harvest Riesling ($10.99).
I thought the wine “star” of the night was the Erath Pinot Gris, which embodied a clean, crisp and fresh fruit taste. Hints of melon and banana taste grew stronger with each sip. A nice chilled wine for almost any occasion.
I’ve always been a fan of Chateau St. Michelle Chardonnay, a great value wine that traditionally winds up on Wine Enthusiast’s annual Top 100 Best Buy List. It’s oaky but not overpowering so, combining citrus and vanilla notes into a smooth and lasting finish.
I’m a big pinot noir fan but the Cooper Hill, while enjoyable, was just a tad too thin in the mouth although the women loved it. The 14 Hands red blend was jammy in berry fruits and very interesting, but it needed more than the polenta dish to be truly appreciated. I will try it again. As for the Hogue Riesling, it has a way of ending any dessert dish and evening on a high note.
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Wine dinner tips:
1. The key to enjoying any multiple food-wine pairing event is to pace yourself. You should limit yourself to one glass of wine with each food pairing. Five courses add up to five glasses of wine which is almost an entire bottle.
2. I usually drink half a glass of water — or more — between each course. This limits my wine intake to several sips per glass.
3. You don’t have to finish each full glass of wine to enjoy it. Tasters sip slowly, savor the liquid, reflect on it, and swallow. Stretch out the experience. As the Italians say, “piano, piano” — easy, easy.
4. Eat the food.
5. Drink responsibly and socialize with other guests.