You might wonder why we chose to stay local instead of venturing out to Livermore or Napa. Well, I always love going to AuburnJames for a number of reasons. For one thing, picturesque Danville is filled with positive energies that provide a nice external ambiance for the experience. There’s something to be said, of course, for the tradition of locating wine tasting events in a region of hills, valleys, and vineyards — and I love that. However, Downtown Danville has the kinds of boutique shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues that make it a nice destination. And, of course, Walnut Creek is only a few miles up Highway 680. Therefore, an AuburnJames wine tasting event can become part of an extended encounter that might also include experiencing a variety of other entertainment options — which is just what happened for our lively group.
The AuburnJames winery, and the Tasting Room & Fine Art Gallery were products of a collaboration between Matt Ospeck and his sister, Mary Ann Cope, together with the winemaker, Jim Frost. The AuburnJames name is an unlikely mashup. “James” is the winemaker, Jim Frost’s, first name and “Auburn” is the oldest American automobile brand, reflecting Matt’s lifelong passion for car design. AuburnJames is setting the bar for excellence. They reportedly received gold medal votes from every judge for their entry in the top Bordeaux Blend category at the recent San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition — which designated their 2010 Artist Series Meritage as the Double Gold medalist.
The tasting room accommodates small parties of up to 60; a side room, with a capacity of 10-12 people seated around a large central table that provides a more intimate experience.
The wine-pairing event itself turned out to be a series of extravagant taste sensations. We indulged in our six pairings; each was created by AuburnJames executive chef, Josh Payton. He personally introduced each course. His presence turned out to be a nice accessory to the event, since Josh is a young man, friendly, knowledgeable, and as passionate about his culinary creations as AuburnJames is about its wine.
The first course was the AuburnJames 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, a local Mount Diablo wine that was paired with a Royal Fig with Triple Cream Brie and Pomegranate. The concoction, which was heavenly at that point, was raised to an even higher level of sensual taste by a topping of crystalized honey ginger. I am a fan of figs under any circumstance, but when supplemented by those layered ingredients, the fig provided an amazing taste sensation and one that paired perfectly with the local Sauvignon Blanc. In most cases, when drinking a white wine, I prefer a Chardonnay to Sauvignon Blanc. However, this wine was softer and less acidic than I expect from the varietal and it was also very complex. The winemaker explained that one way he achieves the effect of softness is by allowing the fruit to remain on the vine until full maturity, which permits the Sauvignon Blanc grapes to acquire hints of tropical fruit flavors that layer in more complexity.
The second course from Chef Josh was Ahi Tuna Sashimi with Sage Oil and Hibiscus Salt, which was also paired with the Sauvignon Blanc. Hibiscus is a gourmet finishing salt. We first dipped the tuna into the sage oil and then into the salt — a combination that brought out the flavor of the tuna and wonderfully complemented the flavors in the wine. The two pairings were a nice contrast — the first sweet and the second savory.
The third course paired the 2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay from the Bella Vista Vineyard with a Monte Christo and roasted tomato dipping sauce.
As I said, I normally prefer Chardonnay when drinking white wine, and this wine lived up to my expectations. But in my estimation, it was still second place to the incredible Sauvignon Blanc from the first two pairings. The Monte Cristo is a fried ham and cheese sandwich — a variation of the French croque-monsieur, which a recent traveler reported to be a favorite for Parisians. The sandwich was served warm; the cheese melting and yummy. The taste was accented perfectly with the dipping sauce. The pairing seemed especially suited to the weather, with steady rain falling that day from sodden skies. The warmth and the sensual taste of the sandwich together with the wine were comforting, putting some sunshine in our hearts and stomachs to offset the wet weather outside.
The fourth pairing was a 2009 Napa Valley Meritage paired with Slow Roasted Pork Belly with Chili-Maple Glaze. The Meritage is a delicious blend of five Bordeaux varietals from Napa vineyards. The wine was the Gold Medal Winner in the 2013 California Cabernet Shoot-out. This pairing turned out to be my second favorite. I love red wine and the pork and Meritage blended perfectly. The Chili-Maple Glaze on the pork elevated the pairing to a maximum level of taste sensation.
The fifth course paired the 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve RDH with Savory Herb & Parmesan Bake with Balsamic. At this point we were feeling mighty cheerful and our conversation level began to raise.
The Cabernet is a 100-dollar a bottle wine and, with the bake, provided the best of all the pairings. I love Cabernets and this label is one of my all-time favorites, so this was of course my favorite pairing. I have shared AuburnJames cabs at private parties, and they were always a big hit. The extraordinary wine was a perfect complement to the warm, creamy cup-full of heaven that it was paired with.
We learned from the winemaker that this wine was made from fruit harvested at Bella Vista Vineyard, located in Calistoga, at the North end of the Napa Valley. Following harvest, he allowed this reserve wine to mature in French oak barrels for an additional seven months that he said further softened the tannins and gave the wine more roundness. I bought some wine to take home, and this incredible cab was one of my choices.
The final pairing was the 2009 North Coast Viognier paired with Chocolate Marbled Bread Pudding with Orange Créme Anglaise.
This pairing turned out to be the favorite of some of my friends. It provided a perfect end to the tasting event. The pudding was flavorful and slightly heavy but with a nicely caramelized texture, and the wine was light and crisp, with a hint of sweetness. I tasted peach, pineapple, and apricot.
Matt and his AuburnJames team know how to put on a memorable event. The service, ambiance, and company were all wonderful. The eight of us talked, laughed, and marveled together at the taste sensations we were experiencing. The pairings lasted a couple hours. It started out on a high note, but the experience grew better and better as we moved from one course to another. On that wet, rainy, winter day, the great company, food, and wines brought cheerfulness to our hearts. We left the tasting room happier than when we arrived.