Mystery Dish

'Three men. One wine shop. 'A forest of bottles.' One novel. One movie. Twenty-three Extreme Wine Tastings and two Irregular ones." So began Julian Davies, wine-merchant-turned-wine-impresario, as he opened the WineDining club's Sideways-inspired wine dinner at the Third Corner. (Though no longer a restaurant, the Corner endures as a banquet facility.) Davies was one member of the "alco-holy trinity" that provided the template for Rex Pickett's novel (and Alexander Payne's film) Sideways; he provided the winespeak. Pickett and friend Roy Gittens provided the sodden road trip to Santa Barbara wine country.

Gittens, gregarious and rumpled and rather less tomcatty than his film persona Jack, was also in attendance. Pickett, who lent a measure of himself to the film's protagonist Miles, was unable to make the trip south. But he did send Davies his regrets via e-mail: "Wish I could be down there. Have spent a lot of blurry moments at The Third Corner while housesitting in Ocean Beach. In fact, it was my OB Hitching Post," the restaurant that provided Jack and Miles with their base of operations. "Many a cab out of there," he concluded. He did not specify whether "cab" referred to "Cabernet" or "taxicab," though it is tempting to suppose the latter. During his opening remarks, Davies mentioned Pickett's being "escorted" out of the Hitching Post on more than one occasion.

(Despite this, I would like to protest the characterization of Sideways's Miles as an alcoholic, contra voices such as Mireya Navarro in the New York Times. Davis said, quoting Navarro, " 'Behind its veneer of glamour and sophistication...wine can be the perfect cover for alcohol dependence, because many people do not associate it with alcoholic behavior, not even drinkers themselves.' " Oh, come now. There can be no arguing that Miles drinks too much at several points in the film. But the man is on a week-long bachelor party. Even a nonalcoholic might be expected to go a bit overboard. The night he gets blotto at dinner comes just after he finds out that his ex-wife, whom he still loves, is getting remarried. And the clincher — he gets sideways on a single bottle of Pinot Noir. A Santa Barbara News-Press naïf was alarmed at the quantity — "an entire standard-sized bottle." I suspect that many a wine geek merely shrugged, "Lightweight.")

Davies played narrator to a multicourse dinner accompanied by nine wines. (The tables bristled with glasses, making for easy ice-breakers — "Is that your Pinot or mine?") "They took the film as a kind of template," he explained, "and they made sure that the wines were, if not the ones featured in the film, at least from the wineries that were represented." Davies got creative in places: the sparkling Chenin Blanc hailed from the Loire, which is not too far from Vouvray — and Jack lambastes Miles for pontificating on Vouvray during the dinner date. We drank a Lane Tanner Syrah; Lane Tanner used to make wine for Hartley-Ostini, whose Hitching Post Pinot Noir figures in the film. The fruit for the Hitching Post Pinot came from the Bien Nacido Vineyard, as did the fruit for the Jaffurs Syrah that showed so well at the dinner. But mostly, the names were the same: Kalyra, Sanford, Andrew Murray, Hartley-Ostini. Foxen, which provided us with Pinot, went unnamed in the film, but that's where Miles and Jack helped themselves to an extra pour at the bar.

Davies and Gittens had been invited to attend, circulate, and educate by Robin and Nina Stark (no relation). Robin had seen Davies host an Irregular Wine Tasting at his usual haunt, the Echo in Los Angeles. She hooked up with Nina, who had been running the WineDining club for the past 18 months, and the two set to work on the Sideways dinner. The response was huge. "I prefer the average size of a dinner to be 30 to 50," says Nina. "For that one, we had 99. It was a bit of a surprise, but I think we were the only people in San Diego who got Julian and Roy. I think the big difference between WineDining and other concepts is that I pick a different venue and either a different winery or a different concept for each event. The only repeat winery I've had has been Joseph Phelps, and nobody complains about Joseph Phelps." Other wineries have included Opus One, Chalk Hill, and Sanford. And she has put together numerous events featuring the wines of a particular country: Italy, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa.

"When we did our South African dinner, I was working with the owner of Kalahari — which has unfortunately closed because of an illness in the family. He gave me something to eat that was wonderful and interesting. But I knew what it was, and I said, 'If I put this on the menu, nobody will eat it.' But it was so good." The solution: serve it, but don't put it on the menu. "I thought, 'I'm going to call it a mystery dish. Anybody who can guess what it is will win a bottle of wine.' Everybody liked it except one person, and only one person guessed what it was: chicken giblets. It was a way to get people to try something new and make it fun."

Getting the wines for the events "is usually done through making some kind of personal connection. I contact the wineries, and I try to go to events where there's an opportunity to meet them face-to-face. I just came back from Sonoma, and there are two wonderful wineries up there that I would be very lucky to get. One of them was an invitation-only winery, and they said they'd love to talk with us about doing an event. Whether we can afford them is still a question. But I try to vary the price of the dinners, mix and match a lot."

The group has grown steadily under her watch, and part of her success comes from introducing wineries to restaurants and restaurants to the public. "I often try to pick restaurants before they get really well known. We did the first wine dinner at Region," Michael Stebner's new venture. "I had done a previous dinner with Stebner, and I was knocking on the door before he even opened the restaurant. When we did the first wine dinner at Rama, I don't think a lot of people knew about it. And I think a number of people don't know about Costa Brava," site of the club's recent Spanish dinner.

"The owner, Javier Gonzalez, was our featured speaker. He is so passionate about Spain, and so knowledgeable. We chose dishes that encompassed a number of regions. There were seven wines, with two different Ribero del Dueros to compare and contrast. At the reception, we served a sherry for people who are less familiar with sherry. If they didn't want to try it, they could choose an Albarino. There was music, and Javier talked about the whole culture of Spanish dining — marvelous stories sparked off by the food and the wine."

More established restaurants — Tapenade, George's at the Cove, the Pamplemousse Grill — welcome her for the customer base she brings. "There are always people who say things like, 'You're doing Grgich Hills? I'll go anywhere for Grgich Hills.' "

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