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World of Pinot Noir: Pairings with Mushrooms and Uni

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While the annual World of Pinot Noir event might be best known for its two days of grand tastings featuring wines from over 200 producers, it also takes its job exploring the world, not just the taste, of pinot quite seriously. For instance this year's version of the annual event, to be held March 6th and 7th at the Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara, has scheduled a Foodie Frenzy Seminar Pairing, exploring a classic pinot noir match with mushrooms, along with a push of the spiky envelope -- uni.

To help discuss what foods match the wine, each seminar will feature a special guest. For the mushrooms it's Santa Barbara City College Professor of Biological Sciences Bob Cummings, a noted funghi hunter; for the uni it's Stephanie Mutz, owner and operator of Sea Stephanie Fish (and yes, she actually harvests sea urchins by diving and picking them one by one).

Mutz, who admits she generally prefers muscadet with sea urchin, says she thought World of Pinot Noir organizer "Damon [Miele] had the wrong number at first. I had to remind him that I was a sea urchin diver, not a black cod fisherman!" Once Miele convinced her to try the uni-pinot panel, she says, "I had the opportunity to taste a plethora of pinots with Gray Hartley and Frank Ostini with Hitching Post. Uni and pinot noir are not a sure thing, but it is obvious when there is a match. So far I have learned that floral-on-the-nose pinots seem to complement the uni. I think we may be on to something and I can't wait to discover more."

Gray Hartley, who will also be on the panel, takes a taste-and-see approach. "I like to try something different every time I have uni. I'm still looking for my favorite," he says about his urchin wine pairings. Then again, when asked what's his favorite food paired with pinot, the acclaimed pinot maker replies, "Where shall I start ... I'm still looking!"

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The matches seem easier on the mushroom side since many bottles of the varietal are often described as having a mushroom flavor. Expert Cummings, who has even made some of his own pinot, likes to match very specific dishes with different mushrooms. While he might prefer chanterelles, shallots, and cream sauce on pasta with un-oaked chardonnay, he says, "Chanterelles in vinaigrette on toast is savory enough to pair well with pinot noir." In his home pizza oven, he might prepare a "gorgonzola and caramelized onion pizza with truffle oil that pairs well with either pinot grigio or pinot noir."

Andrew Brooks, the associate winemaker at Bouchaine in Napa who will also sit on the mushroom panel, says, "Sometimes the flavors echo one another, in an earthiness, a sweet richness, or a particular character of spice. Mushrooms have a complex, sometimes ephemeral or difficult to describe character, and so does pinot noir." Poetically he keeps the comparison between the two running, suggesting, "Neither pinot noir nor mushrooms elbows its dinner companions off the table with overpowering flavor or aroma, generally, so I'd say it's a situation where two agreeable dinner table companions get along well with one another."

Brooks is also new to mushroom foraging (and had a better season further north in California than we had in southern California). "I suppose the main thrill of mushroom hunting is bringing home delicious treats from the woods, but there are so many parts of the activity that I enjoy; the smells, the slow pace, the incredible focus and connection with specific places and pieces of earth, the connection to weather, and the temporality of the fruiting," he explains. "There are many parallels with winemaking, for sure."

And while Cummings sums things up for funghi, his words no doubt ring true for uni, too. "People will probably have questions about the types of mushrooms being used, how they are grown or foraged, their culinary history, even their wild toxic look-alike cousins. I'm going in with an open mind and palate, looking forward to meeting some interesting people and having some spirited discussions." Indeed, who knows what friendly pairings might be made at the panels.

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