Blackbird Dinner: “excellence in California merlot”

Well folks, another smashed-out-of-the-park dinner took place at New York Vintners last week. Three scrumptious courses. Seven delectable Napa Valley wines. A girl could really get used to this.

The evening kicked off with New York Vintners salesperson and sommelier Daniel Orrison giving a thoughtful and glowing introduction to Blackbird Vineyards owner Michael Polenske. Describing Blackbird as really exemplifying “excellence in California merlot,” Daniel described how he met Michael at his tasting room, Ma(i)sonry, in Yountville, California and convinced him to come out to New York and do a winemaker dinner with all of us. Pretty much the rest is history.

Michael, a self-professed “recovering banker,” spent the beginning of his career in financial planning before he purchased Blackbird in 2003. Building the three brands within Blackbird – Blackbird Vineyards, Ma(i)sonry and an art gallery – has now become Michael’s full-time job, and not a bad one at that. Michael went on to explain some details about the welcome wine all of the forty plus (yes, it was a large crowd for this dinner!) guests had upon arrival. The Ma(i)sonry 2009 Sauvignon Blanc is lively and fragrant and it was made in a sancerre style, meaning there was no oak used, which gives the wine unique characteristics and good minerality. Since everything done under the Ma(i)sonry label is created in small lots, meaning about 300 cases, this stuff goes fast. This particular vintage is already down to only about 50 cases left.

The two next wines Michael described were to be paired with our first course, Smoked Trout with arugula, fennel, shaved red onion and horseradish vinaigrette, all whipped up by the fabulous Chef Ryan. The first wine was the Ma(i)sonry 2008 Marsanne, again produced on a small scale with only 288 cases. Michael pretty much said that Marsannes typically don’t appeal to the American palate, but I tried it with an open mind anyway. Turns out, I actually liked the unique flavor profile of cantaloupe, butterscotch and caramel (full disclosure: I took those from the night’s cheat sheet). Hearing some interesting hmmmms emanating from the tables around me, I could tell that perhaps I was in the minority, but wine should be about what you like right? The other wine paired with the first course was the 2010 Blackbird Vineyard Arriviste Rose. A blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, this wine was produced on a larger lot (923 cases) after selling out quickly in the year prior, and, most memorably, had a striking coral or salmon coloring. I thought the Rose paired nicely with the fish in the salad and was a good link to the next flight in front of us.

As plates full of decadent meat (literally, full of meat) were served to all of us, Michael introduced the two reds to be paired with it. First the 2008 Blackbird Vineyards Arise and then the 2007 Blackbird Vineyards Paramour. The Arise had a fun little story behind it. As a tribute to The Beatles, the label shows nine birds perhaps on a wire. However, if those birds were music notes, they would represent the first nine notes of the song Blackbird. Also, the word “arise” was taken from the lyrics of the same song. At a lower price point than Blackbird Vineyards’ other wines, the Arise is considered to be more of an “entry level wine” – a bit easier with less tannic structure. As the blend changes year after year, it’s easier, and I can imagine less stressful, to make. The 2008 was 42% merlot, 38% cabernet sauvignon and 20% cabernet franc, leftover fruit from the blending of Blackbird’s collector’s series wines. I thought this was a pretty easy drinking wine that stood up nicely to our second course, a Cinnamon Braised Kurobata Pork Shank with BBQ cannellini beans and slab bacon. Can I just say that the meat practically melted off the bone and the outrageous BBQ flavor of the beans was heavenly? The Paramour also has a nice story behind the name. As it means “two lovers,” the wine is aimed to be a fifty/fifty mix of merlot and cabernet franc, the two grapes found on the right bank of Bordeaux. While it’s difficult to always achieve a perfect blend, the 2007 also included 5% cabernet sauvignon. This wine went perhaps even better with the pork shank as it has even more body and spice than the Arise.

While the cheese course was being prepared, Michael took a few minutes to answer questions and tell us about a fateful advertising campaign he was fortunate to be a part of last year. While not everyone knows of the wine critic Robert Parker at Wine Spectator magazine, pretty much the entire world knows of Oprah Winfrey. A big fan of Michael’s wine and branding strategies, Oprah featured Blackbird in the January 2011 issue of O Magazine and as a result of that, Blackbird received more than 1,000 orders in the two weeks before Christmas. “Between the 10th and the 25th, the entire team almost quit because we were so overrun with orders,” Michael said. As a result of that publication, InStyle Magazine will also feature Blackbird Vineyards in its March 2011 issue. What all these magazines love most about Blackbird is what they’ve called their Flock Box. Basically, it’s a cute little box filled with six 50 mL bottles of the entire portfolio of Blackbird Vineyards and Ma(i)sonry wines. At only $48, it’s a great way to sit down and taste through each of the wines produced from the vineyard at once. (However, I’d say going to this dinner was an even better way!).

The cheese was served and Michael went on to explain the last two wines; the 2006 Blackbird Vineyards Illustration and the 2007 Blackbird Vineyards Illustration. The name Illustration came after about 30 other proposed names. “As any of you know who’ve tried to name businesses, most of the great names are gone,” Michael said. “We chose Illustration because this wine and our portfolio best illustrates what we are at Blackbird Vineyard because, it will always have the most amount of Blackbird fruit in it.” He went on to tell us that some consider 2007 to be the vintage of the decade in Napa Valley and hence the 2007 Illustration contains brighter, bolder and more lush fruit flavors. I was a big fan of the 2006 Illustration, perhaps because the extra age on it gave it a bit more depth, but the 2007 was amazing as well. Michael explained that both wines would hold up very well to aging, but the 2007 will always have bigger fruit because of the vintage.

One thing I loved about Michael and his winery is that he was very personable and eager to share the story behind his wines. It’s one thing to drink a wine and say that it tastes good, but it’s another thing to be able to appreciate the narrative behind the farming, the naming and the producing of the wines. Another thing I loved is that he invited all of us for a special visit to the Ma(i)sonry tasting room. Now I just have to book that plane fare…

-Yael Maxwell
New York Vintners Correspondent

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Filed under American Wine, Tastings

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