Eating the Road: Aureole Las Vegas’ Wine Weekend
You should make plans to attend Aureole Las Vegas’ summer wine weekend this August. Here’s why.
As I wine writer, I have the good fortune of getting to attend many tasting events. Looking over the various ones I attended last year, it struck me that theytypically come in two forms. They are very serious education seminars geared towards professionals (many of whom attend, I suspect, to be able to say they attended). Or they are winery-sponsored dinners or buffet-style “galas” at which one can try a lot of wines, but gain knowledge or expand your palate only with great effort (typically wine reps wither at the least detailed question).
But one event I attended in August, Aureole Las Vegas’ second annual Wine Weekend, was neither of these, and it’s stayed with me as a banner event that ought to serve as example to others. The seven-event weekend isn’t intentionally kept small, but it’s certainly far from over-marketed. Which may be a good part of its charm.
I felt there was nothing quite like it anywhere else in the country, at least as far as I’d seen or heard.
What makes Aureole’s Las Vegas event unique? To begin with, I was the only serious journalist/blogger present. The seven-event weekend isn’t intentionally kept small, but it’s certainly far from over-marketed. Which may be a good part of its charm.
But there’s more to it than that. First organized in 2009 by Aureole’s Master Sommelier William Sherer, along with Executive Chef Vincent Pouessel, Executive Pastry Chef Megan Romano and General Manager Kevin Dimond, the event seems motivated by neither personal or corporate promotion (Corp. Chef/Owner Charlie Palmer has no involvement), but as its own reward.
That makes some sense only if you’re aware that Sherer, a veteran of top dining rooms on both coasts, regularly hosts tastings for Somms from throughout Vegas, mentors wine stewards studying for Court exams, and participates in the ongoing strictly social chef-judged cook-off dinners Somms In the Kitchen. This is someone who clearly lives what he loves.
At the same time that Aureole was joining other Vegas restaurants in more aggressive and approachable marketing—prix fixe dinners, and an ad hoc cheese and wine lounge outside their entrance (still offering interesting glasses at reasonable prices) Sherer, Poussel, Romano and Dixon spared no expense or trouble to put on a remarkable event.
The bacchanal began on lucky Friday 13th at 2 p.m. with Pouessel demonstrating five varied styles of crudo, ceviche and sashimi from different world cuisines, to which we were invited to pair six SB variants. Assembled at dining tables in the Swan Court was a select crowd of no more than 20 couples, many recognizable from last year.
“When you’re pairing,” said Sherer, “think of a duality, the combination affects both food and wine. The perfect combination is a symbiosis.”
Sherer introduced Doug Margerum of Los Olivos’ tiny Margerum Wine Company, whose attendance seemed to be more motivated by the desire to give insight into the winemaker’s process than promote his products specifically.
“Sauvignon Blanc is very reflective of where it’s grown and the time it’s grown,” Margerum explained. “Cooler temperatures get grassy, greener flavors. Napa valley produces melony, honeydew, canteloupe notes. Richer the soil, richer the flavor.”
Presented were: A simple trio of hamachi (yellowtail), ahi and toro sashimis, with a fresh ginger ponzu sauce (which I thought went well with the pear notes in the Grassini ’07, for which Margerum is winemaker); a lovely tartar of lobster and gironde caviar with crepes de Vonnas (for which the Cade Napa Valley SB ’07 showed best); two ceviches, one Mexican Campechana style with avocado, Serrano chile and cilantro (surprisingly matched with a woody ’06 Collio Primosic Sauv), the other Peruvian with choclo, camote and aji Amarillo (pairing well to the aromatic acids of an ’08 Alphonse Mellot Pouilly-Fume); and lastly, Niçoise anchovy spoons, which did best with Margerum’s own SB.
The second half of this first afternoon gave us all the chance to take four component wines from Grassini and attempt blending our own SB to pair to one of the foods—a process which, while simple on the surface, truly revealed the art, science and fortune involved in winemaking. Even with Margerum himself at my table, we did not produce the winner (though if we’d known two magnums were the prize, we might have tried harder!)
Not bad for a “kickoff” event.
Three hours later, we reconvened for the first of two formal dinners, this one dedicated to exploring the four “corners” of Tuscany wines: Bolgheri, Rufina, Chianti and Montalcino. Six elegantly atypical courses were paired with 2-3 wines each as follows:
•A fennel-crusted tuna loin and squash blossom stuffed with anchovies joined SB style Tuscan whites Vernaccia di San Gimignano (Teruzzi & Puthod ’08) and Pomino Bianco (Tenuta di Pomino).
•A lemon thyme-roasted freshwater eel filet with rosemary tagliatelle, olives and pine syrup, matched with the tannic Tenuta di Pomino, Pomino Rosso (’06), and two green Chianti Rufina Riservas–a Nipozzano ‘05 from Montesodi and a Selvapiana ’06 from Bucherchiale.
•A galantine of wild boar and a frisee salad punctuated with slivers of summer truffle met three brave, earthy and bold Bolgheris: an ’06 Ornellaia, ’06 Sassicaia and ‘07 Le Serre Nuove. We hung on to these glasses through the next two courses!
•A rabbit “saddle” Florentine style, with creamed faro—the most impressive of the savory courses–joined by two vintage ripe juicy cherry Chianti Classico Riservas (Vigna del Sorbo ’87 and Montevertine ’90) and zesty Sangiovese Felsina Fontallarro ‘03
•A braised veal shank with cannelloni and porcini paired with three blackberryesque Brunello di Montalcinos—two very “California” in style, Luce –04 and Madonna del Piano Valdicava Riserva ’01, and a more typical Canalicchio Riserva ’99.
After all of this, we were brought an artful Panforte Senese, with lemon verbena stone fruits and pistachio ice cream, paired with late harvest Pomino Vendimia Tardiva ’07, which tasted of butter nut, and a fascinating vintage Vin Santo, Montellori Dell’Empolese ’95, with essences of raisins, crushed rose petals and pistachio. Memorable to say the least.
On Saturday morning, what began as an impromptu addition last year was now a formal part of the experience: All the participants were welcomed into Aureole’s kitchen for an “informal” champagne breakfast (everyone ate leaning against the steel counters) featuring copious glasses of creamy brut Rene Geoffroy cuvee. But of course “informal” in the parlance of Aureole means a pile of their velvety house-cured salmon (which may be my favorite anywhere), pates and Chef Pouessel making Brittany-style egg crepes, Chef Romano making more traditional omelettes with fresh truffles, and offering a full array of breakfast pastries—a lavish repast and fascinating look inside a fine dining kitchen.
As the meal wound down, I found myself sharing some recent ice cream experiences I’d had with Megan Romano…particularly Vegas’ nitrogen-bespoke boutique Atomic 7, and the LA gourmet ice cream truck Coolhaus, which was creating semi-savory treats with ingredients like black truffle.
Three hours later, the second afternoon session convened back in Swan Court with Chef Pouessel in front of an almost Rembrandt-like array of game birds, and a surgical array of filleting knives, demonstrating how to prepare them, before bringing us all out into the blazing summer Vegas heat of Swan Court’s patio to demonstrate barbecuing technique (where the actual live swans were doing their best to avoid a similar fate in the reflecting pond). One of the more interesting tips involved using a smoke box to infuse the scents of various herbs.
Afterward, we all sampled tastes of the grilled pheasant, wild turkey, squab and sausage, pairing them with range of spicy red blends: three from California–Doug Margerum’s pleasing M5 ‘07, Bonny Doon’s Le Cigare Volant ’04, Sherer’s own Iberian Remix Tempranillo—as well as Edgebaston Pepper Pot ’08 from South Africa and the most impressive (to me), Laurel Priorat from Spain, a mix of Grenache, Carignan and Tempranillo with licorice and mineral.
Then it was blending time again—this time even more challenging, with not only Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Tempranillo to combine, but also the lesser known blending grape wines Counoise, Cinsalt and Carignan. Imagine the number of concentrations and combinations you could make to hit the notes of earth, fruit, spice, pepper and herbs sought after in a big red. Truly, winemaking is part intellect, part gift.
It was almost a relief that we had four hours to breathe, nap, and/or exercise before the second big dinner that evening, this one themed around wines of the Southern Rhone. Here’s what Chef Pouessel and Mr. Sherer gave us this night:
•A delicate pike and king crab terrine with apricot sabayon, paired to two lesser-known white Chateauneuf du Pape Blancs, Vieux Telegraphe ’07 and Chateau Beaucastel ’04, one of the oakiest whites I’ve ever had.
•A mild, nicely balanced salad of braised octopus with pearl potato, eggplant and tomato marmelade paired to three interesting smaller appellations: Ferrand-Brunel Rasteau ’07, Guigal Gigondas ’04 and Sang des Cailloux Vacqueyras ’05. The Gigondas was the most enjoyable of these for me, though honestly all were somewhat overpowered not only by the dish, but also by the previous round of oaky whites.
•Guinea hen and lobster tail in a crème sauce with some tasty duck “prosciutto” and summer squash proved a challenging blend of flavors to match with three new style high alcohol Chateauneuf du Papes, each with varying levels of jammy fruit, vanilla, oak and soft tannins: Domaine La Barroche’s Cuvee Pure ’04, Pierre Usseglio’s Cuvee Mon Aieul ’05 and Roger Sabon’s Cuvee Prestige ’05.
•For contrast, a pleasant roasted squab breast “a la Réglisse” (a.k.a. licorice) with three classic style CdP’s Le Vieux Donjon ’05, Monpertuis Cuvee Sec Gabriel ’07 and Vieux Telegraphe ’07. I have to confess, this is the point in the evening when conversation, intoxication and palate overload conspire to make things blend together. The tasting notes emphasize earth, mulberry, pepper and a bit of violets. Sure, if you say so ;-)
•As if to wake me up, the meal’s fifth course conspired with an explosion of flavors: Venison two ways—a crispy potato-crusted loin with huckleberries and a slow-braised civet with black truffle—accompanied by three huge, rich, chewy ripe berry prestige vintages: Domaine Goubert’s Cuvee Florence Gigondas ’95, Chateau Beaucastel’s “Hommage a Jacques Perrin” CdP ’99 and Bonney’s Cuvee Celestines CdP 2000. All three were the kind of rare pleasures that really make Aureole’s experience so singular. You’d never see this kind of pouring at a typical wine event. Not a chance (Dimond later pointed out in passing that all of the wines served at this meal were priced above $500/bottle on their list).
•Finally, accompanying Chef Romano’s dessert of Nougat Beaumes de Venise Sorbet with a lavender sable we enjoyed some vintage sweetness: Chateau Tirecul La Graviere Monbazillac, Cuvee Madame ’96, and a thrilling last minute substitution, grenache-based La Coume du Roy Maury 1965. Then Megan brought us a selection of her chocolates as well.
And then, the chef brought something even more to my table: a special scoop of ice cream she wanted me to try. Although it was the farthest thing from my intent, apparently our conversation that morning had inspired Romano to try her hand at something more adventuresome: a white truffled-honey and white chocolate gianduia ice cream. It was not only subtlely complex and sweet, but with the honey and hazelnutty gianduia, had possibly the richest mouth-feel of any ice cream I’ve ever had. We felt guilty the whole party couldn’t experience it (but not for long).
In year one, Sunday morning just seemed like a whimsical denoument. Not so this year. The group reconvened bright and early (relatively speaking) at 9 a.m. for “Wine Church with Willi; Readings from the Gospel of Bordeaux.” This event was arguably the most serious of the weekend, though also the most irreverent; that title (as Dimond later emphasized to me) referred not only to the early Sunday timing, but also to Sherer’s own opinion that “worship” of Bordeaux wines is far too overzealous.
Regardless, accompanied by some bracingly fresh kushi oysters (brightened with Pouessel’s smoked Brittany sea salt) were three Pessac-Leognan (central Bordeaux) whites: Chauteau Haute de Smith ‘06, Esprit de Chevalier ’01, and Domaine de Chevalier ’96, with varying degrees of oak and salinity. Sherer discussed the influence of winemaker guru Michel Rolland, as well as Bordeaux terminology, georgraphy, grapeskins, and as we phased into the reds, history (did you know the most prestigious chateaus have remained unchanged since 1855?), and growing techniques (did you know the mold-fighting “Bordeaux mixture” of sulphur and lye has been used for 300 years?). Blending mostly Cabernet, Merlot and Cab Franc, Bordeaux reds are known for varying degrees of earthy manure on the nose, and remain some of the fussiest wines from year to year (with as many as three bad vintages a decade).
With some savory croque monsieur bites and chanterelle mushrooms to pair, we enjoyed three solid examples, all from Medoc: Chateau La Croix ’05, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild ’03 (with interesting notes of pencil shaving and cedar), and climactically, Leoville Las Cases ’86 (with strong black truffle and mushroom notes).
Done? Nope. If that wine-heavy, food-light Sunday morning provided an about-face from the prior day’s breakfast, we still had one last blast of decadence to come 90 minutes later, a redux of last year’s chocolate making demonstration by Romano, followed by no less than seven sparkling wines paired to a variety of Romano’s sweets:
•A white chocolate, peach, and amaretti parfait with Bellenda Prosecco ‘09 from San Fermo, Italy.
•Honey-marinated strawberries, white chocolate bark and a drizzle of balsamic reduction with Giacomo Bologna Brachetto d’Acqui ’09–that sweet sparking red that I love–from Piemonte, Italy.
•A nicely balanced dark chocolate mousse and candied Meyer lemon with Dante Rivetti Moscato d’Asti ’09 (also Piemonte)
•A delicious milk chocolate and salted caramel tart with the thick, robust Schramsberg Cremant Demi-sec ’08 (Napa)
•Pomegranate, ginger and dark chocolate with Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Rose (N.V.) with a pleasant hibiscus nose
•Concord grapes with extra-dark chocolate nicely paired with the hearty Handley Brut Rose ’03 (Anderson Valley)
•Lastly, perhaps the least successful dessert but the most impressive bubbles: a toasted brioche “croque” of chocolate ganache and tart lemon essence with Billiot Cuvee Laetitia Brut (which Sherer noted is aged 10 years on the lees).
And then, Romano brought out some of that wonderful truffle-honey-gianduia ice cream for everyone.
After all that, even parting gifts were included: from Romano, her new cookbook (personally inscribed) to each attendee, as well as dusted almonds, pralines and white chocolate “bark.” All of which—other than the book—is tragically still not available at retail.
What more can be said? Hopefully the length of this report indicates how extensive this impressive weekend is. While the price of $1600 per couple (including accommodations) might seem daunting on the surface, all told, for an experience that will undoubtedly influence your wine knowledge (and threaten your belt buckle) with nearly 60 wines poured, it seems like a bargain.
You can attend the annual event, too. To receive advance notice of this year’s Wine Weekend and priority reservations, email Kevin Dimond at Kdimond@charliepalmer.com.