Toasting The Harbor

Harbor Restaurant was once again one of the nearly 3,000 United States restaurants to win the Wine Spectator Restaurant Award of Excellence. It was chosen among 900,000 restaurants based upon wine lists with a well-chosen selection of quality producers, along with a menu that matches the wine in both price and style. Typically, these lists offer at least 100 selections. I visited the restaurant recently to toast Kevin Hebert, the restaurant’s general manager, and to sample some new selections.

In the wine cellar private dining room, which looks more like a ship captain’s quarters with an aquarium and views out to the Pacific, the Harbor boasts a vertical collection of Robert Mondavi Cabernets, from 1992 to 2001. Other temperature-controlled wine cabinets include vertical selections of Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon, from 1998 to 2000, and Opus One Cabernet Sauvignon, from 1992 to 2002.

“We feature local wines, but understand the importance of offering European wines as well as award winners from the Napa and Sonoma area,” Hebert says.

While we were sitting back with glasses of Babcock Pinot Noir, restaurant John Scott was in Maine meeting with lobster wholesalers. Scott now imports about 600 pounds of Alaskan king crab weekly and is surely one of the county’s leading restaurateurs in the sale of fresh seafood. He also owns Harry’s Plaza Café, Longboard’s, Tee Off, El Paseo, Scotch and Sirloin in Ventura (also a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner) and the Kona Ranch House Restaurant in Goleta.

Drinking the Stars

Not to burst any bubbles, but champagne is the undisputedly best accompaniment to any Valentine’s Day evening. Henceforth is a brief history of the celebratory drink that some believe was first created by accident.

The Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon is frequently credited with the invention of champagne and his name is honored on the famous Dom Pérignon Champagne. The quote attributed to him – “come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” – is supposedly what he said when tasting the first sparkling wine. However, the first appearance of that quote appears was in print advertisement in the late 1800s apparently created by the then producers of Dom Pérignon Champagne. While the Dom did successfully improve the quality and renown of the still wines of the Champagne region, he was not the first to make champagne.

Champagne is made in a variety of styles and may be blends of the Champagne region’s three major grape varieties – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Blanc de Blancs are made solely from Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs entirely from the red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes.

Grapes for sparkling wines (if the grapes aren’t grown in Champagne, it can’t be called champagne) are picked earlier so they have between 4% and 5% residual sugars when fermentation is stopped. The still wine or base wine for the sparkling wine usually has its first fermentation in steel tanks. Then wine goes into bottle for secondary fermentation. These bottles cannot be corked yet because the gases released by this secondary fermentation would explode the bottle. Instead, a crown seal closure, like a beer bottle, is used. The yeast converts the sugar to another 1% to 1.5 % alcohol and carbon dioxide. The pressure in the bottle is six atmospheres pressure (three times the level of a car tire), which requires thick glass for the bottle.

The next step is the dry disgorge to remove the yeast from the bottle. The riddling process is where the bottles are turned from their horizontal fermentation state where the yeast has concentrated along the lower side. During riddling the bottle is gently rocked as it is turned upside down so the yeast is shaken loose and slides into the neck.

The bottles are then placed upside wine in iced brine so the yeast plug freezes. They pop the top and about 1% of the wine blows out with it. At this dosage stage the winemaker tastes the dry disgorged wine, first to decide how much sugar it needs, then to see what part of the mouth is needed, and contemplate what the wine requires. If it needs back palate, more Pinot may be added; more front palate needed, add Chardonnay. If the sparkling wine is to be slightly sweet, sugar is dissolved into the wine being added. Sometimes brandy is used for that flavor. Other times a red base wine is added at dosage for color manipulation.

Note the NV after the name of some champagne? Here is a little primer on Vintage and Non Vintage champagnes. The latter are blends designed to be consistent with a house style. To achieve this consistency, the percentages of the base wines used in the blends vary from year to year. The best producers age their wines longer than the legally required minimum of 15 months, so the base wines of most NV cuvees currently released consist predominantly of the 2003 vintage or earlier.

As to what to eat along with your Champagne – simple caviar for the first glass, chocolate for the last.