WALLA WALLA — For decades, serious wine lovers and collectors have flocked to Walla Walla during the first weekend in May for “Leonetti Weekend,” the only time of the year iconic Leonetti Cellar opens its gates to invited buyers.
Officially, however, the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance refers to it as Spring Release Weekend. This year, it runs May 3-5, a timeframe that’s also a harbinger of deliciously famous crops such as the Walla Walla sweet onion, asparagus and artichokes.
When it comes to pairing them with Northwest wines, however, sometimes the results can be awkward.
“I had a fear about asparagus,” said sommelier Shawn Smith, who doubles as the tasting room manager and restaurant manager at Waterbrook Winery in Walla Walla. “In the past, I would have said, ‘Get me a fine sherry or I’m dead.’ ”
Last year, Precept Wine, Waterbrook’s owner, hired Sierra Grden, 40, as its corporate chef and, now that wine touring season is in full swing, Waterbrook is open for dinner Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
A decade ago, Grden, whose name is of Polish-Hungarian origin and pronounced “Grr-DANE,” left a career in Manhattan as an industrial designer of kitchen products for Lifetime Brands to return home to the Walla Walla Valley. This spring, she collaborated with Smith to create a series of dishes featuring spring vegetables that pair with a selection of Waterbrook, Browne Family Vineyards and Canoe Ridge Vineyard wines — three of the most important brands in the Precept portfolio.
While these dishes are not regularly featured on the seasonal menu, they are reflective of the imagination, execution and talent Grden is bringing to the culinary program at Waterbrook and Precept.
All of the mentioned wines are available online.
Walla Walla Sweet Onions from Locati Farms in Walla Walla
Entree: Opposite soup with Icon by Waterbrook 2016 Dolcetto. Grden used Waterbrook Mèlange Founder’s Red Blend in the red onion prep and Waterbrook Mèlange White for the white onion prep. Other ingredients include cream sherry, pearl onion flowers, strawberry, begonia leftest, begonia flowers and thyme.
Dessert: Onion and Waterbrook wine ice cream with Waterbrook 2017 Mèlange Founder’s White Blend. Sweet red onions are boiled to extract sugar from the bulb, and this is presented in a red and white chocolate onion cup, along with fermented honey sauce and orange blossom candy.
The key with any wine pairing with dessert is that the wine must be sweeter than what’s on the spoon or fork. In this case, the Waterbrook 2017 Mèlange White ($12), which leads with sauvignon blanc and muscat, comes in between off-dry and semi-sweet, and Smith hit the mark. The Onion and Waterbrook Wine Ice Cream is delicate, complex, slightly savory and only lightly sweet.
Asparagus from Larsen Farms in Pasco
Entree: Asparagus and salmon. Larsen Farms asparagus shares the stage with spring Chinook salmon from the Columbia River and white King salmon from the Pacific Ocean.
Grden built the umami-filled dish around white asparagus, blonde and forest morels, slightly spicy green garbanzo beans, fiddle ferns, English peas and fava beans. She accented it with asparagus flower and her asparagus and rhubarb sauce.
Dessert: Creme brulee. Grden’s imaginative and beautiful custard came with violet sorbet, Parmesan jasmine cookie, toasted pistachios, fennel frond and even a thimble-sized shot of absinthe. For the wine pairing, Smith mixed in a curveball that produced a hit with the Browne Family Vineyards 2016 Malbec ($35), playing well with each phase of this dessert.
Artichokes from Hayshaker Farms in Walla Walla
Entree: Lamb chops. Certified organic Upper Dry Creek Ranch in Weston, Oregon, south of the Walla Walla Valley in the foothills of the Blue Mountains provides the protein and the platform for petite artichoke, artichoke heart, artichoke bottom and black garlic artichoke sauce. It’s a remarkably earthy, fascinating and detailed dish that includes foraged black trumpet mushrooms, black caviar lentils, maple buds and black moss. That crispy moss tastes like a kettle chip. The Waterbrook 2016 Reserve Merlot ($23) indeed is a classic pairing for lamb, and an easy option for Smith.
Dessert: Artichoke almond cake. Peach and orange blossom whip cream top this slightly savory cake that comes with artichoke dust, amaretto green almonds and a shot of Cynar. Grden dives deep into the world of mixology with Cynar, pronounced CHEE-nar, a natural digestif that Italians developed using artichoke leaves. Cynara is the Latin name for the sunflower family, which artichokes are members of.
Rather than relying on a late-harvest semillon, the Browne Family Vineyards 2017 Riesling ($18) nicely rounds off this far-from-cloying dessert. The key for any dessert wine is that it be sweeter than the dessert itself. At 2.6 percent residual sugar with ample acidity, the interplay from riesling to artichoke almond cake and back is enjoyable.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.great northwestwine.com.