I spent this past weekend at my family's vineyard in Napa Valley. I've been coming here since I was born. I learned to swim in the pool here, to listen for rattlesnakes near the big rocks by the winery, to cook with my Grandma, and eventually to pay attention to the flavors that followed the grapes from our land to the bottle. It's such a special place, and one that has only occurred to me in recent years to be so much more than just my grandparent's home.
Seavey Vineyard is a family-owned vineyard and estate winery nestled in the hills of Conn Valley that hand-crafts small lots of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Napa's mountain region is home to some of the most under the radar and exciting winemaking right now. Relatively untouched by tour buses and bachelorette parties and Instagram hashtags, the wineries here tend to be more rustic and unassuming than their more popular peers down on the valley floor. Seavey is exactly that - rustic and unassuming - and so much so that you might drive right by it if you miss the rusted, red mailbox at the head of the driveway that announces your arrival.
My grandparents bought the property from my Mom's high school geometry teacher in the late seventies. In pursuit of a shared dream, they set about reviving the century-old vineyards and renovating the old stone dairy barn into a winery and tasting room. The first vintage was released in 1990 and Seavey has since been producing age-worthy, Bordeaux-style wines using old world winemaking techniques and gentle extraction methods, such as whole berry fermentation, to help reveal the complexity of flavors, colors and textures in each grape. Every extra effort exists, in the words of the winemaker, to help the land express itself through the wine.
Traditionally a red wine so robust as a Cabernet Sauvignon will be paired exclusively with red meat. It's been suggested that a grilled marbled ribeye and a deeply tannic Cab are the perfect pairing. Bold for bold, red for red, like for like being one of the most straightforward rules of wine pairing. When I was asked to develop a recipe pairing for Seavey, which is known for its big, bold Cabs, and specifically for a vintage described as 'fierce', 'masculine' and displaying 'muscular intensity', I knew this wasn't going to be all layer cakes and lattice pies for me.
I'm a very rare meat-eater. Not only this, but I literally never cook meat and don't claim more than the most elementary understanding when it comes to technique. I do, however, love wine and love drinking wine with plant-based foods. When I started my research for this recipe, I was surprised that many experts warn against pairing Cabs with anything but meat. 'Save the entrée salad for another night', they say. This seemed anciently outdated and unnecessarily limiting to me, and unsurprisingly, since my family eats and grows a lot of plants, Seavey agreed.
Modern California cuisine, after all, is all about openness and flexibility, including greater flexibility when it comes to wine pairing. The idea that a wine is so drinkable that it can be paired with either a salad or Mexican food very much reflects the thinking of the 1970s vegetable-driven movement in California towards seasonal, local and fresh ingredients. I wanted the style of this recipe to reflect the region and have a shared sense of place with the wine, so I decided to consult our family friend and alum of Chez Panisse, who served as executive chef at the Berkeley restaurant at the time of its great influence on California cuisine.
Jean-Pierre Moullé was the perfect person to ask for advice. As a chef, it's customary to start a menu with the food and then select the wine accordingly. But, after years as an accomplished chef, when Jean-Pierre met his future wife Denise Lurton, who is part of the Lurton winemaking family in Bordeaux, her father insisted that all meals begin with the wine selection, and the dishes that follow serve only to encourage the character of the wine. And so, as Denise and Jean-Pierre describe in their beautiful, dreamlike book on French-inspired cooking and good living, Jean-Pierre became an expert in reverse pairing.
Jean-Pierre suggested a farro salad with roasted vegetables and fresh greens to pair with Seavey's full-bodied 2013 Caravina Cabernet. Farro, with a nutty heartiness and a satisfying chew, seemed like a logical starting place for a dish that was trying to be a match for the 'muscular' wine with mouth-coating tannins that it's paired up against. We toast the grain in the oven to bring out an extra layer of nuttiness before boiling it until al dente. Then, wild mushrooms - shiitake and maitake - chosen for their rich umami content, are browned in butter over high heat, tossed with shallots and garlic, and deglazed with a splash of white wine. The dimensions of flavor added to the mushrooms - including a spoonful of maple syrup and a pinch of cayenne - reflect the nuanced complexity of the wine, which brings hints of plum, spice and sweet floral notes. Fresh herbs, lemon juice and grated parmesan added while the ingredients are still warm help bind the dish together and add layers of acidity and freshness. Both the dish and the wine light up the tastebuds at the back of the mouth and have a soft finish.
Seavey Vineyard and Francie Pie hope you enjoy!
WARM FARRO WITH WILD MUSHROOMS AND MELTED SHALLOTS
1 cup uncooked farro
salt for cooking water
3 shallots, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 pound wild mushrooms, cleaned and cut into bitesize pieces*
4 tablespoons butter
salt & black pepper
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, chopped
juice of half a lemon
¼ cup freshly grated parmesan
*I used equal parts shiitake and maitake. You can use whatever wild mushrooms you come across - chanterelle, oyster, porcini, crimini, etc. Avoid cultivated white button mushrooms. Whatever you find, cut them into pieces if they are too large for a bite, but not too small, as mushrooms have high water content and so shrivel up when cooked. As you'll see in the recipe, I like to cook the maitake separate from the other mushrooms. This is because they have thin, tender petals, and crisp up beautifully if given enough space in the pan. I also like to add sweetness and heat to them because it brings out their rich umami flavor. If you can't find maitake for this recipe, feel free to cook all your mushrooms together.
Heat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Rinse your farro under cold water and drain. Spread farro on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 10 minutes until fragrant and golden brown.
I like to cook my farro like I cook pasta. In my experience this protects it from overcooking and becoming sticky. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a rolling boil. Remove farro from oven and add to boiling water. Turn heat down to medium and boil farro until al dente - tender, but not mushy. Drain the farro and spread it on a baking sheet to dry and cool. You may also soak your farro overnight in the refrigerator and follow the same instructions, reducing cooking time to about 10 minutes.
Heat two frying pans with a tablespoon each of olive oil and butter over high heat. Add the maitake to one pan and the shiitake to another. Allow the mushrooms to cook in the pan untouched for 5 minutes or so. If they begin to burn, turn the heat down slightly. As soon as the mushrooms release their liquids add another tablespoon of butter to each pan, followed by half of the shallots and garlic to each. Stir until incorporated and then let the mushrooms continue to cook, stirring only occasionally so that they can brown and crisp. Your mushrooms should be slightly shriveled and browned with bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add a generous splash of white wine to each pan and allow the liquid to cook off, scraping the bottom of the pan with your spoon as you go. Add maple syrup and cayenne to the maitake. Stir. Remove from heat. Add salt and pepper to taste to both pans of mushrooms.
Combine warm mushrooms and farro in a serving bowl. Add chopped herbs, lemon juice and parmesan. Stir to incorporate. Add freshly cracked pepper to taste. Serve while warm with 2013 Seavey Caravina.*
*Seavey suggests decanting the wine at least one hour before serving to let it open up.