By Vanessa Wong, winemaker
When I pour our wines at a tasting event I often like to start off by offering a sample of our Chardonnay before going through the line-up of our Pinot noir wines. Although we are most known for our estate grown Pinot noir, folks are generally happy to try our Chardonnay wines if they are not already familiar with either our Estate wine or our Sonoma Coast bottling. Occasionally, however, there are a few folks who decline by declaring, “No thanks, I don’t like Chardonnay (or, specifically, California Chardonnay”. To this I cast them a sidelong glance and say, “Are you sure? You should give this try. It’s different than most Chardonnay.)” I feel like I am trying to get Mikey to eat LIFE cereal but, alas, either I look too forlorn to refuse or they are not all too certain of their dislike of Chardonnay that they give it a whirl swirl. The ensuing reaction is always the same: widened eyes, a brimming smile, and, “I don’t like Chardonnay but I like THIS Chardonnay!”
It is true, our Chardonnay does create converts. Often those who find Chardonnay unappealing have sampled wines that are either too buttery and too heavy or, lately, too far on the other side of the spectrum, too lean and too boring. Our vineyard with its cool, coastal terroir produces a Chardonnay that is racy and zingy and, yet, has a core that is flavorful and a palate depth that is creamy but not ponderous. Happily, it makes them re-think Chardonnay. Yet, there are those who need no converting and sense right away the superb match of our refreshing Chardonnay with something that possesses the suave creaminess of a classic dish like the French soup: Billi Bi. Chef Doug Keane of Healdsburg’s Cyrus Restaurant paired this luxurious yet elegantly simple cream soup of mussels, white wine and fennel with our Estate Chardonnay for our first winemaker dinner we hosted there in 2008. It became a signature dish for Chef Keane and won him the title of Top Chef Master in the 2013 season of that show.
We have had the good fortune of dining and hosting wine dinners at Cyrus a dozen times during its seven year run before it sadly closed in 2012. Rumor has it that a “Cyrus 2.0” is in the works here in Sonoma County so we wait with great anticipation and wish them well for the next step in their culinary journey. With Valentine’s Day coming up, I think about how Chef Keane and his restauranteur/maître-d’ partner, Nick Peyton, are two individuals with big hearts, whether it is showcasing the food and wine of Sonoma county or raising money and awareness for the victims of the 2011 Japan tsunami, the Tour de Cure for diabetes research, or for local charities like The Green Dog Rescue Project. I have a wonderful Valentine’s Day memory of Nick Peyton letting me “borrow” a few mignardises from the restaurant to box up and give to my Nick (Peay) as a valentine when I discovered the shop where I was trying to go was closed. Clearly, they have a spot in their hearts for causes both big and small. Had I possessed this Billi Bi recipe, I could have made it for Valentine’s Day.
As a final aside, apparently, the judge of the Top Chef show was in such rapturous delight when tasting chef Kean’s Billi Bi, his appraisal of the dish is not fit to print in a family newsletter! Let’s just say it might serve well as an aphrodisiac. To that end, the Peay Chardonnay wouldn’t hurt either.
Mussel Jus Prep
3lbs Cleaned mussels
1½ cups White wine
1. In a large pot add white wine and bring to a boil. Add mussels and cover with a lid. Turn heat to low and allow mussels to cook in wine for 15-20 minutes. The goal of this step is to extract the maximum amount of mussel liquor from mussels.
2. Strain mussels through a large strainer over a bowl. Allow to sit in strainer until you are confident as much juice has been reserved as possible. This should yield approximately 2 ½-3 cups of mussel liquor. Pass this through a fine strainer with cheese cloth to remove any sand from mussels. Reserve this liquor.
Billi Bi Soup
2 Leeks, cleaned and sliced thinly
1 Fennel bulb, sliced thinly
2 sprigs Fresh thyme, chopped – stems included
5 sprigs Parsley, chopped – stems included
¼ cup White wine
2½-3 cups Mussel liquor
1½ cups Heavy cream
1. In a non-reactive pan, sweat leeks, fennel, thyme and parsley in butter. Add wine and reduce to where there is almost none left in the pan.
2. Add mussel liquor and reduce by half. Add heavy cream to mussel jus and boil, reduce heat and cook for 10 minutes. Add saffron. Allow to simmer for 10 minutes.
3. Strain through fine strainer. Serve immediately or reserve and reheat later. Sprinkle a few fresh chopped chives on top of soup, if desired, for fresh garnish.