Sunday, June 24 , 2018, 1:16 am | Overcast 64º


Laurie Jervis: Prominent Japanese Chef Marries Sushi with Wines During Dierberg/Star Lane Event

Among the wine-food pairings was the perfect match of fatty tuna with a Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir


May I get a show of hands, please? True or false: “Sushi dishes can easily pair with white and red wines.”

If you answered “false,” I empathize, but dare to say, gentle reader, that you are wrong.

Let me explain: On May 1, the Dierberg family, owners of three estate vineyards for Dierberg and Star Lane wine labels, held a private event geared toward regional and national wine writers.

We started our day tasting with winemaker Tyler Thomas at the tasting room on Drum Canyon Road, and ended with lunch in the private winery in Happy Canyon.

Also part of the Dierberg portfolio are estate vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley AVA and a second adjacent to the Drum Canyon Road tasting room, in the Sta. Rita Hills. Both of those sites are planted to chardonnay and pinot noir for the Dierberg label.

I’m sure the family’s goal was to shatter the obsolete premise that sushi pairs only with beer or select white wines, such as riesling or grenache blanc.

But, since high-quality fish is rich in protein, the potential for it to stand against wines' natural acidity certainly exists.

Winery president Charles “A.J.” Fairbanks told me the May event was 18 months in the planning, and was instigated by JiaMin Dierberg, who is married to Michael Dierberg, who is one of the children of founders Mary and Jim Dierberg.

Guests dined in the round inside Star Lane Winery. Click to view larger
Guests dined in the round inside Star Lane Winery. (George Rose photo)

In her role as international sales director for Dierberg, JiaMin Dierberg focuses primarily on exporters to Asia. In her travels to Japan, she met renowned chef Kiminari Togawa, owner/chef of Ginza Sushi Karuka in upscale Tokyo. Togawa serves Dierberg/Star Lane wines in his famed restaurant, where his focus is on edomae sushi, a style of sushi popular in Tokyo in the 1880s.

“This is a once-in- a-lifetime event” for guests to try sushi traditionally available only in Japan, ​JiaMin Dierberg told us as she introduced and translated for Togawa.

Edomae sushi was Togawa’s focus during our lunch; the key to that style, JiaMin Dierberg translated for Togawa, is “really good fish.”

Before I detail the delicious fish, let me describe winemaker Thomas’ philosophy — and how the two (Togawa and Thomas) created a match made in heaven.

That morning at the tasting room, Thomas walked us through flights of both barrel samples and finished wines. We contrasted and compared wines made from grapes that had been picked weeks apart, as well as those from different blocks, the varied estate vineyards and those aged in new or neutral French oak barrels.

Thomas, a firm believer in terroir, said his winemaking philosophy is simple: “I want to make the wine that the vineyard is asking us to make.”

He favors texture over flavor: “Good texture will create good flavor” in the wine, he said.

When the Dierberg family hired Thomas, they emphasized how their local winemaking and vineyard operation embraces a 250-year plan. Yes: Two-plus centuries, generation to generation.

Michael Dierberg, far left, his wife, JiaMin Dierberg, third from left, with chef Kiminari Togawa, fourth from left, plus his staff, two sommeliers and winemaker Tyler Thomas, at rear in green. Click to view larger
Michael Dierberg, far left, his wife, JiaMin Dierberg, third from left, with chef Kiminari Togawa, fourth from left, plus his staff, two sommeliers and winemaker Tyler Thomas, at rear in green. (George Rose photo)

To Thomas, that scope translates to the owners’ focus on consistency in winemaking.

“That’s our goal (over 250 years), because that’s what the great French (winemaking) houses have — decades or centuries of quality, and consistency,” he said.

From the tasting room we traveled to Star Lane Vineyard. The 4,000-acre property includes 200 acres of Bordeaux grape varietals planted in a 2.5-mile stretch from the front gate back to the winery.

Star Lane comprises 40 percent of the total acreage of the Happy Canyon AVA, and 55 to 60 percent of the cabernet sauvignon planted within the appellation, said Josh Rubin, director of vineyards.

If the Dierberg half of the equation is pinot noir and chardonnay, the Star Lane half is all Bordeaux, primarily cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc.

Happy Canyon was already warm on this first day of May, and after Tyler and Rubin showed us a vineyard block high above the winery, we were more than ready to escape into the cool of the winery and barrel caves and lunch.

The menu at each diner’s place setting simply was an outline of what lay ahead, and when the meal ended, I understood that fine sushi pairs exquisitely with good wines, both white and red.

Winemaker Tyler Thomas of Dierberg/Star Lane tastes with wine writers at the Sta. Rita Hills tasting room on Drum Canyon Road. Click to view larger
Winemaker Tyler Thomas of Dierberg/Star Lane tastes with wine writers at the Sta. Rita Hills tasting room on Drum Canyon Road. (George Rose photo)

Our first course was two plates: Kanpachi (yellowtail) marinated in white wine and paired with the 2015 Star Lane Sauvignon Blanc from Happy Canyon. The second part of the first course was tai (sea bream) with marinated kelp and yuzu paired with a 2005 Star Lane Sauvignon Blanc, this time from the Santa Ynez Valley.

In my notes, I wrote that the match of the 2005 and the tai “really sang.” Following the ​kanpachi and tai was seafood dressed in basil sauce. The latter dish was so delightful I was tempted to lick the sauce from the plate. Just in time, I remembered my fellow journalists, most of who sported cameras and could easily “out” me.

I pronounced the second course’s tai fish, pickled in sesame soy, “super creamy” and “an A-plus pairing” with the 2014 Dierberg Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley. Part deux of the second course was broiled skin-on tai, again with a 2014 Chardonnay — but from the Sta. Rita Hills’ estate. My vote was for the Santa Maria Valley chardonnay pairing; it was seamless.

The second course finished with a king crab mille feuille.

The third course married two 2014 Dierberg pinot noirs with pickled red maguro (tuna red meat) in soy, followed by chu-toro (fatty tuna) sprinkled with wine salt.

The first dish paired with pinot noir from the Santa Maria Valley estate vineyard; the second with the same wine, but from the Sta. Rita Hills’ site.

Our table agreed that while both pinot noirs worked well with the fish, the Sta. Rita Hills version with the chu-toro was superior. While the Santa Maria Valley pinot noir cut the richness of the red maguro, the Sta. Rita Hills wine met the chu-toro halfway, melded flawlessly and the flavors became one on our palates, making the match the single best wine-food pairing I’ve encountered.

We finished the third course with oil-marinated salmon with tomato water.

The fourth and last course brought us broiled toro with a 2013 Star Lane cabernet sauvignon, Happy Canyon, and mirin-marinated conger eel with a 2011 Star Lane “Astral” from the same vineyard.

Astral is the Dierberg family’s top-shelf cabernet sauvignon, grown own-rooted on Star Lane’s hillsides. This wine retails for $120 per bottle and is worth every penny.

This vintage comprised 77 percent cabernet sauvignon and 23 percent cabernet franc, according to the tech notes.

As I wound my way out of Star Lane Vineyard toward home, I replayed the taste sensation of exquisite fish and fine wine and understood that good wine will marry good sushi.

— Laurie Jervis blogs about wine at, tweets at @lauriejervis and can be reached via [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.

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