In celebration of Earth Day on Tuesday, the Pierre Lafond Bistro held a Vegetarian Wine Pairing Dinner. Executive chef Josh Keating created an elegant six-course menu for which Santa Barbara Winery assistant winemaker Ryan Ralston matched the appropriate wines from the Santa Barbara Winery.

The theme of the evening seemed to be balancing out the elements — wines to counterbalance and complement the food, candles and floral arrangements to balance the open kitchen and big windows’ modern feel, and discussions from Keating and Ralston about the pairing between each course.

Establishing a solid relationship between the bistro and winery is one of the many goals of the pairing dinners. Having the winemakers play such a large role in menu creation is great because they know the wines inside and out, and it gives the bistro the opportunity to craft the food and wine menus to play off each other. Keating explains the elements of the food and how he creates the dishes; the winemakers discuss the elements of the wine, from pH to sugar levels to desired flavor profiles.

A winery tasting room provides an opportunity for customers to receive personal attention as they learn about the wines and history of the grapes. It is rare that such an environment can be transferred to a restaurant setting. On Tuesday, Keating and Ralston were available to answer questions as they talked about each course. The idea was to create an elegant dining experience among approachable staff so everyone would feel comfortable, relaxed and have any questions answered. About 50 people were in attendance, many part of the Community Environmental Council.

The ball got rolling with a fresh spinach and watercress salad paired with 2007 Sauvignon Blanc. The zesty simplicity of the greens called for a light white wine with similar characteristics. Sauvignon Blanc’s natural acidity is the perfect match for a light starter salad with a vinaigrette dressing.

Keating and Ralston introduced themselves to the attendees. Also on hand to speak and answer questions was production assistant Cameron Bendetsen, who provided entertaining stories about the history of the grapes.

Moving onto the second course, which Ralston claimed was the most obvious pairing, the bistro served up a crispy Asian risotto wonton alongside 2007 1.7 percent Residual Sugar Riesling. The idea behind the pairing was counterbalancing the off-dry sweetness of the wine and the spicy kick of the wonton. The riesling is probably the most acidic wine made at the winery, and for this reason, it is a fantastic food wine with the ability to cut through certain flavors, cleansing the palate between each bite.

Complementing elements that go hand in hand is another way to match food and wine, and it was with this idea in mind that the next course was created. Roasted portabello ravioli with a creamy vanilla sauce came out with 2006 Reserve Chardonnay. This chardonnay is 100 percent aged in oak barrels and goes through malolactic fermentation, so it is definitely a California-style chardonnay in terms of oaky butteriness.

While this was the toughest pairing to come up with, it was a moment of “Aha! Of course!” The vanilla essence in the sauce exquisitely complemented the toasty vanilla spice from the oak in the chardonnay. Here, the effort was not to counterbalance, but rather to emphasize and bring out elements that go hand in hand.

Before moving Latiude photos.  the red wines, a note on the 2007 harvest in terms of whites: Ralston modestly credits our vineyard’s location in the Santa Rita Hills with providing amazing fruit to make these white wines. A “seamless harvest” provided fruit with correct sugars, correct acids and correct flavors. According to Ralston, who says these are some of the best white wines he has ever made, when the grapes came in, “I’m just going to put it in the press and walk away.”

Course four was all about decadence in both the dish and the wine. The 2005 Primitivo was paired with a blackberry pomegranate goat cheese and walnut terrine served in a puff pastry. Primitivo is a grape with a fascinating story, which Bendetsen shared with the group. It is genetically identical to the Zinfandel grape. With origins in Croatia, clones were brought to the Puglia region in Italy while Zinfandel was brought to California.

As Bendetsen notes, they are like fraternal twins separated at birth — basically nature vs. nurture has, over time, created two distinct varietals. Primitivo, with its explosive red fruit, low acidity and essence of sweetness, was paired with the fruit forwardness of the dish. Primitivo can be overpowering if the food cannot stand up to the wine, but here the flavors really work together.

The entree course of the meal was eggplant canaloni stuffed with organic spinach and caramelized onions topped with a sprinkle of feta cheese and a Sangiovese reduction sauce. This dish is on the bistro’s dinner menu. The idea in choosing 2005 Sangiovese to go with this dish was its high acidity (especially next to the Primitivo), and that it would not overpower the main course.

Sangiovese’s high acidity makes its versatility hard to match in terms of our red wines. It is the dominant grape in Tuscan Chianti, which Italians can drink with almost any meal. Beautifully prepared, the vibrancy of the vegetables of the season stand out.

Because nobody can resist Pierre Lafond Bistro’s signature wine cake, everyone still managed to save room for the dessert course. It is difficult to pair a dessert wine with something as sweet as cake because it can be too over the top. The cake’s dense richness from the sherry and its glaze really have the ability to stand on their own. Ralston came up with a way to pair 2000 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc with this course by cutting the wine’s sweetness with club soda and making it a refreshing spritzer. He demonstrated how this could be done at home, a fantastic end to an enjoyable meal.

Keep your eye out for more of these pairing dinners! Click here for more information.

Joanie Hudson is Santa Barbara Winery‘s assistant tasting room manager. Click here for her Winery & Vineyard blog.