Chef's Blog

Solage Calistoga's Executive Chef Brandon Sharp shares his passion for cooking, life and all things Napa Valley.

June 20, 2010

On Friday, Lily Berlin came to our staff lineup before dinner service to pour her wines for the crew. She and her family are the owners and operators of El Molino, on of the smallest wineries in NV and (I believe) the only one that makes Pinot Noir from exclusively Rutherford grapes. They also make a Chardonnay, and those are their only two labels. It’s an insider’s wine, rather than a cult wine–there’s no tasting room, there’s no marketing scheme, but it’s available if you ask for it.

There are so many things to like about this operation–first are the Lily’s eggs that appear eponymously on the solbar menu. Right now we’re serving one soft-boiled with a homemade griddled English muffin and a quenelle of white sturgeon caviar. (Uh, if El Molino made something bubbly, I’m sure it’d be a great pairing.   Till they do, reach for the Deutz.)

The eggs come from “heirloom” varieties of chickens–not hybrids that have been bred for a top-heavy meat-to-bone ratio–and the 150 or so of them run around the grounds at the winery and enjoy a healthy diet that includes a lot of grass. The grass, in turn, provides beta-carotene, and thus do the yolks have a wonderful school-bus-orange tint when the guest cuts into one at the table.

But the chickens aren’t on property as an affectation–the egg whites they produce are used to fine the wine. The family has long since been using this method rather than chemicals.

Another thing to like is the natural approach to vinification–organically farmed grapes, processed with the help of gravity, and fermented with wild yeasts.  It’s doesn’t seem too “handled”, something that I am constantly trying to get cooks to understand when it comes to plating food.

The last thing to like is the wines. I am especially impressed by the fact that in an age of multiple varietals and “vineyard-designates”, El Molino continues to produce the same two cuvees: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The Chardonnay is as fully ripe as a NV Chard should be, but the winemakers eschew malolactic fermentation in favor of a more food-friendly flavor profile that is balanced between acid, oak, and fruit. As a chef, I appreciate the restraint shown by this style of vinification.

The Pinot Noir is more elegant that I would expect from a Rutherford Pinot (if there were others out there to have compared it to). I wouldn’t have guessed that it is 14.5% abv or that it gets 70% new oak–the wine is that well integrated. The fruit is big, the wood is there, and there’s no burn to the alcohol. It’s a wonderful wine that leaves you wanting more because it doesn’t taste overextracted, and the whole cluster fermentation provides adequate structure.

[On a completely unrelated note, get your game face on at 7am (if you're on the west coast) next Wednesday, and no lollygagging.  I may or may not be on Polk Street . . . there's a Peet's, a Starbucks, Polker's, a bagelry, a newsstand with Dominican cigars if we do the unthinkable and beat Algeria, and I guess Walgreens sells Kleenex if we don't . . .]

Leave a Reply