Saxon Brown Winemaker Dinner: At-Home Edition

Winemaker Jeff Gaffner from Saxon Brown Winery has hosted this type of dinner at Wine Vault & Bistro several times before. This spring, it’s a socially distant dinner, with Gaffner at his vineyard in Sonoma and the rest of us eating takeout at home in San Diego. He very helpfully prepared an introduction to the Saxon Brown wines and how they pair with the menu—or, more accurately, how the menu was created to pair with the wines.

A decade ago, Gaffner started a project to demonstrate the aging potential of semillon. The 2010 Saxon Brown Semillon is the result, which I had the privilege to experience alongside this dinner. What a treat!

Wine Vault recently added the option to order a wine flight with your meal, instead of purchasing an entire bottle of each wine paired with each course. As someone who lives alone, I love this new feature. It saves me from buying multiple bottles for one dinner and not being able to finish all the bottles before they spoil (which I just can’t do on my own). One flight of two wines gives you the same volume of about half a bottle of wine—which was plenty for me.

For the Saxon Brown winemaker dinner, the wine flight included the 2010 Semillon and the 2013 Zinfandel. After trying both, I would happily buy a whole bottle of each. They’re limited supply, too; only 88 cases of the semillon and 280 cases of the zinfandel were produced.

Spinach salad with blue cheese and bacon vinaigrette

This spinach salad was created specifically to pair with the semillon, with help from fatty bacon and rich blue cheese to stand up to the bold flavors of the wine. By allowing the salad to come to room temperature before diving in, the blue cheese texture was creamy rather than crumbly, and the flavor was much more pronounced. The salad was topped with the blue cheese, thin shallot ribbons, salty bacon, and crunchy walnuts. The warm vinaigrette wilted the spinach slightly and brought all of the flavors together.

2010 Saxon Brown “Fighting Brothers” semillon

According to Jeff Gaffner, semillon is one of the great white varietals for aging. The 2010 semillon is nicknamed “Fighting Brothers,” after his sons. It has a very low pH, one of the reasons why it ages so well. The 2010 semillon has a pear, orange-rind characteristic at its base. With flavors like pear and peach, and some subtle fig notes, it reminded me of summer fruit, begging for a crunch to bite into. The salad offered that texture. It was such a well-composed bite. I can see why the 2010 semillon is described as a white wine that even red-wine-only drinkers love.

The image that kept coming to mind when pairing the salad and the wine was all the flavors of a summer cheeseboard—cheese, apples and grapes, charcuterie, acidic pickled cornichons, a warm day—suddenly coming to life on the palate. Which is weird, considering the only cheese element was blue cheese crumbles on top of a salad. A footnote, if anything, but it really came to the forefront.

Triple mushroom “lasagna”

This lasagna dish had sold out at Wine Vault twice before, so when I saw it had returned to the weekly menu, I knew I had to order it. 

The pasta sheets in the lasagna were replaced by sauteed greens. Layered with three types of mushrooms and ricotta, topped with a gruyere bechamel, it had all the cheesiness of lasagna but from a slightly healthier angle. Actually, this whole meal was full of greens, and I didn’t hate it at all. Both the salad and the lasagna were still decadent in their own right, and the greens made me feel very healthy about all the wine I drank.

2013 Saxon Brown “Fighting Brothers” zinfandel

It’s not a dessert wine, but taking a sip almost felt like dessert to me. Take a whiff and you get lots of cherry aromas to start. Wine Vault described this wine as “full-bodied, hedonistic, and a total joy to smell” which is a very accurate characterization of how I felt during those first few sniffs and sips. 

There are notes of kirsch liqueur and black currants, giving it that fruity, full-bodied, dessert-y characteristic. Gaffner described the zinfandel as a very “food” zin because it pairs well with food, which is not true of all zinfandels. Although Wine Vault prepared short ribs to accompany this wine, I was perfectly satisfied drinking an overflowing glass of zinfandel in place of dessert.

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