Halleck Vineyards Inner Circle Wine Club Dinner & Play in NYC
BY DAVEPRUETT | PUBLISHED MAY 02 2017
I got hooked on fine wine almost 40 years ago on my first trip to the Napa Valley. However, as much as I enjoy the beverage itself, a huge part of the pleasure of drinking wine is sharing it with other people. I don’t necessarily mean private groups of millionaires who drink only the finest wines from the finest vintages, or wine geeks that analyze and score every wine with the focus and seriousness of brain surgery. I have no objection to these groups at all; everyone should enjoy the types of wine they like in whatever manner they choose—or choose not to drink it at all.
I’ve enjoyed a few expensive bottles in my day and have been known to geek out with like-minded wine lovers on occasion. Far more important, however, are the times I’ve shared a bottle (or eight) with a group of friends while enjoying the camaraderie and conversation that flowed with the wine. More than a few of my lasting friendships have developed that way.
Oh, and the food. Did I mention the food? Food and wine are like bread and butter. You can eat them separately, but why would you? Like the wine, the food can be fancy—caviar and foie gras—or plain—burgers and hot dogs on the grill. The only requirement is that it taste good.
Valeria and I have been friends with the Halleck family, owners and operators of Halleck Vineyard in Sonoma, California, for about 10 years now. Ross and Jennifer Halleck were married when they started the vineyard, planting their first vines in 1993 and producing their first wine in 1999. They have since divorced, but they continue to work together with their three sons to operate the family business.
The Halleck logo perfectly symbolizes the central role wine can play in building friendship and community. I will quote from the explanation of the logo from their web page.
“Our symbol represents an H for Halleck. More importantly, the Halleck logo expresses “one to one”, depicted as Roman numerals. We intend to have personal contact with everyone who enjoys our wine. Hence we invite people to our home to taste, invite our wine club members to the winery to sample barrels, travel across the country to share meals, and invite people to join us on trips around the world.
Viewing the dot as a grape, it has served as a plant of power for 8,000 years, 1,000 years before Mesopotamia and the birth of civilization. Wine connects us. It has the unique ability to elevate a conversation and enhance intimacy, building community. The circle represents our community.”
We have attended winemaker dinners with Ross and Jennifer in restaurants near us, we’ve enjoyed meals and wine tastings in their home in Sebastopol, CA, and we’ve traveled with Ross to destinations in the US and abroad to drink Halleck wines and meet others who have a similar appreciation of good food and good wine. Ross arranges these events for members of the Halleck Wine Club, which is called The Inner Circle, i.e., the community of friends and family symbolized by the circe around the logo.
Ross recently organized a special night of wine, food and a play in New York City. The wine, of course, would be his (more about those later). The food would be served at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, a premium steak house with locations in a dozen or so cities across the US (including the one here in Chicago that I visit from time-to-time). After dinner, we would be off to see “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” starring Denée Benton as Natasha and Josh Grogan as Pierre. The play, currently in production at the Imperial Theater, is based on a section of Leo Tolstoy’s massive novel War and Peace.
With the play starting at 8:00, dinner had to start early, so 27 of us met at the bar in the downstairs wine cellar at Del Frisco’s for a pre-dinner glass of wine or cocktail. Ross took the opportunity to give us all a rundown of the agenda for the night.
This may have been the first time I saw a bar strainer being used to “ring” a wine glass to get everyone’s attention, but, hey, whatever works!
Ross was pouring the 2015 “Little Sister” Sauvignon Blanc from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, California (on the left is this picture).
I am a huge fan of Sauvignon Blanc in general, and Halleck produces a consistently excellent one year after year. The new 2015 bottling earned 98 points and the “Best in Category” designation at the California State Fair. As with many types of wine, the prototypical Sauvignon Blanc is from France, specifically from Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé in the Loire Valley. Halleck’s style has the minerality, acid backbone and the citrus and herbal aromas of a good Sancerre with the added fruitiness that comes from ripe California grapes. Julia Child attributed her change from a person who loved to eat into someone with a passion for cooking outstanding food to her first meal in France: Sole Meunière (filet of sole with lemon and butter) and a bottle of Sancerre. I can’t say that a seafood dish and a bottle of Halleck Sauvignon Blanc will change your life, but it will be a darn good meal.
As we entered the wine cellar set for our dinner, shrimp cocktails and crab cakes were already on the table for us.
The trio of shrimp were dressed with a trio of sauces: classic cocktail sauce, a mustard sauce and an herb and garlic sauce. Call it a classic or call it a cliché, a shrimp cocktail is a fine way to start dinner in a steakhouse.
The crab cake was outstanding, made with huge lumps of blue point crab and served with a Cajun lobster sauce that was rich and just a bit spicy.
More of the Halleck Sauvignon Blanc was poured with these dishes and it was perfect with the shrimp. To my taste, the second white wine pictured above, the 2016 Saralee’s Vineyard Dry Gewürztraminer was the best match with the crab cake (all such opinions are highly personal; your taste may vary!).
Gewürztraminer is not a well-known wine grape and relatively rare in California. It makes delicious wines in Germany and the Alsace region of France that vary from very dry to luscious, sweet dessert wines. The name means “spicy Traminer” because of the spicy notes in the wines aromas and flavors. The wines have an unmistakable nose that includes lychee nuts, roses, lemons, dried fruit, grapefruit and honeysuckle. All of these aromas are reflected in the flavors of the wine along with a slight bitter note. “Bitter” may sound bad, but it is an important part of what makes Gewürztraminer a unique, delicious and food friendly wine.”Gewürz” (as the cool kids call it) is a great match with many Asian foods, spicy foods, curries and the like, especially when it is just off-dry.
One of my all-time favorite food pairings involves Gewürztraminer. Back in the 80s, a winemaker named Richard Arrowood made sweet, late harvest Gewürztraminers at the Chateau St. Jean Winery in Sonoma. These wines were the perfect match for pumpkins pie at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The pumpkin pie spices and the spiciness of the wine played together beautifully.
As with the Little Sister Sauvignon Blanc, the style of Halleck’s Saralee Vineyard Dry Gewürztraminer is very consistent year to year. It is fermented dry (all of the sugar in the grapes is converted to alcohol), but the fruitiness and aromatic qualities of the grape make it seem a touch sweet. The complex aromas and flavors that characterize wines made from Gewürztraminer grapes are held up with a solid acid backbone and minerality. It’s the acidity that makes Gewürztraminer, like Riesling, a refreshing, food-friendly wine.
By the way, when I said the tables were set for us in the wine cellar, I meant it quite literally.
We had several choices to make for the rest of the meal. The full menu looked like this:
I ordered another steakhouse classic, the Blue Cheese Lettuce Wedge, as my salad.
Now, I am the first to admit that this is not a “healthy” salad. A good one comes with a flavorful, thick, creamy blue cheese dressing (sometimes ranch), lots of blue cheese crumbles, and ripe tomatoes on a fresh wedge of iceberg lettuce (no fancy lettuce—gotta be iceberg). Topping it all should be a generous amount of crisp, smoky bacon. Like the shrimp cocktail, you can call it a classic or a cliché, but a good one is delicious. This one was delicious.
Valeria chose the classic Caesar Salad.
Legend has it that the Caesar Salad was invented by Caesar Cardini in his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924. He is said to have tossed fresh, whole Romaine leaves (as served here—not the usual chopped lettuce) and croutons with a dressing made of, garlic, Parmesan cheese, coddled eggs, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce. (The anchovies that are now a standard part of the dressing and sometimes placed on top of the salad are said to have been added by Caesar’s brother somewhat later.) As with any salad, the secret is a flavorful dressing and fresh greens. This was a good one.
Someone seated near me ordered Del’s Salad so I snapped a picture.
I didn’t actually taste this one, so I can’t say much about it, but anything topped with perfectly cooked bacon can’t be all bad!
The success of a steakhouse, however, comes down to one thing: meat. Yes, they can offer good, even great seafood and even vegetarian dishes, but if the steaks are not the star, why is it called a steakhouse?
I ordered my personal favorite cut, a Prime New York Strip.
I find that ordering a steak “medium rare” or whatever your preferred temperature is does not produce consistent results, so I specify “warm pink center” for my steak. That can be considered medium-rare to medium-well, depending on where you go and who you ask. In any case, this was perfectly cooked and well seasoned with salt and pepper, which is all a good steak needs (could have used a touch more seasoning for my taste, but it was good). This was unmistakably a prime piece of beef—well marbled and meltingly tender with a rich, full beef flavor. I had no trouble finishing all of it.
If Ross makes his white wines to go with seafood and Asian, curried and other spicy foods, the reds, all Pinot Noirs, are made to go with meat (if you can resist drinking them on their own). A total of 5 Pinots were poured for us. Confusingly, I managed to capture only 3 of the 5 in this picture of 4 bottles.
Pinot Noir is, of course, the great red wine grape of the Burgundy region in France. It has found a home in the cooler areas of Sonoma County, much like Cabernet Sauvignon found a home in the Napa Valley. The quality of California Pinot Noirs has been improving steadily for years now as more and more vines have been planted in more suitable locations and matured enough to produce really good wines.
Depending on the year and the Hallecks’ evaluation of the availability and quality of fruit, they may bottle a half dozen or so different Pinot Noirs. I will avoid the temptation to do a deep, geeky dive into the nuances of each wine we tasted, but I will refer you to the winery’s web site for a detailed description of the current releases. I find their descriptions to be quite accurate.
Instead, let me just discuss the general style of Halleck Pinot Noirs, which is consistent across all the bottlings I have tried, though each vintage and vineyard has it’s own nuances. A great red Burgundy smells and tastes of various combinations of red and black fruits—cherries, black cherries, pomegranates, cranberries and so on. There is often an earthy or loamy component that is clear, along with some spicy and/or floral notes. There should also be a certain amount of minerality and a good acid structure to support it all and give the wine both freshness and ageability.
Halleck Pinots exhibit all of these characteristics in various combinations and to various degrees, along with the richness that comes from California fruit. I generally taste the Burgundian heritage of these wines clearly, even as the California fruit comes through. Some of my friends who have a passion for red Burgundy simply do not appreciate an excellent California Pinot Noir, while some of my California wine-loving friends have never developed a taste for Burgundy. I say, vive la difference! California Pinot Noir producers have clearly learned a lot from French wine producers and freely admit it. French wine makers have also learned a lot from California winemakers (though some are less likely to admit it). The result is better wines from both countries.
The Three Sons Cuvée is produced every year and is a blend of grapes from several vineyards. It is named after the three Halleck sons, Connor, Adam and Quinn, and the sales are used as a college fund for the boys. Typically the least expensive of their Pinots and easy to drink young, it nevertheless shows the distinct Halleck style.
The Hillside Cuvée is blended from several Sonoma Coast vineyards, which tend to be cooler and produce lighter, but complex wines. (You are not seeing double; I somehow put two bottles of the same Hillside wine in the picture.)
Clone 828 may sound like a character in a Star Wars movie, but it is not. There are several different clones of Pinot Noir grown in California, each designated by a number and sometimes a name. Winemakers and wine geeks can talk about them endlessly—which one to grow where, which to blend with another, the characteristics of each and on and on.
The obvious question for most of us is “what is a Pinot Noir clone?” The best way to think about them that I have heard (if you are not in training as a Master of Wine) was told to me by Erica Trombetta, the winemaker and half of the mother-daughter teams that is the driving force behind another family owned, small winery in Sonoma County, Trombetta Family Wines. Like Halleck, they specialize in Pinot Noir and also make some Chardonnay, the classic red and white grapes of Burgundy. Erica compares Pinot Noir Clones to Labradors—the dogs. There are black, chocolate, and yellow Labs. Color aside, their sizes, shapes, personalities and general behavior are all very similar. Pinot Noir clones are like black, chocolate and yellow Labs—definitely the same breed, but with clear differences in aromas and flavors. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it give you the right idea.
The Clone 828 come from Sebastopol, where the Halleck home is located. It has only been produced a few times, but I am hoping it is a regular in the lineup as it is a delicious wine. When a group of Inner Circle Wine Club Members went with Ross to Cuba, the Clone 828 was the star of the trip.
The two Pinot Noirs I did not photograph were two vintages of The Farm Vineyard: 2007 and 2013. I have several Halleck Pinots going back to 2007, and they are still drinking beautifully. If they have lost any of their fresh fruitiness, it is more than made up for by the depth and complexity that has developed in both the flavors and the bouquet. This was evident in these two vintages poured side-by-side. The bright red of the 2013 had turned a bit garnet in the 2007 (the natural evolution of wine color in the bottle), but both wines were clear and clean. Similarly, the ripe, black cherry fruit of the 2013 was still there in the 2007, but more of the earthiness, spiciness and other subtle favors and aromas showed through in the older wine.
I should point out that all of these are small production wines: less than 200 cases of most of them are produced each year and none reach the 300 case level. These small, family-owned Pinot Noir producers in Sonoma County are doing some wonderful things with the grape, but you have to look for them and get on their mailing lists.
OK, back to dinner! Valeria ordered the lamb chops.
She ordered, and received a warm pink center. The meat was nicely seasoned, very tender and the lamb jus on the side was delicious.
The usual steakhouse sides—mushrooms, spinach and potatoes—were served family style for us to share.
There were two choices for dessert: chocolate mousse and cheesecake with strawberries. We ordered one of each.
The mousse was light and chocolatey, but I would have like darker chocolate (another personal taste). The cheesecake was rich, creamy and relatively light, at least for a cheesecake. It was really good.
The challenge for all of us after tasting the wines and eating a steakhouse meal was to make it to the Imperial Theater. Luckily (or thanks to Ross’s planning) it was just a pleasant walk of a few blocks to the theater on a beautiful spring evening.
This production was set up so that some audience members were actually seated on the stage with the actors singing and dancing around them—and sometimes requiring audience participation either by an individual or by all of us clapping out a beat. Ross had arranged for us to be part of the on-stage audience. At one point, little plastic eggs were passed out. They were filled with sand (or something that made a noise) for us to shake and become part of the band. I was afraid I would fall asleep during the play after the big meal with wine, but there was no chance for that!
The stars of the show were Josh Grogan and Denée Benton as Pierre and Natasha.
As the name of the play suggests, it is set in 1812. It is based, as I mentioned earlier, on a part of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, certainly one of the greatest Russian novels, or novels in any language, ever written. The play is an opera, with all of the dialog sung. You can read the story (if you haven’t already), but it involves lovers, infidelity, betrayal and deep friendships. The singing, costumes and set were all outstanding, so it was all a treat for me.
For Valeria, however, there were considerations that made it less enjoyable for her. She grew up in Russia and is not only intimately familiar with every aspect of the book and the history around it, she has seen a number of other plays and movies based on the novel. For her, there were a few too many clichés and much of the music played before the play and at intermission was from the wrong period. It was sort of like going to a production of Hair (set in the 60s) and hearing 80s music playing. She also found the portrayal of some of the characters to be quite inconsistent with the novel. She had high praise for the quality of the singing and acting however, especially for Josh Groban, whose voice and mannerisms, in her mind, captured Pierre perfectly.
Ross Halleck had worked with Josh Groban sometime previously, probably on some charity event, and he arranged for us to meet the star after the performance.
Of course I don’t really know him, but Josh Groban is either one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet, or he is the best actor you will ever meet because he sure seemed genuine and friendly. He had been up since 4:30 am to make an appearance on the Today Show and had just finished over 2 hours of singing, dancing and playing multiple instruments in heavy costumes, but he came out smiling, relaxed and quite ready to spend 15 or 20 minutes with us, graciously signing autographs, answering questions, and posing for pictures.
So that was our Dinner and a Play with Halleck Vineyards in New YorkCity. Everything about it was memorable, and I certainly look forward to the next time I meet with Ross and my friends in the Inner Circle. I don’t know where or when that will be, but I do know there will be plenty of wine, food and friendship!
Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, New York City
Address: 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
Phone: (212) 575-5129
Dress Code: Smart Casual
Price Range: $50+
Hours: Lunch: Monday – Friday: 11:30am – 4:00pm
Dinner: Monday – Saturday: 5:00pm – 12:00am
Sunday: 5:00pm – 10:00pm
Credit Cards: AMEX, Diner’s Club, Discover, MasterCard, Visa