Featuring fourth generation winemaker Rob Mondavi, Jr.
By Rob Mondavi, Jr.
Photos provided by Rutledge & Vine
As a winemaker and vintner, the art of hospitality, providing a sense of welcome and entertaining is part of my ethos. Crafting wines and curating events with the simple goal of allowing guests, family and friends to feel special makes me feel great. The time and detail that goes into that perfect event and experience can often be daunting. Selecting the wines and food pairings can sometimes feel terrifying, but it doesn’t have to be.
My wife Lydia and I created Rutledge & Vine Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon to express our marriage together. Lydia’s family, Rutledge, traces roots to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Mine helped to found the American and Napa Valley wine community. We love the farming of the vines and the transformation from the grape into an exceptional world-class wine. Having only four to six barrels per vintage, we sign and number each bottle as our wine is a modern expression of old-world craftsmanship. Together, Lydia and I, along with our young boys (6 and 10), tend to the vineyards, fermentation and aging regime, making this a genuinely handcrafted bespoke wine. The hand-applied pewter band on the bottleneck is a ring representing that marriage and life together.
I clearly remember writing the menu for our wedding just over 20 years ago and was astounded that it was stressing me out. I had written hundreds of menus and paired thousands of wines, yet this was different as I intimately knew everyone and wanted each of them to be happy. After much stress, we decided that the wine and menu needed to reflect the event’s theme instead of writing a menu and selecting wines that would benignly placate and hopefully moderately please all. Finally, I surrendered as trying to please everyone was unfortunately fruitless.
When Lydia and I decided that our wedding menu and wines were about our journey coming together, we could breathe again and write a beautiful menu that truly reflected us. (Don’t get me started on the seating chart and guest list.) Because the menu and wines were special to us, even our “picky” friends could find the joy of the menu and wine as they saw these were truly personal selections. This may sound a little selfish, yet truly it is not, as you are sharing something special with them about your story. Via the sharing, you honor your guests, inviting them to be a part of your life via a unique culinary and wine connection.
The deck is stacked in my favor when it comes to creating wine and food pairings, yet some tricks to the trade can assure a solid win. Know your audience, America loves Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Hands down, these two tasty treasures are the most popular wines for a good reason. They are delicious and can pair with a variety of cuisines. As a rule of thumb, white wines are served at the reception and first course, whereas reds with the main course.
Chardonnay is a bit of a chameleon and is a bit trickier. The wine typically offers two distinct styles. The more modern and en-vogue style has a forward rich tropical fruit expression with lovely buttery and caramelized notes of vanilla and hazelnuts. Chardonnay’s counterpart is a more reserved or classic style that presents brighter flavors of crisp apples and Asian pear with the aromas of a subtle apple tartan. Unfortunately, you need to read the tasting notes or taste the wine to know which camp any given Chardonnay falls.
Both styles of Chardonnay are lovely, and here is how we match them up with a menu. The classically crisp Chardonnay style pairs well with dishes that have more acidity and spice, such as Grilled quail salad with pomegranate seeds tossed with a shallot mustard vinaigrette, a shrimp salad with Champagne vinaigrette, a classic Crab Louie, green papaya salad with lemongrass shrimp, Ahi tuna atop sesame crackers wasabi cream with ponzu, caviar and potato chips and of course decadent crab cakes.
The more modern style of Chardonnay, with its decadent opulence, pairs beautifully with more decadent foods with a bit of perceived sweetness. Such as butternut squash soup, sweet corn tamales, smoked salmon, beet and goat cheese salads, pate, tuna tartare, duck confit and crab cakes.
Some dishes meet in the middle between the two Chardonnay styles: carpaccio, Caesar salad, salad Lyonnaise, crab cakes, French onion soup, fritto misto, duck with brown butter sauce, clever butternut ravioli with brown butter, agnolotti with mushrooms, Sicilian caponata, a delicious comfortable tomato sauce-based dish across many genres of cuisine, and of course countless other culinary delights.
Where I see pairing problems is when there is too much contrast. Remember when you were a kid, and you were enjoying your delicious orange juice? But what happened to that OJ after a bite of pancakes and syrup? Well, the same sensory impact can occur when you have a dish such as a butternut squash soup and a classically fresh and crisp Chardonnay. The inverse is where a high acid ceviche and a modern tropical buttery Chardonnay will also clash. Match the wines to the vibe of the food, more decadent cuisine with a modern buttery Chardonnay and more fresh and acidic dishes with classic crisp Chardonnay.
Fortunately, wine pairings with Cabernet Sauvignon are more accessible. While there are many styles of Cabernet Sauvignon, the varietal itself tends to pair easier with more dishes that are typically categorized as entrees or main courses. It is easy to say that nearly any protein or earthy mushroom that has met the grill or high heat searing is a candidate for Cabernet. Let’s delve into delightful pairings with Cabernet Sauvignon that excites chefs and intrigues the patrons, like Osso Bucco. Classic bolognese, lamb shanks over polenta, Moroccan style lamb tagine with saffron and exotic spices, a classic wood-fired or pan-seared steak, seared salmon with hearty tomato olive and garlic sauce and a winter favorite of mine a rustic Cioppino.
While Cabernet Sauvignon can complement many dishes, there are delicate dishes and flavor profiles that we shall respectfully remove as likely candidates for a successful pairing: trout almandine, sole meunière, soft shell crab, lobster, oysters and others of this style.
We now must turn our attention to how we choose the specific wine and winery for our dining pleasure. At a restaurant, my friends love to hand me the wine list, alleviating the stress of picking out the wine in front of their friends and their winemaker buddy. Although I know many of the wines, a wine list offers the opportunity for exploration and discovery. The best explorers always had a local guide, and when exploring a wine list, the Sommelier is your guide. Sommeliers have dedicated their lives to creating memorable wine and food experiences. Share the styles you prefer and dislike and provide a price range where you are comfortable. With these tips, I have always had a great experience.
When selecting wines for your wedding, you have the advantage of advanced planning. Before formally meeting with the venue, sketch your menu and desired wine selection. Communicate your lists to the venue well before the meeting and ask them to provide a quote. For budgeting, assume that wines at a restaurant or wedding venue are a 3x multiple of retail. Most wines are available nationwide, and with a little advanced planning, the venue will be able to obtain precisely what you want. Don’t feel pressured to buy into a preset wine list. Acquiring new items from the alcohol distributors is as easy as an Amazon order. If you desire to order from the venue’s wine list, it is acceptable to request a tasting of these wines. When you pick your wine, take a bottle home and see how it tastes over dinner. Trust your palette.
My favorite picks for the 2022 wedding season are Charles Heidsieck Champagne with remarkable flavors of fresh apples and quince and stunningly tiny bubbles perfect for a reception. For Chardonnay, our Emblem Chardonnay offers flavors of Honey Crisp apples and wonderful Asian pears with subtle toffee aromatics. The Emblem Cabernet Sauvignon is beautifully textured, medium-bodied and brimming with delicious classical dark berry flavors.
For the head table, I would select our Rutledge & Vine Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. We craft only four to six barrels of this most precious bespoke wine each year. The texture of fine silk with wonderful black cherries and dark chocolate balances the aromatics of soft caramel and spice.
When planning your special day, remember that this day is a celebration of you and your loved one’s journey. The event recognizes you coming together as a new and sacred family by your friends and family. The planning of this event should reflect you personally, from the decor to the wine and food. Make it personal, trust yourself and enjoy it.
Rob Mondavi, Jr. is a fourth Generation Napa Valley Winemaker, working in every aspect of wine. His passion is deeply rooted in the vines and winemaking. Rob and his family reside between Beaufort, South Carolina and Napa Valley, CA, where he and his wife Lydia raise their two boys. He manages the vineyards and winemaking for the family, and his affable approach, love of cooking, food, wine and entertaining places Rob as the consummate Vintner and Winemaker.
Rutledge & Vine
PO Box 3047
Napa, CA 94558