Conversation with Claudia – A Wine Tasting Dinner at Aria Tuscan Grill
I was sitting at my computer staring blankly at an empty white screen trying to think of the perfect blog post to summarize our week long culinary tour of Tuscany. I flipped through pages of my journal, browsed the hundreds of photos we snapped, and wrote a somewhat decent but brief introduction before getting stuck. The synapses of my brain just weren’t connecting the gluttonous wine and food filled adventure to a meaningful post that anyone other than my parents would enjoy. (Maybe I had a bit too much wine?) I was easily taken back to Tuscany but for some reason couldn’t bring Tuscany to my blog. I was suffering from my first case of writer’s block since starting this blog.
Then my phone pinged an incoming email from my wife. Aria, a Tuscan themed restaurant in Uptown Charlotte, was hosting a wine pairing dinner on Saturday. Four courses, four wines, and one winemaker imported from Cigliuti Serraboella in Italy to attend the family style dinner. This could be exactly what I needed – a little taste of Tuscany – to help me relive those memories in the present.
The evening started with a welcome glass of Prosecco at the bar while we awaited the other guests. Our table stood ready running the length of the restaurant. Glasses, plates, napkins, and cutlery all neatly aligned. Wine bottles stood open and breathing across the room, teasing us as to what was to come. Once we were seated, Executive Chef Frank Altomare walked us through the menu -antipasti, ricotta gnudi, braised beef shank, and house made cannoli. All served in traditional Italian-family style with heaping platters of food that could have fed the entire restaurant let alone the 25 of us lucky enough to land tickets to this dinner.
Claudia then spoke about her featured wines and the history of her family winery. The winery was not actually located in Tuscany but in Piedmont, Italy’s “panhandle”. She spun a beautiful tale about being a fourth generation wine-maker. About her father challenging the norms of Piedmont winemaking where tradition placed quantity over quality. He changed the yields of his fields and harvested fewer grapes, but of a higher quality. His efforts caught the attention of surrounding vineyards that followed suit and helped transform Piedmont from backwater wine to a reputable region. The surrounding vineyards grew purchasing more land as they adapted to quality over quantity to help match previous yields. Claudia’s father remained with his original humble plot. After all, he had three daughters and no sons. Who would take-over his vineyard? Claudia, the heiress to the family business, stood elegantly in front of us leading our wine tasting.
First course was an anti-pasta that was beyond imagination – artichokes, tuna, roasted peppers, figs, more cheeses than are actually imported from Italy (I know because one was a cheddar from Asheville that was sharp, salty, and oh-so-fresh), dried sausages, salamis, prosciutto, and smoked sausage that was pork, campfire, and heaven in my mouth. I could have filled up entirely on anti-pasta dropping a bit of everything onto my two plates. The paired wine was the Dolcetto. As Claudia described, it’s a wine paired with lunch or chosen to start the evening. The color was dark but the flavor was light and fruity.
Second course was handmade ricotta gnudi served on a salad with citrus vinaigrette and six minute eggs. The uniqueness of gnudi on salad speaks for itself. The sharpness of the greens contrasted nicely with the smoothness of the gnudi. The yolk from the egg and the citrus from the dressing added a fresh and creamy nuance. The wine was a Barbera. It was heavier than Dolcetta but still contained enough red fruit to accompany a salad or light pasta. The stone gave the wine a bit more elegance and terroir. Now we were talking Italian wine.
The third course was the braised beef shank – or more like several platters of dinosaur legs. Like most Tuscan dishes, it was simple allowing the flavors of the food to shine. Two wines came out with the beef shank. The first was a Briccoserra that was ripe with plums and earth. The second wine was the 2008 Barbaresco which was decanted earlier in the evening. After the tannins settled as this wine is meant for aging, the complexity and terroir came alive. I could taste the vineyard, the sun, the dirt, the fruit. Dessert was platters of homemade cannoli. I was immediately thrown back-in-time to name a holiday in my family. These were the treats my great-aunts slaved over.
We were lucky enough to sit next to Pierre, the owner of Aria, during this ground-breaking family style event. While Pierre comes across quite humble and shy, he entertained us with his history and career in the storied Charlotte culinary scene. Pierre is a living legend. Residents of Charlotte can thank him for his vision to open Charlotte’s first fine dining restaurant in Uptown Charlotte in what is now the Dunhill. He faced challenges as not only being the pioneer, but convincing staff to work in what was then a crime-laden sector of town. Now, Uptown Charlotte is flourishing with amazing restaurants. Thank you, Pierre.
If I am to criticize one aspect of the evening, it would be the treatment of the wine. First, we had two glasses that were used interchangeably for the four wines. No effort was made to splash water in the glasses to rinse them out. Of course, this could be a throwback to the Tuscan family dinner theme. On our wine tour of Tuscany where we sampled many a fine wine, we never were given fresh glasses. Second, not enough wine was poured for our side of the table. This was quite annoying. The other side of the table would enjoy two refills while our glasses remained empty and we finished courses with only our water to wash it down. In fact, at one point, someone complained that a bottle was corked (tasted fine to me) and our freshly filled glasses were taken away. The waiter returned moments later to refill the glasses of those across the table from the uncorked bottle while we remained glass-less and parched. This was unacceptable. Would this prevent me from returning? No! We learn from our mistakes. Hopefully someone in management reads this last paragraph so that wine service is improved when we attend our next wine pairing dinner at Aria. Perhaps nose-to-tail in December?