A simple flagstone patio connects the main dining room of the Saddle Peak Lodge to a rock-rimmed sunken terrace with dramatic Wild West vistas. It is a blissful spot for a wedding and, at sunset on June 27, the site of the first annual Malibu Wineries Showcase Dinner. With five courses and 12 different dishes, it showcased the culinary talents of Saddle Peak’s young chef, Warren Schwartz, as well as the exceptional skills of the winemakers from Rosenthal, Semler and Jussila-all local vineyards, neighbors in our hills.
Many readers will be familiar with the exceptional Newton Canyon cabernet sauvignons from Rosenthal. They are widely distributed in Malibu and have been available for more than a decade. George Rosenthal was one of the region’s pioneers and a man with both the vision and resources to plant the rocky hillsides off Kanan Dume. Look up to your right after you pass the first tunnel and you’ll see the neat rows of vines marching up the mountain.
Rosenthal wines are classically crafted, with that desirable complexity of flavors that builds and changes as you savor it, and we were fortunate to have three to sample. Dinner began with a 2001 chardonnay, a luscious match for an equally layered heirloom tomato soup and Saddle Peak’s renowned butter-braised lobster. Later, we were treated to one of Rosenthal’s vintage library wines with a course of grilled quail. The 1992 cabernet had ripened and mellowed during its decade in the bottle so it echoed the creaminess of the succotash accompaniment. Capping the evening was a wine as refined as its maker, the 1998 Founders Reserve, a fitting match of fruit and flavors to a rare treat from the kitchen: roasted caribou with onion marmalade in a dried cherry sauce.
The Semlers live at Saddlerock Ranch, a 1,000-acre compound tucked into the hills of Mulholland just off Kanan. A glorious setting with an Old California feel and a history that matches the view, Saddlerock is a frequent site for weddings and special events, just like its neighbor, Calamigos Ranch. However, it’s the hundreds of acres of vines that set the Semlers’ property apart. With nine kids to help prune and pick, sell and deliver, Lisa and Ronnie Semler have made a family affair of winemaking and it is a full-time passion for many of them.
Our evening at Saddle Peak began with samples from their second label, Saddle Rock. We had a 2001 chardonnay and a 2000 merlot, both round, flavorful and excellent examples of their varietals. The merlot was served with Chef Schwarz’s amazing elk tenderloin canap/, a creamy dollop of wild mushroom mousse on a buttery crunch of toast crowned with a tender slice of succulent steak. For white wine drinkers, our servers offered plump, crispy crab cakes with a delicate lemon aioli.
The evening brought us another offering from the Semler clan -a big wine, exceptionally well balanced and juicy with fruit: the 2000 Semler Malibu Estate Vineyards cabernet sauvignon. It held up nicely to the intense flavors of succulent braised lamb shanks in a tomato-based fava bean sauce. As an aside, note the Semler labels-they are also family productions, painted by Ronnie’s mom.
Properly speaking, Jussila is not a Malibu winery. The grapes are grown in a Topanga backyard that looks down on our coastline and takes advantage of Malibu morning fog to cool the grapes overnight. By day, Kevin Jussila is a Merrill Lynch financial advisor, but at night and on weekends, he unleashes his true passion-he tends the vines and handpicks his grapes as late as possible in order to make big, fruity syrahs. The Jussilas never had any formal training in viticulture or enology, but the 90 people attending the dinner commented on the structure and richness of the 2001 Jussila Topanga Estate syrah. Paired with the earthiness of lentils and a seared crust on Arctic char, it was an impressive wine.
This event was planned as the first of many similar events. If you missed it, make reservations for the encore: 818.222.3888. Managing Partner Gerhard Tratter promises to schedule one very soon-and look for announcements of future wine-pairing dinners at the Lodge.