story and photos by Judson Lee, special to The City Wire
The Walton Arts Center’s 12th annual Art of Wine kicked off in fine fashion Thursday night (June 7) with the traditional Winemaker’s Dinner on the stage of Baum Walker Hall.
Patrons delighted in the vinous offerings of Red Rock Winery’s Debbie Juergenson, as well as a full-fledged five-course meal served up by Ella’s Restaurant Executive Chef Bill Lyle.
The dinner is one of the more expensive events on the WAC calendar, with tickets selling at an eye-watering $225 apiece. The expense does not halt the night’s popularity though, with regular attendees learning to expect a night of very fine food and wine.
“I never want to miss this,” said Eileen Schomburger. “I moved my schedule and made sure we were in town for this event.”
Juergenson served an array of wines from the E&J Gallo family of brands (Red Rock Winery is a Gallo brand), mostly propped up by her own Red Rock creations, of course. Juergenson has been a winemaker at Red Rock since 2007. She spent nearly 12 years rising up through the ranks at Gallo.
“I think with Red Rock, they were really looking for a nice sense of balance, and that’s what I’m all about too, so it was a nice fit,” said Juergenson.
Juergenson values three things when making her wines: balance, smoothness, and a certain versatility.
“When I get home and open a bottle of wine to relax on my back patio, I want to be able to carry that same bottle of wine to dinner with me, and that’s something I aim for with Red Rock.” said Juergenson.
Red Rock centers around Juergenson’s blending abilities, and her Winemaker’s Blend clearly had the crowd buzzing. It was paired with the second course, which was a duck confit wrapped in fresh chive crepes with grilled Sweden Creek shiitake mushrooms, roasted red bell peppers and a cabernet buerre rouge.
Another highlight of the evening was the event’s capper: the dessert course. Lyle served a raspberry-white chocolate ciabatta bread pudding with crème anglaise, fresh raspberries, shaved white and dark chocolate and a raspberry Malbec reduction.
Juergenson complimented this with her Red Rock Malbec, which seems obvious at face value, but is an unusual offering for a California winery, as Malbecs are traditionally produced in Argentina.
“I didn’t want to mimic the Argentine Malbec,” said Juergenson. “In California, we have different soil, different altitude, and different climate. The Malbec grapes we have are very soft and they taste like fresh boysenberries. I really wanted that to come through.”
As much as patrons come to the Winemaker’s dinner for the wine, they are equally there to experience the dishes Bill Lyle whips together. It is truly stunning to see and taste what the chef and his team can create with no on-site kitchen. It is a meal fit for a five-star restaurant.
He even managed to put out a nicely grilled filet mignon course for around 150 people, which is no easy feat. It was topped with a “Humboldt Fog” compound butter that was killer, along with a creamy honey-habanero polenta, crisp pancetta, and bacon fried brussel sprout leaves.
Between meals, attendees jockeyed over the silent auction with prizes like a week’s trip to Vail, Colo., or St. Augustine, Fla., private catered dinners with local chefs, and fine bottles of wine.
All proceeds from the event and auction benefit the Walton Art Center’s education and outreach programs. This year they expect to give over 50,000 school children in Arkansas an experience in the arts through these programs.
The Art of Wine will continue Friday night with a “Wine Tasting 101” class, as well as the “Uncorked!” party, featuring over 400 wine tastings and hors d’ouevres from several local restaurants.