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Wining and dining, without intimidation

CAPE MAY, N.J. -- It was a wine pairing dinner with a twist. At the Washington Inn, we were tasting the wines of Daniel Rion & Fils from the Burgundy region of France. Joining us at the table were the winemakers themselves, Olivier and Anne Marie Rion, the fourth generation to work the family vineyards.

Inn owner Michael Craig ushered us into a small dining room on the lower level. From the table we could see through glass doors into the inn's 10,000-bottle wine cellar, said to be the largest in southern New Jersey. The table, set with six wine glasses per person and a dazzling array of flatware, was a bit intimidating.

Making wine less intimidating is something the Washington Inn has been trying to do for more than a quarter-century. Craig's parents, Rona and Toby Craig, both teachers with no restaurant experience, bought the inn in 1978.

"When we started, everyone did everything," Craig recalled. Today all three children are still involved in the business: Michael's brother, David, runs the Pelican Club, a partner restaurant in Cape May; his sister, Betsy, operates cooking stores in Cape May and nearby Stone Harbor.

Craig got his first taste of the world of wine while attending Cornell University in upstate New York. After graduating, he went to Bern, Switzerland, to work in a five-star hotel that, at the time, had one of the largest wine cellars in the country. When he returned to the States, he and his brother worked at Windows on the World atop one of the World Trade Center towers for Kevin Zraly, who, Craig said, pioneered the concept that learning about wine should be simple and fun.

During our six-course dinner, we progressed from light to full-bodied wines. With our duck confit we tasted Passetoutgrain, a popular picnic wine in Burgundy, the Rions said. Later we compared it with a richer, smoother Chambolle-Musigny, accompanying braised lamb shank with applewood smoked bacon-bread pudding.

The bilingual conversation was animated, with guests posing questions to an interpreter, Yves Borguet, who translated them for the Rions, then translated the answers. About halfway through the meal (that would be after three glasses of wine), some of us grew bold enough to try our college French directly with the Rions.

The winemakers' passion for their craft was obvious. They referred repeatedly to the "terroir," the combination of environmental elements such as soil, climate, sun, and seasons. For the Rions, global warming has meant earlier harvests; they are now harvesting the vines 15 days earlier than their parents did.

In last summer's record-breaking heat, they began the harvest in early August instead of September and rented refrigerated trucks to store the ripe fruit. They use only French oak for barrels; experiments with American and Hungarian oak have convinced them of the superiority of native trees.

Wine growing is highly regulated by the French government, the Rions said, which is good for quality but bad for competition, since it means a small family winery cannot compete in price with American and Australian wines. Theirs is truly a family business. In addition to themselves and their two teenage children, three full-time and six part-time employees work at the winery.

We sampled vintages from 1998 to 2002, which retail for $10 to $40 a bottle. (One diner, apparently attached to the idea that older wines are better, kept asking permission to like the 2002 better than the 1998.) For many of us, the subtle relationship between wine and food began to reveal itself as we progressed through chef Dave Warner's thoughtful menu.

The Washington Inn has wine dinners in spring and fall. Some of the dinners include the vintners, others wine representatives, and some are led by Michael or David Craig. The inn offers a wine school in partnership with the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. Area residents and tourists are welcome.

A restored 1840s plantation house, the Washington Inn also offers elegant dining in five dining rooms 11 months of the year (it is closed in January). The regular dinner menu suggests wines to pair with the French- and Italian-influenced entrees.

As for trends, Craig sees wines from Australia and Spain gaining ground, particularly Margaret River shiraz (or syrah) from Australia and light white wines from Spain such as albarino.

The best way for the casual wine drinker to become knowledgeable, Craig said, is to let go of fear.

"A wine course is great if you have the time, but if you don't, don't be afraid to ask, whether it's in a store or in a restaurant," he said. "There is no such thing as a stupid question."

Washington Inn, 801 Washington St., Cape May, N.J. 08204; 609-884-5697; www.washingtoninn
.com. Entrees $19-$40; wine dinners $75-$85.

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