Legendary winemaker highlights Blue dinner

Grand Cayman and The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman were graced with the presence of top Napa Valley winemaker Heidi Peterson-Barrett for the second time this year, and this time her wines were the focus of a fabulous dinner at Blue by Eric Ripert.

Thankfully for wine lovers in the Cayman Islands, Heidi Peterson-Barrett loves to SCUBA dive.

The 53-year-old winemaker – who is often referred to in reverent terms such as The First Lady of Wine and The Wine Diva of Napa – has been to the Cayman Islands several times now, sometimes for business, sometimes for pleasure, but she always finds time to dive.

“I’ve been diving every morning,” she said when greeting guests at a recent wine dinner featuring her wines at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman’s Blue by Eric Ripert. “Well, almost every day; today we went snorkelling, which is almost as good.”

In January this year at the Cayman Cookout culinary festival, Barrett hosted two wine tastings, one of her La Sirena label and one that featured several wines she’s made over the years, including the Napa Valley cult Cabernet Sauvignon, Screaming Eagle. With several 100-point wines to her credit and a single bottle of Screaming Eagle selling for a world-record $500,000 at a charity wine auction, Peterson-Barrett is one of the wine world’s true superstars. However, she, along with husband Bo – a winemaking legend in his own right – remain approachable and friendly, hardly reflective of their celebrity status.

Although Barrett no longer works for Screaming Eagle, she continues to make wines for her La Sirena (“The Mermaid”) label and some eight other brands.

She said her role in making each of the wines is more part-time, but it is none-the-less vital to the finished product as she tastes, blends and does the other things necessary to produce top-quality wine.

To help her get around for her tastings, Barrett told guests she flies a helicopter – having obtained her helicopter pilot’s licence last year – to do tastings at the various vineyards and wineries she works for.

“But she doesn’t drink and fly,” chimed in husband Bo.

“Yes, I have to spit it out,” Barrett agreed.

Making so many different wines for different vineyards isn’t a problem, she said.

“It’s like a chef in the kitchen; one day you’re working with fish, the next day you’re working with lamb.”

Although she’s been making wine for more than 30 years – and raising two daughters at the same time – Barrett said she still gets satisfaction from taking something from the earth creating something else. She also said her career hasn’t peaked yet.

“I’m so much better at blending and understanding the winemaking process,” she said, adding that she’s learned tremendously over the years. “That makes me a better winemaker.”

Even though she’ll probably always be closely linked with Screaming Eagle, Barrett said she believes her best wines are still ahead of her.

“I think I’m making better and better wines,” she said. “I think the [The La Sirena] ‘06 is better than [Screaming Eagle’s] ‘06,” she said confidently.

Part of the reason for her excellence is her insistence of staying true to her art, rather than catering to constantly-changing market trends.

“I don’t shift with the market; I can’t chase [trends],” she said, adding that most wine drinkers want authenticity in any case. “Consumers want the real deal.”

The dinner

To support the serving of seven of Barrett’s wines, Blue’s Chef de Cuisine Luis Lujan created a menu that included tried-and-true favourites at the restaurant, as well as some dishes designed to pair with the wines. Because Blue is primarily a seafood restaurant and five of the wines served were red, Lujan had to be creative with his sauces to make the pairings work.

The first wine served was 2008 Fantesca Chardonnay, a hearty, fruit-forward wine that wasn’t as oaky as the typical California Chardonnays. Barrett said part of the reason for this was that fermentation was started in stainless steel tanks and then finished in used French oak barrels. The Chardonnay paired very well with an Eric Ripert favourite – thinly pounded yellowfin tuna served over a toasted baguette with foie gras and then topped with olive oil and shaved chives.

Snapper sashimi with grapefruit, coriander and warm citrus vinaigrette followed, served with the inaugural release of ‘Prêt à Boire’ Rose 2010, from the Amuse Bouche Winery. Made from 70 per cent Syrah grapes and 30 per cent Grenache grapes, Barrett said the blend was somewhat unusual for a California Rose.

The dish also showed how Lujan has embraced local ingredients, as he mixed in the sashimi thin slices of Cayman seasoning pepper, a mild but flavourful cousin of the hot scotch bonnet.

Seared cod was served next, paired with two red wines – 2007 Paradigm Merlot and 2008 Lamborn Vineyards Howell Mountain ‘Frosty’ Zinfandel. The cod was served with pickled christophene – better known as cho cho in Cayman – and small fennel ravioli called agnolotti. Although both wines, particularly the Zinfandel, seemed like an odd pairing with the light flavours of the cod, the dish was finished with a spicy sambal sauce that allowed the pairing to work surprisingly well.

Unlike most California Merlots, the Paradigm had good tannic structure, enough in fact that Barrett said it could age up to 20 years.

Served next was grilled smoked swordfish with baba ghanoush and pomegranate vierge sauce. It was served with a 2007 red blend from Kenzo Estate called ‘Rindo’, a wonderful pairing. The only thing missing was a gourmet spoon to capture more of the delicious sauce.

For the final savoury course, beef Rossini – filet mignon topped with a piece of seared foie gras – was served with lemon pearls and madeira sauce. The dish was paired with two wines that were the stars of the show, 2006 La Sirena Cabernet Sauvignon and 2008 Atlas Peak ‘Au Sommet’ Cabernet Sauvignon.

Bot wines were Cabs, but they were much different in style. The La Sirena was a more classic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, with good tannin structure.

“It’s similar in style and blend to Screaming Eagle,” Barrett said. “I was looking for the same silky smoothness.”

The Atlas Peak Au Sommet was a velvety smooth wine with less tannins than the La Sirena. Both wines paired tasted great with the meat, and for that matter, with the cheese course that followed.

Barrett said seven wines was a lot for a wine dinner, but she had lot of different producers to feature. She said she liked the fact that two of the dishes were double paired because it gave diners the ability to compare different wines with a dish. She also noted that her red wines ended up pairing well with seafood because of the added sauces.

After dinner, Barrett took time to pose for photos and sign dinner menus. She and husband Bo said they would love to come back to Cayman.

“If someone invites me,” 
she said.