Duck, Cab, and Family

So this one’s a story about roast duck, Justin Cabernet Sauvignon, and a family meal gone right. And it starts with a question: Have you ever taken a good, hard look at your entertaining impulses? I mean, have you really asked yourself what drives your menu and wine planning for a given dinner party? Pressing concerns, I know—I expect the moderator at the next primary debate to demand real answers: “I’m sorry, Ms. Clinton, but you’re evading the question! It’s really very simple: Do you pour Spanish wines at dinner parties because of an authentic love for Iberian winemaking, or because you know they’re a little trendy right now?”

The matter comes to mind for me because a whole suite of impulses governs the way I cook and eat: the desire to master a particular technique, try recipes from a particular chef, and impress my guests. Not all of these are admirable impulses, of course, and they are often out of line with my emotional hopes for the evening. Years ago, this made for some utterly incoherent menus: five different side dishes and no main, perhaps, because I was obsessed with trying a series of recipes from a particular book. And then I’d wonder why the night had a slightly screwy feel to it. Sometimes I’m trying my hardest to dazzle; at other times, I’m in a solipsistic conversation with myself (braising! I must do some braising!).

My most recent opportunity was a Saturday dinner with my mother and father, who drove across the bay from Berkeley to join my wife, my two daughters, and me. I love these family dinners, and it means a lot to me that they please my parents. They are terrifically generous hosts, and they appreciate a night of food and wine among loved ones, and I feel that I learned that predilection from them. So I care a great deal about giving back to them in this fashion. I also love having them over; they’re great guests. And this time, for once, I actually tried to make the menu reflect this: I roasted a whole duck, even though I prefer duck breast rare and you can’t get it that way in a roast, because I wanted the aesthetic wholeness of a single bird for the family, set on a platter. I made duck because I wanted to send a more festive message than chicken. I made a gravy in an English farmhouse manner (from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s excellent River Cottage Meat Book) rather than a French pan-sauce style, because it seemed to speak of casual, hearty luxury on a cold winter night. And I added a simple salad of blood oranges, pomegranate, peppery wild arugula, and truffle-infused goat cheese for contrast. My folks brought more to eat after the main course, and for dessert I’d poached some pears. Good living, and it did just what I’d hoped: brought us all together, set a tone of happy indulgence, and never demanded that the food become the center of attention.

Oh yeah, and the wines, which couldn’t have been more right—young and elegant at the same time, strong enough for the duck but not overpowering:

2005 Justin Vineyards & Winery Isosceles
Grapes: 78 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 15 percent Cabernet Franc, 7 percent Merlot
Wood: 24 Months in 225-L French oak barrels, 65 percent new
Alcohol: 14.6 percent
Price: $62 from the winery
Other Winemaking Data that Seems Useful: This wine is unfined and unfiltered, and it was 100 percent hand-harvested
Tasting Notes: I smelled cherry, rose, and a little leather, along with hints of spice. In the mouth, I thought the wine tasted of red currant. It had a beautiful, delicate young-fruit quality, with a fine-grained and very firm tannic mouthfeel, medium body, and lovely acidity. It was great to drink now, but would be one heck of a wine to lay down for a good long time.

2005 Justin Vineyards & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon
Grapes: 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon
Wood: 18 months in 24 percent new American oak
Alcohol: 14.5 percent
Price: $26 from the winery
Other Winemaking Info: Unfined, unfiltered
Tasting Notes: I smelled a young red-berry quality and a trace of green-pepper vegetal aroma, plus a hint of licorice. I found the tannins strong but very, very smooth in the mouth, and I thought the wine had a very food-friendly acid quality. This is excellent wine.