In the lounge with Antica Terra winemaker Maggie Harrison....
Have you ever wondered what a wine weekend would be like at Blackberry Farm, the luxury resort and food and wine destination on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee? We had. We'd been to Blackberry Farm several times. We'd been for a relaxing weekend with friends and we'd been for weekend featuring an intimate Christmas concert with country music stars Little Big Town. We hadn't been to any of the wine special events at the farm...but we had certainly taken note of announcements of them and thought they were something we'd like to try sometime. When Maggie Harrison, winemaker (and partner) at Antica Terra told us she'd be doing one, we said we'd be there.
While there are exceptions, Blackberry Farm tends to pair the wine aspect of the event with something else--for example fly fishing in this April's "Wine on the Fly" paired with the wines of Brian Lamborn and Rudy Von Strasser. But most frequently, the pairing is wine and food...a featured guest winemaker with a featured guest chef. In our case, Maggie Harrison was paired with Katie Button, chef/owner of Cúrate and Nightbell in Asheville NC (like Blackberry Farm's head chef, Cassidee Dabney, Katie is a current James Beard award nominee). The event was called The Passion Project...and after seeing Katie Button interviewed on CBS, I could see why. Maggie and Katie had much in common: extraordinary intelligence...a circuitous path to their separate professions...and most of all, a tremendous passion for what they do.
We knew there would be great food, great wine and a good time--beyond that, we weren't sure what to expect. We arrived mid-afternoon on a Sunday and checked into our room in the Main House. A few hours later the event began with a champagne reception in the bar downstairs, where we met the other participants (a total of about 25). Then we moved into a private dining room in the adjacent Dogwood--the more casual of Blackberry Farm's two dining areas. There were three tables...Maggie hosted one, Katie hosted another and, Kelley Harris, the head of events at Blackberry Farm hosted the third. Dogwood chef Sarah Steffan provided a fabulous five-course dinner, complete with several of our favorite Blackberry Farm dishes. And Maggie presented a half-dozen wines from Antica Terra and from Lillian, the personal project focused primarily on Rhone-style wines she started while she was assistant winemaker at Sine Qua Non (and has continued). We knew all the wines--and loved them. For many, it was the first exposure to Maggie's energy and passion. It was fun to watch people react...she's a force of nature.
The event continued the next morning after breakfast. Chef Cassidee Dabney and her staff taught a cooking class--how to make three courses, which turned out to be the three courses we'd later enjoy for lunch. I learned something about how to make the dishes--but even more, I learned that talented chefs can take the finest ingredients and turn dishes that I normally wouldn't touch into something delicious.
Then at 11:00, we went down into the wine cellar with Maggie for a tasting of the full Antica Terra portfolio. It was, of course, fabulous (and it was a pretty good dose of wine for that time of day!). No surprise that the group loved her chardonnays and pinot noirs...but I was intrigued to see that they loved the rosé as much as I do. In truth, it's unique (it has to be to make people willing to pay almost $100 per bottle for a rosé--and people definitely are...the last release sold out in a few days). From the tasting, we went upstairs for lunch--more Antica Terra with the dishes Cassidee had taught us to make. Maggie, Katie Button and Kelley Harris again hosted tables, but rotated so that each was sitting with a new group.
We saw the dishes from our morning class come to life. Trout would normally rank about last on any list of menu choices for me...but when a talented chef pairs very fresh trout with beautiful mushrooms and a delicious sauce, I found out I'd clean my plate! And Maggie poured more Antica Terra--a lot more, actually! Somehow, lunch lasted until after 3:00 pm. I managed a workout at The Wellness Center after lunch--then time for a little nap.
Blackberry Farm knows how to plan these events. They schedule just enough--plenty, really--but leave you some time to take advantage of the beautiful farm and all that it has to offer. On Monday, we had the latter part of the afternoon and the evening to ourselves. So after the nap it was off to The Barn--the more formal of Blackberry Farm's dining areas (in a beautiful old barn that Sam Beall discovered in Pennsylvania and had deconstructed, shipped to the farm, and reimagined as a rustic, but elegant, dining facility). We shared a glass or two of champagne with Maggie before she went off to dinner with Katie Button--and then we had a great dinner of our own.
On Tuesday, after breakfast, it was back to cooking class...this time with Katie. She chose as the subject to teach us how to make croquettas. For me, it was an inspired choice. During our trip to the various wine regions of Spain, the one food constant was that I enjoyed croquettas in every region. And now I understand why. I love béchamel sauce. And--when done well--I love deep-fried dishes. In essence, croquettas are deep-fried béchamel sauce! Add some mushrooms...or Iberico ham...or shrimp to the béchamel, and voilá! Of course, making them magical is all in the technique--and Katie gave us lots of hints. After the class, Katie signed copies of her cookbook for us. Then we went off to lunch on our own--in our case a great, light lunch in the Dogwood dining room, shared with a "classmate" we'd gotten to know. No surprise--these events tend to be populated by very nice people (and based on this sample, some pretty successful people) . And after a little exploring, it was time for another rest period. We knew that the evening's dinner was going to be a major event.
And it was quite an event! We met in the lounge of The Barn (pictured above) for champagne and Katie's croquettas. They were amazing! Then we went down into the wine cellar for the grand dinner. Grand it was. All ~25 of us were seated at one long table. My memory is a bit hazy, thanks to about twenty wines, but I believe there were six courses. Chefs Katie Button and Cassidee Dabney took turns preparing each course. And Maggie raided the library at Antica Terra for the wines, bringing some of the rarest. In the case of one of the oldest pinots, she said that there were only 12 bottles remaining--and she brought 6. I loved them all. The depth and complexity of the older pinots was charming. And it was a first opportunity for me to appreciate the 2015 Aequorin Chardonnay with food. I've had the Aurata chard many times--but in 2015, several barrels of chardonnay were sufficiently different from the others--and had sufficient synthesis among themselves--that a new bottling was born (a very limited edition). I loved it! After dinner, the Blackberry Farm somms took us on a tour of the full wine cellar...and it was extraordinary. I remember that. The details themselves about what we saw are a little fuzzy. Eventually, we made our way back to our room--with a kind and gentle assist from the staff who made sure everyone got safely home.
After breakfast the next morning, we were on our way home...chatting about the event as we drove. Our review: it was a wow. Really, really good. We look forward to the next one.