Last summer my friend Tom Waldeck took me up to a picturesque pasture to see his small herd of 35 Wagyu cattle. Raised on a dairy farm, he wanted to get back to his roots. So in his retirement he started the only herd in Colorado of pure Wagyu, the breed that makes the famous Kobe beef in Japan.
These animals were in cow heaven, roaming free in the tall grass on a mountain meadow above Woody Creek in the Roaring Fork Valley. It was their summer home. The rest of the year they spend in his ranch in Carbondale. Wagyu require a year more growth than Western breeds, so they get 12 to 18 months more time to enjoy life before becoming steaks.
I made a deal with Tom, an avid wine drinker. If he provided the beef I would provide some interesting wines to taste with them. It would be research, I reasoned. I brought some likely bottles from my cellar in San Francisco for our annual stay in Aspen, and rang up Tom to set a date.
“I don’t have any meat for myself,” he lamented. “The Little Nell bought my entire first year’s production.”
I immediately headed to Montagna, the Little Nell Hotel’s Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning restaurant. All the steaks had been sold, but I tried a hamburger. It was the beefiest, sweetest meat I have ever had in a bun. There had to be a way to do our tasting. Chef Ryan Hardy told me he was getting another shipment around the end of July, and he agreed to set aside a serving or two. I arranged with Tom, Montagna sommelier Jonathan Pullis, my wife and a couple of wine-loving friends to join me and try my wines with them. Pullis added a couple of bottles of his own.
Last Saturday we all sat down to five wines: my Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Washington Merlot and Aussie Shiraz, Pullis’ Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Barbaresco. Hardy was traveling in France, so his sous chef, Steve Redzikowski, made up tasting plates of tartare that seasoned tenderloin with capers, olive oil and tarragon; charred skirt steak marinated in soy and chili flakes; a slider made from barbecued brisket, and a wide slice of grilled strip steak served over green beans cooked with tomatoes.
Tom Waldeck feeds a "cow cookie" to a prize member of his Wagyu herd.
Tom’s beef, which will be sold under the Emma Farms label when he has enough to distribute next year, is grass fed to maturity and processed at Homestead Meats in Carbondale. Hardy likes it without any extra finishing, and I too prefer the grass-fed flavor, pure and clean and intense. The fine marbling that Wagyu is famous for makes it beautifully tender even though you don’t see the big flecks of fat visible in U.S. Prime meat.
There is very little pure Wagyu grown in the U.S. Most of what’s sold as Wagyu is cross-bred with Western cattle such as Angus. Less than 25 percent Wagyu can qualify for the term. In my experience, steaks from cross-bred animals can be wonderful. But Tom’s stuff had silkier texture, deeper beef flavor and a touch of that mineral quality we love in wine.
I wondered if the meat might be too refined for the bigger wines, but opinion around the table favored the two most formidable bottles with the strip steak. We gave Jim Barry Shiraz Clare Valley The Armagh 2005 a slight edge over Produttori del Barbaresco Riserva Asili 2004.
From top left, tartare made from the tenderloin, skirt steak, barbecued brisket sliders, strip steak.
By itself, the Shiraz had real presence. It was rich and deep, with a blood note weaving through the black cherry and licorice flavors. The Barbaresco brimmed with pure blueberry and currant fruit, with a layer of tannins in the structure, the finish hinting at tar and smoke. The steak brought out a welcome earthiness in the Shiraz and shifted the Barbaresco into a more elegant balance.
Actually, all the wines were great with that steak. No surprise there, but the Shiraz and Barbaresco changed the most with it, and therefore were the most interesting.
The toughest challenge for these reds was the tartare, which tended to make the wines taste sharp. The wine that worked the best with it was the lightest—Brick House Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Evelyn’s 2008. Silky and tangy by itself, it opened up to reveal extra fruit and spice with the raw meat.
The skirt steak, however, seemed ideal for the oldest wine on the table: Andrew Will Merlot Columbia Valley Ciel du Cheval Vineyard 1990. It reminded the veteran wine drinkers of a Right Bank classic such as Château Canon or Figeac, but without the gaminess. It showed a beautiful core of ripe currant and plum fruit, too. (More about that wine in an upcoming blog.) The charred steak made that wine taste richer, deeper and longer. We also liked the Barbaresco and Shiraz with this dish.
Each of the five wines superbly represented their type and behaved a bit differently with each dish.
All the wines did well with the slider, despite its hot, sweet barbecue sauce (and slice of pickle). The Merlot raised its game, the Barbaresco and Shiraz narrowed a bit to sharpen up the match, and the Pinot somehow got silkier. But Lucien and André Brunel’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape Le Cailloux Cuvée Centenaire 2005 wrapped its supple texture and spicy, peppery dark fruit and smoke flavors around the barbecued meat perfectly.
The one wine that performed admirably with every dish was—ta da!—the Barbaresco. I learned a long time ago that Nebbiolo from the Langhe, despite its reputation for power and structure, behaves as the most versatile red wine. It can sidle up to dishes supposedly made for white wine as nicely as with big meaty dishes. It was not the favorite with any one dish, but nothing fazed it.
My vote for the wine with the most cannons and church chimes going off when consumed with a dish (and the group’s favorite, too) went to the Shiraz with the steak. Heaven on a plate and a glass.
Austrich Wine Club — Singapore — August 12, 2010 1:30am ET
Chris A Elerick — Orlando, FL — August 12, 2010 2:20pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — August 12, 2010 2:31pm ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions