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Dinner as a Surreal Experience

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Bob Blumer with glass of wine PicmonkeyBob Blumer, Surreal Chefby Dan Clarke


By any measure, Jessup Cellars is an unusual operation. When we visited for a Surreal Meal with Bob Blumer, it was especially so.

Once known for its home for veterans and not much else, the little town of Yountville continues to evolve. It now boasts very comfortable lodging and some of the best restaurants in California. In fact, the Jessup Cellars tasting room is just a couple of blocks up Washington Street from The French Laundry, an establishment Restaurant Magazine has twice named “The Best Restaurant in the World.” It's a propitious location for encountering wine buffs visiting the Napa Valley.

While Jessup has long-term relationships with excellent Napa vineyards, it does not have an estate winery where visitors can sip a glass of wine on the deck overlooking the vineyards. Winemaker Rob Lloyd makes the wines in an efficient, but decidedly less bucolic location south of downtown Napa.

When the opportunity came to attend an event in the winery's speaker series, I hesitated. But just for a moment. Bob Blumer would be creating a “surreal” dinner at the Jessup Tasting Gallery, read the invitation. He had starred in cooking shows for Canadian television and and prepared meals for the Salvador Dali Museum. Was this guy a chef? An artist? It didn't matter. I was hooked.

Bob Blumer Champagne Toaster PicmonkeyThe dinner was one of several gatherings in The Tastemaker series, which the winery defines as “Thought Leadership Forums Primed with Wine, Art, Food & People.” Arriving a bit early, I joined other guests in the tasting bar for glass of Sauvignon Blanc and some finger food. These were delicious, but not surreal. Most of the guests this evening seemed to be familiar with Jessup Cellars, many of them members of their wine club. All seemed in good humor. In an adjacent room in which dinner would soon be served was a display of some of Bob Blumer's art. At this point the evening began to get whimsical and was on its way to the surreal. Among the pieces were wine glasses whose stems were actual roots of young grapevines, “rosé colored glasses,” whose lenses were made of glass taken from the bottoms of French rosé wine bottles, and a special electrical appliance for Champagne toasts.

Though the recipes were created by the guest chef/artist, their execution was handled (deftly) by a local catering company, which allowed Blumer to interact with the diners, explaining inspiration for his dishes and the techniques for preparing them. Earlier in his life he aspired to a career in the music business, he said, and looked for a managerial role. For a while he toured with a band as a sort of roadie-factotum whose duties included selling souvenirs. His career didn't match that of Colonel Tom Parker or Bill Graham and apparently he didn't even ingratiate himself with the band members, who referred to him as “The T-Shirt Puke.”

Without substantial credits as an artist, a chef, or a writer, Blumer didn't lack for creativity and ambition. A little over 20 years ago he approached a publisher. “I managed to trick the people at Chronicle Books and I managed to walk out with a minor deal,” he recalled. In creating his Surreal Gourmet persona, Blumer parlayed an idea into a career that has included other books and television shows, as well as his art.Bob Blumer Flower Pot Salad Picmonkey

The first two of the evening's four courses were paired with Jessup Cellars 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, which winemaker Rob Lloyd said had white peach and pink grapefruit qualities, likening it to “summer in a bottle.”

Our first course, Cereal Killer Soup, looked just like the residual in a bowl when a child has polished off most of Cheerios and left the milk. If it tasted like that, it would have been an inauspicious start to the evening. No worries, though. It was a very tasty soup in a potato vein, but actually made of Jerusalem artichoke and celery, I believe (here's where I may fail the reader, as ingredients and prep directions are impressions and recollections, rather than precise details—better to get Bob's book for the accurate story).

The Flower Pot Salad was attractively presented. “You can eat the flowers,” announced the chef, “but not the pot.” Actually, you could eat the surrounded bits of “dirt” on the plate beneath the pot. It was a tapenade—or something very close to that definition.

Bob Blumer Lamb Cup Cake Picmonkey

The main course, Lamb Cupcakes, was initially inspired by fish cakes, said Blumer, a theme that evolved to salmon and mushroom versions, before the dish became lamb-based. The general idea (though not precisely the recipe) is to slowly braise lamb shanks until the meat can easily be pulled off the bone. The pan juices are saved to make a demi-glace. The meat is put into small pieces, then roasted with carmelized onions, some rosemary and salt and pepper. With some egg and panko breadcrumbs to bind the mixture, it is shaped into “cup cakes” and baked in a 425-degree oven for 10 minutes. The “icing” was composed of sugar, butter, mashed potatoes, some salt and pepper and a roasted and pureed red beet for color. This main course was a whimsical notion whose appearance really was like a cupcake. However, its rich flavors, paired with the Jessup 2009  Petite Sirah, made it a winner on taste alone. Winemaker Rob Lloyd said the grapes came from a warmly-situated vineyard, which accounted for the soft tannins. Other Jessup reds tasted before or during the meal included a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon. All were enjoyable and did seem to pair well with Bulmer's surreal creations.

Poured with the final course, Existential Eggs, was a Late Harvest Chardonnay Rob made for Handwritten Wines, a St. Helena winery under the same ownership as Jessup. The 2011 vintage was perfect for making late harvest wine, said the winemaker, with a combination of rain and sun that created fully-ripe grapes with a touch of Botrytis (Botrytis cinerea, a mold sometimes called “the noble rot,” which attacks the grape skins in such a way that flavors become concentrated, leading to a delicious honey/apricot quality).Bob Blumer Existential Egg Picmonkey

That lovely Late Harvest Chardonnay and Blumer's Existential Eggs provided an elegant conclusion to a most unusual evening. The dessert was presented in actual egg shells from which the original contents had been removed (an interesting and labor-intensive process, better discussed elsewhere). Blumer moved from diner to diner, removing the top of the individual egg shells to reveal what looked just like perfectly soft boiled eggs. Playing the roles of whites and yolks were white chocolate mousse and passion fruit, delicately inserted in the shells, then placed in a refrigerator for two hours to allow them to set.

While I never met Salvador Dali, I remember seeing him do guest appearances on television long ago. To me he seemed witty, but weird and I suspect many of the adults watching felt that way, too. Dali may have been an inspiration to Bob Blumer (along with the Belgian surrealist René Magritte), but while assuredly talented and very creative, the former “Tee Shirt Puke” has a low-key and likable personality. Artist or chef? I'd say he qualifies in both categories.

Editor's note: There is more to the story of this unusual winery. Later this week, we will bring you part two of this article. The final event in The Tastemaker 2013 Speaker Series will be the evening of October 17th when Sandor Ellix Katz, author of the best-selling The Art of Fermentation, is in conversation with Sunset magazine Food Editor Margo True. Following will be a tasting of Jessup Cellar wines served with pickled creations of Alex Hozven of the Cultured Pickle in Berkeley. Seating is limited. More information can be had at www.jessupcellars.com.

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