The Wine Artist is a unique, boutique winery and event venue located just outside of Irvine in Lake Forest, California. It’s the ideal place to spend a few hours for a variety of great reasons. Do you want to get to know your work colleagues better by cooking together as a team? Do you want to celebrate a special occasion with friends? Do you want to learn how to prepare a fantastic meal by actually doing it? Or do you just want to have a wonderful afternoon or evening of wine and food and camaraderie?
Our group of nine wine and food writers gathered at The Wine Artist on a recent Sunday afternoon. Our goal was to meet The Wine Artist founder and owner, MJ Hong, and experience firsthand what her venue can offer. Most of us knew each other fairly well from our participation on wine councils (groups that evaluate wine and food pairings) in Temecula, but we were about to get to know each other better.
We spent an enthralling afternoon chopping, dicing, stirring, and tasting together under the gentle direction of MJ Hong who had organized all the ingredients we needed to create a delicious meal.
We worked at cooking stations that had every utensil or bowl we could possibly desire. I have attended a variety of cooking classes at other places in the past and usually I was just an observer, not a participant; however, during this class we did it all (except clean up)! The message was that cooking can be fun and easy and doing it together can be even more fun. We also gathered a variety of tips to help us in our own cooking endeavors.
Since The Wine Artist is located (conveniently) in an industrial park, its warm and inviting Tuscan décor is a bit of a surprise. We felt like we were in an elegant wine bar in Italy. We initially sat around a lovely table set with appetizers and a luscious, fruit-laden sangria made from The Wine Artist’s own Green Apple Riesling, but throughout the afternoon we spent most of our time at the cooking stations as we prepared each dish that we would later enjoy ourselves.
While MJ Hong offers all kinds of classes, including Italian, Thai, Mediterranean, Chinese, Japanese and Vegetarian, this afternoon we prepared a variety of dishes with different ethnic origins. (Last year I attended a Thai cooking class that was fantastic.) We prepared and tasted six dishes—two at a time.
We first prepared an arugula, pear and walnut salad that was a light, tasty beginning for our day’s feast. Preparation was simple and the flavors of the spicy arugula and sweet pear worked perfectly with a fruity, minerally 2010 La Rochelle Chardonnay from Dutton Ranch in the Russian River Valley.
We also prepared a surprisingly light lobster bisque that was much simpler to make than I expected. Of course, having several of us mince the garlic and shallots, and stir the lobster chunks, cream, seafood stock, sherry, cognac, butter, flour, and seasonings all together made the process move quickly. The result was a smooth, savory, rich but delicate soup that we all loved. The accompanying dry, oaky 2010 La Rochelle Chardonnay from Ferrington Vineyard in the Anderson Valley enhanced the soup with its lemon, lime and honey flavors.
We next prepared two appetizers. The ricotta, gorgonzola and mushroom crostini was easy to make and delicious. We learned to only brush oil on one side of a baguette slice to keep it crispy on top. We lightly browned the bread and then topped it with a sautéed mixture of mushrooms, salt, pepper, and wine. Next we added ricotta and parsley, which we spooned on the crostini and topped with the gorgonzola. We baked this three more minutes and “voila” we had a scrumptious appetizer. This dish was well paired with a 2009 La Rochelle Pinot from Donum Estate in Carneros. This deep ruby wine had big fruit flavors and earthy overtones that held up very well with the rich crostini.
The next dish, polenta with sausage and mushrooms, could have been an appetizer or a main course. After pouring the polenta mixture onto a baking sheet we refrigerated it while we made the sausage and mushroom mixture. We then lightly fried the polenta, cut it into squares, and spooned the sausage mixture on top. This was a rich, melt-in-your-mouth appetizer, which I have now tried at home to the delight of my guests. This dish was matched with a 2009 La Rochelle Pinot from the Santa Lucia Highlands. This silky pinot was a good match for the rich dish with its opulent cherry and raspberry flavors. (Besides being a great chef, MJ Hong also pairs wine and food splendidly.)
And there was still more to go. The stuffed eggplant with rice was my favorite dish since I love eggplant and am always trying to find creative ways to prepare it. I also served this at home and guests were clamoring for the recipe. We hollowed out the eggplants, brushed them with olive oil, and baked them for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile we made the filling out of the scooped-out eggplant mixed with a few other ingredients, including garlic, onion, rice, and oregano. We dished the mixture into the baked eggplant shells, topped them with Parmesan, and baked the dish for another 20 minutes. This unique, healthy dish could be a meal in itself. A 2010 Steven Kent Winery Merlot from Livermore Valley was the ideal accompaniment with its well-balanced tastes of black cherry, plum, spice and brown sugar.
Our final dish, lamb skewers with tzatziki sauce was very special. We learned that making tzatziki sauce, which enhances so many Greek dishes, was a simple process. We just combined Greek yogurt, cucumber, garlic, lemon juice, dill, salt and pepper. The result was a delectable accompaniment to the flavorful lamb skewers. Making the lamb mixture was almost like making meatloaf with a variety of spices. Then you just have fun rolling the meat mixture into sausage shapes and putting them on skewers. The paired wine, a 2010 Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Franc, was earthy with floral and mineral notes, and enhanced the distinctive flavors of the lamb.
But of course it wasn’t our final dish. Our surprise dessert was just the sweet ending we needed to a sweet day of sipping and tasting. Just when we thought we couldn’t eat another bite, we found out we could, when MJ served us a refreshing dish of mixed berries topped with sweetened mascarpone that had been mixed with Marsala. Our final wine to accompany this special dessert was sweet and delicious too—Black Velvet, a black raspberry Merlot produced by The Wine Artist.
We left The Wine Artist that day full of both food and ideas about what to prepare, serve, and drink at our next dinner parties. We also left with a deeper sense of connection with our fellow cooks. I’m already planning a visit back to The Wine Artist with my friends. The Wine Artist regularly offers cooking classes or special arrangements can be made for private groups. It also offers bottling parties where you can create your own personalized labels to commemorate a special occasion. Just go to The Wine Artist website or call MJ Hong at 949-297-3656 for details on all the options this special destination offers its guests.