It was one of the finest spring nights we’ve had so far this year. Walking into the still sun-dappled yard of Atria, one had to feel as if they were walking onto the set of “A Midsummer Nights Dream” – but rather than Italy, we were in Edgartown. Girls swinging from an ancient oak tree, the clink of glasses, and the wine. More than 180 bottles of wine representing the finest vineyards in California lined the white table cloths. The first annual Martha’s Vineyard California Wine Affair Gala Tasting could not have been on a more perfect night.”We did all this weather,” John Clift, founder and general manager of Great Harbour Gourmet and Spirits, says, but joking aside, “We got really lucky. We left the restaurant last night around 1:30 or 2 in the morning after the dinner and it was a downpour — thunder, lighting, pouring. We saw that rain and we said we’re ruined for tomorrow, but we woke up to this beautiful weather.”The two-day event was organized to raise money for the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, and Friday’s auction alone had raised roughly $10,000, although the final amount still has yet to be determined. “We’re overwhelmed over here and honored to be the chosen charity,” Rick Karney, Shellfish Biologist and Director of the MV Shellfish Group, says. “We are so thankful to Christian [Thornton, of Atria] and John for putting together such a professional event.”
Along with the importance to raise money for the M.V. Shellfish Group, Mr. Clift saw the need for a more wine-focused event on the Island at the beginning of the season and decided to do something about it. “We wanted to have an event that could ring in the year a
little bit sooner. I think there needs to be a little bit more of a wine event, and this is a wine-focused event. There is not an event on the Island that has this many wines.”
His enthusiasm for wine was evident in the way he spoke and his declaration that wine is his passion could not have been more ardent and honest.The M.V. California Wine Affair began Friday with an auction and a Kings of California Cabernet dinner, which featured six wineries and six local chefs from Atria, Detente, The Harbor View, The Home Port and two private chefs, Alexander Nagi and Andrew Shotts. Close to 60 diners were in attendance, double the number event organizers expected.
On Saturday, an industry tasting for local restaurants, suppliers and distributers preceded the Gala Tasting, and throughout the day a silent auction enticed many with its formidable array of magnums, assorted cases, gift certificates, a six liter 1988 Duckhorn, A Clos Du Val private tour and tasting for five, and a Sea Witch Charter gift certificate.Among the wines, many were outstanding. Michael Bergeron, a guest at the Gala Tasting, said his favorite was the Cliff Lede’s Stag’s Leap District Poetry ’06, which was a huge crowd pleaser, but at a retail price of $187 per bottle, it’s not surprising everyone was captivated by it. Rombauer’s Carneros Chardonnay ’08 was full of rich, buttery apricot, with a crisp, clean lemony finish. The C. Donatello Pinot Noir ’06 was succulently smooth, with bright cherry notes and a lingering spice on the tongue. Heitz’s ’05 Cabernet Sauvignon was a full, robust wine with smooth tannins. Whetstone’s ’06 ‘Phoenix Ranch’ Syrah had bright, spicy fruit and firm tannins, which paired perfectly with Atria’s foie gras and truffle burgers.The food, created by Atria’s chef and owner Christian Thornton, displayed his commitment to creating perfect pairings to the wines. The wild mushroom pastries paired well with earthy, slightly acidic wines. The calamari with aioli and the smoked salmon with baby potatoes and creme fraiche were delicious with crisp Sauvignon Blancs or unoaked Chardonnays. Any of the Pinot Noirs, Syrahs, or Zinfindels went excellently with the steak tartare on a buttery potato chip or the popular beef satay. And of course, the Cabernet Sauvignons were a phenomenal pair to those addicting foie gras burgers, with truffle slices the size of a pinky finger. The food was decadent, excellently executed, and well thought out.Despite the Californian theme to this event, Mr. Clift included many local wineries and breweries in Saturday’s event. Vodka Distillery Triple Eight from Nantucket attended, along with Nantucket Vineyards and Cisco Brewers. Offshore Ale Co. also donated a growler set to the silent auction, which was among many other local jewelry and gift certificates to bid on.This event also brought the local wine community a little closer together.
“The quality and variety of suppliers here is amazing,” says Jim Teagan, the east coast representative for Rombauer Vineyards. “And it’s all based on John Clift’s relationships. He’s friends with everybody here, he knows all of us, and he does a good job making sure he stays in contact with all of us. So when he wanted to do this event, everybody said, sure.” Adds Ed Edwards of Meritage Wine and Spirits of Cotuit, “It’s an eclectic group that’s here, he’s got a great presence.”The first M.V. California Wine Affair was so successful that guests and winemakers alike are already hoping this event will become an annual one. Winemaker Jamey Whetstone of Whetstone Vineyards, who has known Mr. Clift for over 12 years, said he was “privileged” to be at Mr. Clift’s event and that he would definitely be back next year.
Mr. Clift also hopes for a second year. “So far we have met all of our expectations with the goals we have set so I don’t see why not. I think we have done a really great job.”
Freelance writer and wine enthusiast Anna Ward, of Vineyard Haven, is a 2004 graduate of the M.V. Public Charter School and a 2008 graduate of Marymount Manhattan College.