Seven years ago I celebrated my birthday at the California Grill in Walt Disney World. Little did I realize then that it would become a tradition that I have enjoyed every year since (save the pandemic year). I love the location on the top floor of the Contemporary Resort. And a table by the window affords a splendid view of the fireworks display above Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom.
More importantly, Ray the bartender knows how to assemble a superb Tanqueray Martini, and one of the few practitioners of the mixing arts that I can rely on to produce a Martini nearly as good as one of my own making—hardly faint praise. The special menu and the general buzz in the room justly complete a worthy experience. But… What happens if Ray is not there? And, what happens if Tanqueray is no longer a gin option! To quote the great W.C. Fields, “Oh death, where is thy sting?”
True. On Feb 2, 2023 Ray was off premises tending to knee replacement rehab, and astoundingly, Disney has decided to shed Tanqueray from their gin selection. Adapt we must. Plan B: Bombay Sapphire.
The menu was prix fixe for three courses @89 fishnagels. But for an additional 39 greenbacks there would be three wines to pair with each course, OR for 69 byzantiums you could enjoy a deluxe pairing of wines to each course. After scanning the selections recommended, I was all in for the deluxe indulgence.
The Cali Grill’s claim to fame is its extensive California/West Coast wine list. To give you an idea: for the Pumpkin and Squash Bisque there was Kistler ‘Les Nostières’ Chardonnay. The entrée of Florida Black Grouper was paired with Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Evenstad Reserve from Willamette, Oregon. For the Grand Marnier Crème Brûlée dessert course: Far Niente’s excellent Dolce ‘Late Harvest.’ On to dinner.
Martini consumed, it was time for my first course: Braised Beef Short Rib Wontons (doenjang miso-cola-onion sauce, radish, crispy garlic-chili oil, pickled lotus root) with BV Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve Georges de Latour ’18. The wontons were tender, richly flavored and the sauce possessed a healthy “kick” that made the dish sing. The wine was sinfully beautiful. The Wine Advocate review, nails it: “Deep garnet-purple in color, it prances out of the glass with flamboyant scents of blackberry preserves, wild blueberries and crème de cassis, followed by hints of cigar box, Chinese five-spice and pencil shavings with a waft of menthol.”
My main course was Fire-Roasted Venison (fondant sweet potatoes, parsnip purée, winter vegetables, sour cranberry). The loin chop of venison was mind-blowingly great. Served perfectly at medium rare. Tender, could be cut with a plastic knife. The venison melted in your mouth. The wine served was Duckhorn Merlot Three Palms Vyd ’19. Stupendous pairing. Fragrant, supple textured on palate and flavors that danced in concert with the flavors and textures of the venison (although my “old world” preferences would have enjoyed a Brunello or a Côte de Nuits Burgundy here, too!).
NY Cheesecake and Crème Brûlée are my dessert Achilles’ Heel, yet I chose perhaps the least interesting of the dessert options on the menu: Chef’s Selection of California Cheeses (featuring three unique cheeses and house-made accompaniments). Honestly, if the pairing had been Twinkies and Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, that also would have been the call. Make no mistake, the cheeses were good… but when I did wine dinners years ago, the cheese course is where I placed the best red wine to be tasted.
After the cheese course a dessert course would be paired with a “true” dessert wine—a Sauternes, a Late Harvest Riesling, or the Dolce that was offered on the menu. But Ruinart? I would have been happy to eschew my Bombay Martini, and the two great reds that I enjoyed, to have that Blanc de Blancs from beginning to end. Ruinart is to Blanc de Blancs what Billecart-Salmon is to Brut Rosé. Each are reference point Champagnes. And great Champagne is the “liquid string of pearls” of wine: it goes with everything!
The dinner w/wine: perfect & off-the charts fun. Service, the best (Walter, our server, is worth asking for should you dine there).
The wines are currently available. Let me know if there is an interest.
BV Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve Georges de Latour ’18 (Napa, CA) The 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve Georges de Latour is a blend of 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec. Deep garnet-purple in color, it prances out of the glass with flamboyant scents of blackberry preserves, wild blueberries and crème de cassis, followed by hints of cigar box, Chinese five-spice and pencil shavings with a waft of menthol. Medium- to full-bodied, the palate has a solid structure of firm grainy tannins and seamless freshness supporting the muscular black fruit, finishing long and earthy. 96+pts Wine Advocate
Duckhorn Merlot Three Palms Vyd ’19 (Napa, CA) A blend of 92% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Malbec, 1% Cabernet Franc. I like the savory nose here, with notes of coffee, spiced plum, overturned earth and bark. Full-bodied with fine, silky tannins. Expressive, but focused, with really clean and clear dark fruit blending nicely with ground spice and grilled herbs. Totally delicious. This will age very nicely. 95pts James Suckling
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs (Champagne, France) 100% Chardonnay. A fruity yet firm blanc de blancs with some brioche, cooked-apple and pear aromas and flavors. Full-bodied and flavorful. Fruity finish. Always a good bottle. Drink now. 92pts James Suckling
James R. Winston, YS